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Queer Classic: The Velvet Underground Unleash the Blinding, Debauched White Light/White Heat

The Velvet Underground Unleash the Blinding, Debauched White Light/White Heat

We all know the importance of The Velvet Underground’s über-queer, Andy Warhol–produced debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico, but its scabrous noise-rock follow-up remains an astonishing, rule-shattering, salacious feat of sound and scope.

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Over the course of just six tracks, Lou Reed and Co. swerve from drug highs (“White Light/White Heat,” about the bittersweet effects of injected methamphetamines) to the tale of a trans woman’s botched surgery (the heartbreaking “Lady Godiva’s Operation”) to the sordid improvisational closer, “Sister Ray,” a 17-and-a-half-minute account of a heroin-laced orgy and murder featuring a motley crew of drag queens and their sailor tricks. Five decades on, it’s still hard to believe the proto-punk legends got away with it all.

As Lou Reed, frontman for The Velvet Underground, says:

“ ‘Sister Ray’ ” was done as a joke — no, not as a joke, but it has eight characters in it, and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of ‘Sister Ray’ as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack, and having this orgy when the police appear.” 

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