Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Thu 4 Jun 09 11:04
I think March 28-30, 1969 would have been the shows. The Velvets did four three-day stints at La Cave in 1968 and 1969; that was the last of them. Every once in a while I run into someone who's read my books and remembers going to La Cave in Cleveland to have seen someone I've written about. It was one of numerous US venues in the late 1960s that also put on folk shows, but moved into rock concerts as well as the music scene changed. And yes, SRC were a decent Michigan group of the era, though they never got the attention that the MC5 and Stooges did. They also played on the same bill as the Velvets in late April 1969 in Chicago.
Ed Ward (captward) Fri 5 Jun 09 02:13
But they got mentioned in Bob Seger's first hit, "Heavy Music!"
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Fri 5 Jun 09 12:31
Lots of pointers to intriguing musical connections here! We've centered so much of the discussion here on front-man Lou and the other large figure, Cale. How did Sterling and Moe look back on the Velvet Underground experience? He went on to a more or less straight college job, right? And she contined to record and perform from time to time, though her work suggests something far different than the celebrity life. How did "the others" go on to think about it all?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 5 Jun 09 14:00
Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker were, relatively speaking, the most "normal" members of the Velvet Underground's most well-known lineup (the one also with Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico), both musically and personally. They were gave the other members' wilder inclinations a more straightforward rock'n'roll backbeat that kept things grounded into something (again, relatively speaking) somewhat accessible. Also, because they weren't nearly as mercurial personalities, I think they kept things somewhat saner as far as interpersonal politics and being a working band, though being in the VU was never going to be too sane. While almost everyone associated with the VU speaks well of Sterling and Moe (especially of Moe) as people, however, I think it's also fair to say that they didn't have the kind of musical imagination that could sustain a post-VU solo career of the sort that Reed, Cale, and even Nico had. It's not too widely known that Morrison and Tucker continued playing in the VU for a while after Reed left, with Doug Yule and other musicians. But Sterling Morrison might have been looking ahead to a life in academia as early as October 1969, when he told a journalist interviewing him in Austin that he liked the town and might want to move somewhere like it to finish his education. He in fact did so when he left the VU in August 1971 (about a year after Reed) to teach literature at the University of Texas, eventually getting a PhD in medieval literature in 1986. He in fact usually went by the name of Holmes Morrison (his full name was Holmes Sterling Morrison) in Texas and didn't often talk about his VU life; a lot of people who worked with him or were his students didn't know anything about it. Then he worked as a tugboat captain in Houston. He didn't play much after leaving the VU, though he sat in with bands sometimes for fun, and played with the VU again for their 1993 European reunion tour, dying a couple years later. Even in mid-1970 when Reed was still in the band and they were recording Loaded and playing Max's, Sterling was finishing the credits he needed to graduate college, and some think that he was losing enthusiasm for being in the band even then. My impression is that Morrison welcomed the chance to leave the pressure and high-strung personalities of a band like the VU for a more conventional life. He didn't seem to miss playing in a rock band for a living much, and was content to concentrate on his studies and family. However, when he was tracked down for interviews (as he occasionally was from the late 1970s onward), he seemed happy to speak at great length and with great pride about his time in the VU. In his interviews, he had a polite but bluntly no-nonsense manner that didn't try to sugarcoat the conflicts or things he regretted or disagreed with. All this was relayed with considerable sarcastic dry humor, and no sentimentality. I think he was probably more gratified by the avalanche of posthumous acclaim the Velvets got from subsequent generations of fans and musicians than he let on. More about Moe Tucker in the next post.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 5 Jun 09 14:13
Maureen Tucker played with the Velvets for more than a year after Reed left, and for a few months after Sterling Morrison left. When the VU did their first European tour in late 1971, she was the only one left from the pre-Doug Yule days, though Doug Yule was still there (and essentially the band's leader at that point). She didn't seem too enthused about the group's prospects with this altered lineup, but wanted to tour Europe at least once and thought it was better than going back to a day job. But she did finally go back to a day job after 1971, or day jobs, working temp jobs as a keypunch operator. Shortly after that, she married and moved to Arizona, raising a family with several kids. More than the other Velvets from the Warhol days, even Morrison, she seemed unaware of just how huge a cult the group were getting and how influential they'd become until some fans and journalists started to track her down starting in the late 1970s. That helped fire up her interest in returning to music, which she did in 1981 with a home-recorded indie album. She's remembered being stunned when she would call up indie stores and distributors with a whole spiel prepared about who she was, and the people on the other end of the line would interrupt her right after she told them her name and enthusiastically tell her they knew who she was as they were Velvet Underground fans. She divorced shortly after that and had some tough, though not apparently tragic, times raising her family on a modest income with mundane jobs. But her name recognition was now such that she could record solo material fairly regularly for indie labels, doing much more writing and singing than she had with the VU, in addition to playing drums. She was always very proud of what she'd done with the VU and didn't mind talking about it, but like Sterling was pretty no-nonsense and not afraid to tell it like it is. She seems very happy to have seen the band gain wide posthumous recognition as innovators, and probably would have been happy to play with reunited VU lineups more often than the one European tour she did with one in 1993. Without any special prompting, Doug Yule had this praise for Maureen as a person: Shes an anchor, the most honest and straightforward person Ive ever met in my life. Shes the only person Ive seen who can stop Lou at any kind of mood; no matter what kind of mood hes in, she can shut him down and bring him back to reality. Because he has a very strong feeling for her, and shes totally honest. I think shes kind of, to a great extent, the glue that kept things rolling many times when they might have otherwise come into pieces. Shes one of my favorite people of all time; shes just a magnificent person."
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 5 Jun 09 14:31
I think it's also worth commenting on how Doug Yule looks back on the VU experience, since he's often unfairly looked by historians. Yule went on to play in post-Reed VU lineups until about mid-1973, pretty much being the leader during that time, and certainly the primary singer and songwriter. His role in the Reedless Velvets has sometimes been criticized as keeping a dead horse on the run for much longer than it should have. He went on to play and record in the soft-rock band American Flyer, and also toured for a while in Lou Reed's band in the mid-1970s. But since the late 1970s, he's pretty much been out of the music business. Like Morrison and Tucker, Yule made a transition to civilian life without fuss or sentimentality, not wallowing at all in VU memories. Unlike Morrison or Tucker, he was seldom tracked down for interviews about the band until the 1990s. While he didn't seem too concerned about trying to boost his part of the legacy, he did give the occasional lengthy interview where he spoke about his time in the band in pride and with detail. He's worked much of the time since the late 1970s as a cabinetmaker, though he's always played for his own enjoyment, sometimes in bands. When I interviewed him about a year ago, his main musical outlet was a bluegrass band in the Seattle area. Like Sterling and Moe, Doug is pretty plain-spoken and down to earth in his interviews. I'm impressed that he doesn't try to make his role any greater or lesser than it was, and doesn't avoid taking responsibility for things he regrets (as when he told me the Velvets shouldn't have recorded Loaded without Tucker while she was pregnant, but should have waited until she could play drums again). While it doesn't seem to bug him at all that his work in the VU isn't usually discussed or highly valued by written historical accounts, I think it's disgraceful that the two UK documentaries about the group not only don't discuss the 1968-1970 Yule era in any detail -- they don't even mention his name. Also, I don't attach as much importance to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honors as many do. But it should be pointed out that when the Velvet Underground were inducted in 1996, he was not included alongside Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker (neither was Nico). However, Yule plays on more released Velvet Underground recordings than Cale does, even discounting the post-Reed stuff. I asked him how he felt about this, as many would consider it a snub, and frankly it didn't seem to bother him at all.
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 6 Jun 09 02:06
Sterling did wind up with a band in Austin before moving to Houston, though. I can't remember their name -- something like the Barbarians -- and they played around during the punk era. Most of the others in the band were in other bands, so they didn't play a lot. I remember being in some stupid symposium at UT with the weirdo music prof who had the rock and roll course there, and Sterling was on the panel. He contributed nothing, just sat there kind of pissed off he'd been asked to do it. Then some student asked him a question about Dylan. "I don't know anything about Dylan," he said. "For me, it's either rock and roll or fuckin' folk music, and Dylan's fuckin' folk music." End of discussion. He lived with a friend of mine for many years in Houston, and I'd see him at parties. Quiet guy, unless provoked.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Sat 6 Jun 09 06:53
I met Morrison once at Liberty Lunch--Stewart Wise introduced me to him. I can't remember who we were there to see. I think he was with his girlfriend, gail. It was more in the context of meeting stewart's friend than here's that guy who used to play in the VELVET UNDERGROUND. Here's my Sterling Morrison story, though. Back in 95, i was working for a state agency that was being downsized. A lot of that was going on just then--GWBush had been elected governor and had pledged to shrink several state agencies, there was a big turnover from democrats to republicans throughout the entire state governing apparatus, so there was downsizing and layoffs all around. Those of us being downsized received some amount of time/resources at a career counseling/employment counselor type place. I'm there in some workshop and we're on some kind of break. Most of the other guys there are in their 50s, i was about 20 years younger than most of the others in the room. A lot of the other folks were from some other agency and knew each other, so they would carry on ongoing conversations as they read their papers. We're sitting there and one guy speaks up from his paper, addressing his friends, "hey, y'all remember morrison, that guy we used to play touch football with? the one who died recently? Did you know that he was some sort of rock star?" Apparantly none of these guys, who had all played touch football with morrison back when they were at UT had any idea that he had played with the velvet underground and my impression was that they weren't even aware of who the velvet underground was, just that it was some sort of famous band. I thought this was amazing because this was after morrison's stint with the VU and these guys were all in college at the time--you would think that a bunch of college students in the early-mid 70s would have had some awareness of the VU, Lou Reed's solo career was taking off at that point, or just the fact that he had been in a band that had toured (including austin) and had recorded several albums. None of them had any idea that Morrison had spent any time playing for a bid deal band. here's a really good article and oral history about morrison from the austin chronicle by Margaret Moser: <http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid:76343>
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 07:57
The Austin band that Sterling played with for a bit in the punk era was the Bizarros. They also included Bill Bentley, who's also been a rock critic and has for a long time worked in the music business, becoming a senior vice president at Warner Brothers. He remembered his time with Morrison in a short piece for the Austin Chronicle, which can be read at http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/vol15/issue2/music.morrison.html. This is a pretty minor issue of controversy in the VU legend, but Morrison seemed to vacillate regarding his opinion of Dylan. In the oral history-oriented "Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story," he complained of not wanting to be compared to Dylan, or associated with him: We did not want to be near Bob Dylan, either physically or through his songs. When Nico kept insisting that we work up [Dylan's then-unreleased song] Ill Keep It With Mine, for a long time we simply refused. Then we took a long time to learn it (as long as we could take). After that, even though we knew the song, we insisted that we were unable to play it. When we finally did have a go at it on stage, it was performed poorly. We never got any better at it either, for some reason." But Morrisons wife Martha told me Sterling liked the song, and that his feelings about Dylan had nothing to do with Nico singing [it]. Sterling himself admitsted that Dylan did a lot of good songs in an interview published in the AugustSeptember 1967 issue of the Cleveland underground newspaper The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Sat 6 Jun 09 08:13
I saw Tucker play in St. Louis, with Morrison in her band, a short time before his death. It was a really great, intimate show, and it included both Velvets classics like "Waiting for the Man" and "Heroin" and some of her own works like "Spam" and "That's Bad." He seemed to be having a great time, but who knows, right? And she was very warm and was benevolent towards the college-aged boys who pressed up against the stage to be near her. If she were just coming up as a young thing from authentic America, her work would probably get a lot of attention. She's developed a strong voice as a songwriter and is a good performer. (Her ballad/lovesong take on "Waiting for the Man" is brilliant and probably better than the celbrated Cowboy Junkies cover of "Sweet Jane.")
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 08:33
Though Sterling took music and his playing very seriously, and the VU were never the most happy-go-lucky ebullient band onstage, he did have a rather stony and reserved persona that made it hard to tell how much or if he was enjoying himself. I didn't see any of the shows on their 1993 European reunion tour (and am too young to have seen any of their 1965-70 shows), but in the video made from that tour, he largely stays rooted to one spot. His wife Martha told me, "Sterling didn't move around. He would just stand there steadily, playing. And of course, he would do great solos. Lou has said that. Sterling was always there holding it together... steady, immovable, and playing some very pretty stuff, and very steady stuff. He was just standing there concentrating." He was always something of a perfectionist and rather hard on himself. I was surprised by comments in his interviews expressing dissatisfaction with the recordings on "1969 Velvet Underground Live," which I think are great, and in fact my favorite live rock recordings. But Martha Morrison told me, "I know that he was often not happy with what he played. He was very hard on himself. He'd come back to the table after a set and he'd say, 'Was that awful?' He was never completely happy with his playing -- well, once in a while he was. I think that was just his nature." As a featured solo performer (as opposed to being a drummer and very occasional lead singer as she was in the VU), I think Maureen Tucker is something of an American primitive artist, if there's such a thing in rock music. There's not much in the way of polish, more an emphasis on singing and playing with spontaneity, and songwriting with a kind of guileless heart-on-the-sleeve quality.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 08:33
Someone from Australia who interviewed me about the book a few days ago had an interesting question for me: if Sterling Morrison was still alive and you'd been able to interview him, what would you most liked to have asked him? Of course there were many things I'd liked to have asked him, but one thing that's always intrigued me as his possible songwriting role in the Velvet Underground. He told the New Musical Express in 1981, "There are a lot of songs I should have co-authorship on, and the same holds true for John Cale. The publishing company was called Three Prong because there were three of us involved. Im the last person to deny Lous immense contribution, and hes the best songwriter of the three of us. But he wanted all the credit, he wanted it more than we did, and he got it, to keep the peace." Morrison did get occasional co-writing credits in the Velvet Underground. "Here She Comes Now" was credited to Reed, Cale, and Morrison, and a bunch of songs were credited to the whole band, presumably because they had origins in jams/improvisations (like "Sister Ray," "European Son," "The Gift," and "Mr. Rain"). He's also co-credited with Reed for the very good "Chelsea Girls," on Nico's "Chelsea Girl" album. But Reed has the sole songwriting credit for most VU songs. My guess is that Morrison's contributions were along the lines of arranging, not the melody/lyric writing that's usually thought of as the key elements in the composition of a song. For "Chelsea Girls," for instance, he told Fusion magazine that his contributions amounted to "I did some meddling with chords." The same probably goes for Cale, though his role in arrangements seems to have been greater, and he got somewhat more in the way of co-songwriting credits than the others. "Sunday Morning" and "The Black Angel's Death Song" are the most notable of those, both getting co-credited to Reed and Cale. In his autobiography, however, Cale gives the impression he didn't write complete songs with lyrics until his debut album "Vintage Violence," which he describes as "basically an exercise to see if I could write tunes. Theres not too much originality on that album, its just someone teaching himself to do something..." Still, I would have liked to pin down Sterling on what exactly his contributions were and why he felt they were deserving of co-authorship. In my many interviews with musicians, I've found that nothing gets them as worked up as questions about songwriting credit controversies.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Sat 6 Jun 09 18:42
Particularly since he moved into an arena where credit really matters, that seems apt. "Primitive American Rock and Roll" for Maureen Tucker? I like it. Let's turn to myths and legends. We've asked several questions here about what really happened here or there, or what might have happened if only dot dot dot. What are the "obvious truths," the things "everyone knows" about the Velvet Underground that just ain't so? What are the "hidden meanings" in songs that aren't? Which legends are supported only by the legendary nature of the band?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 20:32
We've already clarified a few of these in this discussion: how the banana album actually didn't sell that badly, how Doug Yule was actually a valuable and worthy member of the band, how MGM Records gave the band somewhat more support than is commonly stated, how it's doubtful the Mothers of Invention conspired to delay the banana album's release, how they weren't a mere extension of Andy Warhol's vision, down to real picky stuff like how Sterling might not really have disliked Dylan that much. That still leaves a bunch of myths or semi-myths on which I hope my research helped shed some light, which will take a few posts to recap. A lot of people wonder exactly what Andy Warhol's role was as the band's "producer." He's credited with producing most of the first album, which is far their most famous one. Lots of people now know that he certainly wasn't the producer in the conventional sense of running a session and getting things on tape, or even making specific musical or technical suggestions. He was more the producer in the sense that movie producers help arrange for financing, as Warhol did (with some help) for the sessions that yielded the bulk of the LP. But he did do something important that, as Lou Reed pointed out in his interview for the "Transformer," documentary, was positively vital in making the album as important as it was: "Before we went in the studio he said, 'You've got to make sureuse all the dirty words. And don't let them clean things.' And so, when he was there, theyyou knowthey didn't dare try to say, 'Hey, why don't you don't do that over,' or, gee, any one of all the other things they would normally have done never happened."
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 20:39
The single biggest point of contention in the Velvet Underground's career could be: why did John Cale leave the band in September 1968? He was certainly the most important figure in the group aside from Lou Reed; they had been close friends when they co-founded the band; and the interaction between them was the single most important factor in making their music as innovative as it was. The explanations have usually been one of the following: A) he wasn't getting along with Lou Reed; B) Lou Reed was jealous of him; C) Cale was threatening Reed's leadership of the band; D) Cale was too far out for the more song-oriented, conventional rock direction in which Reed wanted to take the band; E) manager Steve Sesnick also wanted Cale out; F) for no good reason. This is one case in which no one seems to know or want to reveal the real reason. It's not even been consistently reported whether Cale was fired or left, though the most accepted version has Cale getting fired by Reed in September in 1968. John himself has remembered hearing that Lou had fired him from Sterling Morrison not long before the October 4 show in Cleveland. Reed has on several occasions declined to discuss the incident, as early as press interviews in the early 1970s and as late as a BBC Wales documentary on Cale in the late 1990s, where he simply states, "That's really personal, and just probably something I wouldn't talk about." Manager Steve Sesnick is likewise mum in one of his very few interviews, telling Victor Bockris (in 'Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story'), "That's a real long story and I don't want to get into it." For what it's worth, the most likely, sensible, and un-sensationalistic explanation I came across came from Michael Carlucci, longtime friend of Velvet Underground fanatic (and, for several years in the 1980s, Lou Reed's guitarist) Robert Quine. I mentioned this before in this discussion, but it's worth repeating what Carlucci told me: "Lou told Quine that the reason why he had to get rid of Cale in the band was Cale's ideas were just too out there," he told me. "Cale had some wacky ideas. He wanted to record the next album with the amplifiers underwater, and [Lou] just couldn't have it. He was trying to make the band more accessible." Band firings and hirings are rarely totally amiable affairs. But probably the single action that reflected worst on Lou Reed was his having not fired Cale personally, instead getting Sterling Morrison, a close friend of both men, to inform him of the decision. Morrison and Tucker (Nico had been out of the band for over a year by this time) were adamantly opposed to firing Cale, but Reed gave them a "him or me" ultimatum, and reluctantly they decided to go along with Lou's idea. Probably this caused some permanent damage to Reed and Morrison's friendship, and in turn helped make Morrison decide to turn down Reed's offer to form a band with him shortly after Reed left the VU.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 20:50
One of the weirdest and most intriguing parts of the Velvets' legend is that they didn't play New York for three solid years, from around May 1967 to June 1970. They continued to live in New York all this time; they'd established their reputation in New York; and, then and since, they seem to have been the definitive New York rock band, in attitude and music. So why on earth not play New York for three years? And then, why turn around and play New York for two months straight, in their summer 1970 Max's Kansas City residency? One explanation sometimes given is that after New York radio refused to play the banana album after its release, the Velvets decided to "punish" their hometown in protest. Actually, they *did* play at least three shows in New York between the spring of 1967 and the summer of 1970. Admittedly these weren't very high-profile gigs, including a benefit for public television station WNET at Lincoln Center (on November 13, 1967); a benefit for Merce Cunningham's dance company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 15, 1968; and a private industry performance at the Salvation Club in early 1970 (which helped bring them to the attention of Atlantic Records). Also, they *did* get some New York airplay for the banana album from Bob Fass on public radio station WBAI, though apparently this ceased after they declined to play a bail-fund benefit. They also did get at least some New York radio airplay later on in the 1960s on the city's most progressive station, WNEW-FM, where Rosko Mercer (who narrated the radio ad for their third LP) and Richard Robinson (who produced Lou Reed's first solo album in 1972) both had shows. Still, certainly the Velvets hardly played New York during this period, and probably didn't get much radio airplay either. But were they doing this to perversely "punish" their hometown by withholding their goods? The manager of the Boston Tea Party (the band's favorite place to play) and promoter of their shows at several other Massachusetts venues, Steve Nelson, was dubious in his interview for my book: "I've read about, 'Well, they didn't want to play 'cause they were boycotting New York 'cause they didn't get radio play.' I'm not really sure about that. It wasn't like nobody wanted to book them. I really think that Sesnick thought he'd hold them back and would return triumphantly. But a lot of things went wrong -- everything that went wrong with the release of their first album, and lack of promotion, and then everything that was going on with MGM at the time, which was a pathetic record label. 'Cause by any account, they should have been much, much bigger than they were during that time period where they were away [from New York]. So the strategy certainly backfired, because so much else was going on that wasn't making them this serious hot desirable thing that nobody's ever seen that they'd be dying to see. "So was it a good strategy? I don't think so. They should have been playing New York, because they were from New York and had a lot of following there. I think probably they would have ended up being a lot bigger than they were if they'd played New York. 'Cause there's so much media there, there's so much record business therethere's so much everything therethat I think that they sort of missed out." Doug Yule told me, "Given the way that Sesnick operates, pretty much everything that happened and was explained as being for this reason or for that reason was really for logistical and practical reasons. That tendency of his, and the tendency of his also to see a trend that might be beneficial to him in the long run, has led me to the feeling that the reason he didn't play New York for a long time was simply because he couldn't get a decent gig. Because the band was unknown in New York. And the band was unknown in New York 'cause they didn't play in New York." That's a catch-22 that might have spiraled out of control after a year or two. "But they did play in Boston," Yule also told me. "People thought the band lived in Boston, because we played up there so much, and I really think that Sesnick kind of fostered that notion to some extent. Someone may have said it at some point, and he said 'yeah, yeah, they're a Boston band,' and kind of pushed that along. Because that would make it easier to get a gig in New York, 'cause they were always interested in something new from out of town. There are so many bands out of New York looking to play everywhere that it becomes more difficult. But if you can say, this is hot in Boston...it's like a way of getting in is that you go out and then come back in. I have felt that it was more along those lines. I don't know how much of the 'we're mad at New York' was actually real. It was never anything that was apparent to me." Interestingly, according to a June 1970 article in Circus magazine, Fillmore East audiences requested an appearance by the Velvets in a poll, but the group turned the gig down. Sterling Morrison later confirmed that he wouldn't even go into the Fillmore East in New York, let alone play it, out of dislike for promoter Bill Graham. However admirable the group's stance might be in principle, turning down a spot at what had to be one or the two or three most popular rock halls in the United States couldn't have helped them make inroads either commercially or within the music business itself.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 20:56
One myth about the VU that seemed fishy to me was that they deliberately chose the worst quotes about them they could possibly find to put on the inside of the gatefold sleeve of the banana album. That fits into the convenient legend of how they were perversely, obstinately bucking all the behavior expected of rock bands and entertainers in general in that era. Certainly the quotes were pretty unusual for the time. Variety describes the EPI as "a three-ring psychosis that assaults the senses"; Los Angeles Magazine dubs them "screeching rock'n'roll" that "reminded viewers of nothing so much as Berlin in the decadent 30's"; Richard Goldstein characterizes the sound as "the product of a secret marriage between Bob Dylan and the Marquis de Sade" in the New York World Journal-Tribune; and the Chicago Daily News announces that "the flowers of evil are in full bloom with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable." The liner notes to Peel Slowly and See suggest not only that the Velvets deliberately selected only negative quotes, but also that Verve ameliorated the vibe by inserting a few positive ones without telling the group. But actually, there's nothing in the way of out-and-out critical slams in the quotes that made the final cut, leading one to believe the group wasn't quite as defiantly perverse in this department as legend's made them out to be. There were certainly quite a few far, far more negative review quotes I found that *could* have been used and most definitely *weren't*. Examples: "a tasteless, vulgar review that should never have opened" (Hitline); "if this is what America's waiting for, we are going to die of boredom because this is a celebration of the silliness of café society, way out in left field instead of far out, and joyless" (the San Francisco Chronicle); "deliberately loud, rhythmless, off-key rock'n'roll, i.e. camp, graced occasionally by Nico, gorgeous blonde, who may be singing but nobody can hear" (the New York Post); "[Nico] sounded like a Bedouin woman singing a funeral dirge in Arabic while accompanied by an off-key air raid siren" (the Detroit Free Press)." That leads into another perception of the group that might be inaccurate -- that they didn't care what people thought of them, and not only weren't bothered when people hated them or reacted to them in horror, but positively relished it.It's been reinforced by a few comments from band members themselves, which sometimes give the impression they took a secret pleasure in offending rather than pleasing their audiences. Sterling Morrison's wife Martha saw a more sensitive side, telling me, "I always knew that they were trying hard to get recognition. I knew that they weren't gonna change anything in order to get it. They worked hard at their music, and I think were kind of puzzled when they didn't get good reviews and also disappointed. They really cared."
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 21:06
Some rock criticism likes to portray the Velvet Underground as being wholly out of step with the trends of their time, not listening to or admiring much or any of the work in their peers, even dismissing it as irrelevant. An impression is sometimes painted in retrospect that they functioned almost in isolation. It makes a nice hook to their story, but the Velvets really weren't as contrary characters as legend sometimes has it, or immune to musical influences from fellow bands. In various interviews and writings from 1967 to 1970, various members express admiration for the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Phil Spector, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Byrds. Lou Reed once cited Roger McGuinn and George Harrison as his favorite guitarists. One of my favorite testaments to his wide taste was his fondness for an obscure single by the Australian group the Easybeats, whose only US hit was "Friday on My Mind." Mind). It's been reported that he would play their flop single "Falling Off the Edge of the World" every night at Max's Kansas City, telling rock critic Lillian Roxon that it was "one of the most beautiful records ever made." And its lush pop was a long way from the VU's sound. Also, some *other* major rock musicians, though admittedly not many, were themselves listening to and being influenced by the Velvet Underground. The Yardbirds covered "I'm Waiting for the Man" in concert in their final days when Jimmy Page was their lead guitarist, though they didn't record it in the studio. In at least one unheralded instance, the VU influenced a major late-'60s album by one of the biggest groups of that or any other era. As Mick Jagger confessed to Nick Kent of NME in June 1977, "Even we've been influenced by the Velvet Underground. No, really. I'll tell you exactly what we pinched from [Lou Reed]. Y'know 'Stray Cat Blues' [from the Rolling Stones' 1968 album "Beggars Banquet")? The whole sound and the way it's paced, we pinched from the first Velvet Underground album. Y'know, the sound on 'Heroin.' Honest to God, we did!"
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 21:11
Going back to their early days, it's been reported that Lou Reed and John Cale were eager to get out of the environment of Pickwick Records, the exploitation label that had inadvertently helped start the VU by being the channel through which the pair met in the first place. It's been said they knew they couldn't record songs like "Heroin" there, and the label was unsympathetic to the avant-garde ideas they wanted to try. But on May 11, 1965, Lou Reed recorded a few unreleased demos under the auspices of Pickwick Records, including not just one but two complete versions of "Heroin." Of course it's uncertain whether Pickwick would have ever released such material. But record "Heroin" they did, producer Terry Philips -- who had signed Reed to Pickwick as a staff songwriter in late 1964 -- specifically praising his good performance after the first of the takes. Both Reed and Cale remember songs like "Heroin" being vetoed by the label in early-'70s interviews. As Philips was the most noted and visible of Reed's associates at Pickwick, it's sometimes assumed that he must have been personally responsible for such rejection. Yet in his interview with me, Philips repeatedly stated his admiration for Reed's talents and regrets that he and Pickwick couldn't have worked with him more. "I helped encourage him on his writing to do things that were more like 'Heroin,' and more like the kind of writing he did in short stories," he stated. "We were working towards a goal. I thought he could be what he became." According to Pickwick promotion man Bob Ragona, the real villain at the label as far as stopping such material in its tracks was its vice president. "Ira Moss stopped it," he told me. "He was the main obstacle. He was the #2 man in the company. He didn't understand it."
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 21:17
Going back to the possibly inaccurate assertion that the Velvets decided not to play New York because they weren't getting radio airplay there, the impression is sometimes given that they weren't getting radio airplay anywhere. It would be foolish to claim that the Velvet Underground were in heavy rotation or anything close to it between 1966 and 1970. But it's not the case that they weren't played anywhere or anytime, as some accounts would have it. Dick Summer played them often on his Sunday night show in Boston on WBZ, whose signal was so strong that it could be picked up in many other regions of the United States at night. He continued playing them often when he moved to WNEW-FM in New York, as did other DJs on that station, including Rosko Mercer and Richard Robinson. Bob Reitman played them often on various commercial stations in Milwaukee, even though the Velvets aren't known to have played any concerts there. Tapes survive (detailed in the book) of Lou Reed chatting on-air in 1969 with enthusiastic radio interviewers on Boston's WBCN-FM (conducted by Mississippi Harold Wilson) and Portland, Oregon's KVAN. The December 16, 1970 chart of progressive St. Louis station KADI-FM shows Loaded at #21, although the VU only played one concert in the city. Richard Goldstein even got to play "Heroin" once as a guest DJ on Murray the K's show on WOR-FM in New York. I'm sure there are other such anecdotal tales from other areas of the US where the Velvet Underground got airplay. If anybody out there remembers them, feel free to post here or let me know, just in case I get to do that revised updated edition.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 21:23
The "unreleased" Velvet Underground fourth album recorded in 1969 has been already mentioned here. Here's one myth that's probably never going to be cleared up. After forty years, the mystery remains: were the Velvets recording a fourth album for MGM between May and October 1969 or not? Certainly a fourth album on the label never appeared, though by late 1969, they'd cut more than enough tracks to fill one up. Steve Sesnick later said he was already maneuvering to get the band off MGM at this point, and maybe they were trying to walk the fine line of making it appear to the label as though they're working on their next record, but not quite getting the recordings in good enough shape so that an LP could be compiled. Yet Sterling Morrison later said that he was under the impression they were working on a fourth album, leaving the cuts behind with no regrets when they finally did leave MGM for Atlantic in 1970. As Maureen Tucker puts it in the liner notes to "Peel Slowly and See," "As far as I knew, and know, we were making a record. I also believe we were trying to get out from MGM. I don't know what the plan was. Maybe it was just to not finish it enough. Some of those tracks don't even have [finished] vocals on them. Maybe we were doing it just to keep them from saying 'We need a record!' I'm sure the way we did all those tracks had to do with trying to get away from MGM." And Robert Quinewho became friends with the band in 1969, and in the 1980s, worked closely with Reed as a guitar player for a few yearslater remembered Lou telling him in spring 1969 that the Velvets were making a fourth album, though in a later conversation in November, he was given the impression the LP was no longer happening. In addition, the existence of an acetate with seven songs from these 1969 outtakes verifies that there might have been at least some thought about compiling a long-playing record from these sessions. It's unlikely such an acetate would have been cut unless someone in the band wanted to hear how an LP's worth, or nearly an LP's worth, of songs sounded when bunched together. (For the record, those songs, in order, are "I'm Sticking with You," "Foggy Notion" (here titled "Sally May"), "Ferryboat Bill," "Andy's Chest," "Ocean," "Rock & Roll," and "She's My Best Friend" (here titled "My Friend").) Doug Yule offers a yet different take in the DVD The Velvet Underground Under Review: "My understanding was that we were gonna use the MGM studios to work out this stuff prior to actually going into a studio and recording. To sort of get organized for a regular recording session...My understanding was that they were never gonna be used. They were work tapes, and that's the way I always viewed them." Finally, back in late August of 1969, Reed told Frank Gruber of the Philadelphia paper the Distant Drummer that a fourth VU album had been recorded. But, wrote Gruber, the group "don't plan to release it, at least within the next year or two. 'It would be totally senseless,' says Lou. 'In a few years it will be ahead of its time, but now it just won't sell and will go unknown. We've had enough of that.'" This implies that a complete LP had been recorded and scrapped by the end of August -- even though quite a few of the tracks thought to be part of the "lost" album were cut at the Record Plant after Reed's conversation with Gruber, in September and early October. I don't think the material recorded in 1969 that likely would have landed on a fourth VU album for MGM would have been great, and it certainly would have been more lightweight than the previous three. But it would have been good, and we're fortunate that virtually all it's now been officially released.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 21:30
The Velvet Underground are sometimes painted as the ultimate anti-hippies, embodying jaded New York cool and despising the California counterculture. There's likely some truth to this, but at the same time, Lou Reed made some decidedly hippyish statements about faith in astrology, having one's aura read, and enthusiasm for elements of the occult. They also played some rock festivals at the height of those events' popularity. In 1969, they played at least one major rock such event (Toronto Pop Festival 1969, in June) and one minor one (the Hilltop Festival in New Hampshire in August, where they headlined a bill also including Van Morrison). They likely also played a festival in Texas that autumn, as Doug Yule says the outdoor concert pictures (by road manager Hans Onsager) that appear in his book "69 on the Road: Velvet Underground Photographs" were taken at such an event in Texas, and thinks it probably took place at a college campus. As a weird footnote, one musician who played in the Velvet Underground in the 1960s did perform at the most famous rock festival of all, Woodstock. That was original drummer Angus MacLise. His wife Hetty confirms that Angus performed on the acoustic stage set up by the Hog Farm, the organization who were helping to provide food, medical aid, and general assistance at the event. According to an article in "The Wire," Angus and Hetty can also be glimpsed dancing in the ultra-popular Woodstock film, though frankly it's hard to conclusively identify them in the sequences of the movie (particularly Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" and the crowd-improvised "Rain Chant") that feature quick cuts between numerous writhers in the several hundred thousand-strong throng. But it makes a great question (though kind of a trick one) with which to stump your buddies at your next rock'n'roll trivia pub quiz night: "What member of the Velvet Underground played at Woodstock"? Also, though the Velvets supposedly despised the laidback California hippie lifestyle, and though their first trip to California in May 1966 had gone rather badly, ultimately they probably played more shows in California more than any other state except, perhaps, New York and Massachusetts. In the roughly eighteen months from late May 1968 to early December 1968, they played many shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles (where they also recorded their third album), as well as a few in San Diego. These included several gigs at the Avalon, the Fillmore's biggest competitor in San Francisco; several performances at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, that city's most legendary rock club, with Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in attendance at some shows; and several weeks at the Matrix in San Francisco, where many tapes were made, some of which comprised the bulk of their 1969 Velvet Underground Live album. There was even a performance at Beverly Hills High School in late 1968. What's more, these performances were generally well received, with complimentary reviews in daily and underground papers in each of the three cities. Far from being in deliberate opposition to California audiences, the Velvets probably had a stronger following in the state than they had in almost any other region.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 21:46
One story in VU lore that ultimately was probably just too poetically perfect was Sterling Morrison's version of why the third album is so much "quieter" than the first two. He claimed that much of the groups equipment was stolen from JFK Airport just before they flew to LA for the sessions. Without their special effects and high-powered amps, they were thus forced to play at a lower volume and make use of more conventional, less distorted textures. Doug Yule, however, had no recollection of such an incident. Furthermore, he said in a 1995 interview, No one was using fuzz boxes as far as I know. We didnt have any effects on stage. We walked on, plugged into the amps, and that was it. We didnt have pedals." In another interview he elaborated, "If the story were true and the effects boxes had been stolen and they were so important, why wouldnt some replacements have been found? Certainly in LA there would have been some kind of substitutions." Vic Briggs, who produced the third album sessions for a few days before leaving by mutual agreement, told me that "Right around the corner from TTG [the studios in which the sessions took place], there was an equipment rental place [Studio Instrument Rentals, commonly abbreviated to SIR]. It was run by Ken Berry, who was the brother of Jan Berry [from] Jan & Dean. And of course, they had everything. They were not on call 24 hours a day, but almost. They could have anything there in five minutes flat." In all the story of the stolen equipment is one I and many others, I suspect, would love to be true because it's so unusual and would seem to explain to a large degree the different tone of the third album. It seems, though, that Morrison took some poetic license in the telling of this story, or just remembered it wrong. The third album probably sounds the way it does just because it's an outgrowth of where the band and Reed's songwriting were heading.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 6 Jun 09 22:00
As an aside, I think one reason some myths have sprung up around the Velvet Underground is that, unlike virtually every other major rock act of the time, they were never filmed in a situation that caught them at their best, or even caught them doing songs that were representative of their sound. There's an hour-long Warhol film from early 1966 that shows them doing an interminable jam in the factory, with crappy sound, whereas you'd much rather have them on film doing songs like "Venus in Furs" or "All Tomorrow's Parties." Other bits and pieces survive, but nothing really satisfactory. There's a very short silent film of Reed, Cale, and Morrison working out "Sunday Morning"; a film of about 20 minutes of the Velvets (minus Reed or Nico) in Chicago in mid-1966 that barely shows the band, and is more a document of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia show; and scattered lo-fi bits of the Nico lineup. I did find out they were filmed at a gig in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1970, but this was a trio without Maureen Tucker, and filmed without sound. Also, I was able to verify that there's a one-reel, 33-minute, color sound work entitled "The Velvet Underground In Boston" that might be of a VU concert at the Boston Tea Party, probably in August 1967. Four decades later, it has still not been seen, but it is scheduled to be preserved by the Andy Warhol Museum in the near future, at which point more will be revealed and confirmed about its contents. Paul Morrissey, however, does not remember taking footage of the Velvets in Boston, or indeed anywhere else they toured. My guess is that if it *is* of a VU concert in Boston, unfortunately, it'll probably have poor sound and visuals that don't let you see what the band are doing clearly, in keeping with most Warhol-affiliated films of the era. Not having made and preserved a decent document of the Velvet Underground in their prime on film -- especially considering all the people wandering around with film equipment in their vicinity -- is in my view the worst mistake the band and their associates made, career-wise. For all the mistakes regarding their management and promotion and the commercial failure that went with it, at least a great of music they recorded in the studio live and onstage is preserved. But there's no worthwhile film to enhance their legacy. There *is* French TV film of the Reed/Cale/Nico semi-reunion concert in Paris in January 1972 that's good to have, but it's not the same thing.
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 7 Jun 09 03:52
One reason they may not have played New York during those crucial years is that there were very few clubs featuring rock. I lived in New York in '66-'67, and remember having my choice of the Cafe au Go Go and the Nite Owl in the Village and Steve Paul's Scene under the 59th St. Bridge. The former were no-alcohol joints, which relentlessly pushed overpriced coffee, tea, soft drinks and snacks at you. Three bucks for a coke in '66 was really something, after all, but it meant you could see the Jefferson Airplane or Howlin' Wolf or the Blues Project. They didn't serve alcohol because that meant getting a cabaret license, the history of which is sort of a digest of the sad state of live music in New York. Performers with narcotics arrests lost their cabaret cards, and only carded performers could play bars. Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk were among those victimized by this stupid law, which caused many lovely bribery opportunities for the NYPD, who enforced it. There was also a perception that "the kids" didn't want alcohol at their clubs, that it was only teenagers who were into rock, so why put the music in a bar. Unfortunately, rents in places like the Village and 52nd St were way too high to try to try the non-alcohol club, and the only successful clubs in the Village were the Village Gate and the Village Vanguard, both jazz bars. (I have no idea how the Cafe au Go Go and other dry clubs like the Cafe Wha? and the Nite Owl made their money, although I'd always heard that the Go Go was a front of some sort, and the Wha? was small enough that their five-buck cokes could pay the rent). It's notable that almost none of the dry clubs in the Village lasted out the '60s as dry clubs -- the ones which survived went to alcohol and, soon, no music, although the Cabaret Act was eventually repealed. Most of the shows I saw at that time were in rent-a-halls that saw a lot of wedding reception business. There was one on 14th St. where I saw the Airplane once and Tim Buckley right after his first album came out, but I can't remember its name. So there were a lot of bands in New York, but no place for them to play.
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