They're beginning to see the light
The Velvet Underground by Richard Witts (Equinox, £10.99)
This comes in a series called "Icons of Pop Music". A note before the title page says it is "designed for undergraduates and the general reader". Never mind the general reader, it was the fact that the Velvet Underground are now being studied by undergraduates that had me pacing around the room, pinching the bridge of my nose and saying the title of the fifth track on their third album ("Jesus") out loud a few times. Am I getting that old? When I was an undergraduate, they had hardly been split up for a decade. Students shouldn't be studying the Velvet Underground, they should sit around taking narcotics and listening to them. You'll be telling me next that students aren't allowed to take narcotics any more.
Still, if you're going to have a highfalutin book about a rock band, then it might as well be about the Velvets as anyone else. (In passing, I note that a forthcoming title in the "Icons" series is devoted to Elton John, at which point I can only remark that a deep-seated spiritual vulgarity gnaws at the heart of our civilisation.) The Velvets were - to use a piece of appropriately dated jargon - the coolest band ever. How many bands, for instance, have had such an enormous influence on the subsequent history of rock despite having never, on initial release, charted higher than no 197? (NB MC Strong's very dependable Great Rock Discography does not grant them having achieved a chart position ever, at least until the posthumous release of VU, which reached the giddy position of no 47 in the UK.) And who else could have inspired the name of the single most extraordinary political handover of the 20th century, or indeed any century?
Witts doesn't make any mention of the Velvet Revolution; either it's outside his remit to remind us, or he assumes everyone knows already. Still, the notion that the band could be responsible, however indirectly, for a hugely beneficial social transformation would have probably made everyone in it burst out into uncharacteristic peals of laughter (photographs of any band member smiling are, to put it mildly, few and far between). Witts includes a little diagram at one point which firmly places the Velvets in the "non-activist" camp of 60s bands and acts; and indeed the idea of them possessing anything like a social conscience is risible. Sterling Morrison, their guitarist, is quoted here: "I was a very insensitive young person and played very insensitive, uncaring music ... Anybody who needs Bob Dylan to tell him which way the wind is blowing is a serious mental defective." You have to admit that that is peculiarly bracing, even if you don't agree with it yourself. Myself, I think Morrison has a point. The Velvets are so comprehensively understood as ice-hearted, heroin-saturated sadists that even when they put songs called "Jesus" and "I'm Beginning to See the Light" next to each other, no one mentions the possibility of a Christian element to Reed's lyrics. (Witts doesn't. He calls "Jesus" a "maudlin folly", which is one way of looking at it but not, I think, the correct one.)
The band went through a few personnel changes, but Witts clearly believes that they become less musically interesting after the departure of John Cale. He's undeniably right, and illustrates this with a good deal of Cale's avant-garde background with the Fluxus movement, and some not particularly general-reader-friendly musicological observations, which nevertheless help to prove the point that Cale was ungenerously treated by Reed when it came to accreditation.
Academic books on popular subjects can be impenetrable balderdash but this one isn't. There may be one or two spurious diagrams and lecture-hall tics such as "as we'll learn later", but on the whole I think the general reader, assuming that she or he has a properly unhealthy interest in the band, should be pretty satisfied. Above all, it sends you back to the music.
This review first appeared in The Guardian.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006