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Freaky Friday: “Venus in Furs”

Posted by purplemary54 on March 8, 2013

Sex is one of the freakiest things in the world, all things considered.  Ignore for a moment any activity done for reproductive purposes; that’s just nature and instinct at work (and I don’t know enough about biology, zoology, or any other -ology to be able to comment on that stuff).  I’m talking about the myriad of ways human beings choose to express their sexual impulses and desires (orientation isn’t an issue here, either, since that is once again nature at work).  Let’s face it: In the words of Jim Morrison, people are strange.

Rumor has it the Velvet Underground got their band name from a book with the same title about so-called deviant sexual behavior (here’s the Wikipedia page on it).  That seems reasonable enough.  And oddly fitting since one of their weirdest, most hypnotic songs is “Venus in Furs,” which is also based on a book about sex. In this case, it’s a novella by an Austrian fellow named Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (sound familiar?).  Venus in Furs was originally intended as part of a larger work that Sacher-Masoch later abandoned (maybe it just didn’t turn him on anymore).  It was a bout a man who adored a woman so much, he became her slave.  In addition to being rather titillating, it was also more than a little misogynist, painting the female characters as both cruel and weak.  The song is essentially retelling the story, or at least playing on the themes of masochism and dominance.

I feel like there’s more going on here than a little ooh-la-la, though.  Much of the VU’s early output was experimental, highly influenced by minimalism.  (John Cale had studied under composers such as La Monte Young.)  The steady, simple beat coupled with the fuzzy drone of the guitar makes the song feel like a meditative chant.  Lou Reed’s lyrics are almost inconsequential; this song is all about the sound.  This is young artists trying to create a new kind of sound, to find their own voices.

The almost slavish faithfulness to the story is another thing that niggles at me.  (For the record, I’ve only read summaries of the book, so there could be something left out).  Lou Reed was young, but he was already a pretty good songwriter by that point.  He wasn’t given to unoriginally copying someone else’s ideas.  If he was retelling Venus in Furs for “Venus in Furs,” then I believe he was serving some other metaphorical master.  There seems to be an undercurrent, something darker than the S&M scene.  The first thing that comes to mind is heroin.  I don’t know if Reed was using it at this point, but the story of someone in the throes of submission to an outside force combined with the musical arrangement makes me think of someone locked in addiction.  There just seems to be something else going on here.

Which is why I like this song so much.  I don’t care much one way or the other about freaky sex; whatever happens behind closed doors ought to stay there.  But this is freaky music, and that’s something I love.  The fact that the Velvet Underground ended up being one of the most influential bands ever says that they did something right.

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