Dream Setlist: A Date at Max’s with the Velvet Underground

Dream Setlist: A Date at Max’s with the Velvet Underground

“She started dancing to that fine, fine music, you know her life was saved by rock and roll…” The vanguard of the 60s, the Velvet Underground created dark, Dionysian music that changed lives, moved people to tears, and shook many souls. For this week’s Dream Setlist, you’re invited  to Max’s Kansas City, where creatures of the underground emerge to boogie, eat chicken wings, and get wacky in bathroom stalls.


Initially called the Warlocks, the Velvet Underground quartet consisted of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen “Moe” Tucker, who was later replaced by Angus MacLise. The Velvet’s seminal avant-garde and experimental attitude shaped rock history, and frankly, the course of modern music. Their influence is ubiquitous. The Velvet Underground was without reservations, melancholic, a bit morbid, and full of controversy, yet their songs are energetic with lively guitars and soaring drums that both affirm and comfort, which I would argue goes to show how ahead of their time they were. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, flopped in the charts due to its controversial material. It was banned from being sold in record stores and wasn’t given radio airtime. Despite the public’s apprehensive reception, it is said that while only 30,000 copies were sold, everyone who bought the album started a band. Rock on.

1. Venus in Furs

Starting the set off with a tale of BDSM, “Venus in Furs” is inspired by the 1870 novella of the same title by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The novella draws on the themes of female dominance and sadomasochism through the tale of a man’s desires to be sexually dominated by the women he loves, asking to be her slave and allowing her to treat him in degrading ways. I would argue the song intertwined BMSM culture and punk rock bands, spurring the appropriation of leather collars, chains, and the allusions to sex.


2. I’ll Be Your Mirror

A sweeter song with softer vocals, featuring Nico, a German actress and singer who was park of Andy Warhol’s circle, and who provided vocals for a portion of The Velvet Underground and Nico. It is believed that Lou Reed wrote this song for Nico after she approached him with the line, “I’ll be your mirror.”

The Velvet Underground & Nico "I'll Be Your Mirror" (Warhol film footage)


3. Sweet Jane

Picking up the beat a little bit, “Sweet Jane” is a portrayal of a rock star’s life, highlighting the wackiness of it all and its decadent glam.

4. All Tomorrow’s Parties

The life of partying and rock continues with “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Lou Reed wrote this song in reflection of Warhol’s circle and the unique individuals that passed through the Factory, the name of Warhol’s studio in NYC. Warhol was a well known pop artist and influencer who financed The Velvet Underground’s debut album. This song is also known as Warhol’s favorite Velvet Underground song. According to The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side by Jim DeRogatis, the instrumentals are just as intriguing as the characters that surrounded Warhol, which includes a prepared piano, a tambourine played by Tucker, an ostrich guitar tuned to D, and repetitive keyboard parts*.

Velvet Underground-All Tomorrow's Parties


 5. I’m Waiting for the Man

“I’m Waiting for the Man” describes Lou Reed’s experience in venturing to 125th and Lexington in Harlem with $25 in his hand to buy drugs, presumably heroin, from “the man.” The Velvets didn’t shy away from artists’ expression of controversial topics. While this exuded their punk rock ethos, it also kept their records from record stores.

6. European Son

Perhaps this isn’t a popular choice, but this song is totally overlooked and underappreciated. “European Son” is dedicated to Delmore Schwartz, who taught Reed at Syracuse University. Reed wrote the foreword to a reissue of Schwartz’s first collection of short stories and poems. These stories describe the inner turmoil Depression-era intellectuals faced, the tribulations of the children of Jewish immigrant children, and the uneasiness and disappointment in living up to and attaining the American dream. Reed honored Schwartz’ distaste for lyrics by arranging a free-form instrumental expression following the first minute of the song. The loud crash after the opening vocals is John Cale smashing dishes with a metal chair*.

7. White Light/White Heat

One of my favorite VU songs, “White Light/White Heat” is the title track of their second studio album and defines a new era of VU’s sound. After the commercially unsuccessful sales of their debut, the Velvets fired Warhol from manager duties and parted ways with Nico, instead welcoming experimental rock and organized chaos into the group. “White Light/White Heat” is about the use of amphetamine.

Velvet Underground-All Tomorrow's Parties


8. Femme Fatale

It’s well-known that “Femme Fatale” is about Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, a term used to describe the clique of personas and personalities that surrounded Warhol. The lyrics portray an enchanting woman who teases and seduces mensomeone you want but can’t have. Warhol himself requested Lou Reed to write a song about Sedgwick.

9. Ocean (Loaded Outtakes)

Probably the most beautiful and haunting song by the Velvets, “Ocean” appears on the VU compilation album (1985) and on Loaded (1970) as a session outtake. The lyrics differ between versions but are equally eerie, preparing you to be taken by the ocean.

10. Rock and Roll

“Rock and Roll” is about radio exposing the masses to rock music, which galvanized listeners, such as Lou Reed, to create and be a part of rock’n’roll.

Velvet Underground-All Tomorrow's Parties


11. Who Loves the Sun

The ultimate pessimist’s song! The melody is fun and upbeat, but the lyrics tell a different tale.

12. Heroin

One of the Velvet’s most celebrated compositions, “Heroin” depicts the use and misuse of heroin. This is truly a brilliant piece: the tempo begins slowly and creeps increasingly faster, reaches a crescendo, then slows down again, mirroring the highs and lows of drug abuse. The lyrics describe the sensations of heroin but neither glamorizes nor condemns its use. Moreover, the instrumentation cements the song as a classic. Composed of Reed’s soft guitar, Morrison’s rhythm guitar, Tucker’s mesmeric drums, and Cale’s droning electric viola, the song’s use of two chords and arpeggios hypnotizes the listener.


Encore: A duet of ‘Andy’s Chest’ with Andy Warhol and Lou Reed…. this is a dream set list after all right? A girl can dream.

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Did you know?

The Velvet Underground’s name comes from a book of the same title Lou Reed found, written by journalist Michael Leigh, which investigates and reports on paraphilia in the United States (amazing what you can find on NYC sidewalks, right?).


*Source: The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side.