Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Velvet Underground's Lost Chapter

Originally published by PopMatters on February 12, 2010

By the time the Clash limped into 1985, they’d all but pissed away their good will from the punk faithful, and allowed suspicion, paranoia and rampant egotism to turn the band into a farce. With Topper Headon’s drug-fueled departure from the drum stool in the wake of the commercial success of 1982’s Combat Rock already cooling their momentum, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon then convinced themselves that whatever diva pretense was keeping Mick Jones afloat, it was too much to bear any further. Having jettisoned the undervalued rock swagger from the fold, the pair recruited a trio of bad haircuts to bow out with the oft-maligned Cut the Crap, a bloated album that handily arrived with its own review in the title.

In truth, Cut the Crap wasn’t a complete disaster. Sure, it was mostly… well… crap. But alongside the disappointingly subpar numbers drenched in standard ‘80s production were one or two songs that weren’t total duds, most notably the anthemic single “This Is England”, which when you look past the clap track and the rudimentary synthesizer isn’t really so bad after all.

So filled with shame and self loathing was Strummer over the swan song of a once great band, he soon disbanded the Clash and tried to find absolution by standing alongside Jones on the sophomore album release by Big Audio Dynamite as both co-producer and co-writer.

In the years that followed, Cut the Crap was routinely written out of the Clash’s history, from their first compilation of the CD age—1988’s two-disc The Story of the Clash—right on through 1991’s Clash on Broadway box set and that same year’s The Singles. In fact, it took 2003’s The Essential Clash—a compilation released a few months after Strummer’s untimely death—to finally allow “This Is England” to stand alongside the band’s former glories. The Singles has since been re-released as a single disc to include “This Is England”, and the song—along with its b-sides—is a part of the exhaustive 19-disc Singles box set.

To say the Clash have gone a long way to pretend Cut the Crap never happened is an understatement, but they’ve still got nothing on the Velvet Underground.

Last December, the New York Public Library held an intimate reunion (of sorts) of the Velvet Underground. This is the Velvet Underground in its second incarnation, the one where Doug Yule has taken over for John Cale. Yule, the prickly Lou Reed and the band’s longtime drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker joined legendary Rolling Stone writer David Fricke (and his terrible haircut) in a panel discussion about the Velvet Underground. Sterling Morrison was not in attendance, as he’s been dead for well over a decade. Cale, who either wasn’t asked or declined, was also absent.

While the Velvet Underground’s debut (with Nico) is often viewed as the band’s singular masterpiece, there are some—myself included—who tend to favor their self-titled third album and its follow-up, Loaded. How Yule’s influence was felt is unclear, but his arrival brought with it an often more focused, song-oriented approach. Of course, I love all four Velvet Underground studio albums, and by saying so it’s understood that like so many before me, I don’t count Squeezeamong them.

Loaded was released in 1970, just after Reed left the Velvet Underground for what has been an often infuriating solo career marked with incredible beauty and incredible crapola in equal measures. Morrison left a short time later to pursue his Ph.D in Medieval Studies, which apparently qualified him for a career as a tugboat captain. Tucker, the last remaining member of the group that recorded the classic debut, left in 1972, and Yule continued touring Europe with other musicians as the Velvet Underground, recording an album for Polydor called Squeeze.

Until just now, I’d only ever read about Squeeze without ever actually bothering to give it a listen. But I figure, since I’ve suffered through all 12 songs on Cut the Crap a couple of times, I might as well try an album that only clocks in at a little over 30 minutes. Because even if it’s not really the Velvet Underground, it bears the band’s name. And the cover is sorta cool too, kind of like the fumes rising from the subway station on the cover of Loaded have almost completely enveloped the Empire State Building (or is that the Chrysler Building? It’s both artsy and fartsy, so it’s tough for me to say.)

Finding Squeeze online isn’t terribly difficult. It’s long out of print, and has never officially been released on CD, but in the digital age it’s all over the place.

It’s difficult to go into Squeeze with an open mind, and that’s really Yule’s fault. It’s essentially a solo album released under false pretenses. Today, such a move would be exposed as a fraud within minutes across the blogosphere. But back in that relatively archaic technological era, and with Reed’s solo career casting interest on the former cult band, it wouldn’t have been hard for Polydor and Yule to imagine people would just buy that snake oil without looking too hard at what it really was.

The reviews are not favorable. Venerable online resource gives the album a single star on a five-star scale, though the review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine doesn’t discuss the music on Squeeze, but rather its brief history. Blender‘s one-star review essentially does the same. In fact, actual critiques of the album proper are as hard to come by as original copies of the record on vinyl. Rolling Stone reviewed Loaded, but with Squeeze not even released in the US, it didn’t rate a mention (at least one I could find with the excellent “Cover to Cover” archives.

Adrian Denning’s self-named website goes into much greater detail, though it counters AllMusic by claiming that the initial reviews back in 1973 were generally favorable. Neither Denning nor AllMusic backs their claims, though at least the former has clearly listened to the album. On a page devoted to the Velvet Underground, Squeeze‘s 7-out-of-10 rating puts it just below Loaded (7 1/2) and The Velvet Underground (7 1/2), and a respectable distance from White Light/White Heat (9) and The Velvet Underground & Nico (9 1/2).

So I’m left to sort through Squeeze sort of on my own, which is really how music ought to be approached, anyway.

The album opens with “Little Jack”, which upon first listen sounds like an early ‘70s Grateful Dead track, when the LSD ran out and they drank a little moonshine and turned all folksy. It’s followed by “Crash”, the kind of tune Paul McCartney might have sneezed into a hanky a few years earlier.

And so it goes, with Squeeze unfolding like a pleasant, if not ultimately faceless, rock ‘n’ roll album. It isn’t the Velvet Underground, despite what the cover says. It lacks the sophistication of Reed’s songwriting, and the smugness of his vocal delivery. It lacks Tucker’s deceptively simple drumming, which brought so much naive tribal charm to the band’s proper recordings. As a solo Yule album it works, but because it comes under the Velvet Underground name, it crumbles under the weight of prior accomplishments.

That’s only part of what made the idea of December’s event so appealing. That didn’t occur to me until I’d already bought my tickets, of course. I’ll confess I didn’t even know what it was all about when I pulled the trigger, having responded instinctively to an e-mail from a friend which offered little information. I only knew that Reed, Tucker and Yule were going to be together on stage talking about the good ol’ days.

It was only later that I relished the idea of Yule having to finally face up to what he’d done with the Velvet Underground. Tucker, too, played a role, not leaving the band until just before the London recording of Squeeze, though thanks to a 1993 reunion tour with Reed, Cale and Morrison, she was seemingly cleared of all past transgressions. Yule, on the other hand, was vetoed as a part of that reunion by both Cale and Reed, who when asked in 1972 if he knew where his former bandmate was, replied, “Dead, I hope.”

Yule was also left out of ceremony for the band’s 1996 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though maybe all that Tai Chi Reed does had finally softened his heart. Or maybe the notoriously cantankerous Reed just wanted one last chance to lash out. Either way, I was really looking forward to it.

But standing outside the library entrance along 42nd Street, I realized I wasn’t sure what I was actually hoping would happen in those hallowed halls. A shambles? A string of lies so long and deep the echo from a stone dropped into its chasm would drone on longer than “Sister Ray”? I guess I got all that, and unlike what press deigned to cover the Velvet Underground’s semi-reunion at the New York Public Library, if I was surprised by anything it was that Reed sounded far less bitter than I’d imagined he would be.

I’ve never met Lou Reed before, never seen him in concert. What research I’d done consisted primarily of reading well-worn stories by Lester Bangs or Legs McNeil and buying it when friends said, “That Lou Reed is a real asshole.”

Okay, maybe he kinda was. But I was taking bets on him losing it, or sitting there refusing to answer any of the questions posed by Fricke, a man who wears his wishes to craft a time machine and go back and play third guitar for the Chocolate Watchband on his corduroy sleeve. And he didn’t, the wily bastard. For the millionth time, Lou Reed played us all.

Putting aside the music, the history of the Velvet Underground is marked not by innovation or inspiration, but by frustration and disappointment. Whether it’s their disbanding all those years ago or their ill-fated decision to reunite more than 20 years later for the poorly received European tour that ultimately destroyed whatever was left of the already fragmented relationship between Reed and Cale, the Velvet Underground are always letting people down.

It began with what must have been intended as a grand artistic statement, but was instead another con, and one completely unworthy of the levels of deceit and trickery ordinarily associated with the Velvet Underground, a group whose glorious musical history is often obscured by the resultant fantasies generated by its players, both those on the inside and those on the periphery. This is nothing new, of course—the Beatles’ backstory is all full of heroes and holes, neither of which consistently hold up. Same with the scandalous and salacious legends of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Who, all of whom were around in one form or another when the Velvet Underground were pretending they were better than everyone else, selling the notion of intellectualism while screwing and snorting their way in and out of the Factory.

The stories have been told and retold, with something said yesterday often completely different than what was said today. Reed, in one of the night’s moments of pure egomaniacal genius, essentially claimed he doesn’t believe any quotes, even those attributed to him. Even those, for Pete’s sake, attributed to him in a book about the Velvet Underground that he’s endorsed.

Which, let’s face it, is the real reason why Reed showed up, why Tucker and Yule flew in from wherever they call home these days. They were hawking a book, a dense $50 retrospective with lots of cool artyfacts inside. It’s why Reed was on his best behavior, even when it felt at times he’d have rather been doing almost anything else.

Two screens on either side of the stage scrolled through photographs from the book as the music of the Velvet Underground played. As a pre-show hype con, it worked well. But then the lights went down, with a single spot fixed on a record player, one which confounded the poor fool whose sole job of the night, it seemed, was to start the thing. Clearly a child of the digital age, he stumbled and fumbled with the arm, dragging the needle hither and yon across the vinyl. Another industrious fellow stepped in and set the event in motion.

For more than seven minutes, we sat in the dark, “Heroin” ebbing and flowing as you’ve always known it has. There are few more powerful songs in the rock canon than “Heroin”, but if I’d wanted to force myself to contemplate it in a darkened room, I could have saved myself a subway ride and stayed in Brooklyn.

It was a con, a forced artistic endeavor that really had nothing to do with what the night was about. After all, the roughly 500 people filling the room already knew the Velvet Underground were brilliant. I know, because I’d stood on line with them, and I heard them foaming at the mouths at what they were about to witness. I was doing it, too.

Tickets for the event sold out in a matter of hours—not a few minutes, as the library’s program head wanted us to believe—and were seen on eBay going for hundreds of dollars. Bear in mind that this was never intended to be a concert, and was billed as exactly what it was, a discussion about the history of the Velvet Underground.

Fricke, a solid rock writer whose enthusiasm for the genre is easy to detect in his work, was a wreck. Though we were maybe 50 feet from the stage, we could see his hands trembling, pages of notes churning before him like an outboard motor in choppy waters. While he didn’t realize it at the time, Fricke’s obsession with the Velvet Underground’s pre-recorded history meant their later years went almost entirely unexplored. For Yule, that meant hardly participating in the event at all.

In fact, as Fricke’s spindly legs were cut out from under him by the library, I began to wonder if Yule had regretted coming at all. The guy was ostracized by the die-hards for carrying on the name of the Velvet Underground after Reed left, even though he was joined for much of that period by Morrison and Tucker. Yule’s discomfort with being called the Velvet Underground in those years was well documented later, but it still didn’t prevent Reed from wishing death upon him, and from excluding the poor guy from the profitable reunion circuit and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.

The crowd was encouraged to submit their own questions, three of which were selected from a large stack. The best of the bunch was asked by a friend of mine who wanted to know what the Velvet Underground thought of how the internet had changed the way people were able to hear their music, both the official releases and the proliferation of bootlegs. It was a good question, and it received a lengthy answer from Reed, who, curse it all, was kinda exactly what I didn’t expect.

Reed, at least based on what was happening on the stage, was happy to be there, smiling every now and again, cracking himself and the crowd up. It was unnerving.

They all looked the part—Tucker in a green sweater like the grandmother you wished you had instead of the two squares you actually got, Yule with neatly trimmed grey hair and a pleasant demeanor, and Reed, who though sporting a small potbelly, was otherwise in trim fighting shape. And though his ego was still there—studio engineers and label reps who didn’t “get” what the Velvet Underground were trying to do back then were deemed “stupid”—he also showed a great deal of warmth, in his recollection of co-conspirators like the late Andy Warhol and in the way he dealt with his fellow musicians. Reed heaped deserved praise upon the humble Tucker, and in a more private moment witnessed by my friend, made sure Yule knew his voice was ringing through the room when “Candy Says” was played. Reed was equally stoked about some of the rock ‘n’ roll music he’d grown up listening to, or having played on a single with King Curtis.

Yes, the evening was probably less about any of that than it was an excuse to sell a book. It was one I’d have eventually bought, though perhaps not until it arrived on bargain book shelves two or three years from now. But because the Velvet Underground were gonna stick around and sign the thing, I figured I might as well shell out full price for it. Which I did.

We were among the first ten people in line at the signing table, which put us right where the Velvet Underground were going to walk from the stage. They’re all tiny, which I guess isn’t a surprise. But because Reed’s personality is so robust and he’s so comparatively elfin, and because I’m well over six feet tall, it felt a little funny.

Yule signed my book first, and gave a very big and very genuine smile when I thanked him. The notoriously gregarious Tucker was next, and her smile and “You’re welcome” were as comfortable and warm as a blanket. Reed finally became Reed, looking up stone/prune-faced and totally silent when I thanked him before he turned back to continue a conversation with someone else. That’s the Reed I’d been hoping for all night long, and I finally got him, the glowering jerk, in one brief and private moment.

Was Yule’s penance for Squeeze an almost total lack of involvement in the evening? If given several hours to work, would Fricke have finally gotten around to that period? We’ll never know. But maybe it’s fitting that Squeeze is given the silent treatment. After all, so few fans of the Velvet Underground have even heard the thing.