[My old friend Peter Spencer put up a slightly different version of the rant below over at his estimable website/blog a few weeks ago, and I disagreed with it so much I thought it might be fun to bat it around over here. Herewith the first installment; I'll respond to Pete next Tuesday, and then we'll see how it goes from there. If you're not familiar with Pete, he's a hell of singer/songwriter and a snazzy commenter on all sorts of roots music: His book "World Beat: A Listener's Guide to Contemporary World Music on CD" was published in 1992 by Chicago Review Press, and I highly recommend it. He has recorded the albums "Paradise Loft" (1982), "New Hope and Wise Virgins" (2000), "Nobody's Daddy" (2004), "Handsignal" (2005), "Gathering Light: Christmas Music for Solo Guitar" (2006), and "The Blues Concert" (2007). His latest album "From the Island" is scheduled for release in the spring of this year.
Okay -- go get 'em, tiger!]
Anyone of a certain age is going to come up against the phenomenon of a band that ruled his teen years but is now pretty much unlistenable. I can think of several in my own case. But I don't think I've ever had such a "what was I thinking?" moment as when I recently came across the Velvet Underground on YouTube after thirty years or so.
I know the group's incompetence (or its more avant-garde members' studied cultivation of it) is usually cited by their boosters as evidence of their importance. But even leaving that aside, the whole scene seems deeply bogus.
Watching the old, grainy Andy Warhol footage of socialites dancing with pretty boys at various parties and happenings what's most apparent is the essential falseness of it all. At a time when rock musicians and audiences were defining themselves in comparison to the emotional truth (and political oppression) of R&B, you didn't see ANY black people at these parties. What person of any race who had ever danced to Sam and Dave could dance to this static, unswinging, painfully self-conscious pastiche of borrowed riffs and snobbish attitudinizing?
But this scene was not about music. It was a about creating a version of rock and roll for people who were uncomfortable with the real thing and its Afro-American, hillbilly, or Liverpudlian creators; people whom, if you told them their scene was emotionally dead and artistically bankrupt would say, like Pee Wee Herman, "I meant to do that."
I have to say there were great bands that claimed the Velvets as influences - Television, for one. But Television had in spades two things the Velvet Underground utterly lacked: real musical ability and real emotional commitment. So there was some kind of true musical communication going on between performers and audience.
Of course, there were and are plenty of other scenes that weren't/aren't about music, among them bluegrass and the post-Grateful Dead nouveau-hippie thing. But at least the bands in these scenes, for all the brainlessness of some of their fans, are trying to play the blues. And this attempt, however clumsy, means that they're dealing in good faith with the audience's emotions. That's worth a lot, isn't it? I mean, that's what we want.
Make me understand, Steve.
All the best,