Velvet Underground Does the Bard
In the first installment of this series, I showcased some of the most compelling pop songs inspired by Romeo and Juliet and discussed how each song seeks to revise Shakespeare’s play as a successful romance, as opposed to a tragic tale that ends in death and despair.
In this installment, I’m going to discuss two songs– both solo projects by Velvet Underground members– that do not attempt to modify Shakespeare’s themes, but rather emphasize them.
“Romeo had Juliette”—Lou Reed (New York, 1989)
To pick up where I left off last week with our “star-crossed lovers,” Lou Reed’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet comes from On one of Reed’s best solo album, “Romeo had Juliette,” tells the story of Romeo Rodriquez and Juliette Bell who are “caught between twisted stars” (rather than being “star-crossed lovers”). In this urban Manhattan love story, Juliet and Romeo live on opposite sides of the city: “Betwixt between the East and West he calls on her wearing a leather vest.”
Surrounding Romeo and Juliette’s love is the decaying and dangerous city: “Outside the streets were steaming/ The crack dealers were dreaming/ Of an Uzi someone had just scored.”
In Shakespeare’s play, his lovers are surrounded by the danger of their hating families, but their love eventually transcends it all. However, in Reed’s song, the danger of their environment is beyond the power of the lovers: “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock/ Into the filthy Hudson what a shock.”
In fact, in Reed’s version Romeo and Juliet’s love does not—cannot—rise above setting of Manhattan, they are bound by it’s filth and corruption. For example, whereas earlier in the song Reed sings that Romeo smells Juliette’s perfume “in his eyes” in contrast to the wretched aroma of his room; by the end of the song “The perfume burned his eyes/ Holding tightly to her thighs/ And something flickered for a minute/ And then it vanished and was gone.”
“Macbeth”—John Cale (Paris 1919, 1973)
Continuing with solo projects from the Velvet Underground, John Cale’s Paris 1919 is one of the best solo projects to come out of the VU—and happens to be one of my dessert island records, because of its literary nature. The album consists of tracks inspired by Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, and Grahame Green… and Macbeth.
Written in the third person, the song is delivered by an onlooker (the witches? The audience?). The focus of the song is on what is seen and known to be true—which is also a theme of the play.Cale sings that Banquo’s “seen it all before” and that Macbeth “never saw things quite that way,” while Lady Macbeth “knew it all, and made you see things her way.” Yet, “somebody knows for sure: it’s gotta be me or it’s gotta be you.”
The song sounds like a parody of a rock n’ roll sock hop number—with snapping fingers and twirling poodle skirts—which diminishes the fatalism of the play’s plot, while at the same making it seems nostalgic. Yet, the song spins into cacophony towards the end; all the order and comfortable twelve-bar blues structure is reduced to post-punk reverb and noise. In many ways, this mimics the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the hero’s control over what he thinks to be true spins out of his control at the end.
Both Cale and Reed embrace Shakespeare’s original plots and themes and adapt them into modern understandings of destruction, despair, and death.