Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Velvet Underground Dialogues, Part One: Sweet Jane, You Ignorant Slut

[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!]


Dear Steve:

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,
Pete

44 comments:

Gummo said...

I learned long ago that musical opinions are like assholes -- everyone's got one.

I also learned that you can't talk anyone into liking what you like -- it either works or it doesn't.

So rant away and keep telling me I can't possibly sincerely like what I like; I'll continue to enjoy Lou & John & Sterling & Mo's assault on my senses.

Gummo said...

2 more points:

- When I was 15 or so, I first heard "Rock and Roll" from the Loaded album. I thought it was one of the greatest songs I ever heard; still do.

- What is this reverse racism that says that any popular music that doesn't obviously incorporate what the writer sees as "black" elements is somehow inauthentic or racist?*

(*anyway, Lou Reed's oft-stated love of free jazz belies that comment anyway -- or is rhythm & blues the only authentic American black music the author recognizes?)

Sheesh, this really is stupid. I'm done.

billy b said...

steve's pal maintains that the Velvets lacked musical ability?

No need to read any further.

The Kenosha Kid said...

I have to say there were great bands that claimed the Velvets as influences - Television, for one.

That's it? That's the only example you could think of? Try EVERY BAND OF NOTE after 1970 or so - if you did a musical family tree with the Velvet Underground on top, the next generation could be Iggy, Jonathan Richman, then the NY Dolls, the Sex Pistols, and every band worth listening to for the last thirty years or so. But they didn't attract black fans during their lifetime, so I guess they don't count.

:mad:

Cleveland Bob said...

I'd have to agree that this footage and the particular dirge-like tune behind it lends itself to mockery and that sense of "essential falseness" that Peter speaks of quite well.

I'd also say that without a firm background in the rationale of why people shoot heroin, much of the mystery of the Underground is lost.

However, a hugely influential band which made the careers of not just a few artists like Television or Talking Heads is not to be so easily dismissed.

Beside Iggy, the MC5 and perhaps Zappa, no one has had as large an influence over the last 30 years of popular music than Lou Reed.

Credit where credit is due, please.

Oh, and by the way, fuck the Grateful Dead. I never heard them play the blues; just jangled, loose country-fried noise.

TMink said...

Part of their influence was that they were so modern way back in the day. More cerebral than affective, more irony than genuine feeling, it was ahead of their time. And then their appreciation for noise was important too. No Sonic Youth without these guys.

I think of Talking Heads too, not much girl meets boy, more boys want to be with the boys and quirky, off center affect.

If Talking Heads were Asperger's rock, then maybe the VU were Autistic rock. (David Byrne's first band was called the Autistics.)

So for me part of the interest is in the band's relationship to their feelings, and what they thought was worth singing about. Surely they widened the acceptable subject matter of rock.

Trey

steve simels said...

Hmm...I suspected people might strongly disagree with Pete -- obviously I do, which is why I posted it -- but I'm a little surprised at the tone of some of the comments here.

Please people -- can't we all just get along?
:-)

Seriously -- even though I'm a huge Velvets fan, I think the idea that the idea that they were an influence on "EVERY BAND OF NOTE after 1970 or so" is not only problemmatic but just plain demonstrably false.

The Velvets an influence on, oh, I dunno, The Raspberries? XTC? Steely Dan? Springsteen? The Pretenders? Elvis Costello? The Clash? Social Distortion? Radiohead? (Just to pick a few at random)

If by influence you mean "they did songs in English and used electric guitars," then maybe. Other than that, not so much...

Anyway, I'll weigh in on all this later in the week....In the meantime, you guys play nice.

NYMary said...

Well, I'm no VU fan. I admit, though, that this is largely a function of who told me I'd love them, and when. For me, they're like jazz: I can appreciate it in a disinterested sense, but it doesn't "mean" to me, not in any real way. Add to this an inherent distrust of hipsters, and you see my position.

I don't know what to make of the racial argument--and frankly, I'm sick of it for the duration. Not everyone who doesn't listen to or incorporate black music is a racist. Having said that, I find Warhol insufferable on a number of levels, and it's not a plus for me that they were his band.

I do think Trey's point about irony is well-taken, but I think for a lot of people irony in the late 60's and early 70's was misplaced--that is, the issues on the ground were too large to be ironic about. But I admit, I was just a kid.

Gummo said...

The Velvets an influence on, oh, I dunno, The Raspberries? XTC? Steely Dan? Springsteen? The Pretenders? Elvis Costello? The Clash? Social Distortion? Radiohead? (Just to pick a few at random)

No. Yes. No. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Does that answer your questions? ;)

steve simels said...

I hear absolutely nothing of the Velvets primitivism in any of those bands. If you want to argue they might have been influenced by Lou Reed lyrically, that's a possible, but I'd say it's more parallel than direct. C'mon, a political band like the Clash influenced by the utterly apolitical Velvets? Like I said, only in the sense that they both sang in English and used electric guitars.

Gummo said...

steve,

There would have been NO punk or new wave movement, esp. in America, without the Velvets and their 'fuck it, when all else fails, just make noise' attitude.

So no, no XTC, Clash, Pretenders, Elvis Costello....

steve simels said...

steve,

There would have been NO punk or new wave movement, esp. in America, without the Velvets and their 'fuck it, when all else fails, just make noise' attitude.

So no, no XTC, Clash, Pretenders, Elvis Costello....

Sure there would have. The whole Nuggets garage rock movement that largely birthed punk had little or nothing to do with the Velvets art rock...

The Ramones thought they were doing bubblegum, fercrissakes...

IMHO.

Gummo said...

Ah well, we must agree to disagree on this one.

I just have vague memories of every every punk band in every interview I read back in '76 and '77 paying respects to the Velvets, and (so I thought) rightly so....

steve simels said...

Gummo said...
Ah well, we must agree to disagree on this one.

I just have vague memories of every every punk band in every interview I read back in '76 and '77 paying respects to the Velvets, and (so I thought) rightly so....

Well sure, but that doesn't mean they actually sound like them, which for me is what an influence is. I think we're confusing inspiration with influence.

For example -- and I'm gonna take this up when I respond to Pete -- there's no question that the Velvets were influenced by r&b. How do I know this? Not because of anything Lou Reed ever said, but because one of the best songs on the banana album, "There She Goes," is a blatant rip-off of Marvin Gaye's "Hitchhike."

Brooklyn Girl said...

Wow! Quite a heated little argument going on over here!

In all honesty, the only thing I really knew about the Velvets was the cool banana on the cover... I found them unlistenable, indeed annoying, back in the day, but there's no way they didn't influence a lot of bands, the same way that Warhol influenced the art scene in general. You may not even like his work, but it changed the way people looked at and thought about art, and culture in general.

Brooklyn Girl said...

Or, using Steve's definition, perhaps I should have said "inspired" rather than "influenced" ...

halfdan said...

I guess I'm more offended about the bluegrass comment. Not about music??? That really made no sense.

But as far as the Velvets go, I found them (at age 15) to have created very beautiful and passionate music. (I'm thinking the Nico album here). Andy Warhol was the Campbell Soup guy; Lou Reed was that old wrinkled guy who had a novelty hit in "Walk on the Wild Side." But the Velvets, for a few short years, blew my mind. And they remain--20+ years later--much more immediate than most of what else was recorded in the late 60s.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I clicked on the song expecting to feel the same way I did when I revisited "Easy Rider" a few years ago... like, uh, what was I thinking?

But to me the VU still holds up. I love what they did and it transcends musical proficiency or PC arguments. It's art. That's all.

JftB

peter spencer said...

I never said the Velvets were racist. I said they were shallow.

And I never said bluegrass wasn't real music. I said some in the bluegrass audience aren't interested in real music.

Speedy said...

Play the Velvets for any disaffected (non-republican?) young person even now, if they haven't discovered them yet, and they GET IT. The other day I was talking to a weary-looking guy in his mid-twenties and learned he'd never heard or heard of the VU. I played him "European Son." He goes, "Oh yeah. YEAH. Oh yeah. That's it, that's fantastic."

The blues connection is almost irrelevant--though they knew very well what they were doing with the blues.

Peace.

Anonymous said...

P should not be pilloried and his words should not be twisted. His analysis is interesting, thoughtful and thought-*provoking* and understanding his point of view is not much of a stretch. Loving (or disliking) VU is not something you can or should have to explain, really. It's on the extreme end of the subjective-scale.

Hey, I think P is lucky. He probably had a healthier, happier post-adolescence than the rest of us and I mean that sincerely.

JftB

return of the plumber said...

A few thoughts:

I really love "Blues" music but not every bit of music I love has to be Blues based. So the VU not sounding black is unimportant to the argument. Steve is right about Lou's writing connection to "Hitchhike". Lou has stated many times how he grew up loving the black music of the 1950's. And if you listen with a an open mind you can hear it in the Velvet's music.

In 1967 when I first heard the "Banana" album I thought it was the worst shit I'd ever heard. When I heard it again in 1971 after being exposed to the "Loaded" album I thought "Banana" was brilliant and still do to this day.

So much of what we love musically has to do with what we are open to hearing and ready for. Enjoying the Velvets is real work and you have to be willing to do the work. Much of the best music makes you work to enjoy it but if you learn to love it, it will reward you even more then easier less challenging music.

Yes the Velvets suck but god I think their wonderful! They can't rock like the Stones, sing like Aretha, Otis and the Beach Boys or put on a stage show like Bruce but they are a valuable unique addition to Rock & Rock.

Mark said...

The whole Nuggets garage rock movement that largely birthed punk had little or nothing to do with the Velvets art rock...

The Velvets had roots in garage punk -- ever heard the Primitives, the pre-Velvets band with Reed and John Cale who did tunes like "Cycle Annie" and "Do The Ostrich"? They also clearly liked R&B, just listen to "There She Goes Again," "Temptation Inside Your Heart," "Guess I'm Falling In Love" or "Booker T" (the instrumental that's teh backing track for "The Gift." And there's Lou's teenage doo-wop band, the Jades ...

The Ramones thought they were doing bubblegum, fercrissakes...

But the Ramones dug the Velvet Underground. I've read interviews with both Johnny and Joey where they copped to digging them and regarded them as an influence.

If you don't dig the Velvet Underground, fine. But your argument that they aren't important (or good musicians) is built on a lie.

steve simels said...

If you don't dig the Velvet Underground, fine. But your argument that they aren't important (or good musicians) is built on a lie.


That's not my argument -- I think they're brilliant. The whole point of putting Pete's piece up was that I'm gonna argue with him later because I think they're extremely important.

But in any case, I just don't happen to think that just because another band digs the Velvets that their music necessarily sounds like the Velvets.

Like I said, there's a difference between inspiration and influence.

I'm sure the Ramones lurved the Velvets, but if you can detect the slightest similarity between the latters' Venus in Furs and the formers' Rockaway Beach, you have ears sophisticated beyond any I possess.

The Kenosha Kid said...

Venus in Furs - the name of a Radiohead spinoff band - but I imagine that is just a coincidence. Anyway, that's pretty much a straw man argument. Why did you pick the least Ramones sounding song you could? Because 'Foggy Notion' or White Light/White Heat sound too much like the Ramones?

Professor Gummo has pretty well schooled you, but I dug up a quote from Thom Yorke of Radiohead to torment you with:

Yorke: In Rainbows is a conscious return to this form of 45-minute statement. Of course, it was possible to make it shorter. But our aim was to describe in 45 minutes, as coherently and conclusively as possible, what moves us. In Rainbows is, at least in our opinion, our classic album – our Transformer, our Revolver, our Hunky Dory.

The Kenosha Kid said...

Andy Partridge of XTC: I think "Rocket from a Bottle" was a case of me trying to get Terry to imitate [Velvet Underground drummer] Mo Tucker [imitates beat] — you know, that kind of real idiot cardboard-box kind of drumming. But he also put in these little cyclical tumbles and things within that.
Link

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders: They’d play “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground, and you’d be sitting there for 13 minutes, absolutely mesmerized.
Link

Elvis Costello: My first album had things related to the Modern Lovers and the Velvet Underground.
Link

I rule!!

steve simels said...

In Rainbows is, at least in our opinion, our classic album – our Transformer, our Revolver, our Hunky Dory.


You think any of those sound like the Velvets? I don't.

Elvis Costello: My first album had things related to the Modern Lovers and the Velvet Underground.

Elvis said a lot of shit back then. Like "I don't plan to be around to witness my artistic decline."

In any case, I'm the one who LIKES the Velvets. Why am I being defensive?
:-)

The Kenosha Kid said...

Because you're a wanker. ;)

I am generously counting Transformer as a Velvet Underground album.

steve simels said...

I am generously counting Transformer as a Velvet Underground album.

I haven't listened to it in a while, but refresh my memory -- are there any loud electric guitars on that album at all?

MBowen said...

The biggest problem with the Velvets was that they weren't nearly as smart as they thought they were.

Cleveland Bob said...

Gummo's first comment today...

"I learned long ago that musical opinions are like assholes -- everyone's got one"

I think I'll stand by those words.

Funny. While I writing this I just saw an Ad featuring Take a Walk on The Wild Side. Don't know what it was trying to sell.

We should have a dialogue some time about all of the "brilliant avant garde" artists who sell us cars and soap and cruise lines these days.

I love reading all of this stuff, tho'. You guys slay me. Thanks.

TJWood said...

Venus in Furs - the name of a Radiohead spinoff band - but I imagine that is just a coincidence.

Actually, The Venus In Furs was a band in the movie Velvet Goldmine, two of whose members were played by Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. Three of the five VIF tracks on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack are covers of songs by Roxy Music, a band influenced to some degree by the Velvets.

As for Radiohead's own music, I do hear the spirit but not necessarily the sound of the Velvets in their records. I've read my fair share of books about and interviews with Radiohead, and I don't remember any mention of them by another of their members. My educated (at best) guess is that certain members (Jonny Greenwood, probably) are fans. If there is a slight Velvets influence, it is more likely by way of R.E.M., a band that has been championed by all of the members of Radiohead, and one I think we can all agree was influenced significantly by the VU.

dave™© said...

I think it was Lester Bangs who advanced the theory, when "Transformer" came out, that Bowie's master plan was, once he became famous, to suck up to everyone that he had stolen from and make them sound as crappy as possible.

halfdan said...

I said some in the bluegrass audience aren't interested in real music.

Well sure--you can say that about any musical scene. I just thought it was an odd choice, given bluegrass' (at-times) near-obsession with virtuosity. Those people (or at least the ones I know) are hard-core.

Anonymous said...

I'd point out another post at Pete Spencer's place, involving the Dead and their responsibility for the encouragement of hard-drug taking.

This is another thing that bugs me about Lou Reed and the Velvets - how many people tried heroin because Lou and the gang made drug addiction sound so alluring?

-Noam Sane

steve simels said...

Hey, you want to talk reprehensible pro-drug messages?

Ever see Trainspotting?

The first ten minutes or so of that are practically a Calvin Klein commercial for smack.

I don't think the VU's "Heroin" really comes close....

The Kenosha Kid said...

I LURVE Trainspotting - don't even start!

But the real point is the way you just got served - old school! - over at my blog

r@d@r said...

Please people -- can't we all just get along?
:-)


arguments about the value or non-value of the velvets is like mac vs. pc - they're arguments with no winners, only losers. it's like a land war in asia. people's passions invariably get caught up in such arguments - god bless 'em.

whenever i hear people say things like "i love almost all kinds of music - except country!" i sigh with resignation. all music has value. all of it all of it all of it. even if we hate it. especially if we hate it. just as all art has value, even if and especially if we hate it. because it makes us THINK "why do i like what i like?"

i also find that people who talk about "real musical ability" are probably not real musicians. the biggest fans of the velvets i know are virtuosi themselves. they understand that music is about more than how many notes you can play or conventional tuning - it's about feeling. and if you can't hear feeling in "white light/white heat" then you have strange ears.

BlakNo1 said...

VU, arguably the most boring band that ever drew breath, Better than ambien or melatonin for sleeplessness.

BlakNo1 said...

I'd sooner listen to the worst Bowie album ever made than the best VU album.

steve simels said...

BlakNo1 said...
I'd sooner listen to the worst Bowie album ever made...


Well, lord knows, you have a vast number of those to chose from....
:-)

TMc said...

BlakNo1 said...
I'd sooner listen to the worst Bowie album ever made...

Well, lord knows, you have a vast number of those to chose from....
:-)

Now THAT was funny

Do that again Dad - It was fun

r@d@r said...

okay, i'll bite: which do you really prefer listening to -
"rock and roll" off of 'loaded'

or

"let's dance"?

as for substitutes for sleep aids, i might recommend the last album by my former heroes at athens ltd. - "around the sun". used to be that news of a new album by them would make my heart beat faster. this one just made me yawn.

now THERE'S a VU influence for you!

Anonymous said...

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