Editor’s Note: Monday would have been the 73rd birthday of Lou Reed, a teenage hero to myself and legions of other disaffected white dudes, who passed away in October 2013 at the shockingly respectable age of 71. As with my earlier throwback post on Lou’s biggest fan and erstwhile partner in glam, David Bowie, I’m taking the opportunity to dig up a little bit of myth-shattering I did in the mid-2000s, reviewing Reed at one of the least conventionally “cool” junctures of his career. I’m doing this not (just) because I’m a dick, but because I still love Lou, and I hate the way artists’ personas are flattened and simplified and turned into two-dimensional icons, especially after they die. So this is how I choose to remember Lou Reed on this occasion: not as the eternally strung-out, monochrome Ghost of Proto-Punk Past, but as a real, working artist with an evolving legacy–one who occasionally broke character and dressed like Jerry Seinfeld (or did Tai Chi!). Rest in piece, Lou. I hope that wherever you are now, they let you wear clothes not just in black, but in any color you want. Even dad jeans. Fuck it, especially dad jeans. You earned it, man. – Z.H.
Myths. When David Bowie came to New York City in 1971, he thought a certain Lou Reed was still fronting the Velvet Underground: that notorious band whose early Andy Warhol associations had given them a very àpropos fifteen minutes of fame, but whose last two years of existence had been wrought with both personnel problems and public indifference. Of course, by then Lou had long gone solo–his breakthrough album, Transformer, would be produced by Bowie less than a year later–but at the time, the breakup of a band like the Velvet Underground was far from big news. Lou Reed was not a man, but a myth. One can even understand why, half the world away, European fans were still turning up for shows by a “fake” Velvets lineup fronted by replacement bassist Doug Yule: rapturously approaching Yule afterwards, convinced that he was the mysterious Reed. How should they know? They’d never seen the VU before.
It was a time before 120 Minutes, before Pitchfork, before a plethora of blogs were around to fill you in on the latest stirrings of every low-profile hipster act in existence. It was a time when myths, not fact, had the real rock and roll currency. And perhaps more so than anyone else, the Velvet Underground embody those strange times. Unlike groups of similar vintage and historical status, their true essence has remained shrouded in mystery and conjecture: we have the albums, a few archival recordings, some arty black and white photographs, and not much else. Few people got to see the Velvets while they were together, and still fewer ever saw the original John Cale line-up in action. So we’ve used myths to fill in the gaps: they were the dark horses of the peace-and-love ’60s, you see, a crew of black-clad, scowling, drug-addicted degenerates who refused to play blues licks and got their name from a trashy sexposé book they found in a gutter. The fact that this image is only partly true (if that) doesn’t matter a bit. These guys aren’t the Beatles. They’re hardly even real. They’re the Velvet Underground: part fiction, part dream, all myth.
Well in 1993, the myth shattered. There had been stirrings of a reconciliation in the air for some time: 1990 had seen the mutually antagonistic Reed and Cale reunite to record Songs for Drella, a surprise tribute to their old Svengali Warhol and as much an indicator of increased goodwill between the pair as one could hope. Even so, their announcement of reunion shows in Europe three years later could only have come as a shock. There they were, the original lineup of the Velvet Fucking Underground, playing to crowds who’d probably never had the chance to see them the first time around–and, chances were, taking the show to US audiences soon after. This never happened, of course; one can only get so lucky. But however short-lived, the effect of the Velvets’ reunion was profound: they were together and onstage, you could hear the songs, you could practically reach out and touch them, and with the release of the accompanying live album and video, you had bona fide physical record of their existence. It was the last gasp of the VU myth. And fans still wish it had never happened.
Such resentment, incidentally, isn’t entirely unjustified. It’s clear from the first seconds of Live MCMXCIII, a video document of the band’s three-day residence at Paris’ L’Olympia Theater, that the “Velvet Redux” of 1993 is not the same Velvet Underground who had been enshrined in popular mythology. Lou sports light-washed dad jeans (!) and a mullet (!!), spitting out the words to “Venus in Furs” in that bizarre speak-singing voice he’s been (ab)using ever since he decided he was “The Original Wrapper.” They play expensive-looking headless guitars, which are exchanged by techs between songs. For the intro to “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Cale even breaks out a synthesizer. And then there’s the new song, “Coyote,” which boasts such hyperliterate zingers as, “Coyote goes to the top of the hill / Doing the things coyotes will.” It would be easy to reject this video based on such shortcomings. But there’s something else going on here; something that warrants a deeper examination than just another half-assed, cash-driven classic rock reunion.
The fact is, the Velvet Underground never were quite as avant-garde as we (or they) like to pretend. Sure, Sterling Morrison’s solos on the “White Light/White Heat” of ’93 sound like typical guitar-band stuff, certainly nothing that would fly at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Yet we heard the same kind of solos just two years later, on “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll“: two songs whose arrangements here are straight-faced and faithful to the originals, save for a little extraneous vocalizing on Reed’s side of the stage. And let’s not forget that even the Cale-era lineup of this group was known to drop surf and garage homages into their live shows, sometimes smack in the middle of “Melody Laughter.” For that matter, what’s “Sister Ray” other than a 17-minute “Louie Louie,” with liberal doses of Ornette Coleman and drug-fueled deviancy? Fans can wince and cover their ears all they want at this Velvet Redux–John Cale sure wanted to, if his occasional dirty looks at Lou are any indication–but it won’t change the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this band is the real VU. Take those iconic, monochrome Warhol-era photos, strip away the wraparound shades and the junkie chic, and what’s left? Just another bar band? Maybe not. But the answer is probably closer than most of us are comfortable admitting.
Still, for the adventurous and the patient, there are sporadic moments here: traces of the Velvets we love and (think) we know. It’s in the extended guitar and viola duels between Reed and Cale that bookend “Hey Mr. Rain“; in the VU & Nico classics “Femme Fatale” and “Waiting for the Man” with surprising new vocals by John; in “Heroin” (see video below), which can never not be thrilling. Even the idiosyncrasies of Lou’s new vocal stylings become less annoying on repeated viewings.
This isn’t, of course, a performance to rival those legendary shows of the ’60s. How could it be? Half the appeal of those old shows are the myth that surrounds them: the fantasy that it could have been you standing amidst the scattered applause and audience chatter of Live at Max’s Kansas City, if only you’d been old/hip/underground enough. But there’s something satisfying, if not always enjoyable, in seeing the band behind the myth: confronting the songs head-on, in a modern and arguably complacent context, and taking them for what they’re worth. No hype, no myth, no bullshit. Just Lou, John, Sterling and Moe…take them or leave them.
Myths. Can rock even exist without them? And can we really enjoy the Velvet Underground while Lou Reed is wearing blue jeans? Maybe. Some people can’t even listen to the last two albums without worrying about their indie cred. But for me, ultimately, it’s the songs that matter. Not the myth–just great, great fucking songs. Here are fifteen of them. Go crazy; because pretty soon, the myths are all we’re going to have left.
Rhino’s Velvet Redux: Live MCMXCIII DVD is a reissue of the VHS version released way back in 1993…and, despite some increased picture quality and a chapter search, that’s literally all it is. There are still significantly fewer tracks than on the live album and only a little over an hour total of music, with zero special features. It’s a shame, and a little surprising considering Rhino’s archival reputation (perhaps the video masters for additional songs are missing?)–but for Velvet Underground fans who have never viewed this material before, and aren’t afraid to see their heroes in less-than-ideal circumstances, this is a more than worthy purchase.