[15 October 2001]
You can’t discuss punk music and not talk about The Velvet Underground and their great legacy that continues to inspire musicians from all walks of life to this day. When the VU released their first album in 1967, the pop music world was awash in psychedelia, good times, and Sgt. Pepper. There wasn’t much room for Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker and their visionary and more realistic New York City street attitudes. Indeed, The Velvet Underground and Nico hardly stood a chance in the wake of all the LSD-inspired art and rock being issued left and right after Sgt. Pepper took hold. No one wanted to hear about “Heroin”, which is probably still the most dramatic drug song ever penned.
But as the ‘60s became but a memory, and the ‘70s rolled around with its singer/songwriters, the old attitudes of the Velvets began to strike a chord within a certain segment of the musical community. By the middle of the decade, there was a punk uprising. When Lou Reed issued his Metal Machine Music album, there were a few who were quick to praise it, and others would soon point to it as one of the first building blocks in the punk rock foundation. But then they looked a little farther back into the past and rediscovered the music of the VU. New York City exploded with all sorts of strange new groups, many of whom publicly admitted an influential debt to Reed and the Velvets. One of those people was Robert Quine, a long time fan, who would become a member of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. In the ‘80s, he would even play with his hero Lou Reed on the albums The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts.
In 1969, Quine was living in California. The Velvets showed up to play some shows and he was there to tape them on his cassette recorder. He captured the band jamming out like no one else at The Family Dog in San Francisco, at The Matrix, and even managed to snag a Washington University gig in St. Louis for posterity. Quine quickly became friends with the band, who would often ask him to play back some of the songs of the previous night’s performance. Long after the concerts were recorded, Quine found himself going back and listening to his tapes over and over, finally deciding it best to transfer the best moments of these shows onto reel-to-reel tape. The contents of those tapes have now been finally issued as The Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes. For hardcore VU fans, the releases in this series will undoubtedly be invaluable. To the fans who are only familiar with the group’s studio tracks, the collections will be equally educational. Starting with this review, I will be covering the original official releases of The Velvet Underground, as well as Lou Reed’s catalog. The importance of The Velvet Underground cannot be overstated.
But we should first take a brief look at what was previously available in the VU catalog regarding live albums. Prior to this three-disc set, the fans had to pretty much make do with the double album Live 1969 and the Live at Max’s Kansas City LP that was released after the band had called it quits (at least in Reed’s eyes; the VU actually soldiered on with Doug Yule at the helm for the UK-only release Squeeze that was never counted as a “real” Velvets album). Both of these albums have their high points, but neither of them seemed to paint a complete picture of what the VU could do when they were unleashed. For years, I had read about how powerful the Velvets actually were in concert, but it just wasn’t audible on the releases that many fans had to make do with. Oh, they’re great albums, but after hearing The Quine Tapes, there was a whole lot missing that the record labels weren’t letting us in on.
Of course, we’re talking about The Velvet Underground Mark II here, with bassist Doug Yule having taken original member John Cale’s place after Reed decided to let Cale “go” from the group after the White Light/White Heat album in 1968. Some would argue that the band lost its innovative spark after Cale’s departure, but one listen to these live shows and that theory quickly dissolves. The Velvet Underground was Lou Reed’s band from the start. Reed was no less a visionary than Cale. His masterful rhythm guitar workouts were absolutely stunning, his technical use of feedback unlike anyone else’s.
Disc one of this set contains The Family Dog shows, recorded on November 7, 8 , and 9 of 1969. And as anyone knows from the previous live VU albums, Lou Reed was always friendly towards his audiences. He is extremely so on this set. “Good evening. We’re The Velvet Underground, glad you could make it”, intones Reed as the audience claps and then quiets down once again before Lou introduces the first number, “I’m Waiting for the Man”. And VU audiences were always polite in return. They let the Velvets explode with their songs for however long they might like, and then clap appropriately at the end. It’s been said that one can often count the number of people in the audience by the sound of the clapping after a tune at a VU show. This statement seems to have a bit of truth behind it, for while the Velvets were a bit of a draw, the larger crowds would inevitably not gather until later into the band’s touring schedule. No matter, as it makes the performances here that much more electrifying.
And so The Velvet Underground takes off on a slow burn of “I’m Waiting for the Man” that is nothing at all like the piano-pounding original version with John Cale. But it doesn’t have to be. Here, the band lets it simmer and roll along with ease as Reed recounts the familiar tale of going up to score drugs on “Lexington, 1-2-5”. It can be argued that the slower version is even more gritty; with its sensual design, the music is a melodious equivalent of going on the nod after scoring.
After that, the VU burns through some familiar and then-unreleased material such as “It’s Just Too Much” and “I Can’t Stand It”. Lou rocks “What Goes On” from the band’s third album like no one else, his tight rhythm guitar locking down with Maureen Tucker’s steady primal beats. For nearly nine minutes the band works like a well-oiled machine, sending the audience into a hypnotic trance as Doug Yule’s organ swells and swoops, Sterling Morrison’s magical guitar notes punctuating each chord of Reed’s. They continue to rock the onlookers with a tight “Foggy Notion” before dropping back to the first album for a beautiful take on “Femme Fatale”. Here, Reed reveals that he wrote the song about Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgwick, who would go on to die of an overdose. Whether or not this is actually the case is uncertain, as there have been conflicting reports about just when the song was written and who it was really about, but it’s still interesting to hear Lou talk to the audience about his songs in such an up-front and personal manner.
Maureen Tucker takes the lead vocals for her well-loved “After Hours” (again, from the third LP), and “I’m Sticking with You”, which would finally see the light of day in a studio version on the VU album released in 1984. The crowd cheers ecstatically for Moe, as she was always was aware of her vocal limitations and had to be coaxed by Reed even to sing the songs on the studio albums in the first place. So after Lou returns to the mic for a nice rendition of “Sunday Morning”, the band finally shows what it’s really all about on the stunning 24-minute version of “Sister Ray”.
The original version on the White Light/White Heat album was always stunning, but here, the Velvets give it everything they’ve got, letting it rock along as it likes, and not going into overdrive too quickly. At the beginning, Lou explains to the audience what the song is all about and who the characters are. Then he takes the fans on that long journey through the sordid tale of Sister Ray. When he gets to the part that goes “Oh you shouldn’t do that”, he punctuates the line with a powerful explosion of feedback from his guitar. And the crowd goes absolutely fucking nuts for it. Lou asks, “You wanna hear that again?” The crowd responds with an enthusiastic cheer. So he gives it to them again. “Oh, you know you shouldn’t do that”, then BLAMMO, “Don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?” It’s simply revelatory to hear the band rock out so hard for the audience and the audience in turn giving it all back to the group.
And that’s just all on the first disc (I even left some things out, like the great version of “Some Kinda Love”)!
Disc two features nearly 79 minutes of music taken from the band’s appearance at The Matrix on the 23rd and 27th of November, and the 1st and 3rd of December, 1969. Here, we’re treated to a 17-minute jam of “Follow the Leader” that Lou would later bastardize and effectively kill on his tepid Rock and Roll Heart LP from 1976. The band then gives the fans 10 minutes of “White Light/White Heat” in a version which Lou would later carry on into the early parts of his solo live shows with crack band The Tots. “Ooohoooh . . . white light / Oh, she sure is funky! / Ooohhhooohhh white light / Watch that speed freak, watch that speed freak….” It’s interesting to think of just what the California audiences thought of Reed’s drug tunes. According to the liner notes written by Robert Quine that accompany the box set, a few hippies would occasionally show up with their tambourines and harmonicas to “do their thing” with the band. How odd it must have been for some of them when the VU blasted forth with their very New York rock.
The group then runs through a great version of “Venus in Furs” and a jaw-dropping jam of “Heroin” (it’s much better than the one on Live 1969, which is saying quite a lot) before settling into an ungodly 38-minute “Sister Ray”. But again, it’s fucking electrifying, with this version setting up the drama and raising the stakes even higher, the band pushing itself along further for the audience. “This one’s gonna go on for a while”, notes Reed wryly during the song’s intro. But the audience eats it up, more than willing to stand by and listen to the Velvets rock like no one else in the world.
The third disc continues The Matrix dates with shows from the 23rd, 24th, 25th, and 27th of November, 1969. Lou kicks things off with an early version of Loaded‘s “Rock and Roll”, which he simply describes as a “song about someone being saved by rock and roll”. It would later become news that “little Jenny”, the song’s main character, was indeed Reed himself. “It took those computations to dance to a rock and roll station / And it was all right / Here she comes now!” cries Lou before Sterling throws down the solo with Reed vamping all over it with his wild rhythm guitar.
Then comes yet another early take of a Loaded tune, “New Age”, complete with the original lines about “Frank and Nancy”. I was never a big fan of this song, and it still doesn’t do anything for me here. Neither does the take of “Over You”, which is infinitely better on the Live 1969 album. However, the version of “Black Angel’s Death Song” here is indeed a treat to hear, as I wasn’t aware that the band still played the tune post-Cale. It’s not as riveting as the original (how could it be?), but it is interesting to hear it in a more straightforward rock version. After that number, the band slides into another round of “I’m Waiting for the Man”, as well as “Ride into the Sun”.
The disc ends, just like the other two, with an elongated, hypnotizing rendition of “Sister Ray”. However, this time it is joined with “Foggy Notion”, and the damn thing just takes off and cooks once again. Just when you thought you had heard it all after the 38-minute take, the Velvets come back and strip your senses clean with this one from the Washington University date on the 11th of May, 1969. What more can be said? Just sit and listen and learn and be prepared to be hit with this music that still remains exciting and fresh decades after the fact.
I had read about the Bootleg Series months ago on the Velvet Underground’s web site. I was excited to know that I was finally going to be able to hear all this amazing music that I had only previously read about. And now here it is, for all the fans and the rest of the world to experience. This set is simply breathtaking. The long wait was worth it, and to think this is just the beginning of this series. Needless to say, I look forward to the rest of whatever releases may come from this with much excitement. Longtime fans cannot do without The Quine Tapes. It is just another chapter in the history of The Velvet Underground that continues to unfold so many years later. A history that cannot be denied.