Sunday, August 21, 2011

Thinking about the VU

In the middle of three days off from work, spent this morning listening to the Velvets and Richard Thompson and reading Clinton Heylin's All Yesterday's Parties: The Velvet Underground In Print 1966-1971. Heylin, of course, authored one of the most essential tomes on the punk development (From the Velvets to the Voidoids) and one of the most unnecessary (Babylon's Burning, in which he attempted to connect all dots from the Velvets to Nirvana and only managed to prove that 600 pages of scene gossip can be a real tough slog).

This 2005 anthology, while not as essential as Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga's Uptight (still pretty much the final word, although the Johan Kugelberg-curated coffee table book The Velvet Underground: New York Art does a nice job and is unparalleled visually), is a lot more of a fun read than, say, Albin Zak's Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades of Commentary, which I never bothered replacing after one of my cats brought up a hairball on my copy a few years back (everyone's a critic).

In All Yesterday's Parties, there's a dramatic difference in the pieces written between '66 and '68 and the ones from '69 and '70. Most of the earlier pieces take the form of pro journo descriptions of a Warhol freak show. The worm starts to turn with future BOC manager/Clash producer Sandy Pearlman and proto-fanzine-snotnose Wayne McGuire's '68 scrawl from Crawdaddy, the daddy of all rock zines. By '69, rockcrit as a genre was off and running, and the commentary (from the likes of Crawdaddy founder Paul Williams, St. Lester, and Lenny Kaye) is more informed -- and more reverential. It's interesting how many of the Loaded reviews take a retrospective tone. Already back then, folks were trying to capture that lightning bolt in a bottle and historicize it.

I remember when my middle daughter, who lived with me when she was in high school, started to co-opt my music, I was surprised at some of the choices she made: Bobby Bland's Two Steps from the Blues, Coltrane, the Kinks, and the third Velvets album. It's really not so surprising in the last two cases -- you can hear echoes of Ray and Uncle Lou in the melancholy music that she in turn pulled my coat to, like Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes, and M. Ward.

It also surprised me today to realize how similarly the Velvets and Thompson's melancholy registered with me. And when I speak of the Velvets, it's the latter-day lineup with Doug Yule replacing John Cale of which I speak. Sure, I recognize the historical importance of the Cale-era VU, but when I wanna hear the Velvets, it's the self-titled third album or Loaded I reach for. (My favorite Cale albums are Vintage Violence and Paris 1919. That's right: I'm a closet wimp.) Maybe it's a function of when I came in: I first heard of Loaded when it was still a new release (although the band that produced it had already sundered).

Although in his maturity, Uncle Lou still makes noise with John Zorn and reprises Metal Machine Music with a Euro ensemble, it's as a songwriter that he'll be remembered. The Velvet Underground is the first time his public was confronted with his songwriting as _the thing itself_, stripped of Warhol's cachet and the novelty of mixed-media shows and sound experiments (mainly playing very loudly and cacophonously). Much has been made by Heylin and others of "Sister Ray's" impact on the Stooges, and while Ron Asheton was certainly aware of the Velvets (for chrissakes, Nico even stayed with Iggy at the band's house in Ann Arbor for a spell), he was more of a Hendrix man. Lou claimed to prefer Roger McGuinn, but that didn't stop him from kicking on the fuzz and going after Ayler and Ornette; a more audacious guitarist would be hard to imagine.

I once wrote a "jam review" of the Velvets' Quine Tapes archival release with my friend Phil Overeem. A couple of years later, Phil and his wife came to see me busking on the street in his Missouri town with Nathan Brown and yelled for VU songs, even though we were playing Nathan's Prince and Stevie Wonder imitations and "Sister Ray" just wouldn't have fit in with what we were doing. (Phil bought us a pizza anyway, bless him.)

When Stoogeaphilia was first contemplating the addition of non-Stooge material to our repertoire, I figured we might do a couple of VU tunes, but it wasn't to be; Hembree's college roommate had put him off the Velvets for life, not just by listening to them to the exclusion of all else, but in insisting that Matt listen to his endless explanations of their Importance. Consequently, I don't really think of any VU songs as _playing forms_, aside from a couple ("Candy Says," "I'll Be Your Mirror") that I used to sing to my kids when they were little.

I had to divest myself of The Quine Tapes, with its three long versions of "Sister Ray," a few years back when I was scuffling for cash, but I recently downloaded a bootleg with four different versions (two from '69, one each from '68 and '70). I'm glad I have it, for the cathartic fury of the first '69 version's band jams, which recall the pilled-up Bo Diddley-derived trance music of Five Live Yardbirds; the dynamic ebb-and-flow of the '68 and '70 versions; and the surprisingly sedate, almost Grateful Dead-like approach of the organ-heavy second '69 version, before it revs up into hyperdrive.

The bootleg I _really_ wish I still had, though, is Sweet Sister Ray's Murder Mystery, which includes the 39-minute prelude to "Sister Ray" recorded at La Cave in Cleveland in '68. It's gentle and quiet and as little happens during its course as happens in, say, Les Rallizes Denudes' "Smokin' Cigarette Blues" (which is half as long), but the net effect is similar to Miles' '73 "He Loved Him Madly" from Get Up With It, the only recording of such sustained mood of which I'm aware. After a few months, the CD actually _corroded from the inside out_, like a '70s Chrysler with moisture underneath the paint job.

The one VU bootleg I still own in corporeal form is Praise Ye the Lord, a vinyl artifact adorned with pics of Mo Tucker on the front cover and both labels (a Christmas card I received from her the year I interviewed her for an article that was never published is one of my most treasured pieces of memorabilia). It's worthwhile for the opportunity to hear some of the Loaded songs the way they were evolving in performance before the band hit the studio for their terminal run of sessions, with Lou's amp tremelo establishing the tempo for a "Train 'Round the Bend"/"Oh Sweet Nuthin'" medley.

Speaking of Loaded, I've always found Sterling Morrison's description of those days (from Uptight, if my shaky memory serves) to be almost idyllic: reading Vanity Fair all day (for Sterl was working on his master's back then), shooting some baskets, riding his bike over to Max's Kansas City to play two sets with the Velvets, enjoying a cheeseburger and an ale before riding his bike home. By then, of course, manager Steve Sesnick was actively working to squeeze Lou out of the band and install pretty boy Doug Yule in his place; yeah, right, as if.

But Loaded was the album I connected with when I was 14, and it remains my fave from the Velvet canon to this day. By that time, Lou was trying to paint the VU as "a Long Island rock and roll band," and maybe that's part of what I was responding to -- teenage drummer Billy Yule (Doug's brother, in for Mo while she was having her first kid) sounded a lot like the cat from my middle school that I used to call "The Happy Drummer," who liked the fill from Stevie Wonder's "Uptight" so much that he played it on every song.

Atypically for me, as much of a vinyl junkie and as disdainful of CD-bonus-track maximalism as I generally am, it's the '97 Rhino Fully Loaded Edition that's my preferred version of Loaded. Perhaps it's a sequencing thing: You get to hear the whole album in its original form, only restoring a few bars that were stupidly edited from "Sweet Jane" and "New Age" the first time around, then a complete alternate version of the album that's different enough not to make you feel like you've been brainwashed if you listen to 'em back to back, with appended bonus tracks of songs that'd later appear on the first Lou solo album and Berlin.

Heylin's comprehensive listing of every recorded version of every song ever played by the VU -- perhaps his way of shaking his fist at the gods when the Velvets scuppered their own "legit bootleg" series by asking Polygram for more money -- makes All Yesterday's Parties an even more valuable resource for trainspotters like your humble chronicler o' events, who'll doubtless be amused to note that the author mistakenly writes that "Men of Good Fortune" appeared on Transformer, rather than Berlin. In the end, of course, it isn't the minutiae that matters; it's the Sturm und Drang, the pulse and drone, and the well-observed humanity in those songs that resonates across the years.


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