The Velvet Underground: The Ideal Jam Band?

Velvet Underground: The ideal jam band?

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 14, 2001) – It’s accepted as dogma that the Grateful Dead was the original jam-band, combining song-based rock ‘n’ roll – with roots in blues, country and folk music – with an exploratory, improvisational approach borrowed from jazz.

For better or worse, the Dead spawned an entire legion of bands in its wake – enough bands to base entire weekend-long festivals, such as our area’s Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, on the genre. While there are multiple spinoffs of the basic style laid down by the Dead, with groups emphasizing funk, electronic music, bluegrass, or psychedelia to various degress, in one way or another they all trace back their descent, formally, spiritually, ethically, and musically, to the Dead.

The recent release of a three-CD box set of live recordings by the legendary New York City band the Velvet Underground, however, suggests that today’s improvisationally-minded jam-bands might look back to another band with an entirely different approach from the Dead, one that could give the movement an infusion of much-needed inspiration or perhaps suggest new directions or pathways for jams to come.

The Velvets, led by guitarist/singer/songwriter Lou Reed, are typically thought of more as the godfathers of punk than the godfathers of groove. But if the series of concerts from 1969 documented on Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (Polydor) -- replete with 24-, 28- and 38-minute versions of “Sister Ray” – are any indication, the Velvets were jamming themselves and their audiences into psychedelic frenzies at San Francisco venues like the Family Dog and the Matrix while across town the Dead was doing its thing at the Fillmore West.

These 32-year old recordings, originally captured on cassette tape by fan and budding guitarist Robert Quine – who would later co-found New York punk band Richard Hell and the Voidoids before touring and recording with Lou Reed – capture the Velvets at their experimental peak. Co-founder John Cale had left the band by this point, and Lou Reed was soon to follow – effectively putting an end to the band – but not before laying down some of the most stirring, intoxicating guitar grooves of his career.

Quine’s liner notes reveal the incongruities that the Velvets stumbled into when they first arrived in San Francisco for an extended stay. In a scene that has been replayed at a thousand jam-band concerts since, “A number of hippies brought tambourines and harmonicas to ‘do their thing’ with the group,” writes Quine, clearly dismissive of the idea that a Velvets concert would invite this sort of audience participation.

Clearly, the crowd got the message, and the Velvets moved their residency from the large, Fillmore-type space at the Family Dog to the Matrix, a small club, where on some nights the show started out with only four or five people in attendance. Eventually, word got out that something spectacular was happening, even if it didn’t invite audience participation, and by the end of the month, reports Quine, the club was always packed.

The group sounds unusually relaxed on numbers like “I’m Waiting for the Man,” taken at a snail’s pace with curlicue, country-style guitar licks dancing around Reed’s vocals, lending the number the rootsy, casual feel of Bob Dylan and The Band’s “Basement Tapes” – a far cry from the Velvets’ signature street-grit and urban urgency.

Quine became friends with Reed during the Velvets’ stint in the Bay Area, and Reed confided to him his admiration for Roger McGuinn’s extended guitar solos during the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.”

Undoubtedly, Reed took some of McGuinn’s psychedelia with him when he went off on his own extended solos during “Sister Ray” or one of the other 10-minute-plus tunes the band would play, including “Follow the Leader,” “White Light/White Heat” and “New Age.”

“This is going to go on for a while,” says Reed, before introducing “Sister Ray,” and indeed the epic of drugs, sex and bohemian street life does go on at length, taking the listener on a long tour through New York’s East Village, down alleyways, up into squatters hovels, and into back rooms of after-hours clubs where people do things with each other that you can’t write about in a family newspaper.

Reed spells out some of the activity in his lyrics, some of them as improvised as the guitar riffs and explosions of distortion and feedback. While drummer Maureen Tucker and bassist Doug Yule pretty much keep the rhythm steady, Reed and fellow guitarist Sterling Morrison keep the song morphing like a changing landscaping, sometimes through single-note leads, just as often with crunching riffs of chords or non-harmonic guitar noise – the sort of sounds that would eventually form the basic vocabulary for hundreds of guitar bands from Sonic Youth to Nirvana.

The effect could not be more unlike the Grateful Dead and its legions, however, although it’s hard to pinpoint just why. One thing that clearly sets them apart is that the Velvets are never consciously jazzy, although with his classical and avant-garde background, John Cale certainly brought a formal elegance to some of the group’s arrangements. But no matter for how long they go on, the Velvets are always minimalist. This is partly a function of being a quartet – basically two guitars, a bass and a drum, with Cale or Yule adding colors and contrast with keyboards and viola – but it’s also a conscious aesthetic choice and one perfectly suited to the band’s overall vision.

There are plenty of jam-oriented trios and quartets today that wouldn’t know a minimalist if you drew them a map. At one point, Reed plays a chord, lets it drone on for a bit, and then says, “Imagine a hundred guitars doing that at once.” The key, of course, is Reed’s imagination. His chord is suggesting the sound of a hundred guitars at once, and he’s hearing it that way, too. But it’s in the power of suggestion – in his imagination – rather than in any literal evocation of the sound of a hundred guitars chording at once, wherein lies the power of that chord.

It’s also important to remember that before forming the Velvet Underground Reed worked as a kind of hack songwriter for a pop-rock publishing company. Reed was also a huge fan of early rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop. No matter where the Velvets go in their solos, they’re never far from these roots. You can hear the familiar harmonies of the Everly Brothers in “Ride Into the Sun,” you can feel the Latin pulse of the Drifters in “Follow the Leader,” you can even imagine Reed closing his eyes and pretending he is Little Richard during “White Light/White Heat.”

What pulls it all together, and what made the Velvets transcendent, was Reed’s – and by extension, the band’s -- poetry and personality. The Velvets were about something. They were about a time, a neighborhood, and a particular way of life. Not necessarily one you or I might want to adopt, but one rendered with clarity, artistry, wit and imagination – all elements so sorely lacking in so many of today’s jam-bands, whose sole motivation seems to be carrying on a legacy rather than saying something original.

For the Velvets, it was never about the jam itself, but what the jam signified. That’s what comes across with surprising clarity on these primitive-sounding but still electrifying live tracks from 1969. And it’s what a generation of jammers need to hear.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 16, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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