Monday, December 21, 2009
IRT 2009 BOOK OF THE YEAR: White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day by Richie Unterberger
Released in June 2009, Jawbone Press continues to impress with its excellently exhaustive Day-by-Day series with its latest and perhaps most anticipated edition yet in rock historian and All Music Guide guru Richie Unterberger's meticulously detailed step-by-step guide through the entire career of New York's Velvet Underground. Through newly conducted interviews with band members and their associates, newly discovered archival documentation and an array of rare and previously unseen photography, poster and album art and other cultural ephemera pertinent to the arc of this legendary group's career, White Light/White Heat is the definitive word on VU and is a must-own for any fan. IRT was lucky enough to get in touch with Mr. Unterberger via e-mail, who broke down his reasons behind undertaking this foray into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in this exclusive Q&A. Enjoy. -Ed.
IRT: Why did you choose the Velvet Underground to do a Day by Day book for Jawbone?
Richie Unterberger: I've been a big fan of the Velvet Underground for thirty years. The Day-By-Day format gave me a chance to do more in-depth research into their career than any other could have. Also, when compared to other major groups of the era like the Beatles or Beach Boys, or even the Kinks or the Byrds, not nearly as much research has been done into the Velvets' career. I knew that would give me the opportunity to uncover a lot of previously unpublished information and stories about the band, which are in the book in abundance.
IRT: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Velvet Underground that you didn't know previously when doing your research?
Unterberger: I titled the book "White Light/White Heat" in part because the concert version of that song from the 1969 Velvet Underground Live album is my favorite Velvet Underground recording. I'd always assumed "White Light/White Heat" to be about a drug experience, specifically about amphetamines, probably crystal meth. Reed even said it was about amphetamines in a 1971 interview.
But I was very surprised to learn that another inspiration for the song came from Alice Bailey's occult book A Treatise on White Magic, which advises control of the astral body by a "direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to 'call down a stream of pure White Light.'" It's known for certain that Reed was familiar with the volume, as he calls it "an incredible book" in a November 1969 radio interview in Portland, Oregon.
I think it's an example of how Lou Reed, like all great songwriters, often writes lyrics that can work on several levels. On one level, "White Light/White Heat" probably is about a drug experience. But it's also about a more spiritual experience, of channeling white light to reach a different level of existence. When you hear "White Light/White Heat" not as a speed freak song but a song about transcending to different ways of reality/experience in general, it makes what he's singing about considerably more universal.
There are a good number of other surprising things I found in my research, some of which counter what's often written about the Velvet Underground elsewhere, on my Web site at www.richieunterberger.com/vumyth.html.
IRT: Of all your interview subjects for the book, who was the easiest to track down and speak with and why?
Unterberger: That's hard to answer since a good number of the people I interviewed had just a few questions to answer, and would naturally be easier to arrange time with than some of the more central figures in the story. For instance, I've been friends with Dorothy Moskowitz of the United States of America, who played with the Velvets in March 1968, for more than a decade and for a while she only lived a mile from me, so I could arrange that immediately. The same thing for Darice Murray-McKay, who saw the VU in San Diego in summer 1968; she is the event coordinator at the public library in Haight-Ashbury, where I often present rock history events, and I see her often.
As for some of the figures who had a more involved role in the VU story, I'd say that the interview with Norman Dolph, who co-financed their first recording sessions in April 1966 and helped as an unofficial co-producer of sorts, was easy to arrange and conduct. Anyone can find him immediately on the Internet, and he was very happy to go into his memories in depth. The same is true of Steve Nelson, who promoted/staged a lot of the VU's Massachusetts concerts, and was only a little harder to find than Dolph.
IRT: Who was the most difficult interview subject?
Unterberger: I don't want to name names in public. Certainly the most difficult one was for an interview I didn't use in the book. At first the subject asked for money; when I explained I didn't pay for interviews, consent was given, but after a ways into a rambling and not very useful conversation, it was asked that I write in the book that this person wanted Lou Reed or John Cale to produce an album of theirs. When I explained that in all fairness I could not guarantee that, the subject got very upset and hung up. This person was pretty peripheral to the Velvet Underground story, so it was not a key loss.
There were a few people who indicated or even said they could/would do interviews and then did not get it together to set a time or respond to follow-up requests to finalize interview arrangements, which is a frustrating waste of time.
IRT: For Lou Reed, it seems as though you relied a lot on old interviews with him. Did you approach him or his people about doing the book?
Unterberger: I did approach people in touch with him, and did not get a response.
IRT: Of all the band members' post-VU careers, whose would you consider to be your favorite and why?
Unterberger: I actually don't have a favorite among the solo careers of Lou Reed, John Cale, or Nico. There are some recordings of each of theirs I like very much for different reasons, though I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about any of the solo careers as I am about the Velvet Underground's career.
For Lou Reed, I like Transformer, Berlin, and the 1972 live recording American Poet, though I don't like his first solo album, Lou Reed. A lot of the songs on these were leftovers from the Velvet Underground days, and while the Velvets probably could have done these better (and in some instance did do them better on live recordings and studio outtakes that later circulated officially or unofficially), Reed did put his own spin on the material working as a solo artist.
For John Cale, I like his first solo album, Vintage Violence. It's quite a bit poppier and more accessible than anyone would have expected. I find most of his solo material, however, more something that's admirable in its idiosyncrasy than something that connects deeply with me personally.
For Nico, I like Chelsea Girl (although she didn't), which has a pop-folk sound unlike anything else done by either the Velvets or the ex-Velvets. Also it's kind of half a Velvet Underground album, since members of the VU wrote half the material and played on some of the record. To a markedly lesser degree, I also like her next three solo albums, though all of them are definitely ones you have to be in the right mood to hear, preferably on a gloomy foggy day.
I'm not too interested in other VU solo releases. There's a slight parallel here with the Beatles, my favorite group of all time. I love the Beatles, but really don't like their solo records, except for George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. I think as soloists they could never approach the heights they reached as a group. And I think the same is true of the Velvet Underground, even though Reed has said that if you want to hear what the Velvet Underground might have done if they had continued, you can hear it sort of in sections on his, Cale's and Nico's solo albums.
IRT: Why do you think Sterling Morrison never recorded a solo album? How would you rate Sterling amongst your favorite guitarists?
Unterberger: I just don't think Sterling Morrison had as much in the way of music business ambition as the other members of the band. When he left the band in 1971, he really left; he never seriously pursued music as a vocation again, with the exception of when he played with the Velvets on their 1993 European reunion tour. I think he'd turned the page and wanted to devote himself to his academic career and family, without much or any regret over not persevering with rock music. I do think he was at a disadvantage compared to Reed, Cale, and Nico in that he wasn't a songwriter. He has some co-credits on Velvets songs, but my impression is that these were for the arranging side of things, not for the nuts-and-bolts words and melodies.
It's hard to rate Sterling among my favorite guitarists, as I see him more as a team player within the Velvets than as someone who takes brilliant and innovative solos. His strength was in grounding the more outrageous, if more innovative, sensibilities of Reed and Cale in more down-to-earth and fundamental (if hardly mainstream) rock, also switching to bass if needed when Cale was on keyboards and viola. His contributions were vital, but actually I think Reed was more interesting as a guitar soloist.
IRT: In the selected discography in the back of the book, you don't include any of Lou's or Moe Tucker's albums. Why is that?
Unterberger: As I note in the book's introduction, White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day primarily covers the Velvet Underground in the years 1965-1970. There's a chapter on their pre-1965 solo activities, and their solo activities between 1965 and 1970 (which were mostly Nico and John Cale's) are covered in similar depth. But their work from late August 1970 to mid-1973 after Reed quit and their reunion tour are covered lightly, and their post-1970 solo activities are only covered in relation to how they directly related to the Velvet Underground's legacy. So the discography is limited to the crucial music they made between 1965 and 1970, which is really the focus of the book. A few Nico and John Cale solo recordings are also listed because they were done during that era.
IRT: When was the first time you ever heard the Velvet Underground?
Unterberger: The first time I really heard them knowingly was in late 1979, when I was seventeen and bought The Velvet Underground & Nico (aka "the banana album"). I remember hearing "I'm Waiting for the Man" once a few months or so before that during the 1960s hour on a classic rock station. I probably did hear them at least once or twice on FM radio during the 1970s without knowing who they were – I seem to remember a hearing a creepy song in the mid-1970s that in retrospect might have been "Venus in Furs." But really, buying and listening to the first album was the first time I heard them fully knowing who the band was.
IRT: Did you ever get to see them perform? If so, how was it?
Unterberger: I didn't see them; I was too young to see them in the 1960s and early 1970s, and didn't see any of their 1993 reunion shows.
IRT: Of all the live recordings out there of VU, which one do you feel is the most essential and why?
Unterberger: This isn't a radical opinion, but the double live LP (now on two separate CDs) 1969 Velvet Underground Live is definitely the best of their live recordings. They're reaching a peak as a live band, playing versions of songs from throughout their career that usually at least match, and often exceed, the studio recordings. They're also often not simply playing the studio arrangements with a live energy, but doing versions that are quite different, and in very interesting ways, from the studio ones, especially on "White Light/White Heat," "What Goes On," "New Age," and "Sweet Jane." There are some interesting songs that don't appear on the studio albums they released while they were active, like "Lisa Says," "Over You," and "Sweet Bonnie Brown/It's Just Too Much."
While the playing isn't as "weird" as it is on the first two albums, in part because John Cale's been replaced by Doug Yule, it's not mainstream at all, combining the best of their experimental innovations and pure rock'n'roll energy. The recordings selected for the album are in my opinion also notably superior (in both sound and performance) than other official and unofficial ones from the same late-1969 era, like the ones officially released on The Quine Tapes, and the unofficial ones from Dallas in October 1969. I'll go as far as to say that 1969 Velvet Underground Live is not just my favorite live album by the Velvet Underground, but my favorite live album of all time, by anyone.
IRT: Of all the unofficial recordings out there, which one would you like to see get an official release and why?
Unterberger: There are about four hours of unreleased recordings, in pretty good quality (comparable to the quality of 1969 Velvet Underground Live), made at the Matrix in San Francisco in fall 1969. That's the same venue where, and same time when, most of the tracks on the official 1969 Velvet Underground Live album were recorded. But all of these four hours are additional tracks that don't appear on that album (though some of them are different versions of songs that do appear on 1969 Velvet Underground Live). As I said in my previous answer, I think this time and place is the band at their live peak – in fact, they're playing as well as any band did at any time.
There are more details on what I consider the most interesting unreleased Velvet Underground recordings on my Web site, at http://www.richieunterberger.com/vubeg.html.
IRT: On the White Light/White Heat Amazon page, a reader posted a comment about the recently surfaced Gymnasium tapes not being mentioned in the book. Why were they not included here?
Unterberger: That's not the case. The tapes are discussed in great detail on pages 146 and 147 of the book, under an entry for shows they did at the Gymnasium.
IRT: What new or modern band do you feel serves the most justice to the Velvet Underground sound today and why?
Unterberger: This isn't going to be the most popular comment, but I haven't heard a new or modern band influenced by the Velvet Underground that I think does them justice. In part that's because I don't hear that many new or modern bands; my specialty is rock history. But the ones I do hear that sound VU-influenced usually seem to take the Velvets' most aggressive surface qualities – the distortion, dissonance, outrageousness, etc. – without backing them up with the kind of diverse and strong songs that were really, when you come down to it, the Velvet Underground's best assets.
This kind of syndrome applies not just to the Velvets, but to many great acts that are paid homage to over the years. All those lame power pop bands that think they're trying to be the Beatles, for instance, are also taking the most obvious surface qualities without having anything near the sophistication or songwriting smarts.
The best artists that were obviously VU-influenced were the ones that were much closer in time to the source. To me, those were early-'70s David Bowie, the early'70s Modern Lovers and the Patti Smith Group.
Exploding Plastic Inevitable:
"Venus in Furs"