Saturday, September 10, 2011

Still mo' VU

Even though I'm a 20th century guy at heart, it has been my good fortune to be alive in a time when digital downloads and the resurgence of vinyl have finally made it possible for me to easily access my most-coveted Velvet Underground bootlegs. The VU canon is one I only revisit once a decade or so, but since I last lost the thread (following the release of The Quine Tapes a decade ago), a lot of stuff I was interested to hear but not geeked enough on record collecting to seek out has become more generally available, due to the aforementioned dual phenomena.

In my excavations, I've been more interested in finding stuff that never made it onto the four "real" albums than in hearing every single version extant of those songs, and to do that, you've gotta go to the boots, because until The Quine Tapes, the legit live recordings on offer were all pretty flawed.

The Brigid Polk cassette-recorded Live at Max's Kansas City, while an interesting audio verite document of the Max's demimonde, suffered from ultra-low fidelity and documented an enervated band on its last legs (Uncle Lou's very last night with the band, as it turned out). 1969 Live, which for many years was the gold standard of live VU, doesn't capture any of their vaunted onstage extemporization, with the slight exception of a pretty hot drone 'n' chug versh of "What Goes On." The Quine Tapes, and in particular, its three versions of "Sister Ray," finally let you hear the full force of the Velvets in flight, but for my money, none of 'em are a patch on the "Sister Ray" from the 3.15.1969 Boston Tea Party "guitar amp tape."

If It's Too Loud For You, Move Back! documents a November '66 Exploding Plastic Inevitable show in Columbus, Ohio, and is particularly noteworthy for the first and last songs performed, "Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song." Different excerpts from the former appeared on the What Goes On and Peel Slowly and See box sets, but the full 30-minute sprawl is a wonder to behear, starting with random feedback blasts until Mo's tribal thump enters, then moving through episodes led by Cale's sawing viola and gamelan-sounding piano, soaring wordless Nico vocalismo, an episode of "ostrich" guitar giving way to plagal cadence chords that predict the jam in the middle of the recorded "There She Goes Again," culminating in a Reed-Cale "yeah-yeah" vocal episode.

"The Nothing Song," in spite of its title, is even more impressive in its sustained ritual splendor. A Columbus record store owner and early Velvet aficionado, Bernd Baierschmidt, released those two tracks on a vinyl boot in '81 and probably would have released the rest of the set had he not been killed in a motorcycle accident shortly afterwards, leaving that task to others. There are times when HIO is hittin' on all cylinders (as we were in the Kessler green room for Liles' video camera in March 2010) that I fancy we sound like these guys, although our methods are quite different. Terry and Hickey would probably disagree.

In 2010, the VU's oft-booted set from the 8.2.1969 Hilltop Pop Festival in New Hampshire got reished on sweet, sweet vinyl. While its packaging includes some laughable elements (cover art credited to "The Warhol Organization 1969," label listing "The Velvet Underground & Nico"), it's a concise summation of the '69 VU's strengths, perfect for resource-constrained vinyl junkies that can't swing with the C-note Rhino wants for its six-LP Quine Tapes box set.

Besides the ten-minute-plus versions of "Run, Run, Run" (with plenty of fuzzed-out guitar from Lou) and "What Goes On" (with Doug Yule earning his pay on organ), there are good takes on "Waiting for the Man" (closer to the wired studio 'riginal than the leisurely Max's and 1969 recordings), "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Heroin" that show the band's stylistic reach. The VU headlined the Hilltop Festival over pre-Moodance Van Morrison, Jaime Brockett (of "The Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic" fame), and a bunch of local New England acts. Their only recorded outdoor performance sounds like it took place in front of a crowd of about six people -- lucky folks that they were.

Perhaps best of all is A Workout at the Gymnasium (subsequently reished this year as Psychedelic Sounds from the Gymnasium), which surfaced in 2008 on "Velvet Records" (nice play on the Verve Records label design) in such good fidelity that some fans speculated that it was actually the work of a modern day VU tribute band. But it only takes one listen to squash such speculation; there's only one person on Earth who sings 'n' plays the way that Uncle Lou did in 1967, when he was still actually singing, rather than talking, and staking out his turf in the distortion-and-feedback guitar stakes.

Gymnasium might just be the best-sounding live VU extant, and part of the reason's in the pic on the cover: the Vox Super Beatle. In Bockris and Malanga's essential Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story, Boston Uberfan and future Modern Lover Jonathan Richman (whose own band's best song recycled "Sister Ray") recalls, "Lou used to use the built-in mid-range boost peculiar to Vox amplifiers a lot. Their sound changed when the group switched to Acoustic brand amps in '69 and then again when they switched to Sunn brand in '70. The Voxes had a darker sound with more mid-range tone. Much more. And it was easier to get feedback out of 'em." And it doesn't hurt that Lou's vocals here are much more present and up-front than on other live VU recordings.

The otherwise-unavailable "I'm Not a Young Man Anymore" works off a repetitive riff reminiscent of the one that powered Them's "Little Girl" (speaking of Van the Man). "Guess I'm Falling In Love" (same version that was on the Peel Slowly box) rocks out in more of a chugging Chuck Berry manner than one might expect from the VU. "Waiting for the Man" and "Run, Run, Run" are even more intense than the Hilltop versions; this is, after all, the lineup that recorded White Light, White Heat, and you can actually appreciate their power more from these (soundboard?) recordings than you can from that album's "all-needles-on-red" registration (which squashed the music's dynamic range).

Proof of that pudding is the 18-minute "Sister Ray" that takes up all of side two -- allegedly the first time the song was played live. You can hear Lou still working out his phrasing, and including some lyrics that wouldn't get recorded until "The Murder Mystery." Cale's on bass here, rather than organ, and there are welters of sparring guitars and feedback over Mo's relentless pulse. Like Mingus' "Meditations," I could listen to innumerable iterations of this song, so infinite was the VU's improvisational variety. Stumbling on stuff like this makes it fun to be a fan again.


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