“Some people like to go out dancing/ There’s these other people like us/ We go to a Velvet Underground concert.”
I just want you to tell me what you think of this guitar solo,” Lester said to Leigh at practice one night. He proceeded to blast “I Heard Her Call My Name” by the Velvet Underground on the stereo as the musicians wandered into the kitchen for a beer. “Who was that guy?” Leigh asked when the song ended. “He’s the greatest guitarist I’ve ever heard in my life!” Lester beamed. “Then I caught this little gleam in his eye, end everything crumbled,” he wrote. “I am a purdee gullible sucker from the word go. He started laughing—hell, they all did, my fellow musicians in my band, laughing contemptuously at me—slapped me on the back and said: “Listen, Lester, I couldn’t play that solo. David couldn’t play that solo. But you could play that solo in three days and I’ll show you how! Hardeharhar.”
—Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis
When we were rehearsing for the ‘93 tour, we weren’t three or four bars into it (“I’m Waiting For The Man”) and everybody stopped, like, what the hell’s the matter? I knew what the problem was, but I didn’t say anything at first. But eventually I was like, “Lou, you have to play all down strokes.” He had forgotten that.
—Maureen Tucker in Modern Drummer
It was during my last year of high school that the Velvet Underground got the band back together and did some very high profile shows in Europe. I had a textbook idea of their influence and importance but had only heard a friend’s copy of Loaded. It seemed like a band that was this legendary should somehow be unfathomable to human ears. That you could borrow a record with their music on it from a friend and play it, could contain it and have it at your fingertips, made it common. It seemed like you should have to travel a great distance to hear music that was supposedly so influential and important. I gave the record back and waited three years to start over with their first record.
What broke through to me was the drumming on “I’m Waiting for the Man”. Maureen Tucker’s playing was like a new way of hearing the instrument. No drummer has ever pushed their set into a guitar player’s back more powerfully or to better effect. Her tambourine playing could mean as much to a song as the chorus. No drummer played their parts with so much love for the material. No other drummer seemed to live for their band the way that she did. All of the other stuff; a love for the amazing songs and guitar playing and lyrics and the chaos of it all, came a little later. First was the drumming.
Live MCMXCIII is the DVD re-issue of the concert footage from the ‘93 Velvet Underground reunion show in Paris, with no bonus features added, previously available only on VHS. The footage is all beautifully recorded and looks and sounds fantastic, though your enjoyment of it is may vary a lot based on your expectations and pre-conceived ideas going in about a reunited Velvet Underground. Anyone prone to criticize it for not being like the “real” Velvet Underground or for not doing justice to the original recordings will be accordingly put-off. The playing is more polished, as it has to be, than the playing on the other Velvet Underground live documents and the sound is run through equipment designed for stadium sound, designed to keep noise and howling in check. Reed’s guitar sound is too meticulously controlled to be truly dangerous, anyway, John Cale seems pretty stuffy, and Sterling Morrison unfortunately gets left a bit in the wings. There are no whip dancers on stage or performance artists mimicking mainlining. But would you really want there to be, 25 years on? With the Velvet Underground, there’s almost nothing to be sentimental about. Their music doesn’t have a touch of the stuff and, besides, very few people have any real memories of their music when it was still new. Our memories and attachments to it, if we have any, were almost certainly invented after the band’s moment as a living entity had passed.
In the same interview with Modern Drummer that the lead-in quote comes from, Tucker said that at the time of the reunion shows, she had wished that they could have done the tour using the equipment that they had played through when the band was first together. And this wasn’t out of blind nostalgia; her problem is with the obsessive quest for fidelity and desire to obsessively control sound and what it has done to live rock music. The idea, though, of them playing stadium shows with the same set-up they used to play around the Village, is almost unimaginable. Which isn’t to say that you almost wish they’d given it some thought.
The balance they have to strike, of bringing a completely stripped-out and brutal electric sound into a stadium, is an almost un-winnable proposition. But they don’t lose and in their way they pull it off amazingly. There are definitely points in the concert that you wish Lou Reed would play a Strat and not that silly-looking guitar with no headstock (when Morrison plays it during “Beginning to See the Light” it looks even sillier). And during “I Heard Her Call My Name”, when the camera picks up Reed’s hilariously overgrown effects board, you almost have to wonder if he remembers how to get by without it. Tucker fulfills her part of the bargain, though, banging away on her upright kit and, during “Some Kind of Love”, just laying her cowbell on the bass drum to play it.
Their stage is starker than you’re likely to see at almost any other stadium show. The light show is equally restrained and the overall effect is about as good of a balance as you could expect to strike between a club show and a show designed for tens of thousands of paying customers. The audience response is enthusiastic and at points the band seems alternately amused and annoyed. Clapping along to “I’m Sticking With You” is cute, maybe, but clapping along to “Pale Blue Eyes” is just odd (are people that hungry for a stadium rock experience?). You more than half expect to see lighters. When the audience begins clapping along to the build of “Heroin” Reed pauses and seems… what? Bemused? Agitated? It’s hard to read.
As a Velvet Underground fan who has never really liked “Heroin”, their performance of it here is truly staggering (Tucker and Cale’s playing on it are the highlights of the DVD). It makes you wish they had included a version of “Sister Ray” just to hear what they could do with it. Nothing here feels like a dead reading of old material, though there’s nothing terribly revealing, either. Reed’s scattershot delivery is sure to drive purists out of the window but while it can vary wildly from the originals, it tends to produce more exciting results here than, for example, Cale’s straight reading of “Femme Fatale”. Cale also takes the lead on “I’m Waiting for the Man” and comes off like he’s never spent a day in Manhattan in his life.
Though it was reportedly tensions between Reed and Cale that halted the reunion before it could make it to the United States, I don’t think it’s is all that evident here. During long instrumental sections of “Hey Mr. Rain” and “Beginning to See the Light” they mostly seem to be fully functioning band mates. And I think that a lot of the criticisms thrown out; that Tucker, Cale, and Morrison come off as Reed’s backing band, that the performance is stiff, that the reunion never should have happened in the first place, are just rhetoric. That these concerts happened was an amazing thing and this is a fitting, worthwhile document.