Lou Reed and John Cale have always been two of my favourite artists, and the Velvet Underground, on balance, my favourite band, notwithstMove Right In
Lou Reed and John Cale have always been two of my favourite artists, and the Velvet Underground, on balance, my favourite band, notwithstanding vigorous competition from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Over the years, I've tended to read or buy everything I could find about the band and these artists.
I had high hopes for this book when it came out in 2006. It promised a different approach, although having flicked through it a few times, I deferred reading it from cover to cover, until now, shortly after the death of Lou Reed.
Having finally finished it, I have to confess some disappointment. It comes across as an autopsy of the band (even though two members are still alive) rather than a biopsy of the music.
The book positions the Velvets in the context of various artistic movements, but at no point did I get the impression that Witts was passionate about their music.
I can't even say that the work reads like a scholarly thesis that has found a publisher. It's more like lecture notes in PowerPoint format that have been fleshed out with biographical details that precis earlier bios by Victor Bockris.
The question is: what value does Witts add to the material that existed beforehand, let alone what is yet to come in the wake of Reed's death?
The body of the text is short, 137 pages. It devotes a chapter each to New York City, the band as a whole, Reed, Cale, Andy Warhol's Factory, and the concluding chapter, Death and Transfiguration.
The chapter on NYC, in particular the Lower East Side, barely mentions Reed and Cale. It sets an artistic context of Abstract Expressionism, Dadaism and Pop Art.
Witts links Cale to artistic abstraction and experimentalism, while Reed was more influenced by gritty realism. Together they blended a Dadaist interest in everyday objects and reality with an obsession with spontaneous performance (" the happening, the moment").
Later he adds:
"...Reed's output was locked into an outmoded Beat agenda of the 1950's: unadorned, disinterested observation of idiosyncratic characters, voyeuristic description of rough sex and indulgence in hard drugs, automatic writing, a desire to bring together 1950's rock 'n' roll with the 'ever now' improvisational approach of 1950's jazz.
"Cale was relatedly concerned with elitist, vanguard, performative minimalism influenced by late 1950's jazz (Coltrane, Coleman, Taylor).
"Neither of them 'reached out' to contemporary experience, which was in a prodigious phase of transition."
Beginning to See the Light
The chapter on the band as a whole starts with a reference to Richard Dawkins' book, "The Ancestor's Tale". He considers that Dawkins' analysis of evolution is apposite to popular music:
"Biological evolution has no privileged line of descent and no designated end. Evolution has reached many millions of interim ends... And there is no reason other than vanity...to designate any one as more privileged or climactic than any other."
Witts doesn't see the Velvets as important because they were ahead of their time. Instead, he sees them as "preterite", embodying and perpetuating their past influences in a way that can be rediscovered in the future:
"The Velvets' preterite view of the world, of the present as an assemblage of recent pasts, fusing dimly connected elements (modern jazz, doo-wop, rockabilly - 'Put it all together and you end up with me' - Reed), will remain influential whenever crises in periods of transition lead listeners to dwell in a dark place, a velvet underground perhaps, for the sake of stasis."
He adds that the band's existentialism -
"...will always be examined by those who are out of kilter with contemporary life, and who reject communal counteraction.
"They will seek solace in this idiosyncratic clash of creative individuals who only half comprehended their own influences - Reed's Beat poetry, Cale's fusion of [LaMonte] Young and [Phil] Spector, Morrison's rock 'n' roll, Tucker's African drumming.
"The Velvet Underground is existential proof that four halves make a whole."
I Found a Reason
This type of writing is Witts' ostensible value-add to the analysis of the Velvets. Yet, I found much of the contextualisation half-baked or half-digested.
It's not Reed or Cale, but Witts, who has "half-comprehended" their influences.
Too often, he simply juxtaposes influence with supposed outcome. He doesn't help us understand the influence or the transfiguration. He doesn't illuminate the dynamic that was at work.
I got the impression that he really wanted to write about AbEx or Dadaism or Pop Art or Dawkins, and he saw the Velvets bio as an opportunity to write about this subject matter, be published and maybe even be read, all on the back of Reed and Cale.
Equally, there is little discussion of the influence the Velvets, Reed and Cale have had on younger musicians, and why, other than the highly abstract reasoning of the passage quoted above.
Rock and Roll
The discussion of the music is almost solely in terms of chords and notation. Certainly, it was beyond my layperson's ability to comprehend. There was almost no mention of the dynamics or feel of the music, the thing that appeals to most fans, if you take away the street existentialist concerns of the lyrics.
Despite co-opting the framework of Dawkins, Witts describes the talent of the Velvets in terms of their ability to self-mythologise and to mystify.
In their mystery, their "disembodied inspiration", he finds "nothing you can put your finger on".
Immediately afterwards, he quotes the Joy Division producer, Martin Hannett:
"Primitive and complex at the same time, and just a fantastic, moody atmosphere. It was the atmosphere that interested us."
To which Witts retorts:
"In other words, nothing you could put your finger on."
I'm Sticking with You (Lou)
For me, this comment really highlighted Witts' inability to genuinely describe or enthuse about the music.
Here was a producer who understood what the Velvets were doing well enough to reconstruct it with countless post-punk bands in the 70's and 80's, and Witts puts him down, because he can't "put his finger on it", in other words, because he can't "dance about architecture".
Well, I think in that one sentence, for all its imprecision and impressionism, he did better than most of this book.
The Velvet Underground and Nico - "Sunday Morning"
I was introduced to Delmore Schwartz's writing from two different perspectives in the mid-70's.
It might come as little surprise thaBi-Partisan Preview
I was introduced to Delmore Schwartz's writing from two different perspectives in the mid-70's.
It might come as little surprise that these introductions had to do with passions that persist to this day: music, literature and politics.
Firstly, I discovered that Schwartz had been one of Lou Reed's lecturers at Syracuse University and was the inspiration for his Velvet Underground song, "European Son".
Secondly, in 1976, I located the back issues of the political and literary magazine, "Partisan Review", in my University Library and proceeded to read each copy from cover to cover. I would spend two or three hours in the Library every Friday afternoon, before joining my friends in the Union Bar to watch a band and whatever else students do in bars.
Partisan Review originally commenced publication in 1934, before splitting from the John Reed Club, after which it went through a hiatus (presumably while it sought funding) and resumed publication in 1937.
Despite this history, the first 1937 issue is often thought of as the first issue of the magazine, partly because by now it had become vaguely Trotskyist, but definitely anti-Stalinist, a major departure from its origins as a political and cultural vehicle for a pro-Soviet lobby group.
This background is relevant to Delmore Schwartz, because his story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities", was chosen by an eminent board as the first item in the first issue, notwithstanding that he was only 21 when he wrote it and 23 when it was published.
In the Womb of the Cinema
The story commences:
"I think it is the year 1909. I feel as if I were in a motion picture theatre..."
The narrator is watching a silent movie. In the dark:
"I am anonymous, and I have forgotten myself. It is always so when one goes to the movies, it is, as they say, a drug."
Two things are notable about this. On the one hand, it is in the very early days of film and motion picture theatres. On the other, the year is four years before the author himself was born.
While we shouldn't assume that the narrator is the author or co-temporal with them, it soon becomes clear that the narrator is watching a film about his parents' relationship before he was born (we learn this half way down page two).
I love this set-up. A literary meta-fiction that incorporates another medium such as film, which was still in its infancy at the time.
Too Much Carrying On [Potential Spoiler Warning for This Section]
Anticipating his own miserable future, the narrator tries to deter his parents from starting a relationship, the logical consequence of which would have been that he would never have been born.
Yet, all he can do is protest powerlessly at the movie screen. He must be born. He cannot intervene in his own birth. After all, he must be alive in order to have the dream.
Nevertheless, his protest attracts the attention of the usher, who admonishes him:
"...you can't carry on like this, it is not right, you will find that out soon enough, everything you do matters too much..."
Enter a Free and Responsible Being
In the process of being expelled from the theatre, he awakes on the morning of his 21st birthday.
He is now officially an adult. He is responsible for his own conduct, not his parents. From now on, he can blame nobody but himself. He cannot intervene, in his dreams or in reality, in the lives of anybody else in order to influence what happens in his own life. Now he is his own cause and effect.
In dreams such as this begin the consciousness of responsibility. The ego emerges from the id. Existentialism leads us to responsibility. I am responsible for myself and I must now act responsibly. I am alive and ready to embark on my adult life of self-reliance. I am free.