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The Velvet Underground and Raúl

I still remember the first time I heard a Nico solo track from the post-Velvet Underground, post-Chelsea Girl era. It was “My Only Child” off Desertshore, Nico singing largely a capella in her unique voice, with occasional trumpet notes. It was like nothing else I had heard. I was stunned to find it was a song she had written herself. It was on a German anthology of “death songs” that my girlfriend gave me for ChristmasGiant eye, giant eyeliner in the far-off days of my unremembered youth (a.k.a. 2003). “My Only Child” smashed my preconceptions like a gentle hammer blow. I had of course known who Nico was for a long time and appreciated her contribution to the first Velvet Underground album, but I thought of her as nothing more than a striking vocalist, an interpreter of other people’s works. I had never bothered to check out her solo work after Chelsea Girl, which back when I was most obsessed with Velvet Underground was hard to find, especially when you lived on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic.

After being floored by “My Only Child,” I made it my mission to correct my error of presumption and seek out Nico’s solo works. The three albums she made from 1969-74, The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End, all rank among my favorite records. Her songwriting is unique and wonderful, her lyrics haunting and her musical vision unforgettable. I resolved after that to be more careful about judging artists based on only a small glimpse of their work. Yet I still make this mistake over and over again. The latest eye-opener was watching Raúl play for Schalke against Inter Milan in the second leg of their Champions League tie.

I was aware that Raúl was worshipped by Real Madrid supporters above and beyond his other teammates, but I’d assumed that it was just a personal connection, that he wasn’t that good. I’d seen him play for the Spanish national team and been less than impressed. I’d even seen him play a few times for Real Madrid and he didn’t strike me as anything special. Yes, a good forward, but hardly worthy of adulation. Then I watched him play for Schalke against Inter in the second leg of their tie and, oh my, what a player. What a player! His goal was beautifully taken. A lesser player would have hammered the ball at the goal, but he cooly dribbled around the keeper before slotting it in. It looked effortless, though it was anything but. His pass to set up Schalke’s second was, if anything, even more special. A neat chip which fell in front of Benedikt Höwedes who hammered the ball into the goal with such force you would think he was auditioning for the role of Thor the Thunder God. In the replays Raúl’s pass seemed even more audacious and wondrous. What seemed obvious and inevitable the moment it had happened looked in slow-motion like a moment of sublime skill and vision. If Raúl is this great at 33, I asked myself, what must he have been like in his prime? Sadly I didn’t pay much attention to La Liga back then, and on the rare occasion I did see Real Madrid play, I was too busy focusing on the other players in that extraordinarily skilled and expensive team. I have clearly been wrong all these years. Nevertheless, I suspect that with time, the memory of Raúl will fade outside of Madrid and Gelsenkirchen.

Nico drifted away from Velvet Underground and became a sidebar in the feature story of the band. Throughout her career she worked with better known musicians—John Cale, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera—and so it’s easy to overlook Nico’s creative gifts and assign credit to her collaborators, even though the songs were written by Nico and, increasingly as she grew more assured, the arrangements were hers as well. Nico’s place in rock history has become that of bit player in the artistic triumph of Velvet Underground, but that is unfair. She was a great musician in her own right. Raúl, I suspect, will occupy a similar place in the story of Spanish football. Instead of being remembered as a brilliant player, he will be relegated to a long list of Spanish-born La Liga superstars who failed to perform at the international level. That he was cast aside after 2006, when the imperial era of the Spanish national team was about to dawn, makes it even less likely that he’ll find a place in the pantheon.

But… history may yet beckon. Should Schalke prevail against Manchester United, they will face either Real Madrid or Barcelona. Playing in the Champions League final against either team will be a match of extreme emotional resonance for Raúl and the kind of story that will be easy to remember. If his performance rises to the level of what he showed against Inter, he might have a shot of writing a triumphant end to his playing career.

Kári Tulinius is an Icelandic poet and novelist. His first novel, Píslarvottar án hæfileika (Martyrs Without Talent), was published last spring in Reykjavík.

The CD was not a relationship omen… at least in the short term. We got married next year, though we divorced a few years later.

And John Cale. For reasons that are now beyond me, I didn’t care much for Lou Reed’s solo work when I was younger. John Cale’s solo stuff is still closer to my heart, but I appreciate Lou Reed solo today. In fact, back in the day I would wind up Lou Reed fans by claiming that the creative force behind the latter two canonical Velvet Underground albums was Doug Yule. I still think it’s a travesty that Doug Yule (or Nico, for that matter) wasn’t inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame with the rest of Velvet Underground.

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The Velvet Underground and Raúl

by Kári Tulinius · April 18, 2011

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