[7 June 2012]
There are some rock artists whose meager “official” output is dwarfed by the scope of their subsequent influence: Jimi Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, Big Star, Nirvana.
Inarguably The Velvet Underground is at the top of this influential list. Despite having released only four official albums, at the time none of them commercial and most barely critical successes, the band—Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and, after Cale’s departure, Doug Yule—has not only gone on to inspire generations of musicians, from David Bowie to The Strokes, but has even been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Not bad for a band of whom Cher notoriously said, “It will replace nothing, except maybe suicide.”
Yet in some ways The Velvet Underground is more famous, if famous is the right word, for their impact on others than for their own music. I know people who love the Strokes but have never heard the one Velvet Undergroun song from which the Strokes seemed to have stolen their entire sound, from the beat, to the vibe, to the transistor-processed vocal—“Coney Island Steeplechase”. I’m not blaming the Strokes; if you’re going to steal, steal from the coolest. The point is that it seems more people have heard the progeny than the parents.
Rob Jovanovic’s recent biography of the band, Seeing The Light: Inside The Velvet Underground probably won’t rectify the situation. Only the music itself can do that. Though certainly The Velvet Underground hasn’t gotten anything like the libraries of material devoted to the Beatles or Bob Dylan, the band’s rags-to-rags-to-legends story has been told often enough (see Victor Bokris) that one wonders if there is a need for yet another biography, especially one so standard.
As a biographer, Jovanovic stays out of the way a bit too much. We get all the essential material—band members introduced chapter by chapter, the Reed/Cale conflict, Andy Warhol’s ineffaceable 15-minute entrance/exit, the reunion—but the book would’ve benefited from shrewder critical assessments, more incisive readings of songs or albums or even behavior. Despite beginning with Lou Reed’s notorious electro-shock therapy for alleged homosexual yearnings, Jovanovic forges ahead with the, um, straightest of rock bios.
He does get in some so-so quips along the way: “Warhol used his base as a looking glass on the world, like a spider sitting at the centre of a tin-foil web.” And some just so, as when he says of the song “White Light/White Heat”, its “garage thrash…almost needs the listener to take speed to be able to keep up.” Hmm.
An especially frustrating aspect of the book are frequent, confusing syntactical stumbles, and what I assume to be proofreading or printing oversights or gaffes: “The late addition of ‘Sunday Morning’ as the opening track…did work as a softly softly [sic] introduction to the world of The Velvet Underground.” Or: “Surprisingly, the main sticking point surprisingly [sic] turned out to be the attendance (or not) of Moe Tucker.”
Perhaps more exasperating is when Jovanovic gets things just plain wrong, as when claiming that the “purpose” of Reed’s popular live album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal “was to highlight the superb guitar player that Reed had evolved into.” Actually Reed played no guitar on the album, those duties handled, famously I’m pretty sure, by Detroit guitarists (and Alice Cooper sidemen) Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter.
As I was familiar with their often troubled public reception, it is heartening to recall that, as Jovanovic makes clear, the band did have plenty of fans in their own day, and that far from being just a New York-based art-act, they were a hard-working, traveling rock band that paid their dues as much as the Beatles, without every getting the nationwide let alone world-wide pay-off themselves (until later, of course). In fact, according to Jovanovic, Beatles manager Brian Epstein was close to signing the band. “He was said to have taken a promo copy [of the first album] with him when he took a vacation with John Lennon, and that he played it constantly…‘We had a lot of talks with him, said Sterling Morrison, ‘riding in his car around Manhattan…he wanted to sign us and have us be his only American group […] on the eve of the final signing [of an offer for a European tour], Epstein died.’”
The Velvet Underground’s career was essentially a series of these sorts of frustrations: missed and mis- management, record company delays of albums, and, inevitably, the ego-tensions that boil up in every band, especially one with two or more great artists.
Jovanovic’s main contribution to The Velvet Underground story may be the attention he devotes to the post-Velvet Underground lives and careers of individual band members, particularly Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule. Apparently, Reed and Cale refused to cooperate, so the remaining three get most of the (rather large) print. Mostly this is a good thing, as these “background” players are usually funnier and more clear-headed about events than the more legacy-conscious figures of Reed and Cale.
Of course, Cale and Reed do provide insights into the musical sensibilities driving the band. One signal influence for Reed was the poet Delmore Schwartz, author of the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”: “‘It was really amazing to me to think that you could do that with the simplest words available in such a short span of pages and create something so incredibly powerful. I wanted to write that way, simple words to cause an emotion, and put them with my three chords.’”
As for Cale: “…I thought we had discovered a really original, nasty style […] The idea was that we could create this orchestral chaos on stage and Lou could improvise. We would record performances, we would never make records. Every concert would be different.” Indeed, the band’s live performances legendarily surpassed their studio recordings, as is evident from the several live releases, bootlegged and otherwise, in existence.
More than any other Velvet Underground biographer, Jovanovic deals Doug Yule his due. Recruited after Cale’s departure, Yule added a more traditional musicality that complimented Reed’s melodic sense while offsetting his inherent oddballism. After the true band’s demise, Yule was slimeballed by a “manager” named Steve Sesnick—a figure whose character can be determined by the S’s in his name—to release another “Velvet Underground” album, Squeeze, with obvious but sub-par Reed-inflected compositions and a faux-Loaded cover. Yule is perhaps the most wrongly disparaged figure in rock, after Yoko Ono, so it’s nice that Jovanovic does him justice.
But it’s Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison who shine most in this telling. As the one sober person in a frenzied drug-flux, Tucker remains surprisingly good-natured and forgiving, a successful mother and part-time musician. And Sterling Morrison, the only non-living member, delivers the book’s funniest and wisest wisecracks:
“[My parents] always considered [guitar] a colossal waste of time…leading me to juvenile delinquency. But I was already there…”
“…in the early 1960s, on college campuses, you went one of two ways. Either you were a very sensitive young person, who cared about air pollution and civil rights and anti-Vietnam, or you were a very insensitive young person, who didn’t care about civil rights because all the blacks he knew were playing in his band or in his audience. I was a very insensitive young person…”
Acerbic, sarcastic, but always lucid, this Morrison is for my money far more interesting than that other ‘60s-era Morrison…what was his name? The guy that stole Velvet Underground dancer Gerard Malanga’s leather-pants-and-sex-routine?
As for Seeing The Light: Inside The Velvet Underground, I’ll let Sterling make the final pronouncement: “That’s our policy. Always leave them wanting less.”