With death comes superlatives, and they started rolling in after the iconic punk-poet and Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed died on Sunday.
Most influential band ever? Sure. Greatest band ever? I’d argue an easy yes. Greatest debut album ever? What else you got? Most uncompromising rock star? Definitely. Worst album ever? Quite possibly. There are many more, and let me add one to the list – Lou Reed is responsible for the single greatest second of recorded music in rock-and-roll history.
That moment comes two minutes and 15 seconds into “I Heard Her Call My Name,” a chaotic head rush of electric guitar insanity from the Velvet Underground’s second album, “White Light/White Heat.” The song seemingly starts in medias res, guitars squealing, drums thumping immediately, as if the band members had been assaulting each other with their instruments for a few minutes before someone decided to hit record. From the start it’s simply a matter of holding on for dear life – Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and bassist John Cale are all playing so ferociously loud that drummer Mo Tucker sounds like she’s just pounding away at what she thinks is the right tempo. Besides the volume onslaught, the song features one of Reed’s most wild-eyed vocal takes, as he momentarily abandons his famous speak-sing for an impassioned howl. “I know that she cares about me! I heard her call my name!”
Then comes the defining moment. Reed hollers, “And then my mind split open,” which is followed by a nanosecond of a pause. After that pause, rock music is a different animal. After that pause is the aural equivalent of a mind splitting open – a squelch of feedback so intense, sharp and brutal that you can’t help but wince even after hearing it for the hundreth, thousandth, ten thousandth time, knowing full well that it’s coming. How can this distinctly unmusical moment be the greatest second in rock history? The answer is in the question. That piercing blast of guitar noise, that one second, is the perfect microcosm for how Reed and the Velvet Underground changed the idea of what rock music could — or even should — be. And every time you hear it, your mind splits open a little more.