Like the relationship between music and image, the legacy of the Velvet Underground tightly intertwined with visuals from the beginning. Soon after their debut in a high school auditorium, Factory regulars Paul Morrissey and Gerard Malanga saw the band play at a dive in Greenwich Village and recommended them to Andy Warhol. A fruitful collaboration followed between the VU and Warhol that included the creation of the multi-media Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows.
It is fitting then that a new book, written by veteran rock scribe Jim DeRogatis and a host of others, spotlights the connection between images and the celebrated proto-punk idols. The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side lovingly reproduces fascinating posters, handbills, artwork, and photographs from throughout the band’s history. But, like any textual description of music that falls short of actually hearing it, the words can’t keep up with the images in this uneven collection.
The collaborative nature of this book simultaneously works in favor of it and against it. By mixing rare photos from Factory photographers Nat Finkelstein, Stephen Shore, and Billy Name with ticket stubs and other assorted memorabilia, the book strikes a satisfying balance between different types of visuals. In particular, it’s striking to see the handbills and concert photos that provide sometimes jarring context for the VU concerts. A poster from a 1968 event advertises a lineup with the Butterfield Blues Band, Sly & the Family Stone and the Velvet Underground. To think of VU’s music happening in the same world (much less on the same stage) as the other bands on the bill underline just how different the band truly was at the time. The coffee table-size of the book lends itself to stuffing each page with great visuals such as these—a task the book accomplishes quite well.
Much less successful is the text that comes between all those rich pictures. DeRogatis handles the writing throughout the first half of the book and his enthusiasm for the topic definitely bleeds off the page. However, when DeRogatis includes several pages from Andy Warhol’s memoir beginning on page 80, the shift in style and voice is too abrupt. Although Warhol’s writing is fun and gossipy, that point in the book sets an unfortunate precedent that continues until the book’s conclusion.
After Warhol’s piece, contributor David Sprague offers up a brief article on the band’s debut album, then there’s a list of live performances and rehearsals from 1965-1967, and then DeRogatis comes back in to discuss the White Light/White Heat album. This irregular rhythm hinders the flow and cohesion of the book as a whole. Had the book established this choppy pattern from the beginning the results would not have been so jarring. The fact that much of the information is repetitive from section to section doesn’t help either.
One of the best-written contributions comes from Bill Bentley. A re-printing of his 1975 interview with Sterling Morrison from a local Austin, Texas paper is particularly illuminating. Morrison had dropped out of the band to pursue a PhD in English at the University of Texas at Austin and Bentley eventually became friends with him. The curt tone of the interview rings true with the confrontational nature of this uncompromising band. Unvarnished words from someone actually in the band is the type of first-hand insight that could have improved this collection dominated by gushing, fan-boy praise. It seems that the surviving members of VU, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Maureen Tucker, decided to contribute to a competing retrospective due out in October 2009. Shame.
Minus the lame half-dust cover, the book is a veritable feast for the eyes. Just as the innovative music of the Velvet Underground is better to listen to than to talk about, the book looks much better unadorned. For best results, listen to the albums and skim this book.