That Time in ’69 When the Velvets Were a California Band
There’s been a load of Velvet Underground material floating about of late, but this is probably the most important and the most revealing. Captured in the dimming days of 1969, just months after the group issued its third LP and months before the band, with newest member Doug Yule in the ranks, would return to the studio to record the mighty Loaded LP, this is a band that was equal parts dangerous, demanding, assured, sarcastic, arty, unreal, sincere, tentative, patient, searching, ironic, sincere, unpretentious, formidable, and surprisingly capable of pure entertainment.
The group was, on one hand, out of its element. This was the West Coast, a place of surf and sun and the last stopping point for those who’d long fled the rest of the country with the hope that paradise might still exist at the edge of the continent. But this was also San Francisco, where the sun is tempered by chill that permeates the bones and tempers all the wildness and optimism one might enjoy down south. And yet: this is the city of flower power, the Summer of Love, free clinics, and, of course, the fallout that came with it all. The Bay Area’s reputation as a port of liberal thinking is legion and so it makes sense that this Mecca for freaks and mothers was willing to hold the Velvet Underground so warmly in an embrace.
The Velvets played a total of 18 gigs out there in November and December 1969, several of them at the Family Dog and a number at the Matrix. November 26 and 27 saw the band roll up to the latter venue and roll out these long-revered shows. It was an historical occasion. On the first of those nights the country was reeling from Richard Nixon’s announcement that there would be a lottery system for the draft. Nixon, whose timing was nothing if not impeccable, had done this on Thanksgiving Eve.
Though there are passing mentions of the mood of the day, what matters here and what always matter anywhere is the music. These discs provide incontrovertible evidence that this is a band, not an art project, and a very damn fine band at that. With over four hours at our disposal we can get lost in Velvet reverie again and again.
In the collection’s opening moments Reed announces the show as “A very serious set” and although he was, to a degree, joking, there’s nothing funny about how great the band plays from its slow glide into “Waiting for My Man”, the way it slams and thunders through “What Goes On”, the way it simply rocks through “Some Kind of Love”, “There She Does Again” or “Real Good Time”. Some of those tunes don’t necessarily register in the halls of great VU tunes, not on the level of, say, “Heroin” or “Venus in Furs”, but it was the group’s ability to give each of these songs equal attention and verve that makes you fall in love with this band and fall in love in a way that maybe you never have before.
Those who have long been left cold by the Velvet Underground cite more than a waft of pretension, the sense that the music requires a pedigree. But that’s nonsense and this collection makes you realize that. This is a band that, were time and circumstances different, could have reached a much wider audience and appears here to be just on the verge of that. Sure, “Black Angel’s Death Song” wasn’t gonna make the hit parade but it sure does make the fur on your forearm stand high the way the best art can and if there’s a metallic taste of fear and excitement forming at the back of your mouth, so be it.
That darkness never lasts, though, as the group winds its way to the end of the first disc with the sweet “Over You”, the self-evident wow of “Sweet Jane” and a perfectly poignant and appropriately tentative “Pale Blue Eyes”. And Moe Tucker? Well, she closes out that first set with the utterly charming “After Hours”. Put it this way: There is no room for toughness when Tucker takes the mic.
Not much changes across this batch: “Sweet Bonnie Brown” gets whipped out and worked up to such a frenzy that at times it seems like the band’s going to lose control. And that sense of danger makes for excellent listening, placing us right in the room as the rhythms become more frenzied, almost unpredictable and the tune stays just on this side of veering off course. “Heroin” is eerie, darker and serves as nice foil to the amphetamine stomp that opens “White Light White Heat”; as unthinkable as it might be, even in the middle of the tune, the Velvets keep it up for close to 10 minutes, with a relentless, insistent wallop that comes to a deliciously powerful end, punctuated only by a faint, “Thank you”.
Are these versions any better than the ones that came before? Not really. They’re decidedly different and offer up their own charms along the way and although there are variations here these also serve as reminders of how consistent and consistently great the Underground could be.
No live set would be complete, though, without utterly epic material and in that regard we are not let down. A lengthy take on “The Ocean” doesn’t just unfold with all the brawn and brain you might expect, it also sounds (despite some sonic limitations) as though it’s being revealed to the band on the spot and, consequently, revealed to us only now, in this very moment. It may be one of the finest moments of the Velvet Underground captured here or anywhere. The same might be said of the 37-minute take on “Sister Ray”. Anyone who has ever taken issue with Tucker’s skills behind the drum set need only listen to her cathartic pounding on “Sister Ray” to know that she meant business. There is nasty, gnarled guitar work that comes crawling out of the speakers like snakes creeping from a swamp, like a transistor transmitting its thin, eerie tones into the night.
With no two songs performed exactly the same way across these four discs, you know that you’re in for a wonderful ride, as you have the opportunity to experience the Velvet Underground in a truly intimate way. The only downside? You’ll only want to do more digging to discover what other gems you might have missed out on.
Some of this material has leaked out onto other releases in the past, some of it as early as live LP in 1974, other tracks have popped up on recent deluxe editions, but there’s nothing like having it all in one place for one long celebration of the night.
Excellent liner notes from David Fricke make for a robust package that you’ll want to have and hold in the material world for some time to come.