Saturday, December 24, 2011

Velvet Underground: "Live 1969"

“The Velvet Underground Live 1969” album has kept me company on more late nights and early mornings than any other person or thing over the last 20 years or so. There’s something, a true distillation of human compassion in that world-weary New York accent, the way he says: “Good evening, we’re the Velvet Underground, how are you?” and later in that little introduction: “you should give other people just a little chance”, before adding, in a typically laconic aside, “In football anyway”. Then: “This is a song called ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’”.

On September 11th 2001, I stayed up, like many other people, till I couldn’t stay awake any longer, listening to the news reports on the radio. Over the next few days I listened to the Velvets continually. To me, they represent New York, and the whole precious concept of what it means to be a civilised American. To observe without judgment, to remain skeptical and retain humour, to empathise, to search for wisdom, to be unafraid – or rather, to be afraid as hell, but to do it anyway. To be truthful and despise bullshit. Above all, to be human. To me, this is the best of that culture.

It must be some kind of testament to the 60s that the Velvets could ever have existed – such an unlikely mix of characters! Lou Reed, the singer and songwriter, the leader, who wanted to be a rock’n’roll star and who is, by all accounts, the most odious man, and yet the author of the most compassionate songs I know of. John Cale, the Welsh intellectual, the classically trained art-terrorist. Nico, Hitler’s ideal aryan master-race hausfrau as professional heroin addict and authentic goddess of doom. Sterling Morrison, all-American rock’n’roll guitar player, who also happened to be a professor of English literature and tug-boat captain. Doug Yule, the overlooked one who Lou introduces to the audience as "my brother". And my favourite, Mo Tucker, the Velvets very own Ringo, with her mallets and her upturned bass drum; beer drinking, pool playing, bullshit-free Mo, without whom the Velvets would not have sounded like the Velvets.

What is it like to be a white, educated, middle-class American? To know that your country was built on theft, genocide and slave labour? What is the appropriate response to that?
                                                 “Oh pardon me, sir, it’s the last thing on my mind…”
It’s in the way the guitars lock in with the organ on the nine minute “What Goes On” (if only it went on longer), it’s in the exquisitely gentle regret of the original “Sweet Jane” (so different and so superior to all the subsequent versions), it’s in the joy and ecstatic yearning of the end section of “Rock And Roll” (such commitment, it amounts to a manifesto). To me, it’s beautiful music. If you can learn to love it even just a little, it will be your friend and protect you from loneliness as much as you find you are able to allow it to do so. And that’s not bad for an old rock’n’roll record. 

No comments:

Post a Comment