Book Reviews
Mar 10, 2010, 16:49

The Velvet Underground was arguably the first Art Rock band. While the fundamental basis of their music was formed by Lou Reed's and Sterling Morrison's lionization of Rock 'n' Roll, modern Folk and the Blues music, their approach was crystallized by John Cale's deconstruction and bowdlerization. His classically trained viola, marinated in the juices of the academic avant-garde, defined and focused an approach to sound that would resonate and linger throughout the group's recordings long after his summary sacking by Reed. Mo Tucker's upended kick drum and individualized cymbal crashes essentially mirrored Cale's arrangements. She was not so much a drummer keeping time in the various subdivisions of Blues and Jazz derived pop and dance music, as a primitive percussionist and timpanist, implying beats and redirecting sound that was organized more in the Western Classical tradition. Andy Warhol's patronage was no small shakes either. His audaciously low-key attitude, frank disinterest in the actual music, and, of course, access to money and influence created a physical and artistic space where the band could flourish, albeit briefly.

Famously dismissed and ignored in their time, the subsequent almost four decades since their break up has been witness to a slow, yet ever increasing appreciation. As was the direction printed on the front of their first album, “peel slowly and see.” There have been previous books published, in whole or in part, documenting and examining the history, music and impact of the Velvets. Not the least of these are those that make up the virtual cottage industry of Victor Bockris. His works devoted to Cale, Reed, Warhol as well as the group itself are slavishly researched and unfailingly passionate, if not a little redundant. While these books have a few pictures, there hasn't been a single tome paying proper tribute and giving proper evidence to the striking visual representation of The Velvet Underground, whether graced to them by Warhol or their own inimitable style, and cheekbones. Unfortunately, judging by The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History Of A Walk On The Wild Side the lack remains.

Chicago Sun-Times pop critic and Lester Bangs biographer Jim DeRogatis is the credited author, however, his input seems to have been confined to writing the central text and choosing the other fine contributors. DeRogatis' chapters comprise a straightforward and suitable retelling of the Velvets story culled from the aforementioned Bockris texts, as well as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me, and various magazines and newspapers. Individual essays by David Sprague, Greg Kot, Glenn Kenny and others attest to the particular magnificence of individual recordings. A Sterling Morrison interview by Bizarros drummer Bill Bentley is particularly thrilling and touching. (Though there's no documentation, it appears to be the first time printing of such a valuable piece.) A discography of official U.S. releases and track listings is included, and I suppose useful to the neophyte listener or casual reader.

After all, this is a coffee table book and many people like coffee. A good number of them likely have tables that can hold more than coffee. But there's only so much room on them for oversized books, whether they offer pictorial compendiums of Baseball or bikes, Beatles or Stones. An Illustrated History Of A Walk On The Wild Side might have been worthy of supplanting the usual bricks holding each other down, even rising to the top. It is full of many beautiful and downright thrilling images, many not previously published before. Photos, promo record labels, gig posters, and other artifacts of the dead and mythologized are given great regard and respect in size, detail, shade and color recreation. (One particularly onerous mistake: A photograph from the notorious engagement at the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry at Delmonico's Hotel, blurry but evocative in its portrayal of Nico flanked by Cale and Reed, is printed from a flipped negative.) Yet, for all the fascinating and worthy images, and the at least workman-like exposition, the book feels desultory, almost an afterthought. Added graphics are needlessly busy, pull quotes are set against silly asymmetric color blocks, many background images are incongruous and without credit. Nothing associated with The Velvet Underground should be so, well, cheesy.

The inclusion of stuff from band members' solo careers is justifiable, but somehow sad filler. Recent, familiar, and available Lou Reed album jackets, posters and ticket stubs feel unnecessary, almost oppressive against the short shrift again given Cale's career as a composer, performer and producer. Admittedly, however, it's nice to see Moe's work given exposure. And again, there is the Morrison interview, and the plaintive picture book is redeemed.

There is much to offer here, and the book shouldn't be missed. Yet, I was hoping for something more like the band itself: whether loud or quiet, it should burn and smolder; be more staid, more monolithic, mysterious and ineffable. Even in color, the deep monochrome heart should come through. Maybe, a scholar's erudition derived from great thought and feeling would have freed the images from these pages that lie so flat.

-Dave Rick

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