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Literature in Music: “Venus in Furs”

 

Over a primitive drumbeat, alternate tuned guitars, and John Cale’s screeching viola Lou Reed weaves a tale of sexually and a submissive servant named Severin.  Even 40 plus years since its debut, The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” remains one of the most shocking songs from a band known for pushing musical and lyrical boundaries. It’s so explicit in its detail to sadomasochism that it’s hard not to wonder if Reed actually participated in some of these acts.

In actuality, the character of Severin was directly inspired by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella, Venus in Furs. Published in 1870 Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is equally disturbing as the song.  The narrator dreams of a conversation with Venus (wearing furs) about love. Looking to break his lust, the narrator seeks his friend Severin for advice.  Severin, in turn reads him Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man.

In this story, Severin von Kusiemsk is in love with a woman named Wanda.  When Severin requests to be her sex-slave, Wanda at first laughs at him. She eventually changes her mind. Later, Wanda beats Severin and brings in three women whose slaves he will also become. At the end of the book, Severin becomes jealous by Wanda’s new lover, Alexis Papadopolis, and becomes disenchanted with his sex-slave status.  He then laments that “she can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.”

Venus in Furs tale of perversion proved to be a source of inspiration for novelist James Joyce in his novel, Ulysses. In the Circe Chapter, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus stumble into a Dublin brothel.  During a mock trial for his perversions, one character recounts Bloom referring to her as a “Venus in furs” among other accusations. During a lengthy erotic hallucination Bloom is feminized and becomes dominated and tormented by the brothel’s madam. Bloom’s hallucinations are induced by a guilty conscience and also an erotic fulfillment.

Both Severin and Bloom realize these desires can quickly escalate into darker territory and eventually attempt to atone their sins.  Severin ends up leaving Wanda while Bloom rectifies several situations including payment to the prostitutes for a lamp which Stephen had broken earlier.

For The Velvet Underground, there is no sense of remorse for these acts. The moves slowly, but quickens which only adds to its creepiness. “I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years.” Reed sings several times, as if he is at his breaking point. Reed’s confession and the scratching guitars that close the song confirm a person can only take so much.

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Songs About America: “Coney Island Baby” – Lou Reed

 

Bono once claimed that Lou Reed was the James Joyce of New York City.  While that might be a bit of hyperbole the former Velvet Underground leader is synonymous with New York City.

Breaking musical and social barriers, Reed showed the dark under belly of the city. Much like Joyce did with Dublin in Ulysses.  Theirs was the version of a city that not everyone got to see, or even cared to acknowledge.  But like it or not, they captured the spirit of their surroundings in descriptive detail.

Reed’s songs were with drugs and sexual deviants.  Sometimes the characters did both activities at the same time.  If the lyrics weren’t shocking enough for the late 60s, crowd there was the music.  The Velvets provided a mountain of noise and attack that has rarely been equaled.  By the time Reed went solo in the early 70s, the music was toned down slightly, perhaps in an attempt to invite a wider audience into the party.  “Take a walk on the wide side,” He encouraged the listeners. There will be things that will blow your mind, but craziness never sounded so fun.

So it must have come as a shock to hear Reed take off his mask, and reflect with a rare sense of sincerity with 1976’s Coney Island Baby.

The song itself tells the story of Reed’s teenage years in Long Island.  The song sums up teenage confusion.  Which is the right path?  Is it Acceptance by peers or following one’s own path?  It’s clear which road Reed ultimately took, but “Coney Island Baby” makes it’s clear that, at least initially the choice wasn’t easy.

His admission of “wanting to play football for the coach” makes this clear.  For many, football is the ultimate form of acceptance in high school.  Not many things are more American than Football.  It’s a sport filled with acceptance, popularity, and brotherhood.   It’s a far cry from commands to “taste the whip”.

The song begins slowly with tasteful guitars and Reed’s soft voice.  Even if you don’t believe the story about Reed wanting to play football, it’s very affective.  As the song moves along, the dream of being on a team is shattered – “All your two-bit friends have gone and ripped you off,” He laments. “They’re talking behind your back.”

The song reaches its emotional climax mid-way through.  A group of singers appear in the background, offering a heartfelt harmony as Reed announces, “the glory of love, might see you through.”

Coney Island Baby is the type of song Lou Reed could write. There’s a sense of youthful innocence lost, and the trials of growing up.  It’s full of heartbreak and hope.  Ultimately this life isn’t meant for Reed. When he describes the city “as something like a circus or a sewer”, you know he’s found his true calling.

“Coney Island Baby” isn’t strictly about America.  But is an American tale.  The line between acceptance and self-worth can sometimes be blurred.  And for many in the 1960s, New York was one of the few places were those who were not considered to be “normal” could find like-minded individuals.  Like those who came to New York from oppression overseas, New York offered a sense of security and possibility to those who chose to follow a different path than the mainstream.  After struggling through his teenage years, it would be Lou Reed would bring this world into the mainstream.

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