Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Velvet Underground, Live at Max's Kansas City

This frequently derided live album marks the end of the road for the the Velvet Underground. It's a cassette-recorded, nearly bootleg affair, in which the band plays to what sounds like a dozen Max's regulars who are audibly more interested in scoring than checking out Lou's last show with the band. Although the band's better-known and cherished 1969: Velvet Underground Live is objectively "better," Max's has always gotten more spins on my turntable.

I won't harp on relative negatives, but let me first deal with 1969. Granted, 1969 has a butt shot on the cover; the once all-important a gatefold sleeve; Mo Tucker pounding away on drums; Doug Yule playing organ, when necessary; and songs not available on any of the band's studio albums (before the release of those great outtakes albums in the 1980s), but to me it always sounded like a lesser version of how I wanted the band at that time - both in their career, post-John Cale, and in my record-buying life at the time of purchase, post-having-bought-all-the-studio albums, to sound. On 1969, the Velvets sound like a competent, sometimes great touring band. They lack the intimacy of the third, s/t Velvet Underground album, and they lack the fire of the Cale lineup. Too often, on all those "Lisa Says We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together With Bonnie Brown" songs, they might as well be filling time with limp-wristed Chuck Berry covers, like the Grateful Dead might do to fill out their audiences' collective peak drug cycle. No offense, Deadheads, I'm just trying to make a point.

The Max's album is the sound of failure and resignation. However, this version of the Velvets, with Doug Yule's underskilled, overplaying teenage brother Billy sitting in for the pregnant Mo, is not beyond gentle moments of joy and remembrance of musical accomplishments of more vital days. "Good evening," begins Lou, "we're called Velvet Underground. You're allowed to dance, in case you didn't know. And...ah, that's about it." Then the band launches into a thoroughly decent version of "I'm Waiting for the Man", on which Sterling Morrison riffs away as easily as he might have when he and Lou first played in their dorm rooms. This is the sound of humans doing their best to make something happen when nothing much is left capable of happening.

I was discussing this album with a friend, who felt this is the Velvet Underground as the garage band Lou and Sterling may at one time have intended it to be. Could be, and I would add that this live album and the 1969 live album illustrate a fork in the road that would eventually face future punks and indie rockers who bought the next 1000 copies of the first VU album after the first 1000 copies had been bought by the likes of Brian Eno. 1969 is a side of the band that relies understated ensemble playing; propulsive rhythms; some cool textures, using the limited resources on stage; and frequently Lou's tough-guy, leather-jacket-wearing voice. To my ears, it's the sound that would launch many fine indie bands like The Feelies, Yo La Tengo, and thousands more. Max's, on the other hand, is carried by little more than the songs and singing of Lou Reed and the awkward dynamic of Lou and Sterling's guitars. No rhythmic or stylistic safety net is in place. No leather, no shades. Lou sings with more expression than usual. This is the road less traveled in VU terms. Early Modern Lovers knew this path. Early Talking Heads would venture down it on occasion. Television and Patti Smith would embrace this clumsy, open-hearted side of this Velvet Underground. There are plenty of good reasons why this path is the least traveled. The brush hasn't been cleared and the destination is not certain, but it's a road to somewhere.


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