3.24-ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES (Velvet Underground)

Velvet Underground



And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow's parties?
A hand-me-down dress from who knows where
To all tomorrow's parties.

     And where will she go and what shall she do
     When midnight comes around?
     She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown
     And cry behind the door.

And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow's parties?
Why, silks and linens of yesterday's gowns
To all tomorrow's parties!

     And what will she do with Thursday's rags
     When Monday comes around?
     She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown
     And cry behind the door.

And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow's parties?
For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown
For whom none will go mourning.

     A blackened shroud, a hand-me-down gown
     Of rags and silks, a costume
     Fit for one who sits and cries
     For all tomorrow's parties.

[Coda: Nearly a minute of drone, ending abruptly]

I find it ironic that the Velvet Underground released their punk album of art rock (the seeming antithesis of the psychedelic / baroque relation to sound) at about the time the psychedelic rock had released one of its best known art works, Strawberry Fields Forever. Velvet Underground & Nico was Lou Reed’s first album, and he went on to have a long and influential career in pop music. In my memory, I didn’t think of the Velvet Underground as psychedelic at all; I used to say that Lou Reed, the group’s lead singer and composer, was on different drugs (heroin was not the hippie drug of choice at the time). Timothy McSweeny in his blog called the record “the anti-free-love album par excellence.” But I revisited the album Velvet Underground & Nico and did indeed discover the use of the drone on a couple of songs, one of the signature musical forms for the psychedelic period. Listening to All Tomorrow’s Parties I could hear the Celtic folk song form that Richard Fariña used in his droning dulcimer compositions of the mid-1960s, and was reminded of the Jim McGuinn's lead guitar playing in a similar slurring jazz fashion in such Byrds records as Eight Miles High.

After Bob Dylan stopped recording psychedelic music, Velvet Underground became one of the few performers of the psychedelic period (for the most part emanating from London, San Francisco and Los Angeles) to represent the New York City scene. Of the performers included in Trance Love Airwaves, the only other representatives of New York are Simon & Garfunkel, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Left Banke, the Band, and Blood Sweat & Tears.

Nico is one of the few female singers of the psychedelic music I have heard from the 1960s. Though previously a European model and occasional actress, she was “discovered” in the pop music scene by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. He is said to have introduced her to Bob Dylan, and connected her to Andy Warhol, who enlisted her in the Velvet Underground, a pop art group he was producing. Nico was described by rock critic Richard Goldstein as "half goddess, half icicle," which seems to be the tone of most psychedelic women singers of the period, including the most famous one, Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane. The same might be said of Dorothy Moscowitz of the United States of America. Exception might be made for the angelic voices of Licorice McKehnie and Rose Simpson of the Incredible String Band (who share a tonal relation with the 1970s Wings singer, Linda McCartney) and would not be considered “icy”. And peripherally, Janis Joplin was fire if Nico was ice, but I consider Joplin more of a blues singer than a psychedelic one.

Wikipedia informs me that All Tomorrow’s Parties “features a piano motif played by John Cale based largely on tone clusters. It was one of the first pop songs to make use of prepared piano (a chain of paper clips were intertwined with the piano strings to change their sounds)." John Cage introduced this technique in the late 1930s. But Brian Wilson had used prepared piano on You Still Believe In Me for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album (released May 1966), and the Rolling Stones had used a prepared double bass in Ruby Tuesday (released February 1967). All Tomorrow's Parties also features an "ostrich guitar tuning" by Reed, for which all of the guitar strings were tuned to D. The droning guitar tuning also relates the sound to the Byrds and David Crosby’s tunings of his 12 string.

All Tomorrow’s Parties was released as a single in July 1966 (which would have made it contemporary with such songs as the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, the Stones’ Lady Jane and Donovan’s Sunshine Superman), but it did not chart. When the album Velvet Underground & Nico was released in March 1967, it included a longer version of this song, by which it is better known. At the time, even with the support of the established artist Andy Warhol, the album barely broke into the charts, reaching #195 in June 1967. The album experienced a bit of a revival in the latter part of the year and climbed so high as #171 in December 1967. It really wasn’t until years later, with the rise of punk music in the 1970s that the importance of the album became apparent.

The lyrics share psychedelic period fascination with days of the week, such as the Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, and many other songs on the pop charts in the mid-1960s. It seems that the “poor girl” of the song has to make the costumes for “tomorrow’s parties” out of hand-me-downs (well within the aesthetic of the time, which tended to mix fashions from second hand stores). The weekend seems to be the focus of the lyric, trying to get through till Monday with whatever one has from the previous Thursday. But there is an interruption with Sunday’s clown / [Who cries] behind the door”, out of sight. Is she a clown on Sunday because of her rags? Then why was she not a victim of ridicule on Friday and Saturday night? It seems that instead she is a clown because her clothes are inappropriate for sober and austere Sunday, so she has to withdraw from her fellow partygoers, and longs for tomorrow (Monday) when her second hand gown will again be welcomed.