Velvet Underground:An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side
Author: Jim DeRogatis
Publisher: Voyageur Press
In Christian circles, it probably hasn't been overstated yet how important The Velvet Underground were to the music that came after them. The New York City band's tackling of dark, socially uncomfortable subject matter contemporaneously to the hippies' late '60s embrace of love and peace made them commercial pariahs in their time. Their connections to the "serious" art world via their patronage by Andy Warhol and V.U. co-leader John Cale's jump from classical training and performance to rock & roll extends deeper than discovery of The Beatles upon their release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the same year as the Velvets' debut long-player. Their production techniques and general defiance of rock's blues roots made their music the post-punk complement to the punky explosion of U.S. garage bands in the wake of The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds' stateside success.
Rolling Stone contributor/Yahoo! blogger Jim DeRogatis knows all that and then some. He and a few guest authors relate it all throughout this colorfully handsome coffee table book history of the this group who opened up so many possibilities to popular music.
Though responsible for songs Godly rockers would do well to recognize, such as "Beginning To See The Light" and "Jesus" (not to mention name-checking the Second Person of the Godhead in their morally non-judgmental ode to "Heroin"), The V.U. weren't exactly moral/spiritual exemplars. This, after all, is the band involved in a Warhol event where highfalutin attendees were accosted with questions about their sex lives. In a later incident, their faux advocacy of heroin got them on the bad side of famed hippie-friendly concert promoter Bill Graham.
Christian rockers can, however, glean lessons from the band. Primary among them may be that telling the truth in song need not necessarily be polite. Tales of seedy drug-dealing and -taking such as "Waiting For My Man" and "Sister Ray" may detail behaviors best avoided, but their discordance and dark comedy hit upon the ugly, unfortunate truths of the situations of which Lou Reed sings therein (and yes, the book's subtitle references "Walk On The Wild Side," Reed's post-Velvets solo pop hit about some of the characters he encountered during his involvement with Warhol's Factory collective). Though the band likely had little influence on either, Mark Heard and Keith Green may come to the thoughtful Christian readers mind in terms of their and The V.U.'s proclivity to be confrontational with their audiences.
Among the lesser lessons? Don't be afraid to let the artist friend with whom you're associated steer you to including a stunning fashion model/actress-such as temporary Velvet Nico-to sing lead on some of your songs, at least on your first album ;neither fret over including a gal drummer (Maureen Tucker, in the Velvets' case), even if she's tomboyish enough to introduce an organic kind of androgyny into your ensemble; and, for goodness sake, think nothing of being so texturally and textually encompassing to counterbalance whatever darkness and gloom you proffer with some sweetness and light (the band's studio history of that extends from "Sunday Morning" to "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'"), just so long as it doesn't sound like you're sucking up to specific radio formats.
DeRogatis and his fellow essayists and interviewers add enough to Velvet Underground lore to make this a worthy literary companion to the previously definitive book about them, Victor Bockris' and Gerard Malanga's Up-Tight from 1983. As great a drawing card for the book is its bounty of black & white and color pictures of the band, their milieu in, outside of and even before their Warhol days, as well as scans of record labels, bootleg album covers, concert posters and tickets and other memorabilia. The velvety black title strip encircling the cover makes for a classy final touch for that table where you drink java in your living room.
To this day, bands who crib with any great degree of faithfulness to The Velvet Underground's aesthetic aren't likely to be racing up CCM radio charts of any format. That's no reason to not (re)acquaint yourself with the examples of boldness and artistry they set. This book(and the box set of their studio albums, natch) should do the trick.
Jamie Lee Rake