I. Gun to My Head
Last summer, my childhood pal Eric asked me who my favorite rock band was. Growing up together in central Illinois, this was something we spent much time discussing—most dramatically at around the age of 10 when I changed mine from Kiss to Aerosmith, causing a brief rift between us. But at least back in grade school I had an answer. Now I was at a loss.
“Kiss,” I said, for old time’s sake. It didn’t get a laugh. Eric didn’t want any nonsense, and had no patience for any big-city pretensions.
“Favorite rock band,” he repeated. “No explanations, no disclaimers.”
Few things make me quite so happy as unexpectedly hearing a Queen song. But no, what that means is a good Queen song. Most of them are awful. Stooges, Zep, Stones: reasonable, obvious, but never quite close to my heart. Yet it had to be something iconic, didn’t it? All-time favorite? Beatles? Talking Heads? Not really rock enough. The Clash? Well, Joe Strummer, maybe, but that’s more about respect. And just about all those post-Nirvana Pixies were too self-aware to deserve such accolades. I was over-thinking. Eric was making it clear that my time was up.
“Gun to your head. Right now. Favorite rock band of all time.”
“The Velvet Underground.”
I said it before I’d even thought it, and felt myself swell with pride, as if I’d managed to successfully name all of Saturn’s moons. The Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground put out four records four decades ago. Six if you count the live ones. Seven if you count the post–Lou Reed indiscretion Squeeze. Nine or ten if you count Reed’s first couple solo albums, which were peppered with songs the Velvets had performed but hadn’t recorded, and easily breaking a dozen if you count things that were released long after the band broke up, including a lackluster album from their 1993 reunion tour. But really it was four: 37 songs, less than three hours of music. Everyone who is in a position to say says none of the albums do justice to their live show. Assholes. For most of us, that’s all we’ve got.
The Velvet Underground were resilient realists during a time when escapism was commonly mistaken for rebellion. Picturing yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies was just so much more placid, more palatable, than picturing going to Lexington and 125th feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive. In much the same way that rappers claim such authority today, the Velvets were real.
II. An Unsung Reunion
Somehow 2009, the 45th anniversary of the band’s first paying gig, was latched upon as a moment to celebrate. Most likely it was happenstance, with the real reason arrived at afterward, but last year saw the release of two fancy coffee-table books, a box-set reissue of their seven (or so) singles, and a speaking engagement with band members Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, and Doug Yule at the New York Public Library. The most famous band to never sell any records has become a big-ticket item.
The Velvet Underground: New York Art (Rizzoli) is a gorgeous, 320-page volume—lush and tasteful, it even smells like an art book. It’s filled with photos, many of which even the most hardcore aficionados haven’t seen, put into context by a new interview with Reed and Tucker and a selection of essays, including Lester Bangs’s oft-reprinted band obit for Creem magazine and an excellent piece by Jon Savage that sets the band in early manager Andy Warhol’s pop-art world. There’s also a transcription of an enjoyably dated interview between Reed, John Cale, and producer Tom Wilson from a radio-only LP.
Bangs’s biographer and Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis authored the flashier and more modestly priced The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side (Voyageur Press), packaged with nothing less than a velvet band around its 192 pages. The book claims to be the first bio of the band, although with essays by other authors and a bright and zippy layout it feels more like a scrapbook. It may be the first proper book-length bio, but the extended essay Rolling Stone’s David Fricke wrote for the 1995 Polydor box set Peel Slowly and See is as much as most people need. There are also two collections of articles about the band—The Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades of Commentary (Omnibus Press, 1997) and the superior All Yesterday’s Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print (Da Capo, 2005)—to help flesh out the narrative.
But more to the point, DeRogatis’s tome is a little suspect: From the title (quoting a Lou solo song?), to the inaccuracies within (he credits an Erik Satie piece Cale had performed to John Cage, and mistakes the Chelsea section of Manhattan for Chelsea Street), to a strange take on the song “Here She Comes Now” as being about frigidity, the author doesn’t altogether instill confidence. Even if we grant that it’s the only bio of the band, it’s still not the best one.
For those who are more concerned with the music than the story and are just looking for something to fondle, Sundazed’s set of the Velvets’ vinyl seven-inches is a lovely fetish object. It’s also a testament to the band’s lack of popularity during its life. They may have been singles, but they weren’t hits, and in fact two were never even pressed.
The release of the band’s first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, was delayed for a year by difficulties manufacturing the peelable banana cover Warhol had designed. (Frank Zappa allegedly was also pressuring Verve to sit on the album so his debut, Freak Out!, could come out first.) But in the interim, Verve edited the song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” down by half, into two-and-three-quarter minutes of such truncated power that listening to it today (it kicks off the Sundazed box) feels like picking at an open sore. Even before it was mixed for radio play, it was quite an assault for 1965: a piano altered with paper clips, a guitar with all the strings tuned to the same pitch, and an icy German singer rising above the controlled squall with a monotone—maybe even slightly flat—delivery of a Cinderella story without the happy ending. The second single, “Sunday Morning,” was more radio-friendly, but by its release it was too late.
The set carries through to the self-titled third album, and even includes a fantastic (and often bootlegged) radio spot (“Not a probe, not an exploration, not an experiment, but a whole new complete reality: the Velvet Underground,” recites an authoritative FM announcer). Ironically, by the release of their fourth and most conventional record, Loaded, Reed had quit and the chances for such likely hit singles as “Sweet Jane” or “Who Loves the Sun” were left in the dust.
III. Three or Four Alternate
Histories of the Velvet Underground
The Rail’s Music Editor doesn’t like the Velvet Underground. He thinks they’re overrated, and he’s probably right. Of the four albums up top, one is just OK. But still, that’s 75% brilliant, which is pretty good. What ensures our still caring about the Velvets today, however, is the same thing that drags their reputation down. Lou Reed went on to hang with Bowie and Iggy, and later Laurie Anderson, just as hanging with Warhol had put his band on the map. He’s a street-tough art-fag from Long Island, and if he hadn’t kept churning out occasionally great, sometimes awful, generally forgettable records that both reinforced and watered down the Velvets’ W. S. Burroughs/J. G. Ballard aesthetic of dark decadence, they might be truly underground now, which might make the Music Editor like them more. Who knows?
In another other world, original and deeply out drummer Angus Maclise didn’t balk at the evils of accepting money for art, and stayed in the band. In that world, Cale’s drone experiments were a stronger force in the band, further ensuring commercial nonviability. But who can work with a drummer who rejects not just the notion of meter but of any sort of timekeeping in all aspects of his life? In that world we would also never get to fall in love with Mo Tucker, whose pounded bass drum and dismissal of cymbals were as important as anything in establishing the VU’s sound.
And here are two other parallel worlds where the Velvets matter less. In one of them, just as in our world here, Lou quits the band in 1970 and moves back in with his parents on Long Island. But that’s it. End of story. John Cale ends up the survivor in this story, but still few have heard of him. He’s sure not singing “I Love You, Suzanne” on MTV. In that world the Velvets remain in the domain of the Fugs, slipping from the legerdemain of critics who decide what’s Important. In that world, “I’m Waiting for the Man” is just a track off Nuggets, a cool song like “Dirty Water.”
It’s a sad story, maybe, but not so sad as the other other world, where Lou didn’t walk out into the Union Square night, where he kept fronting a revolving door band, sapping the name not unlike such once-sacred ones as the Pretenders or PiL. In that world it’s the Velvet Underground who sing on “Coney Island Baby” about how they just wanted to make their high school coach happy. In that world, not only is Music Editor right, but I didn’t even pitch the story. Happily that is not the world we live in. In our world, the Velvet Underground so concisely, so precisely, so expertly realized the possibilities of rock over a mere four LPs that still today they encompass the form. And we, we started dancing to that fine, fine music. You know, our lives were saved by rock and roll.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.