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All Yesterday's Parties

Clinton Heylin

The Velvet Underground in Print: 1966-71

(Da Capo)

Velvet Under-appreciated

Today it’s impossible to imagine a self-respecting rock scribe who’d refuse to acknowledge the historical importance of the Velvet Underground. Who wouldn’t reflexively appreciate the band’s posthumous influence on the sound, attitude, and ethos of “indie” and “punk” rock? Yet until the 1993 publication of Heylin’s pathbreaking From the Velvets to the Voidoids, there had been no serious book-length study of Punk’s lineage—one in which the Velvets were officially recognized as the progenitors of everything punk or, for that matter, post-punk.


All Yesterday’s Parties provides the wraparound shades you’ll need to ease what Heylin calls “the glare of hindsight”. That “glare”, of course, being the 30 or so years of mythmaking that has gradually elevated the Velvets’ reputation from Warhol-sponsored stunt-band in 1966-67, to their current stature as one of the most lyrically and musically influential bands of the 20th century.


Heylin’s archeological achievement in excavating this dusty commentary on the Velvets, taken specifically from the years 1966-71, is not necessarily any surprise insights on the VU’s legacy; more interesting is the overall portrait of the burgeoning rock-critic community of that era. Much of this writing is a product of the age, for better or worse—permissive editorial standards often led to more impassioned writing than anything printed today. But just as often, flower-powered writers countered the Velvets’ urban cool with now-embarrassing acid-test excess: here’s Lita Eliscu, for instance, writing in Crawdaddy!: “The Velvet Underground are one of the few groups to afford imaginations the play of universes, of astrological heavens, of grounds and spaces as wide as time itself.”


As is revealed by this collection, even the more inquiring rock mags of the Velvets’ heyday—Crawdaddy!, Fusion, Creem, Vibrations, East Village Other—didn’t immediately recognize the VU’s music as potentially vital to rock history. The few visionary journos who realized how important the group was and would be—Wayne McGuire, Richard Williams, Lester Bangs, and others—most of their grand pronouncements, too, came after the Velvets were already buzzing with hip cachet, at least in major cities. But in 1969, Melody-Maker‘s Williams may as well have been Nostradamus when he wrote: “Groups like them do the spadework which enables less-talented musicians to progress.”


Most of the early critical responses to the VU, in the 1966-67 period, ranged from bewildered amusement to outright dismissal. Some critics, especially hipster Richard Goldstein (who later panned Sgt. Pepper) approached the group with cynical detachment, while many mainstream journalists (often from Philly, Detroit, or the Midwest) didn’t get the Warholian spectacle at all, and pegged the Velvets as trendy East Village dandies who played their instruments too loud, and badly at that. Maureen Tucker’s pre-Bowie androgyny always seemed particularly controversial to these people.


The resurrected interviews here are often tedious, some indispensable. There’s a rambling, unedited conversation with Lou Reed by (who else?) Ramblin’ Jim Martin, to whom Lou expresses his mistrust of evolution, and confesses that he “like(s) everybody.” In a chat with Fusion‘s Greg Barrios, Sterling Morrison re-solidifies his stature as one of the most quotable rockers in history: On Van Dyke Parks: “Whatever he’s supposed to be doing—he isn’t good enough.” On Zappa: “Zappa is the kind of person who should be a manager or a publishing representative.” On Bill Graham: “If any man really needs a beating it’s Bill Graham.” Can you imagine Jack White, or the Crichtonian robots from Coldplay saying anything comparable?


And when’s the last time a rock journalist actually said something intentionally funny? Friends‘s Dick Fountain is the clown prince here, writing stream-of-consciousness-style from the insider perspective of a Max’s Kansas City kitchen hand, during the Velvets ballyhooed Summer 1970 residency. He gives a vivid sense of place: “The busboys come in three sorts. Fast ones who come in on speed. Slow ones who come in on smack. Spaced out ones who smoke grass in the Gents. I went in straight once or twice.” And sums up the performance nicely: “They sound like the Old Velvets, the Old Who, and CCR stuck together… One day when the Rock Machine has been smashed along with the rest of our chains, I’m going to remember a few Lou Reed songs.”


LA Free Press‘s Robert Gold gets the prize for best scatological-gastrointestinal conceit in a review, “Her {Maureen Tucker's} heavy, continuous 4/4 outpouring on the drums slams into your bowels and crawls out your asshole.” Crawdaddy!‘s Wayne McGuire, obviously drunk on the influence of the Burroughs and the Beats, comes off as an eloquent but loose-cannon provocateur, beating Lester Bangs at his own game: he convincingly compares “Sister Ray” to Coltrane’s “Impressions,” Cecil Taylor, and Mel Lyman in the same review. He scolds his out-of-touch colleagues, and prophesizes that the Velvets music would be “recognized as a landmark in the growth of the universal music which is now emerging.”


Yet the foundation of today’s all-pervasive Velvets mystique - which exploded in the 80s and early 90s - was pretty much laid by 1969-70. Many of these eulogistic pieces, written around the time of the Velvets’ demise, contain increasingly sober judgments from increasingly sober critics. Rolling Stone‘s Lenny Kaye, the Voice‘s Robert Nusser, Circus‘s Danny Goldberg. They seem relieved that the VU had finally dropped the druggie lyrics and avant-garde experimentation, and had morphed into a more eardrum-friendly dance-band. Take Paul Williams’s revealing comments on the Velvets’ third album, for instance: “The Velvets have finally made an album we can all listen to… they have brought the whole world—not just the harmless parts—closer and without scaring anyone. Now that’s revolution! We’re set free.” Yet the more “difficult” “experimental” 1967 debut was, and still is, the highest-charting and best-selling VU album.


You could sum up a review like this by repeating oft-repeated lore about the Velvets’ early 80s renaissance—their sound and look copied by everyone from Sonic Youth to Jesus and Mary Chain to the Dream Syndicate, to REM. And you could add how this re-discovery of the band’s accomplishments culminated in eventual enshrinement in the Rock’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, ironically just after one-time nemesis Frank Zappa was inducted (his presenter being, of course, Lou Reed). Instead, though, we’ll simply quote Vibrations writer Tim Jacobs’s priceless closing sentence from a 1967 review of the Velvet Underground and Nico: “A good first album from this group, though in the future we hope that other efforts will not be quite as negative.”

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