by Serene Dominic
Oct. 10, 2009
Quick: Name the most expensive LP ever sold on eBay.
Hint: It's not a pristine Beatles butcher cover or a withdrawn copy
of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." It's an acetate of "The Velvet
Underground & Nico" with unreleased mixes. Found at a rummage sale in
Greenwich Village, it sold for an astonishing $155,401.
The Velvets never enjoyed the commercial success of the Beatles or
Dylan. Released in 1967, that first album sold a measly 5,000 copies
in its initial run. Their second album, "White Light/White Heat,"
sold less. Yet the Velvet Underground's influence on rock music made
since the '60s is arguably equal to or greater than the Fabs or Zimmerman.
Happy to make that argument is Jim DeRogatis, pop-culture critic at
the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of the Chicago Public Radio talk
show "Sound Opinion." He has just edited a new book by Voyageur Press
called "The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on
the Wild Side" that collects a treasure trove of photos, concert
posters and memorabilia, including never-seen-before photos from the
Warhol Factory years.
"I don't know where they found that stuff," DeRogatis says. "I have a
shelf full of Lou Reed, John Cale and Velvet Underground books, and
I've never seen those pictures of the Velvets in zombie white-faced
makeup playing 'Heroin.' It was actually from a 1965 CBS News
documentary about the making of an underground film."
In his connective narrative about a band that has been written about
way more than was actually seen firsthand, DeRogatis believes the
Velvets' extraordinary contributions are best appreciated when the
myth is brought down to earth.
"Some of the most eloquent people in the history of rock journalism
have written about this band, and one of the things that gets
perpetuated is this larger-than-life 'thou shalt not question the
Velvet Underground; these guys were geniuses' kind of thing.' And
that's true. But I think it's worth remembering that three of the
four instrumentalists that grew up to be princes and princesses of
darkness all grew up in well-manicured suburban Long Island homes
within a few miles of each other. These were not superhuman beings."
For DeRogatis, the myth came long before the music. He was introduced
to the band through the writings of critic Lester Bangs (DeRogatis
wrote "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs" in 2000). As
a 13-year-old, he made the trek from Jersey City, N.J., to Bleecker
Bob's in Greenwich Village to buy a copy of "White Light/White Heat."
"Whoa," says DeRogatis, remembering that first listen. "Forget about
'Sister Ray.' What the hell is 'I Heard Her Call My Name'? It just
blows your mind. ... We've all had this experience when somebody says
something so hyperbolic and over the top about some piece of music.
You buy it; you bring it home and say, 'Vampire Weekend sounds like
"Graceland" by Paul Simon, not brave, new and mind-blowing.' You
bring home 'White Light/White Heat,' and it doesn't sound like
anything you ever heard and still has that power today. And that's
not romanticizing it. You can play it for some 13-year-old kid and
see the fear and terror and the sheer enthusiasm well up at once.
It's the real deal."
The book gives a brief overview of the members' solo years, capped by
the strained reunion in the '90s that reignited all the tension
between Cale and Reed but yielded none of the good stuff.
DeRogatis sat out that reunion. "I thought it seemed like a bad idea
because it's always hard to capture that initial impulse. I had seen
the first performances Reed and Cale did for 'Songs For Drella'
before it got into a big multimedia production at St. Ann's Church in
Brooklyn with Cale on viola and Reed on guitar. Really low-key. I
thought that was as close to seeing the Velvet Underground as I was gonna get."
DeRogatis is working on another rock book for Voyageur with Sound
Opinion's co-host Greg Kot.
"They had this idea about playing the oldest rock-and-roll supergeek
drinking game of all time which is 'Who was cooler the Beatles or the
Stones?' So Greg and I are going do an extension of the radio show
and argue about that. It's a fun, goofy idea."