It’s April 1966, and The Velvet Underground are cutting their debut album. It isn’t going great.
Nico, recently added to the band by manager Andy Warhol as their new co-lead singer, hasn’t proved to be an easy fit. Guitarist Sterling Morrison would tell the NME in 1981, “Nico had two voices. One was a full-register, Germanic, Götterdämmerung voice that I never cared for, and the other was her wispy voice which I liked.” Guess which one she was applying to a stirringly beautiful Lou Reed ballad.
Nico’s deep, doomy tone would help make the album’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” a magisterially moody, proto-goth classic. But that Teutonic terror sound wasn’t working for this tune, which seemed to demand the softer touch she brought to another of the album’s evergreen ballads, “Femme Fatale.” Consequently, the band was forcing her through so many takes that Nico, counter to her aloof image, finally fell apart and cried.
The Velvets were so disgruntled with the way things were working out that they were about to abandon the song entirely, but they allowed their new bandmate one final shot at it. Then a miracle occurred — the one enshrined forever as The Velvet Underground & Nico’s most haunting tune, “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
Circumstances notwithstanding, it isn’t exasperation that comes through in the song. What emerges instead is an expression of love so selfless and unguarded that it nearly punctured Reed’s budding enfant terrible image right from the start.
For such a massively impactful track, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” sports a small-scale sound. Mo Tucker’s humble tambourine makes tiny ripples in a shimmering pool of guitars as John Cale makes an endearing bass flub on the intro. Then, in comes Nico in sotto voce mode, her smokey croon giving life to Reed’s offer of unconditional devotion. Never mind the nasty piece of work you may imagine yourself to be, the song seems to say, I’m here to shine a light of truth to reveal the beauty you may not even realize you possess. Of course, Lou’s lyrics put it more poetically, but there’s no point in reading them when you can hear the words and music unfurl together as intended.
By the time it arrives on the album in the ninth spot on the running order, the VU have already taken a blowtorch to musical convention with songs about junkies (“I’m Waiting for the Man”), S&M (“Venus in Furs”), and an opiate reverie (“Heroin”). Amid the decadence, darkness, and gritty street reality, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is like a rose that pushes up through the concrete in another urban-romantic NYC rock ‘n’ roll classic of the 1960s, Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector’s “Spanish Harlem.”
“I’ll Be Your Mirror” has never stopped resonating in pop culture. It’s been covered by countless artists including Clem Snide, Amanda Palmer, Susanna Hoffs, Courtney Barnett, and Richard Barone, to name just a few. As recently as 2023, it provided the emotional core for the season one finale of the British comedy series Still Up, where the male lead, Craig Roberts, uses the song to express his feelings for co-star Antonia Thomas.
“It’s a profoundly compassionate love song that speaks directly to the listener,” says Bongos frontman Barone, who cut a compelling chamber-pop version for his 1990 solo album Primal Dream. “I’ve even been asked to sing it at weddings. It should be considered part of the Great American Songbook. Lou liked my version and mailed me a handwritten note to tell me.”
Barone recalls how Reed later mentioned to him that he’d written “I’ll Be Your Mirror” back in 1965 by way of marveling at the many years that had passed since. “I was quick to reply, ‘Lou, that song, and you, are timeless.’”