Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sun 7 Jun 09 08:09
Still, for a New York band that's prominent (if underperforming record saleswise) not to play a standard gig in the city they live for three solid years is pretty willful. They might not be the best examples because both of these bands were much more theatrical, but two of the most radical/underground other groups of the time, the Mothers of Invention and the Fugs, did a lot of New York gigs in the 1960s (the Mothers doing a multi-month residency at the Garrick Theater). And apparently the Velvets could have played at the Fillmore East if they'd wanted to, but didn't, possibly because of their animosity for Bill Graham, dating back to their May 1966 gigs at the Fillmore in San Francisco where they didn't get along. It does seem to me like an impulsive passionate decision/vow that might have gotten a little out of hand, Sesnick or Reed getting more determined to stick to their guns as time went on rather than lose a little face by taking two or three bookings a year.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sun 7 Jun 09 08:23
One myth about the VU that hardly anyone pays attention now, but is fairly amusing, is that Doug Yule and Lou Reed are brothers. Reed took to introducing Doug as his brother onstage, and famously can be heard referring to him as "my brother Doug" at one point on "1969 Velvet Underground Live." They did look enough alike that they could get away with it. There's one poster in particular (for the Woodrose in Springfield, Mass. on January 9, 1970) where they look *very* much alike (reproduced on page 269 in the book). Those head shots were also used in the poster for their residency at Max's later that year. When I first got the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" album at the age of 17, I just assumed this was true, and that maybe Lou Reed's real name was Lou Yule. It only took a few months to find out definitively that this was not the case, but that's how hard it was to find basic information about the band in 1979. Doug Yule explained to me, "There was a time when he would like to screw around with the audiences head by switching me for him in various ways. Sometimes hed get on and introduce me as his brother, or stuff like that.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Mon 8 Jun 09 09:16
One thread that runs through some of these VU myths, but also through much of their fascinating career, is their uncompromising stances in regards to both their art and their commercial decisions. I think this refusal to bend just a little for commercial considerations definitely cost them success-wise. On the other hand, it's just that kind of uncompromising nature that fueled their music -- if they'd been more conventional entertainers, the music might well not have been as special. That acknowledged, what *could* they have done to achieve greater sales and recognition without changing their music? They probably wouldn't have listened to such advice if someone had been around to make these suggestions, but a few worth considering in hindsight: Make sure to get the band captured on film, playing real songs, in good sound and image quality. As noted a while ago, the absence of decent VU film footage is probably the biggest loss to their legacy. In the Warhol-Nico era (early 1966-mid-1967), I have to think that Warhol could have easily said to a public television station or two that he'd offer to host a special show, as long as he could have his group play a few songs. Probably at least one or two such TV stations would have gone for it, just to get Warhol on, even if they didn't know anything about the Velvets. Then all Warhol probably would have had to do (or been willing to do) was appear on screen for a few months introducing the band, who then could have played for 20 or 30 minutes, with the resulting footage hopefully carefully preserved. Big Brother & the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, as an example, got to play and be filmed in good quality for a half-hour program on San Francisco's public station (KQED) in April 1967, two months before they started to get a national reputation with their Monterey Pop Festival appearance. Instead Warhol used one of his chances for TV exposure to have Nico appear as the "hostess" of an eight-week series of films, "Pop Art Theater," on WNAC-TV in Boston in mid-1966. That included such camp non-classics as "King Kong," "Tarzan the Ape Man," "White Savage," Batmen of Africa," and 'Dick Tracy Meets Cue Ball." A script of one of Nico's pieces of patter survives: "Hi luvs. Im Nico. Its just super-marvelous being Miss Pop Art of 1966. Its something Ive always dreamed of, but never thought would happen to little me. Imagine! Andy Warhol, the famous pop artist, Campbell Soup Cans, underground movies, the Plastic Inevitable, picking me! But, Im not here to talk about little me, I mean, what Im here to talk about is so super-fabulous, these movies that Channel 7 is going to show for the next eight weeks, they are REALLY whats happening whereupon she is supposed to launch into a multi-paragraph recap of the plot of "Dick Tracy And Gruesome." Though the Velvets did appear at least once or twice on the Cleveland music show "Upbeat" (details are sketchy and no footage has surfaced), it seems they should have appeared on television more often. That was a vital means of exposure in those days, and plenty of pretty hip groups (and groups with even less of a commercial profile than the VU) appeared on prominent TV shows, even square ones. Sterling Morrison has said that he couldn't imagine appearing on such shows and participating in the corny sketches that went along with them. But it seems management could have arranged, at least once or twice, for them to do a song or two without having to do sketches. If that meant not singing "Heroin" or "Sister Ray" or something else from their repertoire that would have scared off TV outlets, well, I think they should have consented to that at least once. Then take a stand the next time they had an opportunity, but make sure you're on at least once. They should also have probably gritted their teeth and played the Fillmore East once or twice, as the interest from fans was apparently there. And/or, played New York at least occasionally for that three-year gap between spring 1967 and summer 1970. Even if New York radio was supposedly ignoring them, they *did* have fans in New York, and did get some good coverage in New York press at the time, with some prominent New York critics being among their biggest fans. And as noted earlier, if Lou Reed had been willing to stick it out for at least a few more months and stay in the band for just one tour after Loaded was released, I think that would have helped give that album greater exposure than any of their previous releases, and made Atlantic Records much more willing to promote it. Amazingly, despite all the commercial failure, I don't think the quality or quantity of the music they produced was affected (though a good deal of it wasn't issued officially until after they broke up). That's the most important part of their legacy, and thankfully that *is* preserved.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 8 Jun 09 19:35
A search for "Velvet Underground" on YouTube produces quite a few hits. Here's something interesting, in light of your last post: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cWzxJvgWc8
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Mon 8 Jun 09 22:16
Yes, I know about that footage at that YouTube link. It's a two-minute silent film from 1966 titled "Sunday Morning," by Rosalind Stevenson. That clip is taken from a British TV show about the VU, and they looped it or something so that it lasts longer, putting the studio recording of "Sunday Morning" on the soundtrack. Rosalind Stevenson was a classmate of Lou Reed at Syracuse University. The film shows Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison rehearsing in her apartment. I interviewed Stevenson for the book, and she told me that it's "strange that I dont have a lot of footage of them, because we were close friends at that time. I knew Lou from college, and we continued being friends when we were both in the city right after college. They used to come to my apartment a lot, often in the wee hours of the morning after [playing at] the Dom [in New York]. They would play music, and I was a filmmaker, so one night, I just decided to turn the camera on them." The film's called "Sunday Morning," she told me, because she's fairly certain the sequence shows the group actually composing the song "Sunday Morning.": It may have been something they had been already in the process of creating, and it was being worked out. She said might have an audio reel-to-reel tape of the song being composed, but I haven't heard it. Stevenson also directed the feature-length underground film "Deux Voix," which starred Elektrah Lobel, who briefly played in a band with Reed and Cale called the Falling Spikes around the time the VU were forming. She told me "All Tomorrow's Parties" was originally conceived by Reed for possible use on that film's soundtrack, though it wasn't used in the movie in any form.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Tue 9 Jun 09 06:09
It's a shame, agreed, that we don't have footage of the band to study and enjoy. The reputation for being "uncompromising" that you mentioned: that must have something to do (besides the extraordinary power of their music) with the band's achieving such legendary status. To what extent did the members themselves cultivate that image, or to what extent was it cultivated upon them, as it were?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 9 Jun 09 08:09
It worked both ways, I think. Not a whole lot was known about the band while they were active (and for quite some years after they disbanded), which itself contributed to their mystique as being so mysterious and menacing. Some of the tales and myths about the group have no doubt been embellished at least a little in retrospect, sometimes by the band themselves in interviews, though generally the stories they told seem pretty accurate. One big aspect of their image that contributes to that mystique, at least in their early years, is how they dressed in black and wore wraparound sunglasses. (When Nico was with the band, she tended to dress in white without shades, which was an effective contrast.) I think there was some deliberate cultivation going on here. The band have sometimes said the black colors were just the way they dressed, and that they wore those glasses to shield their eyes from the lights and strobes of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia show as they were performing. If so, though, it's curious that they were sometimes photographed offstage -- and sometimes indoors -- with those same shades on. There wouldn't be much need to shield your eyes from those elements then. Reed, Cale, and Morrison can be seen wearing those shades, with their usual grim non-smiles, on the photo of the Nico lineup on the cover of the book. Wearing the black clothes, incidentally, contributed to a memorable aspect of their stage show. You could often barely see the musicians in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable environment, unless the movies that were part of the show were actually projected on the band members. Here's how one audience member described it to me: "It was totally pitch black. The band,you could barely see.Thenevery so often this incredible white light would hit you in the face. They were showing some really early cut, supposedly, of "Chelsea Girls" [the Warhol-Paul Morrissey film in which Nico appeared] on the screen behind the band. So you could only see the band from the movie on them!" As far as what people assumed about their lifestyle, many probably just figured that anyone associated closely with the Warhol crowd was into hard drugs and general decadence, amplified by their most blatant drug-oriented songs ("Heroin," "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Sister Ray"). For Reed and Cale, we know that they did do their share of drugs (as did Nico, though probably not so heavily until after leaving the band), though their drug use probably wasn't as severe as many guessed; Morrison probably didn't do much in the way of hard drugs, and Tucker, who was quite clean-living, didn't do any. In his infrequent interviews of the time, Reed doesn't come off as a junkie or drug advocate, though occasionally he did say something outrageous and by the era's standards shocking -- asked about drugs by a Cleveland underground paper in August 1967, he said, "I'm in favor of any of them. They should be given to people immediately." That was probably a general reaction to the interviewer's inane line of questioning, though -- even back then, he had little tolerance for journalists he thought were foolish, though generally he was pretty friendly and cooperative, in contrast to the general tone of his media interactions in his solo years. Overall, in their onstage demeanor and what media coverage they got at the time, the VU did seem to at least partially project an image of a band that just weren't interested in the usual pop star games. They didn't smile much, some of Reed's song intros were very droll and sardonic, and of course they sometimes did things that they knew weren't going to be popular. This goes all the way back to the two-week residency at the Cafe Bizarre in the Village where Warhol first saw them at the end of 1965. As they've told it numerous times, the owner told them that if they played "The Black Angel's Death Song" one more time, they'd be fired. So, as Morrison once said, "We led off the next set with it. A really good version, too." Several people around the band I interviewed, however, emphasized that they weren't really that much like the evil and foreboding images that were often projected in their songs, their concert appearances, and their album covers. When approached by individual fans, Reed himself was usually very gracious and friendly, much more so of course than he would be in his solo years. Steve Nelson, who worked with them often as a club owner/manager in Massachusetts, designed a poster for one of their Boston Tea Party shows that showed them as child-like, smiling stick figures. He told me that he "had gotten to know them enough that I understood they were just being four people having fun playing in a band. I showed that poster to Lou, and he made some comment about, Well, howd you know thats who we really are? Cause that just depicts them as four kids having fun playing in a band. They were not these evil people all that druggy imagery, and all that stuff that was associated with them. When you got to know them, they were really nice. In a lot of ways they were the kids on that Tea Party poster."
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 9 Jun 09 09:30
By the way, I'm being interviewed about my new book "White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day " for the next two hours (noon-2pm Eastern time) on WMBR (88.1 FM) in Boston, interspersed with some rare music. Listen in at http://www.wmbr.org.
outside the law and honest (tbessoir) Tue 9 Jun 09 11:26
It's too bad they never appeared on the Dick Cavett show. His show seemed hipper than most variety shows. I think their decadent, drug-user image hindered their getting television exposure.
outside the law and honest (tbessoir) Tue 9 Jun 09 12:00
WMBR broadcasts are archived and available on the net in case you missed it. http://www.wmbr.org/cgi-bin/arch Scroll down to "Lost_and_Found" and click on "Tue Jun 09 12:00 pm" link.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 9 Jun 09 12:32
Thanks for posting the link. By the way, one of the callers on that show said he first became aware of the Velvets when he saw them on a TV talk program on Boston with Andy Warhol and conservative cartoonist Al Capp. He didn't mention them playing any music. But still, if this happened, wouldn't *that* be great footage to find!
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Tue 9 Jun 09 13:56
That would have been a real meeting of the minds!
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Tue 9 Jun 09 14:02
Thanks for the WMBR link, tbessoir! Richie, and everyone else for that matter, is there a particular song that stands out for you, with which you connect, from the Velvets oeuvre? There are several for me, but one is on my favorite theme: the redemptive power of music itself. When Lou sings, in "Rock and Roll," about how it was, listening to that "New York station" on the radio, about how "her life was saved by rock and roll," I think back to connecting with music like that as a kid, to staying up in the dark, with the radio turned down low. And I think about how the Net can serve a role like that, too. What about everybody else?
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 9 Jun 09 14:06
Richie, I don't have a question for you, I just wanted to comment that I am always blown away by the breadth and depth of your knowledge, your extraordinary access to stars and those in the know, and the amazing amount of footage you have acquired.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 9 Jun 09 15:01
Thanks, Linda. There are many Velvet Underground songs that have connected deeply with me, so it's hard to single out just one. As I've mentioned, my favorite recording of theirs is the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" version of "White Light/White Heat." It's just such a furious and tense performance from start to finish, going into some wild guitar soloing and dueling that teeters close to chaos but never loses taut control. And Lou's vocal on that is amazingly cocksure. I want to let anyone else following this discussion have their say on this question, so I'll just briefly note some of my other special favorites and why I like them so much: "Sunday Morning": The first VU song I heard, or at least heard where I knew it was them. A beautiful song, but also I remember the shock of putting it on when I brought the banana album unheard and put the needle (it was vinyl-only in those days) on the LP. I was expecting something wild and noisy, and this pretty ballad came on, and I thought, "hey, wait a minute...this is kind of *nice*!" "Femme Fatale": Great melody and enigmatic Nico vocals. "All Tomorrow's Parties": One of the greatest gloom-doom songs in all of rock, with another great Nico vocal. "Venus in Furs": Simultaneously creepy and seductive. "I'll Be Your Mirror": A great love song that says much about what we want and value most in relationships. "Candy Says": I think this is maybe their most underrated song, and just as powerful in its unearthly muted restraint as their all-out assaults. Also I remember the shock in putting this on the turntable; I knew the third album was supposed to be the "quiet" one, but this track, the first on the LP, was *unbelievably* quiet, especially in the context of the VU's prior career. "Lisa Says": The "1969 Velvet Underground Live" version. I can't believe the group never put it on an LP when they were active. Another great romantic Reed ballad. "What Goes On": The "1969 Velvet Underground Live" version, which has some of the greatest rhythm guitar and organ on a rock recording. "Sweet Jane": I prefer the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" version, which was more tender and deliberate than the more famous harder-rocking studio one on "Loaded." "Sweet Bonnie Brown"/"It's Just Too Much": Kind of a throwaway lyrically, from "1969 Velvet Underground Live," but rocks incredibly hard and gracefully. "Rock and Roll": The one song of theirs I think should have been a Top Ten single; if I'd been working at Atlantic Records then, I would have risked my job on lobbying the label to put it on a 45 (which they didn't). I think it's as close as Reed ever got (including his solo career) to laying down a manifesto; rock'n'roll *did* save his life, and if it didn't *save* all of ours, it made it incredibly richer. This is one of rock'n'roll's greatest anthems to itself. As Reed told David Fricke for the liner notes to the "Peel Slowly and See" box set, Rock & Roll is about me. If I hadnt heard rocknroll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. You know what Im saying? Which would have been devastating to think that everything everywhere was like it was where I came from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didnt do it for me. TV didnt do it for me. It was the radio that did it."
(dana) Wed 10 Jun 09 09:10
Neil Ingles writes: Richie, From your "White Light/White Heat" thread on The Inkwell: 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?'" I'm pretty sure it's Morrison who can be heard asking this exact question at the end of "Temptation Inside Your Heart" on VU, presumably referring to the backing vocal track they had just finished, or maybe the whole song. I think it's also he who mutters, near the end of the guitar solo, "It's not a bad solo." There's one nagging question I've always had regarding the 1969 Live albums, which are among my very favorite concert recordings ~WI rate 'em up there with Ellington At Newport or John Coltrane Quartet's Live At The Village Vanguard~W and it's this: does anyone know precisely which songs were recorded at The Matrix in San Francisco, and which were recorded at The End Of Cole Avenue in Dallas? Obviously, "Waiting For My Man" comes from the Dallas shows, as a Cowboys/Eagles game is mentioned by Lou Reed in his opening banter, but other than that little detail, I don't know which tunes are from which venue. There doesn't seem to be a consistent enough difference in the ambient sound to tip one off immediately, at least not to my untrained ears. (It occurs to me this may be addressed in your forthcoming book, which I haven't seen yet.) Also, I got to this thread via a link at Salon. The headline reads: "Is the Velvet Underground's music still relevant?" Um, yes. I got on board with the V.U. when I was fifteen, via an Italian import compilation, about two years before VU and the remastered LPs were issued by Verve/MGM, and they immediately knocked then-current favorites the Beatles and R.E.M. to #2 and #3. The Velvets have been on top ever since. Thanks for helping keep the interest alive. I look forward to reading the new book; Unknown Legends is already a personal favorite, and I love the CD that came with it.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 10 Jun 09 09:26
Thanks, Neil. Yes, the "Velvet Underground 1969 Live" recordings are addressed in detail in the book. Basically, everything was recorded at the Matrix in San Francisco in November 1969 *except* "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Pale Blue Eyes," "I'll Be Your Mirror," and "Femme Fatale," which were all recorded on October 19 at the End of Cole Ave club in Dallas. There aren't exact dates for the Matrix recordings, other than having been done in the second half of November 1969. The whole October 19, 1969 show, or close to it, has been bootlegged. Also a few more songs from that show appear on other release, mostly obscure imports. "It's Just Too Much" is on the "Peel Slowly and See" box; "One of These Days" and "I'm Sticking with You" on a bonus EP included with some copies of the 1990 French boxed set "The Velvet Underground, and then on the Australian boxed set "What Goes On"; and "After Hours" on the Australian box "What Goes On" as well. There are at least four more hours of recordings from their November 1969 shows at the Matrix. Fragments of ten songs (faded prematurely about halfway through; they were probably made as an example of how the tape sounded, to solicit possible record company interest) have circulated, and the sound quality is really good -- a little better, actually, than the November 1969 material on "1969 Velvet Underground Live." Those four hours to me are the holy grail of known unreleased VU material, especially as they include versions of quite a few songs not on the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" album. Discography details aside, the most important thing about tapes from this era is that I think they capture when the Velvets reached their peak as a live band -- indeed, a peak rarely reached by any other band live. They were becoming extremely adept at not only changing/beefing up/improvising upon the studio versions of the songs in interesting ways, but also in varying these versions and arrangements in interesting ways from performance to performance -- one of many underrated/overlooked skills of the band. By the way, an excerpt from the book covering the November 1969 Matrix recordings can be read on my website, at http://www.richieunterberger.com/vuexc10.html.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 10 Jun 09 10:58
I know we're coming to the end of my featured slot on inkwell.vue, so thanks to everyone for all the questions about my Velvet Underground book. A few other items of possible interest to readers: There's plenty of other information about the book and the Velvet Underground, including excerpts from the book, on my website, at www.richieunterberger.com/vu.html. Readers can continue to ask me questions in this topic, or by contacting me directly through my website, www.richieunterberger.com. I'll be interviewed about the book tonight on KPFA in Berkeley (94.1 FM, www.kpfa.org) by David Gans from 9:15-10pm. I'm doing plenty of events for the book this summer in which I'll play and show some rare audiovisual material. There are details on my website at www.richieunterberger.com/whatsnew.html. Since many WELL users are on the West Coast, a few might be of special interest: On Wednesday, June 17 from 7pm-9pm, at the Park Branch of the San Francisco Public Library at 1833 Page Street; On Tuesday, June 16 from 7:30pm-9pm at Pegasus Books at 2349 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley; On Wednesday, June 24 from 6:30pm-8pm, at the Central Library in downtown Seattle, at 1000 Fourth Avenue. Doug Yule will also be appearing at the event; On Thursday, June 25 from 7:30pm-9pm at Powell's bookstore at 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd. in Portland, Oregon; On Saturday, June 27 from 1pm-3pm, as part of the Writers Talking series at the Central Library at 801 SW 10th Avenue in downtown Portland, Oregon.
(dana) Wed 10 Jun 09 11:39
Thanks for joining us here in the Inkwell, Richie. While we are indeed beginning a new discussion today, you're welcome to stay on as long as you like -- it's been a great discussion.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 10 Jun 09 14:34
Richie, it's been great having you with us. I learned so much from reading your book and visiting with you here. THanks for an enjoyable conversation (and, as Dana notes, everyone is welcome to continue hanging out here, curiously adjacent to the newly started discussion about the Grateful Dead and growing up on tour).
Gary Burnett (jera) Wed 10 Jun 09 14:44
My thanks as well. I haven't participated at all here, but I've enjoyed every word, and learned a huge amount. I'll be seeking the book out!
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 10 Jun 09 14:52
There are some unlikely Velvet Underground-Grateful Dead connections, by the way. Hetty MacLise, wife of original Velvet Underground drummer Angus MacLise, was briefly a girlfriend of the Grateful Dead's Pigpen, and, in an interview with the fanzine Bananafish, remembered playing tanpura on the Dead's version of "Dark Star" that was released as a 45 in 1968. The Dead and the Velvets also shared the same bill not just once, but twice, in 1969. Coincidentally, both groups also used the name "the Warlocks" before settling on different ones. It was be reported that when they shared a bill on April 25, 1969 in Chicago, the Velvets played for so long that the Dead only got to play one set, and the Dead returned the favor the following night, playing a set of such length that the VU had to shorten theirs. In the fanzine "The Velvet Underground," though, Doug Yule listed the events in reverse order: That show the Dead opened for us, we opened for them the next night so that no one could say they were the openers. As you know, The Grateful Dead play very long sets and they were supposed to only play for an hour. We were up in the dressing room and theyre playing for an hour and a half, [then] an hour and 45 minutes. So the next day when we were opening for them, Lou says, Huh, watch this. And we proceeded to play a very long set. We did Sister Ray for like an hour and then a whole other show."
Barry Warren Polley (barryp) Wed 10 Jun 09 16:04
More thanks for sharing your work here. I am going to take a day off soon to revisit the music, and definitely need to check out your book too.
Brian Dear (brian) Wed 10 Jun 09 16:41
<scribbled by brian Wed 20 Mar 13 18:16>
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 10 Jun 09 16:51
The book was printed by Colorprint Offset Ltd. in Hong Kong. The publisher did the design, so I don't know what tools are used. I wasn't involved in the cost/production decisions, so I'm sorry, I can't answer the questions about how they got the book out for under $35. The Beatles book was actually designed and produced not by Jawbone or Backbeat UK (of which it's an imprint), but by Backbeat's US office, which is no longer in business, as Backbeat's US branch was sold to Hal Leonard (the publisher) in late 2006.
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