WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT; THE VELVET UNDERGROUND DAY BY DAY by Richie Unterberger (Jawbone, 2009)
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: NEW YORK ART edited by Johan Kugelberg (Rizzoli International Publications, 2009)
Things may have been going slow on the VU front as of late, but (thankfully) these two tomes have finally made it onto our personal library shelves just in time to save us from digging out old issues of BOSTON ROCK in massive fits of desperation. And whaddaya know, it just happens that both of these books are pretty durn well-thought out and written slices of pure Velvet adrenaline, giving off that same beautiful dark aura that used to make people like me spend a good portion of the 1976-1982 seasons not only scouring whatever VILLAGE VOICE/NEW YORK ROCKER references we could find but had us trying, often in vain, to locate those then out-of-print albums in whichever way we could if only to help bolster that hot decadent feeling that we loved osmosing! Let's just say that if you spent those aforementioned years thumbing through just about every ROCK SCENE you could pick up, or if you (like me!) were so far flung from every reliable source to the point where you hadda rely on references in THE MUSIC INDEX and THE NEW YORKER club listings to get whatever fix you could then boy will these books not only bring back memories of Velvet-induced thrusts past, but somehow act as a proud revenge of sorts.
It's funny that both should hit the racks around the same time, and it's equally strange that they seem to aspire to extra-large coffee table book stature as well (something I would have discerned as being tres obtuse for a fan and follower of the Velvets). Since I don't own a coffee table they'll have to find a resting place elsewhere, but both Richie Unterberger's WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT as well as Johan Kugelberg's NEW YORK ART just might amount to downright essential reading if you happen to follow the same rockism-derived beliefs as I do, that of the ("our"???) music being birthed in the nooks and crannies of Amerigan downhome entertainment getting electricized and creating a bared-wire intensity flowing from the original rockers like Link and Bo up through the mad wild ravings of the mid-sixties punkers to the Velvets and their various spawn into terrifying heights, only to dissipate and dribble about once everybody seemed to jump on the bandwagon! If you follow that line of thinking then yeah, these books WILL be considered major reading material and perhaps a strange sense of justification in all our lives.
***Well, it ain't like I've been reading this Unterberger cat day in and day out for quite awhile y'know? It's just that our not-so-sweet parting back around 1987 still leaves a taste similar to the bottom of a birdcage lingering in my mouth. However, considering how '87 was a good year for breaking off a whole number of penpalships no matter how tenuous (Chuck Eddy comes to mind) all I can say is WELCOME TO THE CLUB, RICHIE! After all, it was you who was giving me a lotta hassles for those record reviews I sent in to OPTION (which might have been loaded with "obscure" references true, as if most of the reviews printed therein were easily understandable to the average guy in the street) and besides, maybe your lack of appreciation of sixties garage band reissues came off a tad effete to coin a phrase. It might have matched my lack of appreciation of those Pere Ubu tapes you sent, but then again I was in a horrid mood which would only grow and grow as the years progressed. Maybe I was acting quite gnarled at the time, but it ain't like you were helping any! But still, I really did value the way you sold off a good hunk of all those aforementioned freebie garage albums you had, and at bargain prices t'boot! Still cherish my copy of THE WIG LIVE AT THE JADE ROOM and some of those HIGHS IN THE MID-SIXTIES volumes that would have cost me twice as much had I bought 'em straight from Bomp! so perhaps you were put on this earth for a good purpose!
And frankly, I haven't read a word of yours since those days, unless we're talking perhaps some Cee-Dee booklet liner notes that I would peruse until finding out who the author was or a quotation in an article that just popped into whatever piece I'd be reading, something which was almost as shocking as when some mother would be watching a movie on television with her child only to see some questionable scene suddenly appear without warning. Yes I tried avoiding you like Dorothy Gish tried avoiding coming in contact with the Chinese Gongo...until now that is. Being such a fan of the Velvet Underground...no Constantine Radoulovich or Wayne McGuire mind you but a pretty manic one at that, I just hadda buy your latest book on the band even if it were to contain nothing but blithering drool regarding thee greatest reference point in true rockism history. The reviews were great and the descriptions to be found therein made this one out to be perhaps the end-all in Velvet Underground entomology and while I don't quite buy that line of hyperbole the prospects of missing out on such a collection seemed quite...shall I say...dire???
And despite my various frets and snivels I find WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT (coulda used a more original title tho'!) great in the way it gathers and disseminates just about everything we knew and more about the Velvet Underground from their early rock roots right up through the just-post Reed seventies and that brief nineties reunion that many of us had severe mixed emotions over at the time (well, I know I was in a quandary!). Really, this could have been yet another gathering of the facts with Unterberger just reading a few meaningful issues of CREEM and THE NEW YORK ROCKER plus all of the biographies authorized or not, but the guy actually went out and did some footwork, interviewed a number of people in the know and even cross-checked and referenced dates/times/etc. almost as well as Mary McCarthy (or at least the reporters following up on her claims) did in that anti-Lillian Hellman screed, and the results are to be found in this pretty thick book which I must admit sure brings out those throbbing Max's Kansas City memories in me!
Unterberger really did an A+ of a job here detailing the trek from the pre-Velvet days up until the endest end of ends when Lou Reed receives an honorary award at his alma mater Syracuse U., and he pretty much nails everything down in a way that maybe you don't mind his occasional interjections of his own personal opines regarding various Velvet-related recordings that might not jive with yours. It's all laid down year-by-year and sometimes even day-by-day, pretty much matter-of-factly detailing all of the sordid and important baby steps in Velvet Underground history and even if you know 99% of the saga by now it's sure nice refreshing yourself in the process while learning a few new tidbits of an obscure nature whether they be about the lost Falling Spikes members Elektrah Lobel and Daryl or some of the backstage wheel deals that might be disturbing enough to give a few of you readers of weaker constitutions vivid nightmares.
However, even with all of the research poured into this book there are a few questions and notable developments Unterberger either forgot or perhaps just completely ignored in the name of "expediency". Case in point...it has been said that the Velvet Underground and Nico had done a number of shows at Max's Kansas City in '66 (easily enough recounted in the Max's tome HIGH ON REBELLION not forgetting a NEW YORKER blurb on Television from '74!) but if that was mentioned here it must have been in one of those passages I "bleeb'd" over when my eyes began tiring late at night. Small point, but something a Max's fanatic like I would love to know more about so why the hush hush? While I'm at it, a lot more meaningful factoids regarding the influence of the Velvets on the music of their day would have been a welcome enough addition to this book, but other than mentions regarding the Deviants, Bowie, Stooges (whom Unterberger claims did not have a great VU influence if you can believe that!) and Jonathan Richman (as well as the interest that Italian popsters Equipe 84 had in covering "Heroin", not forgetting the double-sided pop-rock whammy recorded by Holland's Riats) there's very little if any recollections or notes detailing those acts who were clued in to the Velvets to such an extent. I would have figured that a reference to krautrock, a movement beginning during the lifespan of the VU that was in part Velvets-saturated or at least the acknowledgment that various big time acts were "borrowing" from the Velvets would have been welcomed in such a project as herculean as this, and it is stymieing that the grand opportunity to delve into this oft-ignored aspect of the Velvets' influence was passed up once again. After all, if they were the most influential group in rock as a '79 WKSU-FM program guide once stated, somebody please point out a lot more examples pleeze!!!!!
So in the long run this book sates even the more serious Velvets aficionado, the kind who bristles every time he reads about how they should be honored for making the world safe for U2 (a rant that does sneak in here albeit in comparatively hushed tones) and how their music was responsible for the wimpass mewlings of amerindie groups from the eighties onward. Things that I'm sure irk a few of the fans who date back to the 60s and 70s who hadda endure a lotta flack for their special tastes. But thankfully the mad unleashing of history mixed with the illios (some extremely rare whilst others so common one wonders "why?") made WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT a book that should sate even the longest-running Velvets fans to the point where I would think that even Wayne McGuire might like it. Its ability to conjure up that hard-driving intense ball of tangled nerve energy that drove virtual nobodies like me to the music certainly does succeed!
***While yer at it maybe you'll want to use this book of noted UGLY THINGS contributor Johan Kugelberg as a chaser. Now Kugelberg is a fellow who I used to be in contact with as well, but since we just "stopped" corresponding sometime in the eighties it's not like I have any great animosity towards him, so I approached his collection of rare Velvets epheremia with a lot less trepidation that I did Unterberger's effort. And as far as earth-shattering rarities go NEW YORK ART has quite a few of 'em...some beatific snaps intermingle with other such wonderments in glorious black & white as well as color and this hefty volume sure gives off an aura of riff-drone energy that works wonders especially when a few interesting shards of hardly-read interviews and articles and the like are tossed into the jamz. Such funzies include a Meltzer piece (from SCREW I believe) reporting on the incident where Nico eye gouged groupie wannabe Emmeretta at a New York watering hole while Germaine Greer and Patti Smith looked on which lead to Nico's skeedaddling the country for quite a few years. Others include that Lance Loud article from a '75 HIT PARADER which actually captured a lot of that Velvets-level fandom worship that would get out of hand once the eighties rolled in, plus a pretty revealing interview done for some late-sixties underground rag which had Reed ranting and raving about how lousy the Thirteenth Floor Elevators were! (Kinda makes me wonder if that conversation he had with future Roky pal Billy "Angel" Miller backstage at the Vulcan Gas Works in 1969 ended in a fist fight!) Now, perhaps I should admit that I found that catalog which accompanied the (Kugelberg-curiated) museum exhibit entitled C/O THE VELVET UNDERGROUND from a year or two back to have had a lot more of a personality to it coming off like a lost issue of WHAT GOES ON from around 1981 or so, but I'm not one of those kinda guys who complains about everything under the sun, y'know?