The Velvet Underground are always letting people down...
Putting aside the music, the history of the Velvet Underground is marked not by innovation or inspiration, but by frustration and disappointment. Whether it’s their disbanding all those years ago or their ill-fated decision to reunite more than 20 years later for the poorly received European tour that ultimately destroyed whatever was left of the already fragmented relationship between Reed and Cale, the Velvet Underground are always letting people down.
It began with what must have been intended as a grand artistic statement, but was instead another con, and one completely unworthy of the levels of deceit and trickery ordinarily associated with the Velvet Underground, a group whose glorious musical history is often obscured by the resultant fantasies generated by its players, both those on the inside and those on the periphery. This is nothing new, of course—the Beatles’ backstory is all full of heroes and holes, neither of which consistently hold up. Same with the scandalous and salacious legends of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Who, all of whom were around in one form or another when the Velvet Underground were pretending they were better than everyone else, selling the notion of intellectualism while screwing and snorting their way in and out of the Factory.
The stories have been told and retold, with something said yesterday often completely different than what was said today. Reed, in one of the night’s moments of pure egomaniacal genius, essentially claimed he doesn’t believe any quotes, even those attributed to him. Even those, for Pete’s sake, attributed to him in a book about the Velvet Underground that he’s endorsed.
Which, let’s face it, is the real reason why Reed showed up, why Tucker and Yule flew in from wherever they call home these days. They were hawking a book, a dense $50 retrospective with lots of cool artyfacts inside. It’s why Reed was on his best behavior, even when it felt at times he’d have rather been doing almost anything else.
Two screens on either side of the stage scrolled through photographs from the book as the music of the Velvet Underground played. As a pre-show hype con, it worked well. But then the lights went down, with a single spot fixed on a record player, one which confounded the poor fool whose sole job of the night, it seemed, was to start the thing. Clearly a child of the digital age, he stumbled and fumbled with the arm, dragging the needle hither and yon across the vinyl. Another industrious fellow stepped in and set the event in motion.
For more than seven minutes, we sat in the dark, “Heroin” ebbing and flowing as you’ve always known it has. There are few more powerful songs in the rock canon than “Heroin”, but if I’d wanted to force myself to contemplate it in a darkened room, I could have saved myself a subway ride and stayed in Brooklyn.
It was a con, a forced artistic endeavor that really had nothing to do with what the night was about. After all, the roughly 500 people filling the room already knew the Velvet Underground were brilliant. I know, because I’d stood on line with them, and I heard them foaming at the mouths at what they were about to witness. I was doing it, too.
Tickets for the event sold out in a matter of hours—not a few minutes, as the library’s program head wanted us to believe—and were seen on eBay going for hundreds of dollars. Bear in mind that this was never intended to be a concert, and was billed as exactly what it was, a discussion about the history of the Velvet Underground.
Fricke, a solid rock writer whose enthusiasm for the genre is easy to detect in his work, was a wreck. Though we were maybe 50 feet from the stage, we could see his hands trembling, pages of notes churning before him like an outboard motor in choppy waters. While he didn’t realize it at the time, Fricke’s obsession with the Velvet Underground’s pre-recorded history meant their later years went almost entirely unexplored. For Yule, that meant hardly participating in the event at all.
In fact, as Fricke’s spindly legs were cut out from under him by the library, I began to wonder if Yule had regretted coming at all. The guy was ostracized by the die-hards for carrying on the name of the Velvet Underground after Reed left, even though he was joined for much of that period by Morrison and Tucker. Yule’s discomfort with being called the Velvet Underground in those years was well documented later, but it still didn’t prevent Reed from wishing death upon him, and from excluding the poor guy from the profitable reunion circuit and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.
The crowd was encouraged to submit their own questions, three of which were selected from a large stack. The best of the bunch was asked by a friend of mine who wanted to know what the Velvet Underground thought of how the internet had changed the way people were able to hear their music, both the official releases and the proliferation of bootlegs. It was a good question, and it received a lengthy answer from Reed, who, curse it all, was kinda exactly what I didn’t expect.
Reed, at least based on what was happening on the stage, was happy to be there, smiling every now and again, cracking himself and the crowd up. It was unnerving.
They all looked the part—Tucker in a green sweater like the grandmother you wished you had instead of the two squares you actually got, Yule with neatly trimmed grey hair and a pleasant demeanor, and Reed, who though sporting a small potbelly, was otherwise in trim fighting shape. And though his ego was still there—studio engineers and label reps who didn’t “get” what the Velvet Underground were trying to do back then were deemed “stupid”—he also showed a great deal of warmth, in his recollection of co-conspirators like the late Andy Warhol and in the way he dealt with his fellow musicians. Reed heaped deserved praise upon the humble Tucker, and in a more private moment witnessed by my friend, made sure Yule knew his voice was ringing through the room when “Candy Says” was played. Reed was equally stoked about some of the rock ‘n’ roll music he’d grown up listening to, or having played on a single with King Curtis.
Yes, the evening was probably less about any of that than it was an excuse to sell a book. It was one I’d have eventually bought, though perhaps not until it arrived on bargain book shelves two or three years from now. But because the Velvet Underground were gonna stick around and sign the thing, I figured I might as well shell out full price for it. Which I did.
We were among the first ten people in line at the signing table, which put us right where the Velvet Underground were going to walk from the stage. They’re all tiny, which I guess isn’t a surprise. But because Reed’s personality is so robust and he’s so comparatively elfin, and because I’m well over six feet tall, it felt a little funny.
Yule signed my book first, and gave a very big and very genuine smile when I thanked him. The notoriously gregarious Tucker was next, and her smile and “You’re welcome” were as comfortable and warm as a blanket. Reed finally became Reed, looking up stone/prune-faced and totally silent when I thanked him before he turned back to continue a conversation with someone else. That’s the Reed I’d been hoping for all night long, and I finally got him, the glowering jerk, in one brief and private moment.
Was Yule’s penance for Squeeze an almost total lack of involvement in the evening? If given several hours to work, would Fricke have finally gotten around to that period? We’ll never know. But maybe it’s fitting that Squeeze is given the silent treatment. After all, so few fans of the Velvet Underground have even heard the thing.