It’s one of those Sundays where you sort of feel like putting on some old vinyl and hanging out in the attic and sweating through the small, important, uncanny details of a given re-write. The type of day where you contemplate some strong ice tea with plenty of leaves and lemon but no sugar. A sort of Sunday where even a hot sun comes off a little wan and a velvet pillow dreamily drowsy and dark.
So on a bit of a whim I thought I’d put up this review I wrote a few years ago of a book called Songs They Never Play on the Radio, by James Young. The book is about singer/songwriter/model Nico of Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol fame. It may seem a bit unusual for a blog mostly about horror writing. But I find it drifts along the edge of the aesthetic spectrum in that, first, it tells a shadowy and desperate story in a tone that horror writers may find useful, and second, that it had me thinking of the empty and strange years I spent living in various empty and strange corners of Brooklyn. It’s also a review that got a fair number of useful votes on Amazon. And so without further review, throw on a good album and perhaps enjoy some of these thoughts on a Sunday afternoon:
I can’t remember where I first read a few excerpts from this book, but I remember being pretty irate I didn’t have the full text in front of me at the time. Years later, after bad breakups, fires, towers falling down around me, I finally stumbled across Songs They Never Play on the Radio again, devoured it like a starved cannibal on the tundra. This book is so much wider in its scope than the blurbs on the back make it out to be, primarily in its oblique commentaries on European political history, and the valuation of Art.
The book is a biographical snippet of singer/songwriter Nico’s last years and tours. At the beginning she is living inManchester,England, addicted to heroin and passing her days getting high and drowsing in the shadows. A vaguely ambitious and obscure producer named Dr. Demetrius lines up a tour for her and pulls together a band to back her up. James Young, the author, is the keyboard player for this band.
The ensuing narrative is what they call in MFA programs “creative non-fiction.” (Yes, MFA programs ARE annoying, but sometimes pull-out the useful term or two). Anyway, it reads like a novel, imitates actual events, and doesn’t change the names like in a roman-a-clef. Fortunately, Young lets his camera jump cut from scene to scene, across time, countries and continents, to land right where the action demands. We get portraits of the band–Echo, a mixture of sullen, backsliding pater familia and post-punk rock bassist… oh, and throw in junkie to boot. We get a variety of drummers–from an industrial junk-percussion virtuoso to a totem-wearing pretty-boy tabla diva to a hair-metal sorta-be. We get a lead guitarist desperate to meet Bob Dylan. We get so many mini-music pros, the portrait of the desperation of professional pop music and the love of heroin might fool the reader into thinking it’s the subject of the book.
But the real subject is the struggle for recognition and accomplishment of pop artist Nico, and what that means for all struggling artists, especially those who deal with all things truly dark. Nico just happens to write deeply shadowed, literary-style poetry for lyrics, whether she or anyone else likes it or not. The poems themselves, from You Forgot To Answer to Nibelungenland to Frozen Warnings to Mutterlein (to name a few), are not just personal blues songs (though some do deal with relationships). They are elegies for the German tragedy of World War II, and the tragic side of the long and rich history of the country in general. Throughout the book exists a painful irony where Nico honestly responds to questions aboutBerlin’s pre- and post- war culture, questions put forth by interviewers who really don’t care at all about the tragedy of racism and war and the hangover it left on the consciousness of a country and continent. Subtler still we get vestiges in the persona of Nico herself, of these old, Central-European cultural mores (and her own quandaries over its single-mindedness). We also get Nico’s passing comments on Hassidic Jews and gypsies and thoughts that members the Velvet Underground were hostile due to her Germanness (though the author ascribes it to the possibility of being upstaged).
James Young handles his insights with a tenderness I rarely witness when it comes to themes of prejudice, loss and cultural kinetics. Throughout the band’s world travels, the reader gets the sense that stereotypes like American battle-cry egotism,Pacific rimcommercialism, Eastern European old-style communism are animals born from group mentality, group forces much more easily decried than deleted. No character or ideology is oversimplified here. I am reminded of an old episode of Maury Povich where he tries to get a neo-nazi to get over his prejudice and shake his hand. Not a bad thing, but come on, let’s talk about why so many rural American kids are entranced by that crap in the first place. Instead, Mr. Young addresses the depression, the lack of options and the insanity of the materially and emotionally impoverished.
Personal emptiness, economic emptiness and artistic emptiness run parallel throughout the narrative. There is a scene where a female Japanese fan offers John Cale a rare bottle of sake as a gift. Well, by then it’s later in the 1980’s, Cale has gone from beer swilling, snow snorting studio genius to clean living performing genius. He turns her down. Young gives what’s due with Cale, always underscoring his musical talent. But he also uses him as a somewhat abstracted symbol for a cultural shift in the music business (and perhaps international business in general). In the narrative, his figure symbolizes 1960’s psychedelic, imagination-oriented, hedonism-rich art product, where one must at least pretend the artwork comes first and commerciality second, that then shifts to the mall-shopping fine threads wearing 1980’s rich intellectual for whom the cash is not shameful in the least. (Ironically, with the advent of You Tube and so many free venues for every variety of artistic output, we may be entering a strange amalgam of the two eras–the complete shamelessness of wanting to make money with art, but such an abundance of supply that nobody cares to pay for it).
In the center stands Nico, her art and her lament (addiction is a by-product). No one really buys or plays her songs. The penny-pinching carnival goes on. At one point, late in the book, after enduring many painful episodes and adventures, Allen Ginsburg appears as a not-quite Deus ex Machina. Young and Nico accompany him to a poetry reading inManchester. He heroically recites detailed images of gay sex to a horrified conservative crowd. It is one of the story’s happier occasions. Nico seems in good spirits. We get the sense that any latent cultural cruelties on anybody’s part were being rubbed out by a non-contrived shared interest in poetry and music. It recalls a time when both artists were looking forward with their art and perhaps hoping, consciously or not, to use it as building block for the improvement of late Twentieth-Century culture and life. At the end of the chapter, however, Nico ominously comments that Ginsburg did not take off his clothes as he used to…
…so I’ve listed some scenes in this review, but have not revealed even 1% of the beauty of this book. Buy and read it. If it is a grave marker of a bygone era, I hope its stone fist points to a coming love of insight and imagination in humanity’s cultural and artistic output. It rescues Nico’s true beauty and function, an imperfect elegy writer, a singer for her native culture’s, as well as pop culture’s, death dirge and chance at rebirth. And to the dude who commented on another review here on Amazon.com and claimed Young is “milking” Nico’s memory for even more money: Dude, whose clean cash pays your bills?