By Joe Gross
November 29, 2009
Every few years, the Velvet Underground makes a new run for the top
of the World's Greatest Musical Thing Ever charts.
For some people it is always there, a cornerstone upon which modern
rock music was built, as sturdy in its own way as the Stones and
Dylan and Zeppelin. Those sorts of folks will never forget the day
they first heard the Velvets (May 1989, a cassette of "White
Light/White Heat" on the sort of player that comes with a filmstrip
projector, backstage at a school play of course it changed my life).
A lot of those people live in Austin, from original River City punks
the Skunks, who found pop bounce in their cover of "Sister Ray," to
the 1990s noise rock bands, to modern psychedelic rockers the Black
Angels, who are named after a Velvets song and owe almost their
entire vibe to the band. Of course, Velvet Underground guitarist
Sterling Morrison did time here as well, getting his Ph.D. in English
from the University of Texas and playing in local bands.
But even so, the Velvets seem to be in the air right now. Dozens of
underground rock bands seem to be in a Velvets mood the Ravonettes,
the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Blues Control, Wooden Shjips and many more.
Three new coffee-tableish doorstoppers survey the Velvets' career.
One treats them as high visual art, one practically tells you what
they had for breakfast week-by-week and one splits the difference.
The band's story is well-worn (and has calcified into rock critic
holy writ): Lou Reed's New Yawk R&B/doo wop/free jazz obsessions
blended and clashed with John Cale's cold European formalism;
Morrison's seismic guitar chug and Maureen Tucker's irreproducible
rhythmic sense completed the picture.
German model/ice queen Nico's vocals helped turn the 1967 debut, "The
Velvet Underground and Nico," into a legend. Rolling Stone once
ranked 1968's ur-noise rock apocalypse "White Light/White Heat" as
"the coolest album of all time," and, for some of us, it is. Cale was
gone by the third, self-titled album, replaced with the
more-orders-taking Doug Yule; the songs got prettier. Tucker was all
but gone by 1970's "Loaded," which was a pop move that has aged into
the first Reed solo album in all but name. By '72, Reed was gone. A
Reed-free band cut a record and packed it in by '73.
All three of these new books pretty much stick to this script, though
there are sharp insights to each. Richie Unterberger, a terrific
researcher whose "Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Unreleased
Beatles" are rock-nerd catnip, has assembled the definitive Velvets
biography in "White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by
Day," opening with their pre-history; moving through their time with
Andy Warhol as amp-frying props; detailing recording sessions, gigs
and intraband warfare; and closing with the inclusion of "The Velvet
Underground and Nico" in the Library of Congress Recording Registry in 2007.
More than anything else, simply by detailing their gigs and tracking
their popularity with the underground press, "Day by Day" builds a
solid case that the Velvets were never quite as unknown as the myth
would lead you to believe. It didn't help that their management
ranged from visionary in some ways and inept in others (Warhol) to
simply not very good (Steve Sesnick). The Velvets were a touring rock
band with a strong cult following, sharing stages with the Doors, the
Grateful Dead, the Yardbirds and the MC5. The Rolling Stones even
based "Stray Cat Blues" on them.
It's just that unlike, say, the Beatles, the Velvets didn't
disintegrate with a fanbase commensurate to what their myth would
"The Velvet Underground: New York Art" goes in the other direction,
emphasizing the Velvets' amazing visual legacy in classic, gorgeously
realized art-book style. The band's early look the iconic black and
white-striped shirts, the black pants, Tucker's stand-up drum kit and
the sunglasses was, frankly, as important as the music in defining
a certain strain of cool, as iconic a style as Beatle boots or
Dylan's '66 hair. (It's striking how much more reserved and
mainstream-sounding the band's studio records became once they
started being photographed in paisley shirts and bell-bottoms, around
the third album.)
There are deal memos and flyers, album covers and acetates, photos
and posters like the paisley photos, it never stops being strange
seeing the words "Velvet Undeground" in classic psychedelic poster art.
Longtime underground-rock maven Johan Kugleberg's introduction states
that if '60s rock bands are the old masters of the postwar 20th
century, then the Velvets are "Caravaggio ... master of chiaroscuro."
There's also a nice chat between Reed and Tucker that finds Reed in a
giving mood regarding her profoundly important contribution
"there's no drummer in the world that can drum what Maureen Tucker
can drum" while British critic Jon Savage reflects on the
relationship between Warhol, the Velvets and the game-changing year of 1966.
Jim DeRogatis' "The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a
Walk on the Wild Side" finds a middle path between the two approaches
of Unterberger and Kugleberg et al. and feels the most populist for
it. There's an array of flyers and images, but without the high-end
feel of "New York Art." (It's also $20 cheaper.)
DeRogatis, the longtime pop critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, handles
the bulk of the band's history while others contribute essays,
including film critic Glenn Kenny's assertion that "White Light/White
Heat" is a prime example of Manny Farber's "termite art" ("no sign
that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the
immediate boundaries of his art") and a wonderful interview with
Morrison who died in 1995 of lymphoma from former Austinite Bill
Bentley, who played with Morrison in the Austin band the Bizzaros.
The coolest thing about DeRogatis' book is the gallery of bootleg
album covers in the back. Bootlegs are a crucial part of the Velvets'
story, a tribute to the fandom that kept the band's flame alive for decades.
These books are for them and, given that Velvets fans are all about
the intersection of extreme sound and extreme love, the hardest core
are going to want all three.