BOOK REVIEW: ALL YESTERDAYS' PARTIES, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND IN PRINT 1966-1971, EDITED BY CLINTON HEYLIN (Da Capo, 2005)
Noted rock historian Billy Miller once made a comment to the effect that although only a few thousand copies of the first Velvet Underground album were sold upon first release way back in 1967, everyone who bought a copy formed a band. And they all suck! Well, in some ways I can see where Mr. Miller is coming from, but in all honesty this all-enveloping suckiness didn't begin until long after the Velvet Underground became a lionized-in-death entity and the myth-making became a little more mythical to the point of abject nausea. Let's face it, things might have seemed a little strange back in the mid-seventies when pundits were more than anxious to brand the Velvets as being the forbearer of glam/glitter rock (thanks to some carrot top who loved to brandish their name in interviews thankfully upping sales of the ARCHETYPES budget WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT reissue in the process), but when the praise turned into dirge some time in the eighties when more than a few self-anointed Mr. Knowitalls were more than glad to honor the group's memory with alternative-minded printed glop (y'know..."there would be no REM or Psychedelic Furs or any modern rock if these guys hadn't paved the way...") the entire mystique and memory had been shot to ribbons thanks to the wankings of a number of precocious airheads trying to tie themselves into the entire Velvet legend with shallow insight and poor writing abilities. And, let me confess, even I tended to fall into this chasm of seemingly-blind Velvets worship just as much as my brethren-in-fanzine-arms had, so don't tell me that I can't get self-deprecating at times!
But at least I first discovered the Velvet Underground's existence in 1972 while browsing the shopping mall record bins, and lo and behold actually purchased their wares four years later as a sound-hungry mid-teen (hey readers, try to guess how old I am now!), so you can say that I've avoided falling into the eighties alternative trap of faint Velvets praise fandom by at least a good five years. And I know this may be hard for you who seem to have a perpetual mad-on about me, but try anyway and give me a little credit for doing something years before and not behind the rest of this supposed rock underground hipster "movement" we're all supposed to agree with even this late in the game! Anyway, enough of that, and let me talk about this new collection of writings, critiques, screeds and unmitigated fanblab passing as honest review that was believe-it-or-not written DURING the Velvets' lifespan (or directly afterwards) mostlly by a buncha people who knew enough to see the light as it first shone, and it's a doozy of a book too. It's sure great reading about the best band to come out of the Golden Age of Underground Rock written during the Golden Age of Rock Criticism, and in many ways the two twains compliment each other like yin and yang, Laurel and Hardy or Leopold and Loeb...really, I haven't had this much fun reading about the Velvets since the seventies and eighties when I'd seek out even the meagerest of mentions even if it was a passing aside in some art magazine...just as long as I got the bared-wire essence of it all.
Anyway, ALL YESTERDAYS' PARTIES was compiled and edited (with the customary foreword and discographical/song listings more or less incomplete) by one Clinton Heylin, a man whom some of you know I do NOT have a great love, affinity or even liking for due to his refusal to return some rarities I lent him during the creation of his FROM THE VELVETS TO THE VOIDOIDS tome some fifteen or so years back. Jay Hinman thinks I'm a crybaby pantywaist for lashing out at people (not necessarily those who refused me promotional items) who've done me wrong and I guess that's fitting for a guy whom I assume loves to take the Gandhi route to total enlightenment at every possible moment, but frankly I'm a bloke who more or less subscribes to the wise words of one Edward W. Haskell who once said "Yeah, but you'd think different if you've been pushed around as much as I've been!" And pushed around (in many ways which I haven't even begun to bore you readers with) is just what Mr. Heylin has done with me, even to the point where I've withdrawn into my own li'l cocoon more than I should have ever since the rabid eighties turned into the crusty nineties just because of this bum, but hey, I guess that's my problem as the astute Imants Krumins once said. Let's just say that all that the perpetraitor in question did in connection with this project was gather up the writings and add his own two-cents in at the opening and end, and leave it at that. And once I get beyond the utter indignation of it all, yeah this is a fine chairside collection of smart VU critiques that enlightens me about as much as all those trips to the microfilm room of certain libraries wanting to know about it all hook, line and paragraph did in days gone by.
Manic Velvet Underground fanatics beware...this collection ain't exactly complete, or as complete as you and I would like it to be. Jonathan Richman wouldn't give permission to use his utterly magnificent and typically 1967 CRAWDADDY-styled free-thought assessments that Boston's VIBRATIONS actually had the wherewithal to publish back then, although Richman's "made it" chart showing the Velvets approaching the lofty heights of the Beatles (and God) by the year of 1970 (while the competition flounders into oblivion two years prior) thankfully pops up to show us what could (and should?) have been. Other little yet potent bits such as an extremely negative review of WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT from STEREO REVIEW as well as a paragraph about how someone-or-other (an aficionado of experimental music of some reputed standing) thought that "Sister Ray" surpassed all avant garde "serious" music by the way the song devolved from three to two to one to NO chords (astute Velvets chronologers can surely tell me just where this piece originally appeared...haven't read it since 1979 and I do recall it appearing in some digest-sized and otherwise stodgy classical music periodical) should be here but isn't. Still, what we do get is just what we've needed ever since the Velvet spark struck you, hopefully before it struck just about every other current practitioner of the form whom you just have the sneaking suspicion woulda run away to the warm and open arms of the Sandpipers had they been exposed to the Velvets' full blast back in 1966. But I'm just guessing...I don't want to incur the wrath of Wimpblog Nation do I???
Old faves reappear...Wayne McGuire's classic critique of WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT (which surpasses the usual limitations of standard album reviews not only of then but now, almost taking on the basis for the formation of a secret, cult-like religion surrounding the band) appears, with Mel Lyman's "Declaration of Creation" fortunately not lopped off unlike its presentation in the uniformly substandard Velvet Underground anthology that was making the rounds a few years back...if you want to know the difference between smart talk and dunce talk just compare these two tomes, the latter of which proves just how nauseating the Velvets as a save-the-world aggregate tied in with every precocious cause on the face of the earth can be! (And what's most surprising about the inclusion of this article is not that it pops up in this anthology---that was expected---but in the opening where Heylin actually shows his ignorance about the title of the piece, "The Boston Sound," and what it is a reference to...not the Hallucinations or Remains or even Van Morrison as Heylin surmises but the MGM-hyped "BOSSTOWN SOUND" attempt at creating an East Coast San Fran scene via the erstwhile New England burgh! In it, McGuire states that the Velvet Underground, although New Yorkers by birth, are the only group who could claim being part and parcel of the Boston Sound only Heylin didn't pick up on this not-so-obscure bit of rock history which is surprising since I thought the guy was smart enough to know at least that!) A whole lotta items I first got hold of via that fanzine-styled Velvet Underground collection of old and new scribings that wafted off from the British Isles sometime in 1992 also appear (featuring rarities that originally popped up in magazines as diverse as CIRCUS and ZIGZAG), as does Lester Bangs' 1971 eulogy from CREEM which fittingly closes the book. (Actually, Patti Smith's poem that opened the Velvet's 1996 induction into the Rock and Roll [inc.] Hall of Fame rounds things out, and you'd'a thunk that mebbee she wrote something about 'em while they were still around because I woulda gone for that much more'n her latterday reconstituted hippie self!) However, it's the new-to-my-eyeballs material that got me hot and rarin' to go and (coupled with a particularly searing 1980 20+-minute live track from Les Rallizes Denudes that captured more of the early-Velvet aura than most alternative groups think they do) zoned me into a true sonic-distortion-cum-good reading high that one rarely gets w/o the use of back alley pharmaceuticals, not that I would know...
Not too much on the very early days that I would like to know EVERYTHING about, though it's fun reading noted NEW YORK TIMES film critic Bosley Crowther put his two-cents in, and frankly that's all his opinion was worth! (An earlier TIMES writer covering the January '66 psychiatrists' convention held at Delmonico's refers to the Velvets' music as "a combination of rock & roll and Egyptian belly dance music" which does make more sense than some of the drivel being tossed at the band during those days.) Given the advanced nature of the Velvets you would imagine that most of the coverage of their early Cale days would devolve into freak show musings, though the likes of McGuire, CRAWDADDY's own Sandy Pearlman and scant others tend to pull everything back in orbit with their decidedly non-gimmick opines that we sure could have used a lot more of if only to judge the band by the standards of the higher minds of the day as opposed to the more laid-back who unfortunately tried monopolizing the rock press at the time. (And it's too bad that Heylin didn't comb the non-English speaking world for their take on the Velvets phenomena like he should've. Given how much they influenced the krautrock and general jamz scene in Europe there must have been a plethora of interesting articles presented over there! Perhaps some enterprising Aryan will do a volume two?)
Naturally the post-Cale days (especially by the time these guys hit the oft-lauded summer-long gig at Max's Kansas City) tend to take up a good hunk of this book, and although I've been one guy who has followed that standard storyline about how John Cale (the actual "leader" of the Velvet Underground no matter how much Lou Reed doth protest, and it even says so on page four!) was the group's real guiding light and how Doug Yule, for all his suburban innocence, was merely a backing musician glorified to co-leader, I gotta admit that reading about the later days has renewed my original lost faith in them. For you see, (as stated on page 179) even the new Velvets sounded just as early-Velvets as all those other groups who had feasted upon the corpse of the Cale-period, so even with the jettisoning of the avant garde qualities the group was still as avant as the competition who claimed to take it all from the loin of Johnny Viola. And there still are some real surprises even this late in the information game to be found here and there...take this line I got from a review of an early Max's gig written by one Richard Nusser that appeared in THE VILLAGE VOICE July 2, 1970..."They have influenced many groups, including the Beatles, the Stones and the Airplane (who lifted one of Maureen Tucker's drum riffs line for line and used it on one of their biggest singles.)" Certainly fodder for the comment box, dontcha think??? I mean, I knew about the Stones using various Velvet moves..."Stray Cat Blues" and a lot of their material up to and including EXILE ON MAIN STREET being the strongest cases in point, and Mike Snider mentioned how parts of THE WHITE ALBUM were obviously Velvet-inspired when I pondered such a question to him well over a decade back (maybe the Plastic Ono Band had a Velvets influence if various McGuire and Bangsian comments could be taken prima-facie), but the Velvets influencing none other than the Jefferson Airplane, a ragtag buncha hippies right out of the heart of commercial San Francisco??? Big Brother and the Holding Company maybe, but I never did see the Airplane having any Velvet moves even if some have compared Papa John Creach's violin playing on BARK to Cale's early viola grinds. Anyway, what do you think??? (Then again, I never studied their music dilligently or in fact heard much of it outside of SURREALISTIC PILLOW, so it's not like I'm the big expert or anything that I'm sure a qualified mind like Lenny Kaye [who appears here and on more than one occasion] undoubtedly is.) Any documented proof (or at least off-the-top musings) as to just how much Gracie and company were swiping ideas from the Velvets? Your (smart) thoughts appreciated.
Needless to say, ALL YESTERDAYS' PARTIES is a wondrous, brain-probing and inspiring book that reminds me of just how fun it was not only listening to but reading about and even seeing the Velvet Underground's name sublimely dropped back in those just-learning-about-it-all days because they seemed like a concept just custom made for me and my general doofus suburbanitis and still do all these years later (thoughts of reading a review of Roxy Music's COUNTRY LIFE in STONE with the reference to the Velvets wallowing in decadence still stick in my mind thirty years later, but that's the kinda guy I am). I dunno if you are or were as maniacal about this stuff as I remain after all these years, but this tome for our times makes for some pretty fine reading especially after getting your fill of a lotta modern-day rock critiques that seem to have about as much in common with the originators of the form (Bangs, Meltzer, McGuire...) as a lotta the new drone rock has with the Velvets, mainly an nth-generation, watered down variation of the original. And frankly, I've had more than enough of that these past twentysome years!
A cool aside: although not in this book for obvious reasons (mainly being written almost five years after Lou left thus being well outside the natural life of the band), I just came across a great history/personal recollection of the Velvets written by the infamous and late Lance Loud, created for the pages of none other than a pre-heavy metal HIT PARADER (June, 1975) back when the mag was swinging between hard rock ruminations and Wayne County reports. Now I'm a fellow who never was what you'd call a fan or follower of Mr. Loud...in fact, there wasn't even any PBS station on in this area when AN AMERICAN FAMILY first popped up on the tee-vee screens and Lance announced his gayness to the world while his parents were on the brink of divorce. (I did catch part of an episode years later when there was a PBS station on in our area and the show was finally being broadcast here, if only to hopefully get a glimpse of Loud's group the Mumps [or actually, Loudness], but the show was so boring that I quickly clicked the thing off even though I guess Lance's group did perform "Brown Sugar" sometime in the program's run.) In fact, I never even was a fan of Loud when he was hanging out with Andy Warhol (an old phone pal) and writing his own column for CIRCUS singing the praises of Suzi Quatro and Sparks...he just seemed like what I thought he would be after reading about him and his show (one-dimensional?) so why bother? In fact, despite being punky-looking enough and recording with Earle Mankey at Brothers Studio (getting pictured with group in an "what ever happened to..." story NEWSWEEK actually printed!), the Mumps just seemed like a tired rehash of watered-down Kinks British pop moves complete with the elements of early Sparks I didn't quite like tossed in, and even though old friend and Mump himself Kristian Hoffman was soon to be seen hanging out with the no wavers and appearing on James White albums (then a sign of real hipstitude!) I didn't really wanna waste my time on Loud when I could be wasting it on something good. But after reading this well-gestated and superbly-written piece I must admit I gotta change my opinion on the guy at least a little smidgie bit.
Now, it's true that Loud was a big Velvet Underground fan (read page xxii for an excerpt of a piece he wrote on the Velvets' 1968 Shrine Auditorium gig, the one that Lester Bangs wrote about regarding "Sweet Rock & Roll," for GADFLY) and in fact the teenaged variation used to call up Andy Warhol long-distance (and collect!) daily to talk about what he did at Max's that evening which proves the guy had some smarts upstairs especially being stuck in upper-class suburban Los Angeles, a place I never thought would cozy up to the Velvets' New York gutter image. And believe-it-or-leave-it, but his Velvets history is pretty on-target as far as gushing up all those pre-alternative feelings about the band as some truly guiding force (via the budget bin) in music history. Pretty smart talk here as well, from how the Velvets created heavy metal (not that surprising considering how the metal and punk genres seemed to intertwine until at least stadium rock separated the downers from the opiates) and how their mid-seventies spawn (in Loud's own words, Bowie, Roxy, BOC and Sparks!) were trying in varying degrees to recreate the Velvets' oeuvre make this not just another one of your Velvets tossouts but a history lesson told to you first hand. Surprisingly intelligent writing as well, and from a guy I didn't know had it in him given how vacuous he always seemed to be. Another interesting tidbit was his tale of reciting "The Gift" in drama class complete with a well-hidden cleaver that sliced open a handy tomato at the right moment, Loud earning a dismal grade despite his well-thought out attention grabber! If you can, try to search this article out (I'm surprised none of those earlier Velvet article "bootleg" anthologies never got hold of this) because it's more than worth the time and effort and best of all reads a whole lot better'n than the patented list of lame posturing that has been going on ever since the secret has been REVEALED,
Friday, May 20, 2005
BOOK REVIEW: ALL YESTERDAYS' PARTIES, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND IN PRINT 1966-1971, EDITED BY CLINTON HEYLIN (Da Capo, 2005)