Having been forced to take viola lessons in third grade, I found it liberating when I first heard John Cale scraping away in “Venus in Furs” like he was purposely trying to piss off my dad. There is no intro or buildup to the song; the track starts as if you opened a door to a decadent Marrakesh S&M/opium den, a blast of air-conditioned Middle Eastern menace with a plodding beat that’s the missing link between “Bolero” and Led Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks.” Maureen Tucker’s drums and Nico’s tambourine are like grim pacesetters in a parade of flagellants, with Sterling Morrison’s and Lou Reed’s trick-tuned guitars jangling up a thick cloud of atonal incense and hashish smoke. Cale’s amplified viola makes simple upward-bow-movement scraping noises to mimic whip sounds until the chorus, when his bowing switches downward and draws slowly across the strings to send out a chilly wave of salve as Lou sings what every pissed-off, unwilling music student who has to stand for an hour with a giant hunk of wood under his neck feels: “I am tired. / I am weary. / I could sleep for a thousand years.”
I was a lightheaded child, prone to dizziness from standing too long, and I passed out one too many times during my lessons. Because my dad was nervous about his second-favorite viola getting damaged, I was allowed to quit, and instead spent the next few years reading comic books and not talking to girls. By my junior year of high school, I had been transplanted to New Jersey and grown into a social cripple. I needed a gateway back into society. Lou Reed suddenly appeared on MTV, parting the Duran Duran and Tears for Fears videos like Moses at the Red Sea, and dancing deadpan behind shades in a video for a song called “I Love You Suzanne.” He talked like I wanted to, walked like I wanted to, and we had the same birthday (March 2). His vast body of work became the breadcrumb trail that turned me cool as I followed it to the Princeton Record Exchange, Vintage Vinyl in New Brunswick, and the Vinyl Vault in Woodbridge. A Lou Reed T-shirt won me the regard of the punk contingent at school. They accepted me as one of their own even though I knew nothing about the Clash, let alone the Dickies or the Damned. It was enough that the godfather of all punk rock was my undisputed area of expertise. I could even force myself to listen to a whole side of Metal Machine Music, and nothing the Dickies or the Damned did could touch that decibel-piercing horror.
The only Velvet Underground albums anyone could find in 1984 were Live 1969, Live at Max’s, and Loaded. All quite nice, but none of them had John Cale, or Nico, or the mind-bending decadence I’d by then read quite a bit about. The three Verve studio albums were long out of print and nowhere to be found, not even on the wall of the record exchange in a plastic bag for $70. Then, in 1985, as if by my own private popular demand, they came out in budget reissues. I ended up finding The Velvet Underground and Nico—that acclaimed 1967 classic of drugs and decadence, the anti-free-love album par excellence—at the local Pathmark. It also happened to be the first time I smoked pot. My friends and I were flying down the aisles, freaking out at all the products and bright colors and stacking—there it was, in one of the two record bins by the greeting-card section, the (nonpeelable) banana making it seem like a refugee from the produce section. Later that night I put it on the turntable and slid under my covers with the headphones, imagining that a seriously psychedelic out-of-body experience would ensue. Actually, the out-of-body experiences I used to enjoy via headphones stopped with my introduction to pot and The Velvet Underground and Nico. I had passed from one smoky room to another, and there was no going back.
But the album was beautiful, scary, and enticingly adult in a way the later Lou stuff was not. “Venus in Furs” became my instant all-time favorite; it worked on me like a form of hypnosis that made the pain of adolescence bearable by placing it in a sadomasochistic context. It made me see that the girls I longed for in school were tormenting me on purpose! Their confidence-crushing absence from my private life could be reimagined as a perverse pleasure. When Lou sang of the “whiplash girl-child in the dark” who said things like “taste the whip, / now bleed for me,” suddenly I could take the violent reproach of my aching hormones and twist it like a sword until I disemboweled the old me. The result was like dropping nitroglycerin on an oil fire, an alchemical reaction that set me free. I knew that I was, at heart, a sadomasochist.
I never tried heroin or speed or homosexuality, but I did finally get a girlfriend and manage to lose my virginity before turning 18 and heading off to college (Syracuse University, same as Lou). I still have her high-school-yearbook photo. Her hair is wavy, dirty blond; a nose like Meg Ryan’s; too much makeup. On the back is a note written in flowery blue ink and signed, “Love, Whiplash.”