Sunday, February 10, 2013

Velvet Underground -- "Venus in Furs" (1967)

Taste the whip, in love not given lightly
Taste the whip, now plead for me

Most popular music from New York City falls into one of two broad categories.  

First, you have music that appeals to the masses -- Broadway musicals, and the hundreds of pop singles written by the Brill Building songwriters (including our first New York song, "River Deep, Mountain High").

Andy Warhol and Lou Reed
Second, you have the intellectual (some would say pseudo-intellectual) and avant-garde music recorded by groups like the Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, and especially the Velvet Underground -- who were managed by the master of pop art and celebrity culture, Andy Warhol.

The Velvet Underground did sell a lot of records, but they were one of the most influential groups of the sixties.  Brian Eno famously said that while The Velvet Underground and Nico (the group's debut album) may have only sold 30,000 copies, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."  Rolling Stone ranked it 13th on its list of the greatest albums of all time.

Lou Reed, best known for "Walk on the Wild Side," wrote or co-wrote all the songs on that album.  Reed didn't have a happy childhood -- when he was 14, he was administered shock treatment, which was intended to cure his bisexuality.  

His first hit single was titled "The Ostrich," and was a spoof of records about dance fads.  (One line from the song: "Put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it.")  When he recorded "The Ostrich," Reed tuned every string on his guitar to the same note -- some strings were tuned an octave higher than others.

Reed used what he termed the "Ostrich guitar" on "Venus in Furs," and the oddly-tuned guitar and fellow band member John Cale's electric viola make the song sound absolutely unique. 

The lyrics to "Venus in Furs" were inspired by the novella of the same name that was authored by the 19th-century Austrian writer, Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch.  That novella tells the story of a man named Severin who becomes so infatuated with a woman that he asks to be her slave, encouraging her to degrade him and treat him cruelly.

Sacher-Masoch's book also inspired a long-running Broadway play, Venus in Fur, which premiered in 2010.  The play starred Nina Arianda, an unknown young actress who was working as a hostess at a French restaurant when she got the part.  She later won a "Best Actress" Tony for her work in the play.  (Click here to read an admiring New Yorker profile of Ms. Arianda.) 

Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur
Later this year, a French-language movie based on the play -- Roman Polanski was the director -- will be released.

By the way, Sacher-Masoch -- the term "masochism" derives from his name -- didn't just talk the talk, but also walked the walk.

In 1869, Sacher-Masoch and his mistress, the Baroness Fanny Pistor, signed a contract making him her slave for six months.  The contract stipulated that Fanny wear furs when she was feeling cruel.  Sacher-Masoch disguised himself as a servant and travelled to Venice with the Baroness on a train.  

Sacher-Masoch got married a few years later and persuaded his wife to act out the events of Venus in Furs.  She apparently wasn't all that enthusiastic about being a femdom, and the two eventually divorced.

Here's "Venus in Furs."  It's a stunning song, boys and girls -- just listen and see if you don't agree:

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:


  1. This is a bit outside my musical experience, but it reminds me of some non-musical comments:
    Question: What did the sadist do to the masochist?
    Answer: Nothing.
    Sign on road to ski areas in the mountains:
    Chains Required. Added with spray can: Whips optional.
    Back in the 60s and 70s, and even back in the 1950s, one might suspect electric railway fans of being closet masochists, since our favorite form of transportation was fast disappearing, and trolley cars were on the "endangered species" list. We even went to great effort to preserve a few survivors in "trolley museums" lest they disappear completely from the face of the earth. We made "pilgrimages" to cities that still had electric railways in service, and traded photos of extinct examples at swap meets. Things started to turn around in 1981, with the San Diego Trolley light rail line, and now there are lines that I haven't ridden yet! OK, enough railroading, how about some musical references. Back in 1957, Harry Belafonte had a big hit with "Banana Boat (Day-o)" and to this day, when I bring home a bunch, I assure my wife that they have no "deadly black tarantulas". Then Stan Freberg did his take, with the comment, "Oooh, I don't dig spiders, man, they bug me!" and the final interruption "I come thru da window..."
    For something really obscure, there was an instrumental "Banana Split" by Kid Kings Combo. Going back to the 1920s, there's "Yes We Have No Bananas" which might be considered politically incorrect now for poking fun at immigrant greengrocers.

  2. Oh--I forgot to mention "The Masochism Tango" by Tom Lehrer: "I ache for the touch of your lips, dear, but much more for the touch of your whips, dear....." Which brings to mind "Rosita" a tango instrumental dating back to the 1920's. It was the theme for a movie of the same title, and since this was before talking pictures, was presumably issued as sheet music for the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ.