The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side
US: Sep 2009
Remember that scene in Almost Famous where the young journalist William Miller has lunch with the cynical and jaded rock critic Lester Bangs, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman? My lunch with legendarily outspoken author and resident Chicago Sun-Times’ pop music critic Jim DeRogatis feels something like that. OK, so I’m not a bright eyed teenager and DeRogatis (or “DeRo”) is much more optimistic and less surly than Bangs. But look at the similarities: DeRogatis grew up idolizing Bangs, and although DeRo and I find ourselves at the tail end of the 2000s instead of the mid-‘70s, both time periods are (and were) defining moments. As technology and the blogosphere are changing the way music and journalism is delivered, the Almost Famous duo were staring at the advent of arena rock and a golden age of journalism that was coming to an end. As print media writhes in its death throes, it’s a scary time to be a journalist, and even a crafty vet like DeRo doesn’t know the answers.
DeRo suggested we meet at Wishbone, a Southern, soul food institution on Chicago’s North Side. With its noisy clatter and down home cooking, he considers this his second office. DeRo’s a big guy, wider than tall, and his appetites seem less than healthy (he orders a double burger and seems constantly on the verge of a cigarette break). He is the author of numerous books, including Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips. Along with Chicago Tribune rock critic and hetero life-mate Greg Kot, DeRo hosts the venerable radio show Sound Opinions, billed as “the world’s only rock and roll talk show”, causing me to wonder if DeRo might be reluctant to engage, a bit “talked out” as it were on the subject of music and journalism.
As the man who has made notorious enemies of Ryan Adams for a negative live review and who was fired from Rolling Stone magazine for refusing to change a scathing review of Hootie & the Blowfish, I figure DeRo might possess some of the arrogance and venom of his idol, Lester Bangs. However, the man is charming and affable, and an hour and a half later, I realize that I’m going to have one hell of an interview to transcribe. Initially, our sit-down was to talk about DeRo’s involvement in the recent release of an illustrated history on one of his favorite bands, The Velvet Underground. My meal has been forgotten, and I feel like I’ve been talking with a friend about music, obsessions and writing. In the end, the fateful similarity of our Almost Famous lunch remains timeless: there will always be fanatical fans with fanatical opinions to inflict on people, but only the truly driven and talented will rise to the top. Call me a romantic, but I like to think that honest expression and passion will lead the music and journalism industries on to the next plane of their existence, and like DeRo says, if you don’t think that the next great band is jamming right now in some garage in the suburbs, then it’s time you got out.
Tell me about The Velvet Underground: A Walk on the Wild Side. How did the project come to you?
The idea originated with Voyager, a publisher in Minneapolis. They’ve been doing a series of coffee table art books on classic rock bands. They did something on Zeppelin and I had written an essay for that book on Houses of the Holy, and Greg had done something on the first album. Their idea was that they were doing these really cool art books, and one critic would write a central essay of the main historical relevance of the band, and then critics would also write about one album. So after the Zeppelin book they called up and said, “We have access to a lot of Velvet art that either hasn’t been seen or has been seen very seldom, so we’re going to put it all in a really nice art book, do you want to write the 10,000 word connective tissue essay?” I said sure, it’s like if someone calls you up and says “I’ve got a truckload of these Christmas presents ... do you want them?”
So the book exists for the art, and I think the designer and the editor really should have their name on the cover instead of me. So they asked me for the essay and if I could recruit some writers who might be interested. Glenn Kenney was primarily a film critic, I knew him from my early days as a fanzine writer in New Jersey, and I thought it’d be interesting to have that film aspect from somebody, and Bill Bentley’s interview with Sterling Morrison that had hardly been seen by anyone, so it was fun to do that. What I wanted to do was what you would basically get in a CD box set, which is a nice history of the band but without the hagiography of The Velvets as Gods on a mountaintop.
Was it daunting coming up with a fresh angle to approach to the Velvet history?
I think there was a lot of that, especially when I read the liner notes that David Fricke did for the Velvets singles box set. In a lot of books written on the Velvets history, you have people presenting themselves in their own best light. What I wanted to do was synthesize everything I’ve written about the Velvets and try and put a context to the pictures. I don’t know if someone said, “I’ll give you a hundred thousand dollars if you do a Velvets biography” that I’d do it. I don’t know if I’d want to do that because (A) Sterling Morrison and Nico are dead and (B) Lou Reed is very, very difficult to interview and is not really interested in telling the truth about Lou Reed. John Cale wrote a fine autobiography which is a great book to start with when you’re dealing with the Velvets. So, I don’t know if a really definitive bio on the Velvets can be written at this point, and certainly what you’d have to do to get any of the players to cooperate would be pretty difficult.
I’ve interviewed Lou a number of times and he’s a very difficult interview. If things had been slightly different he would have been a Borscht belt comedian in the Catskills, so part of it is he’s built up this reputation as being a sonofabitch, and so he sits there blowing foul smelling Cuban cigar smoke in your face, and has no compulsion against saying “That’s the single stupidest question I’ve ever been asked ... next.” So, life is short, you know? I also think there’s a lot that Lou just isn’t interested in illuminating in his own life. For example, his pioneering role in breaking down gender boundaries. Lou lived for several years, was clearly in love with and wrote some parts of two or three albums about a man who had become a woman. Yet, that’s completely erased from his history. Lou Reed isn’t interested in telling truths about Lou Reed.
What would be your dream book project?
I really don’t know. You have to spend so much time living with the subject of a biography just in terms of mental space, that I don’t know if there’s anyone else that I’d really be interested in writing a biography of at this point.
Something on Wire or the Feelies?
Yeah, I don’t know if there’s overwhelming demand in the world for either of those books. I’ve certainly written enough about both of those bands. I’ve been toying with the idea for a long time about writing a more personal book essentially about why people make music, dealing with all the garage bands I’ve played in since I was 13, none of which were important or went anywhere but that wasn’t the point. It’s basically why you can play a 25-minute set at CBGB’s on a Tuesday night in February to six people, including the soundman, and that’s the best half hour of your life. Why people play in garage bands… that’s what I want to explore.
Has playing live always been a passion for you?
When I was 17 and interviewed Lester Bangs as a kid in high school he said “I’m a fanatical fan with fanatical opinions to inflict on people” and you know, I’ve always felt the same way. I’ve played records on the radio and collected them obsessively and written about them and played in bands. To me, it was part of the same impulse of loving this music. People say critics are frustrated musicians. I’ve never been a frustrated musician. I’ve always made music under the terms I want and I know what the indie rock drill is. It’s being away for four months and sleeping on the floor every night, which is not something that I want to do. It’s fun in small doses, but I don’t have any delusions of grandeur.
How do you feel about the brave new world of technology? Are you going to miss the smell of newsprint or holding an actual magazine when those mediums die off?
It seems irrelevant to me how my journalism and criticism is delivered. I have as little to do with the means of distribution as I do with the paperboy who drops the dead tree media of the Chicago Sun Times on my porch. If you want to listen to me on a podcast or listen to me on terrestrial radio or read me in the blog or on paper, if you want to stick a USB port into something and the other goes into your head and you want to download whatever I was trying to communicate, the heart of it still to me is delivering good journalism and criticism, and the fundamentals of that have not changed.
There’s a proliferation of opinion on the web, but the quality of criticism you get from something like PopMatters is something different from scanning Rotten Tomatoes. There will be a hundred people posting their thoughts about Shutter Island and maybe one or two of them are worth reading. Even with the Sound Opinions radio show, if we weren’t writing and covering this beat as journalists and critics, I don’t think we’d be nearly as good talking about it. Obviously when we say “The world’s only rock and roll talk show,” it’s in the same spirit of Creem being the world’s only rock and roll magazine or the Rolling Stones being the world’s only rock and roll band. There are others, but I don’t think anybody else is doing it as well. Why are we any good, if we are? It’s because we’re writers first and foremost.
It’s also the dynamic between you and Greg Kot.
There was a reason it wasn’t “Siskel & Jones” or “Ebert & Smith”. If there were two people as hyperbolic or revved up as me, or two people as laid back as Kot, it probably wouldn’t be as interesting. Or it would be too much.