Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sister Ray

Take it away, Maestro!

I'd wager that "Sister Ray" is the most widely-heard track of its violence and aural hostility. What track on a widely available album by a major artist competes with it? Joy Division and New Order and the Sisters of Mercy covered it. (As did, amusingly, author Alan Moore, in a bizarre parody version about an Objectivist (!) comic book superhero.) Jonathan Richman, in "Roadrunner," simultaneously neutered it and made it really appealing. It sits on countless record store shelves worldwide, lying dormant on copies of White Light/White Heat, waiting to perforate eardrums and induce bad trips and anxiety attacks.

The topics, as the Wikipedia entry dryly notes, cover almost every item on the Lou Reed menu: homosexuality, transvestites, prostitutes, heroin use, sudden violence. It's so over the top that it's much more funny than it is threatening. Reed's voice is mesmerizing here - whether he's chanting "whip it on me, Jim," nagging his friends about shooting a man dead ("Aw, doncha know you shouldn't do that? Doncha know it stains the carpet!"), or droning raga-style "Iiiiii'm searching for myyyyy maaaaaaaain liiiiine," you can barely take your ears off him.

And yet if the song were an instrumental, it would be nearly as astonishing. Here's a war on tape: each player tweaking his volume measure by measure, a band whose every part is trying to drown each other out. It's arguably the single point of John Cale's rock career in which real honest-to-god rocking coexists with his earlier systems-music work whole and entire, body-and-blood soul-and-obscenity. His organ part could have been released as a track on the New York in the 1960s records, and nobody would have thought it out of place; but harness it to Moe Tucker's thumping, Sterling Morrison's squawking, and Lou Reed's guitar and vocal assault, and you have one of the most arresting pieces of art ever created.

A band that created music so powerfully destructive and destructively powerful couldn't last for long. It's a shame that Cale's greatest collaborative relationship - the one with Tucker and Morrison and Reed - couldn't have lasted just a little longer, though. But at least we have White Light/White Heat, and "Sister Ray," to show for it.

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