of no fixed subtitle
March 22, 2007
LRB review of new book on the Velvet Underground.
I has three chords.
13 years ago
Really, it's an interesting review of a book that sounds pretty cool. Includes a long comparison of the V.U. and the Grateful Dead, of all bands, positioning them pretty much as two sides of the same coin. A piece:
Both bands originally imagined themselves as the ‘Warlocks’ essentially because each had a vision of enchantment, underlaid with darkness. (They both had to choose a different name because it turned out that a third band had already put out a record as the Warlocks.) Both bands offered a particular kind of alternatively experienced rather than danced-to or sung-along-to pop music, whose relation to the audience would be primarily hypnotic. It’s always been clear that the song ‘Heroin’, with its speedings up and slowings down, was supposed to capture a particular kind of experience, but never that the experience was meant to be infinitely expandable, that it lent itself to improvisation, or that it was perhaps meant to occur live, not on record. The ‘aim of the band on the whole was to hypnotise audiences so that their subconscious would take over’, Witts quotes from Cale’s autobiography. ‘It was an attempt to control the unconscious with the hypnotic.’ This accounts for the drone, and the songs built on long vamps of two chords (generally the tonic and subdominant of the blues, as Witts explains in one of his musicological asides). The hypothesis, Witts explains, is that ‘drones, as the ear attunes to their nuances, induce over time a psychological state fusing consciousness and unconsciousness.’ The logical consequence is that the Velvet Underground were not necessarily anti-psychedelic as such (though that was what they said), but instead insisted on a different, less sunny affect-world than was associated with West Coast psychedelia: ‘We thought that the solution lay in providing hard drugs for everyone,’ Cale told Witts in a BBC interview, but ‘there is already a very strong psychedelic element in sustained sound, which is what we had . . . so we thought that putting viola [drones] behind guitars and echo was one way of creating this enormous space . . . which was itself a psychedelic experience.’
I had skimmed it earlier in the week, HW as I check out the LRB regularly for the good writing on good subjects, but I know not much at all about VU, except watching some good BBC documentary a while back about John Cale's childhood in Wales and liking the man. I also got a bit excited when I briefly mixed up the author with the one who wrote Lipstick Traces.
we thought that putting viola [drones] behind guitars and echo was one way of creating this enormous space
So did the Indians. Not that that makes it wrong, just sayin' - it wasn't just
, before it was a whole genre of music before.
but I fussily digress - my apologies
Interesting stuff, thanks HWingo! I like the Velvets plenty but I always thought they were barking up the wrong trees. I blamed Andy.
"Oh Sweet Nuthin" is one of my favorite songs! And "Sister Ray" for how long it goes on for till the very end when there's just the buzzing sound and then it stops.
And to extend the V.U.-Dead comparison, to my ears and sensibility,
"Rock and Roll"
was always a way better celebration of what rock and roll is about than
And have you ever heard Alejandro Escovedo's version of "Pale Blue Eyes"? It's on
, and it's amazing.