As a teenager I used to play this song over and over again through the headphones at full blast. And despite its seventeen minute length, I was always disappointed when it ended. I still am. I could listen to them going on like this all day long.
I mention the above, really, to let you know that had I been a friend of Lester Bangs I would have most certainly passed his ‘true punk rocker’ test. Apparently, every time he visited friends’ houses he’d pull out their copies of White Light/White Heat to see how worn the grooves were on Sister Ray. If they were well-worn, you passed the test. He was a great writer, Bangs, but also a bit of a dick.
What I love about this song is that, despite its supposedly unlistenable avant-garde credentials, it’s essentially an extension of the kind of basic three-chord sixties rock ‘n’ roll that began with Louie Louie, came through The Kinks, The Who and The Troggs and filtered through to the various American garage bands. John Cale’s organ-playing here, for instance, owes as much to ? and the Mysterions as it does to the experimental work he did with La Monte Young.
The lyrics cover all the familiar Lou Reed themes: drugs, drag queens, orgies, death, debauchery – all that nonsense. But the lyrics are probably the least interesting aspect of the song.
As White Light/White Heat was the last album Cale appeared on, I like to think that the tension you can hear between Reed’s lead guitar and Cale’s playing is genuine: the way the organ keeps threatening to drown everything else out. In fact, at one point it does – the whole song dragged under great swirls of noise before it’s heroically rescued by Mo Tucker’s fabulous drumming – that ‘dom, dom, dom’ just marching on and on, refusing to be knocked off course.
In all, it’s a marvellous and massive slab of rock ‘n’ roll that pummels you into submission while making you appreciate that something so simple and so primal can also be great art. And that’s one of the things I love about Reed: the fact that his love for rock ‘n’ roll is genuine and that unlike, say, Zappa, his experiments with it aren’t just a piss take.