Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s and 70’s. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
The Velvet Underground & Nico, Venus in Furs is inspired by the novella of the same title, written and published by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in 1870. It tells the story of a man who wishes to be dominated and treated as a slave by the woman he loves. We get the word “masochism” from Sacher-Masoch’s last name, and the entire practice of dominance and submission from this and the works of Marquis de Sade, a male author who wrote from the opposite position of dominating women and treating them as slaves.
Today’s modern lifestyle knows this song’s subject as “BDSM.” That’s a combined acronym: “B&D” for “Bondage and Discipline,” “D&S” for “Dominance and Submission,” and “S&M” for “Sadism and Masochism.” That last part was originally written “sado-masochism,” and in the 1960s was regarded as a mental illness and a deviant behavior, to be treated with electro-shock therapy and abhorred by society.
Even today in the United States, similar to the outdated laws against homosexuality, there are various state laws against practicing any BDSM-associated activity. That is, even using a whip or handcuffs to play with your spouse (even with their full consent!) can land you in jail, or in other states merely selling such paraphernalia (such as a frat paddle or nipple clamps) is a heavy offense. This stems from the original association with prostitution – it was thought at the time that no one would be willing to participate in gratifying such “perverted” desires without being paid for it. For this reason, it became yet another consenting-adult, victimless-crime prosecuted by law and thus subsequently embraced by the counter-culture, which explains why it was a popular theme for both underground arthouses and underground bands.
So, with this song and the band’s name, was Lou Reed kinky? Probably not, since, as given in The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, he called the band’s namesake book The Velvet Underground “the funniest dirty book he’d ever read.” However, it was the association of kink with the sexual revolution and the counter-culture lifestyle that made it an indispensable part of shocking the sensibilities of 1960s audiences.
In the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Punk Magazine co-founder Roderick Edward “Legs” McNeil, an interview with Exploding Plastic Inevitable dancer Ronnie Cutrone has this to say about this song’s subject: “S&M sex fascinated me even though I knew nothing about it. I had a natural curiosity, so I asked Lou ‘What’s Venus In Furs about?’ Lou said, ‘Ah, you know, it’s some trash novel.’ I said ‘Where can you get a copy?’ Lou said, ‘Ah yeah, just down the block there’s a store.’ So I went and bought the book. I was still in high school, so I’d go to class with my Venus In Furs and Story of O and Justine, and sit there reading this stuff.”
The album cover was painted by Andy Warhol.
Perhaps as a result of the influence of this song, punk rock and the BDSM lifestyle have been intertwined ever since. Many punk bands have made alternative sexual practices part of their image or made songs about kink, and even Goth rock, which carries over some influence from punk, has made BDSM elements, such as wearing leather collars, part of its culture.
Lest we think that “Venus In Furs” broke new ground here, legendary singing satirist Tom Lehrer sang “The Masochism Tango” on his 1959 album An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. And for a final hit of surrealism, check out this Dunlop tire commercial using Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”, created by London director Tony Kaye. Wow.