My Velvet Underground

Just watched the Todd Haynes documentary on The Velvet Underground, and it sure leaves a mark. I’m not sure how much I need to add to the mythology of the VU but, simply put, white popular music can be split into two eras, before the Velvets and everything after. Before them, white popular music was always safe, somehow both too naive and too calculated. The songwriting might be melodic enough, but there was never enough grit. Listen too much and one might get a little sick – Haynes uses “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas & the Papas as a punching bag multiple times to prove this point. (The few exceptions to this rule tended to be white musicians trying their best with black music, such as the Rolling Stones finally putting the Diddley back into “Not Fade Away” after Buddy Holly couldn’t quite get the job done.) After the Velvets, there was an explosion that ripped popular music in a multitude of directions; each of the four core albums created entire genres.

However, because each of the original albums was so unique, not everyone’s Velvet Underground is the same. Todd Haynes makes his own version clear from the start – the first words we read are a Baudelaire quote, the first face we see is John Cale, and the first sound we hear is Cale’s droning viola lifted out of the Lou Reed’s masterpiece, “Heroin.” Cale is a brilliant musician but, with the Velvets, he was also a true modernist at an innovative peak, with all that entails. Thus, Haynes’s Velvets are the Velvets of Andy Warhol and his Factory, of experimental musicians like La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, and their Dream Syndicate, and – perhaps most relevant to the director Haynes himself – of the many avant-garde filmmakers of 1960s New York whose works he uses to place the Velvets in the context of the contemporary art scene. It’s all very well put together, but it’s in service of a version of the band that I admire but don’t love.

The first two Velvet albums have sublime moments – “Heroin,” of course, and the piano vamp of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” which shows how Cale’s fearlessness could pay off. However, they are difficult albums to listen to end-to-end. “European Son” starts off well but then descends into time-filling noise. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” now betrays what it always was, Reed aping and perhaps even satirizing Dylan. Much of White Light/White Heat sounds like the jokey backing track to a long-forgotten experimental art film. Sure, “Sister Ray” still squeezes out the sparks, but it can’t match its sequel “Roadrunner” by Velvets superfan Jonathan Richman (who claims in the film, adoringly and adorably, to have seen them 60-70 times and apparently opened for them as a teenager).

If the Velvets broke up when Reed pushed Cale out of the band, then I doubt I would care about them much more than I care about, say, Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart – interesting music in the back of my collection that I still usually skip when it comes up on shuffle. In the film, drummer Maureen Tucker makes it clear that Reed got rid of Cale so the band could “be more normal” – which is quite a statement to make about Lou Reed! Incredibly, after Reed replaced Cale with bassist and singer Doug Yule, the Velvets somehow began making music which was both wild, unhinged, AND listenable. John Cage had magically transformed into John Adams. The songs easily outshone everything being made at that time: “I Can’t Stand It,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “What Goes On,” “After Hours“, “Lisa Says,” “Sweet Jane“, “Who Loves the Sun“, “Head Held High“, “Rock & Roll“, and the compulsive “Foggy Notion” (which, amazingly, was not released until 15 years after the band dissolved because that’s just how it is with the Velvets).

The difference was actually quite simple. Rock and roll is first and foremost dance music. Even if people aren’t actually dancing, the music is meant to move you, to make you feel happy to be alive. Joe Strummer once described rock as the feeling of, after coming across a can on the street, kicking that can because it’s proof that you are alive, and it simply feels good to be alive. Go back and listen to Yule’s amazing bass line in “Foggy Notion” – it’s six minutes and forty-seven seconds of life, that much time without pain. Reed was now writing songs that could be danced to but that still had a perverse edge, a wild buzz, with the mysterious extra tones that Richman describes in the film. The heart of what made the Velvet Underground great was the hopped-up go-go band that still remembered sock-hops. (Consider how Velvet successor Pere Ubu’s best track is essentially a rave.)

Strangely, Haynes seems to be aware of this essential part of the band’s legacy even if it is always treated as subtext in the film. He cuts twice to Bo Diddley, once to “Road Runner” when Cale discusses the first time Tony Conrad added amplification to his musical experimentation and again when he describes the repetitive beats he loves in rock and roll. (Besides the obvious musical connections with the Velvets, Diddley was also one of the few early rock musicians with a key female instrumentalist.) I had to stop the film just to recover when Maureen Tucker described her experience when she first heard The Rolling Stone’s “Not Fade Away” while drive home from school – the sound hit her so hard that “I pulled off the road because it was too exciting to keep driving.” That’s the moment I recognized MY Velvet Underground in the film; I felt the exact same way, the exact same way, that she did when I first heard the avalanche of rhythm in that song. I recognized my Velvet Underground again when Haynes cuts directly to “Foggy Notion” – the band’s greatest song – to introduce Yule joining the group, a pitch-perfect moment.

While Haynes does recognize Yule’s contributions, it is also unclear if he tried to interview him for the film. Indeed, Doug Yule has always occupied an odd place in the Velvet’s orbit. He is typically viewed as the most lightweight member of the band – a journeyman drafted to replace the irreplaceable Cale – but I can’t help feeling that, without his arrival at just the right time, the Velvets would have never hit their peak, never become the band that I love. Cale makes a stunning admission in the film – that he has never met Doug Yule. Although original guitarist Sterling Morrison lobbied for his inclusion, Reed and Cale did not include Yule in their 1992 reunion, underlining that he was somehow not a part of the “real” Velvets. Well, Doug, if you ever somehow read this, you are absolutely part of my Velvet Underground.

I first heard of the Velvets as a teenager when thumbing through the sublime third edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, which described them as “the most influential rock & roll band of the last 20 years – no contest.” That was an intriguing statement, but how would I even hear their music? The few music stores of my hometown of Centralia, WA, certainly didn’t stock them, and even trips to nearby Olympia didn’t produce anything. They certainly weren’t played on our local radio stations, which was ironically in the full throes of early 90s alternative music at the time, a direct descendant of the Velvets. MP3s shared over the Internet were still a few years away and not something I could even imagine at the time.

Strangely, the first time I heard the band was on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s The Doors, which I had borrowed so I could dub Carmina Burana onto one of the camcorder movies my friends and I produced during high school. (We used Carmina Burana as a musical punchline because, even then, it was a cliché for overwrought direction.) The track immediately before that one was “Heroin” which to a sheltered teenager growing up in rural Washington state sounded like it might as well have come from the moon. I barely knew who the Talking Heads or the Clash were, and I certainly had no idea who Television or Gang of Four were. I had never heard anything so audacious, something so propulsive and unnerving at the same time. How could something this disturbing also sound so good?

Still, it took years and years for me to hear more Velvets. I caught up quickly on music before them, falling hard for Little Richard and Bo Diddley, while also finally getting ahold of their progeny such as Horses, London Calling, Marquee Moon, and More Songs about Buildings and Food. I noticed that one of my Columbia House catalogs finally had one – ONE! – Velvet Underground album, the compilation The Best of the Velvet Underground, which was a revelation when it finally arrived in the mail. For the first time, I heard “Sweet Jane” and “I Can’t Stand It” – songs which, again, sounded like nothing else I had ever heard.

Of course, I needed to get my hands on their actual albums, and if you grew up in the age of either iTunes or Spotify, it will be hard to describe to you just how difficult that was back then. Loaded, for example, was actually out-of-print in the US and only available via import. In other words, Americans had to pay foreigners to manufacture albums from one of the greatest American bands and then ship them on boats to us because, apparently, we had bad taste in music or something. I finally found my own copy of Loaded in a London CD shop in the spring of 1997 while spending a quarter at Oxford, costing me 20 pounds of my food stipend. Thus, I finally heard “Who Loves the Sun” while sharing a room with Christopher Tin on the portable CD player and mini-speaker I had packed with me from home. It was all worth it.

Years later, one of the perks of leading the design of Civilization IV was that I got to select the music for the game’s soundtrack, from the medieval Giovanni Palestrina through the modern John Adams. When it came time to pick music for the video of the Rock & Roll Wonder, a new addition for the series, I knew exactly which band I wanted. I asked Take-Two, a little sheepishly, if we could get ahold of The Velvet Underground or, at least, their label. I really had no idea what to expect, whether they would even consider it or how much it might cost. To Take-Two’s credit, they humored me and contacted Universal to find out. Turns out, we could get “Rock & Roll” for $5K, which sounded like a bargain to me.

The song choice itself was perhaps a little too on-the-nose; I probably thought having the song share its name with the Wonder would help distract my superiors from noticing that I was licensing a song from the people who had brought us the very family-friendly “Heroin.” Next time, I’ll just ask for “Foggy Notion” instead because it would be the best way to introduce a teenager living in rural Washington to the Velvet Underground.

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