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A short excerpt from Jon Stratton, Jews, Punk and the Holocaust: From the Velvet Underground to the Ramones: The Jewish-American Story, Popular Music, vol. 24, n. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 79-105:

The penultimate track on The Velvet Underground and Nico is ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ in which the lyric is intoned through John Cale’s screeching viola. It was the discordant howl of this song that got the Velvets fired from their residency in Manhattan’s Cafe Bizarre. Reed has only ever played the song once in his solo career and that was in 1972 when he, Cale and Nico performed together in Paris. (…) The lyrics begin by alluding to ‘his fate’. They go on to describe what, apparently, this man cannot lose:

Not a ghost bloodied country
All covered with sleep
Where the black angel did weep
Not an old city street in the east
Gone to choose

This dense web of imagery suggests a country in the east where the people have been destroyed; Poland perhaps, the Jewish population of the cities and shtetls destroyed by the Nazis. We can compare this with Sylvia Plath’s 1962 poem, ‘Mary’s Song’:

The same fire
Melting the tallow heretics,
Ousting the Jews.
Their thick palls float
Over the cicatrix of Poland, burnt out
Germany.
They do not die.

As ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ unfolds so we have a reference to a rally man, perhaps Hitler’s rallies, and to ‘the cosy brown snow of the east’, possibly Poland again. One line tells us that ‘Sacrificial remains make it hard to forget’. In its original Greek, ‘holocaust’ refers to a burnt sacrifice. Plath makes the same connection in ‘Mary’s Song’ where she makes the startling connection between the lamb Sunday roast and sacrifice. At this point in the 1960s, Jews were the main bearers of the memory of the Judeocide. It was yet to surface as a general Western cultural trauma. It is probably not worth continuing to try to elucidate the lyric of ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ in terms of the Judeocide. I do not want to suggest that this track is ‘about’ the Judeocide but, rather, that, as an apocalyptic lyric it draws on Reed’s inchoate and unconscious reaction to the extermination. In this sense it is the closest Reed has come to confronting this trauma.

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  1. […] the topic has been seldom addressed in Holocaust Studies (see, for example, Jon Stratton’s article on The Velvet Underground and the Ramones). Boswell explores the Holocaust theme and symbolism […]

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