Friday, July 13, 2012

About the Velvet Underground

It doesn't matter whether we define Rock and Roll as attitude or art; the Velvet Underground were unqualified Masters. But fame and fortune do not always accompany mastery. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker comprised the most under-appreciated band in the genre's history. Their legacy is one of influence instead of album sales. To the few that know and appreciate their music, they are Giants, artists' artists. Peter Buck said it best: "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band."

They were the original purveyors of aggressive East Coast chic rocker cool. Ever seen a stoic cooler-than-thou garage band rocker in all black with wraparound shades and boots (pants tucked in, of course)? The Underground did it first. Ever heard a punk band ride a 2 or 3 chord drone to glory and wonder who invented the mode? I've got your answer. Ever heard (great underrated American Ballad) "Sweet Jane?" That's a Velvet Underground song. Ever seen this Warhol piece?

It's the cover of a Velvet Underground record. That takes us to the beginning, in mid 1960's New York. Dylan wrecked his motorcycle in '66 and moved to Woodstock to recuperate. He had become such a global commodity by that point I doubt the locals still viewed him as their own. There was thus something of a hole in the mid-60's New York music scene. Simultaneously, Andy Warhol's star was exploding. After his first major display in the City in 1962, Warhol moved on to set up the cultural and artistic supernova known as the Factory. Every legendary scene needs a house band and 1965 was a big year for legendary scenes. It was then that Warhol became the Underground's manager and wove them into the fabric of his ongoing artistic project at the Factory. Simultaneously, on the Left Coast, Ken Kesey served as cosmic midwife to the Grateful Dead at the Acid Tests. (Coincidentally, both bands originally performed under the name "Warlocks" before switching monikers). Realizing that he was on to something, Warhol brought supermodel Nico into the flock, made them the centerpiece of his deep space "multimedia" extravaganza, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and took them out on the road in 1966.

It was during the Expolding Plastic era that the band recorded their first, most famous, and most influential album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Legend has it that the album was recorded in a mind-boggling four days at a rundown studio in New York at a total cost of $1,500 to $3,000. It's influence has reverberated ever since. Owing to the metropolis where the band cut its teeth, it paints a stark urban landscape of drugs, S&M and prostitution. This was not your everyday mid-60's Rock subject matter. The album is musically and lyrically brilliant; frank and hard-hitting. Here, you see artists doing exactly as they intended. No words are minced. To borrow a favorite line from my scholarly uncle, Tom McIntyre, Nico demands to be listened to. This is an album for driving down a dark highway, alone and in a serious frame of mind. I am a late comer to Nico. I bought it for the first time recently on a long drive and listened to it twice without stopping. I would have listened a third time, but I ran out of road. It's that good, but you have to be patient. This album appeared at number 13 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list and is essential material for any serious music fan's catalog.     

Though their vitality never faded, the Underground's post Nico era became a typical Rock story of artistic differences, in-fighting, course shifts, and evolution. After firing Warhol and seeing Nico quit, the band released White Light/White Heat in January of 1968. Those who were shocked by Nico were surely appalled by White Light. None of the sporadic elegance of Nico is present here. With the volume increased beyond clarity, the music is sharply angular and piercing; the themes more abstract ("Lady Godiva's Operation") and disturbing ("The Gift"). The signature piece here is the bleak chaos of "Sister Ray," which takes the listener through 17 plus minutes of fuzzy droning gutter poetry that plays like "A Day in the Life" for junkies. It's a must-listen for serious fans only and is guaranteed not to leave you in high spirits.

A single step into the abyss beyond White Light would have robbed the band of its legacy and relegated its following to a small population of noise freaks. Instead, the Velvets did what Legends do when a wall approaches. They shifted gears. A listener bothered by White Light will find herself smiling comfortably at the summer afternoon yard music of 1969's The Velvet Underground. Per Wikipedia, the shift we hear here from abstraction to sing-along was driven by the resolution of the artistic rift between Reed's pop instincts and Cale's art deco compulsions. Reed prevailed, and Cale left the band in 1968. The result was a palette of earnest and accessible near-pop. Highlights are the growing-up revelations of "Beginning to See the Light," the jubilant rolls of "What Goes On," and the late-night lonely lover's mediation, "Pale Blue Eyes."

After a year spent largely on the road in 1969 (see The Velvet Underground Live), the band returned to the studio in 1970 under a new label (Atlantic). By that point, Country had begun its percolation through Rock, fueled by the late 60's Ry Cooder/Graham Parsons influenced 'Stones material (see "Country Honk" and "Dead Flowers"). Not even New York based art rockers like the Velvets were immune. They made a slight course alteration, embraced just enough Country, and reeled off their most accessible record, 1970's Loaded. If you don't have Loaded and you buy it, you'll wonder what took you so long. It's pure classic, like someone took the Flying Burrito Brothers and turned them into country-rock superheroes. The Americana of "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" (anybody else at 3/1/03 Phish in Greensboro?) plays like On the Road for post-hippies. Lock into the bass line on "Cool it Down" and try not to bob your head. "Head Held High" is the perfect soundtrack for a movie bar fight scene. The whole thing ends with the spiraling mellow elegance of the greatest song you've never heard, "Oh, Sweet Nuthin'." It's "Can't You See" for Hipsters!

As we've discussed before, the truest legends know exactly when to quit; it's a component of their greatness. Thus, Loaded was the Velvets' parting shot. (We do not count here 1972's counterfeit hijacking of the VU badge, Squeeze.) They never found commercial success as a band. But as between mountains of money and a giant Legacy, which would you prefer?


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