Friday, August 19, 2005

The second-most influential band ever
Why The Velvet Underground are so important

There is a famous joke by the redoubtable Brian Eno - "Hardly anyone bought Velvet Underground records, but those who did, went on to form their own bands." David Bowie, Patti Smith, David Byrne, REM, U2, Sonic Youth, Bryan Ferry, The Pretenders - they would all confirm this.

The Velvet Underground were a rock band that lasted just 5 years (1965-70). They recorded just 4 albums, none remotely close to being a hit. Their live performances were largely commercial disasters. The band's line-up kept changing. The band-members were weary and broke when The Velvet Underground finally folded up. No-one mourned the band's demise. In fact, they were remembered as a fad act promoted briefly by pop-art superstar Andy Warhol.

The world hadn't caught on. Today, almost 30 years later, The Velvet Underground are considered the most influential band ever, after The Beatles.

This is a mock interview with the two mainstays of the band - Lou Reed and John Cale. The facts here are all totally authentic, taken from their biography and autobiography respectively. The license lies in juxtaposing their warring spirits together, demonstrating how magic happened when two different artistic sensibilities became one - for a short while anyway.


Interviewer:
It is widely acknowledged that rock sounds the way it does today because of the Velvet Underground. Do you agree?

John Cale:
Well, uh…I don't know, I guess I don't really listen to a lot of rock you know.

Lou Reed:
How the f*#* does it matter?! The Velvets music speaks for itself. Why get the rock universe into it?

I:
Doesn't it sometimes surprise you to hear young rock bands mimic The Velvet Underground even today?

LR:
Yeah, we were always ahead of our time.

JC:
And we paid for that, didn't we?

I:
But at that time, 30 years ago, did you ever feel that what you were doing is revolutionary?

JC:
Of course. We were doing things no-one else was doing at that time. In terms of arrangements, guitar distortion, feedback, the works. And lyrically, we were miles ahead. We were combining avant garde and rock.

LR:
I remember, in 1966, John went to London on a Classical scholarship, he came back with albums by The Kinks and The Who. What we heard made us realise they were catching up with us.

JC:
And we were the ones without a recording contract!

LR:
See, I always harboured the hope that the intelligence that inhabited fiction and films would ingest rock. That was beginning to happen.

I:
Where did you meet for the first time?

LR:
Umm..early 1965. We were both 22. I was a hired songwriter with Pickwick Records.

JC:
I'm originally from Wales. At that time, I was in New York as an avant garde classical musician.

LR:
We worked on some shitty concept band project…

JC:
Then Lou played me some of his own songs, on acoustic guitar, like folk songs, and I missed the point because I hated folk music. Then when I read the lyrics, I realised how different they were - the lyrics were well-expressed, tough, novelistic expressions of life with a tremendous literary quality.

I:
What struck you about the other?

LR:
John was a very idealistic sort, with a great sense of purpose. He'd put himself solidly behind a cause… in this case, it was music. He was a superb musician.

JC:
Lou was high-strung, intelligent and very street-smart, yet fragile, you know what I mean? He'd been around and was bruised and insecure. He thought he was crazy because he was seeing a psychiatrist. That was nonsense, because no-one writing songs like that could be crazy. I found I could fit the things Lou played into my world. On a personal level, Lou was the sort of person who could survive in New York and I wanted to learn from him.

LR:
We had something else in common. Drugs.

JC:
Oh yes, it opened a channel between us, you know, a conspirational us - against-them attitude, which would become the hallmark of the band. We were just anarchists, but we were anarchists with heart.

I:
How did the band come together?

LR:
I had a chance encounter with Sterling Morrison, an old friend who was a superb guitar-player. He joined. Sterling's friend had a sister Maureen (Moe) Tucker, who was a drummer. The four of us gelled, so we were set.

I:
What about the band name?

LR:
Swiped that from the title of a cheap paperback book on suburban sex. Seemed to fit in with our affiliations and intentions.

I:
And then, Andy Warhol happened.

LR:
We used to perform at this club - Café Bizarre.

JC:
Perform, in a manner of speaking. We were really playing for ourselves, audiences were a necessary evil. We absolutely hated them.

LR:
That's why we wore dark glasses. We couldn't stand the sight of them. Anyway, Andy came to Café Bizarre with his entourage and offered to manage us.

I:
What was it that attracted Andy Warhol to the band, you think?

LR:
We were doing the same thing he was, in a sense - make people uncomfortable. Then our name, the fact that we sang about taboo subjects, our appearance - Moe looked androgynous, John's electric viola was a novelty…

JC:
Moe's tom-tom drumming, Lou's deadpan delivery…but Andy, he had a problem with Lou's singing. So they decided to have a beautiful singer-actress from Germany called Nico front the band.

LR:
Andy was this catalyst, always putting jarring elements together. We were selling a kind of screeching ugliness, and hey, a beautiful girl standing in front of all this decadence, worked.

I:
It was all about performance then, not about doing a record?

LR:
Oh totally about performance. We did this multimedia show called Exploding Plastic Inevitable. We performed, all in black, with backs to the audience, 2 Warhol films played side by side, 2 Warhol dancers acted out the images from our songs, while Andy focussed coloured strobe lights on the stage. F#*#*#* awesome sight for the mid '60s.

JC:
Then we did get to cut an album.

I:
Yes, let's talk about the music. That first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, recorded in just a few days, is part of rock folklore now. What made it so special?

JC:
Our music was really Method Acting in song… it was amazing how quickly Lou changed character from one song to another. There was a very urban slant, both lyrically and musically.

LR:
This was "real" music, adult music. We reached for the underpass, man, not the sun, like the west coast shit. And the great thing about John was that he was totally unaware about rock. So he knew no cliches. His bass lines were illogical and inverted and his searing electric viola sounded like a jet engine.

JC:
I always wanted to make everything a little slinkier, slow and sexy. Uptempo numbers never grabbed me. "Venus In Furs" was our sound because it was unique and nasty. Very nasty. Then Lou moved in with Nico and wrote 3 exquisite songs for her to sing - "I'll Be Your Mirror", "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Femme Fatale". Nico was supposed to sing "Sunday Morning" too, but the moment Lou got to know that was slated to be the single, he insisted on singing it himself - in a weird, almost falsetto voice. Typical of Lou.

I:
"Heroin" is probably your most famous song, tempo-changes and all. How did that happen?

LR:
I wrote that in college. The band really made it come alive. The whole album, actually came out pretty much as imagined. Maybe better.

I:
The 2nd album White Light/White Heat was your most powerful and abrasive, its core being that 17-minute masterpiece "Sister Ray". Still the album reflected a distinct internal tension. What exactly was going on?

JC:
We were at each other's throats. I'd seen myself primarily as a composer and arranger in an orchestra, but despite my love of language, I'd not written songs because I thought the abstraction of instrumental music was more powerful than songs. But words came easily to Lou as musical improvisation to me. But then I found that our collaboration was not as equal as I'd expected. Still, I trusted him and never thought he was going to claim all the publishing rights and credit himself.

LR:
We'd also parted ways with Andy and all other appendages like Nico. Life was tough without Andy's shadow, we weren't making any money. So there was a lot of strife. Our musical goals were different too by now. John's original idea - to create an orchestral chaos in which I spontaneously create lyrics- didn't interest me anymore. I thought we'd exhausted its scope.

JC:
That's crap, really. We'd just begun. Lou basically just saw the band as a means to fulfil his creative urges. He was more interested in writing pop songs with an emphasis on his lyrics- a far cry from material like "Sister Ray" which I thought was my finest accomplishment.

I:
Yes, you broke new ground with "The Gift" too. A short story set to music.

LR:
Yeah, that was again a story I'd written in college. John recited it, and we put a musical track against it, both on different speakers. So you can hear either one, or both. I recommend both.

I:
Your line-up changed now. John Cale left and was replaced by the much younger bassist Doug Yule.

LR:
Yeah, I fired John.

I:
Right. The music changed though. The Velvet Underground was a quiet and thoughtful 3rd album. A real departure.

LR:
Yeah, I finally wrote about love, which I was confused about.

I:
There are some classic rock songs here - "Beginning To See The Light, "What Goes On" and certainly your finest ballad - "Pale Blue Eyes".

LR:
That was about someone I missed very much. Actually, her eyes were hazel.

I:
There's a song called "Jesus" - was religion a part of life then?

LR:
Nope. The song goes round and round with the only words being - "Jesus/help me find my proper place/help me in my weakness/cause I'm falling out of grace". That's about life, not religion.

I:
Whatever you say. And "Afterhours"? Maureen Tucker sung that, didn't she?

LR:
Yeah, at gunpoint. It's a song from a very shy girl's point-of-view. You could say it was guileless singing, but it was perfect casting. Moe was a painfully shy person. That's why it worked beautifully.

I:
Were you happy with the album?

LR:
I thought it had this soothing quality, you know. It's the sort of album you'll like listening to after a hard day's work.

I:
Your final album - Loaded was catchier and more commercially astute than anything the band had done before. There are some truly classic rock tunes on it - "Sweet Jane", "Rock And Roll"…but you didn't sing on some of the other tracks, how come?

LR:
My throat was overworked from constant performing. So, Doug sung some of the songs. No slur on him, but he didn't really understand a lot of the lyrics. Also, Maureen wasn't on this album - she'd just gotten pregnant. Doug's brother Billy played drums. Some good songs on it, sure, but not my favourite Velvets album.

I:
For a lot of people, it's their favourite.

LR:
From the most advanced art rock band in the world, we were becoming just another rock 'n roll band. Doug, in fact, was being seen by our manager as the potential star frontman. This was the end, really. I couldn't do the music I wanted to do, too many commercial pressures. I didn't want to be in a mass pop national hit group with followers. Drugs also played its part - the paranoia that results from it. I left, and the band dissipated shortly.

I:
So John Cale was vindicated in a way.

LR:
After many years, I did see his point. We'd done something revolutionary for a while.

I:
What did all of you do after the band split up?

LR:
John and I went our own musical ways, Sterl taught English and later pursued his PhD. Moe raised a family. Life went on.

I:
And then, in June 1990, the unthinkable happened. The band reconvened.

JC:
Yes, Lou, Moe, Sterl and me - we were the band really - got together in a small town outside Paris to celebrate the life and art of Andy Warhol. We found that the spark was still there.

LR:
We toured Europe in 1993. The reception we got was f#@*#@* AMAZING, man. We were bigger than we'd ever been, at our peak in the '60s. Thirty years later.

I:
The Czech president Vaclav Havel received you in Prague, didn't he?

JC:
He was actually a great fan of ours. Apparently, right through the '60s and '70s, he and other members of the Czech political resistance listened to smuggled copies of our records. For solace and inspiration, he said.

LR:
Somehow, our music has seemed to always speak to the isolated. Being a Velvets fan is a bit of a loner's joy, they say.

I:
After being trashed during the band's lifetime, it must feel great to be feted today.

LR:
It makes me feel really good that our music is every bit as contemporary as we meant it to stay. People thought we were bullshitting, being pretentious, for trying to do something you could hear years from now. Something that would engage you, your sensibilities and sensitivities, in a way that is timeless and isn't just based on teenage angst.

I:
Sterling Morrison's recent death must have been a huge shock. Will you still play as a band?

JC:
We'd stopped playing before that, no-one could take abuse from Lou anymore. His behaviour at times was inhuman. To me, how a person like him could write beautiful songs like he wrote, is a bigger mystery than the existence of god.

LR:
Is our music available in India too?

I:
The albums are, on CD. On cassette, there's your live '93 album and there's also a neat compilation available.

JC:
What's it called - "Greatest Hits"?

(laughter)

I:
Thanks for the interview, gentlemen. You were both unusually talkative. Hope we can meet again to discuss your solo careers.

LR:
In your dreams.

I:
Like this one.

(You can tell this was an imaginary interview. Lou Reed did not have the last word.)


Gentleman
August 1999

1 Comments:

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6:59 AM  

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