White Light: Connecting Steve Urkel and the Velvet Underground

A remarkable — or completely coincidental — connection to the Velvet Underground's second album, White Light/White Heat, in an episode of "Family Matters."

  • The Velvet Underground's debut album is widely recognized as one of the group's best.
    Photo by Flickr/oddsock
  • Michael J. Fox in the 1985 film "Teen Wolf" as the titular character.
    Screenshot by Flickr/mtx
  • Alex Pardee reimagines Steve Urkel in "S. Urkel Jerk."
    Painting by Alex Pardee; photo by Flickr/jayscollection

When I hit my late teens, like so many before me, I began to navigate my place in the world entirely through my relation to rock music. I had no aspirations to play music myself — I was just an eager listener. Having arrived at college with a CD collection that fit comfortably into a shoebox, I burned with a fervor unique to fresh converts. I was, without a doubt, incredibly annoying.

Of all the noise to which I bowed — new and old, black and white, famous and obscure the mightiest was that made by the Velvet Underground. This was the sound of cool; alongside it, all but Dylan seemed dopey and compromised. Nothing on a museum wall could match the band’s artistic purity. Lou Reed and the Velvets existed in a bona fide and long-vanished underground encompassing vanguard art, edgy literature, and fabulous sunglasses. Falling under their spell seemed akin to being a character in a science fiction story who suddenly gains use of his full brain capacity.

In critical consensus, the great Velvet Underground albums are the band’s Warhol-immersed debut and its ravishing third album. Yet the record to which I gravitated was the group’s deranged second LP, White Light/White Heat, from 1968. The album was produced by the visionary Tom Wilson, who also recorded my favorite Dylan LP and, in the ’50s, had introduced Planet Earth to Sun Ra; it was the last VU album to feature John Cale. White Light/White Heat traffics in bedlam and pledges allegiance to no one, ultimately tumbling into the madness and joy of “Sister Ray.”

“Sister Ray” is the album’s 17-minute show stopper — but the song that unsettled me was “The Gift,” perhaps its most maligned track. “The Gift” features a sluggish, sloppy instrumental, over which Cale passively recites a short story in his exotic Welsh brogue. Written by Reed, it tells of the unfortunate Waldo Jeffers, who, short on funds to visit his girlfriend in Wisconsin — and dubious of her faithfulness — packages himself in a large box and mails himself to her. Most disconcerting was the contrast between the abrasive music and the conversational rhythms of Reed’s story, particularly the dialogue between the girlfriend, Marsha Bronson, and her yenta friend, Sheila Klein. “Ugh, God, it’s from Waldo,” Marsha groans upon receiving the package. “That schmuck!” Sheila responds. Years earlier, at sleep-away camp in northern Wisconsin, I borrowed a bunkmate’s N.W.A. tape and was floored to discover that it was permissible to curse on a record. “The Gift,” more bitingly, marked the first time that I heard the word “schmuck” employed in a song. It was like listening to members of my family yammering over discordant rock music.

At 20, I moved to London for a term abroad, at Goldsmiths, University of  London. The semester marked a painful separation from my burgeoning record collection. So I was cheered to discover, tucked away in the college’s shabby library, a reliably vacant room stocked with turntables and a bizarrely hip assortment of LPs, including work by the Velvets and several solo albums by Reed and Cale. (Years later, while interviewing Cale, I learned why: Before landing in New York, he had studied at Goldsmiths.) I devoured the records. Spinning White Light/White Heat — loudly, on headphones, in the middle of a library — proved strangely heartwarming. The music connected me to my college-radio friends back in Boston, while the kvetching of Marsha and Sheila in the lyrics evoked my family in Chicago. When people speak of the majesty of art, especially that existing along the margins, I think of sitting in the Goldsmiths library listening to “The Gift.” In my loneliness, I was aligned with fellow travelers an ocean away.

Coming of age in the privileged domain, some of the most uncanny moments are those spent at home between stints of adulthood: the Benjamin Braddock intermission. Returned from London to suburban Chicago, I skulked around my parents’ house, unsure if I belonged to the far-out milieu of the Velvet Underground or to the John Hughes reverie that surrounded me. By day, I taught tennis to little kids; at night, I dined with my parents. Contact with contemporaries was negligible. Although drugs were never my bag, I watched television with the devoutness of a first-class stoner. The world depicted on TV, years before the medium gained its current (and overstated) cachet, seemed beneath that which I had been experiencing through records. I viewed from a snob’s perch, laughing my head off at the slightest hint of camp, a cackling victim of the network overlords in an age before program curation.

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