The Velvet Underground

Oh! Sweet Nuthin’

back in October or July…I forget…I said I was going to go check out the Velvet Underground Experience. Then in the last post I said I totally didn’t do that…and I didn’t. I heard things locally and then…I read some reviews. The mainstream reviews were all predictably glowing, but I don’t trust that stuff because hahaha, so I proceeded to Google reviews. Angry, disgruntled people who want their money back is what I wanna read! Like:

“Don’t waste your money on this. We left disappointed- most of the exhibit was just pictures that I’ve seen before and plaques lacking enough information. An entire wall is dedicated to the 60’s in general (the exhibit isn’t big enough to justify this). I expected SOMETHING interesting- maybe memorabilia or immersive areas, but there’s very little…Wish we could get our money back :(“

I think most people would expect something interesting. Or why pay $25 to show up to an empty loft on Broadway? Of course there was also the matter of all the accompanying promotional material that promised “rare” stuff:

Velvet Underground Exhibition Coming To New York City
The exhibition debuted in Paris two years ago and features rare photographs, portraits, films, live concerts and musical workshops.

Perhaps there is some confusion over definitions. RARE: 1: seldom occurring or found: UNCOMMON 2a: marked by unusual quality, merit, or appeal : DISTINCTIVE b: superlative or extreme of its kind 3: marked by wide separation of component particles: THIN rare air. Yet:

“This lack of memorabilia is made painfully evident both by the large wall of “establishing” photos featuring 1960s New York and notable personalities of the time like James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Cassius Clay and Marlon Brando – none of whom have any direct link to the VU – and the near-equal billing given to people in the Velvets/Warhol orbit like Edie Sedgwick, LaMonte Young, and Candy Darling…there are a startling number of spelling and grammar errors in the accompanying texts…the gift shop is so bereft of items bearing the band’s iconic imagery (no album covers, not even a banana on those $29 iPhone cases) that one wonders how much cooperation the show got from the living band members and the estates of the deceased including Reed and Warhol.

Wow. A pattern emerges. These people sound disappointed for sure. Lest you think that I’m the type of person who would deprive himself of an experience based solely on anonymous internet “cranks” I suggest that you Peruse this Perfectly Passionate Post on Pitchfork from a very woke author: How Can You Have “The Velvet Underground Experience” Without the Music? She did the Experience so I didn’t have to! As she makes her way through the exhibition she encounters the following….let’s listen in:

“By the time I reach a display of Velvets posters mixed in with covers of LIFE and, no kidding, images of the moon landing and Woodstock, the bummer retail feeling gives rise to genuine blood boil. Can future makers of biopics and bio-exhibits please agree the world has collectively seen the same stock ’60s newsreel? (Moe Tucker in Please Kill Me, on the band’s reception in San Francisco: “I didn’t like that love-peace shit.”)

I get the anger. I’m not old enough to have participated in all of the fun and important moments of the swinging 60s, but am old enough to have had to endure 40 years of revisiting same. When will the Boomer hagiography end? Will it ever end? Has any decade or event been repackaged and re-praised, reappraised, remembered and recycled as many times as the 1960s? Probably not. However, the Velvet Underground are as Boomer as the rest of that newsreel and the fact that they hated the hippies really doesn’t matter. This was a concern of mine before the show opened because, as I’ve come to recognize in other documentaries or retrospectives of this era, quite often the music, musician, or artist must always be contextualized within the larger whole of very familiar cultural themes (Woodstock, Vietnam, Civil Rights). The music itself, outside of how it may serve these various narratives, is sometimes treated almost as an afterthought. This would be a shame if it wasn’t so infuriating:

What you cannot buy is the music. Apart from a mysterious handful of vintage albums (only a couple by the band) displayed on an upstairs mezzanine, there is no music for sale at “The Velvet Underground Experience.” No vinyl reissues of the albums that are displayed under glass and which in retrospect seem even more fossil-like. There are none of the books by or about the band members—how easy it would have been to unlock that universe, too. If you’re going to commodify a band or scene, at the very least, sell the music, sell the books, do full diligence in perpetuating the actual work that the exhibition celebrates. Instead, a familiar murmur bleeds over from the start of the exhibit nearby. As I let the reality of the existence of Kiss the Boot laptop cases sink in, the reading of Ginsberg’s America hangs in the air like a too-pointed metaphor: America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.”

Since the music (and not even all of the music) is the only interesting aspect of the Velvet Underground to me, the fact that the Experience couldn’t be bothered to take it seriously (while charging $25/$50) sealed the deal on my attendance (or lack thereof). I didn’t need a background to take a selfie at anyhow! The truth is, out of all the potential interesting media I’ve seen over the past few years, only two: Long Strange Trip and Astral Weeks: The Secret History of 1968 were really good. So much worthless retrospective crap is produced and I’m not sure what that says about our society or how one could explain without sounding like a complete dystopian crank. At this point in my life, considerations and discussions of this nature must be avoided at all costs.

Astral Weeks — A Secret History of 1968

I embarked on this literary journey not expecting to derive any pleasure from the experience. While it seems hard to imagine given his status as a musical legend, I have never owned anything that Van Morrison recorded because I never really liked his voice or songs. I have never had a friend or acquaintance who was a fan; I have never even had a neighbor who played his music too loud. At the same time I know he is a very successful, popular, critically-acclaimed artist. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE WHO LIKE VAN MORRISON? So when my girlfriend brought this book home I thought, “Oh great…that guy.” But after reading just a few pages of this startling, impressive tome I realized that I was really holding a portable archaeological dig in my hands and Astral Weeks, the album or concept thereof, was the legend; that rumored underground prize — the literary, rocka rolla equivalent of King Tut! What a discovery! I have seen reviewers complaining that this isn’t a VH-1 style story of the album, so Boo! Boo! Boo!, because that is what they were expecting, but the book IS the story of that album placed contextually within a much larger, much more informative and entertaining “whole”. The book is a veritable hodgepodge of beanbags, black lights, bad trips, freakouts, and old laundry but history isn’t always comprised or composed of easily-digestible bites. A reader will also encounter highs and giggles, sunshine and success if the book is approach-eth-ed as one approaches a jigsaw puzzle: quietly, thoughtfully, and unburdened with preconceived notions. DISCOVERY was the spirit of the times after all.

When anyone tries to explain or quantify 1968, “Boston” does not come to mind. One reason this book is so out of left field is readers have already been “taught” the important points of the “story” of the decade and a fair amount of the info from Astral Weeks has been forgotten or was never public knowledge. The Standells had a hit with Dirty Water in 1966 and the Red Sox won the pennant in 1967, but 1968? Haight Asbury was hippie central. Los Angeles and New York had their music scenes. Chicago was put on the map because of the political turmoil of the Democratic Convention and many other cities exploded into flames and riots because of Martin Luther King’s assassination and ongoing anti-Vietnam War protests. But Boston? Probably most people would say: “I’m drawing a blank on that one!” Author Ryan H. Walsh returns to those days, ostensibly to find early performances of tracks that would become the legendary Van Morrison album, only to discover a whole strata of other people, events and connections, connections, connections. It’s like everybody knew everybody! And they were all complete weirdos in that lovable way that was 1968. We meet the shadowy Mel Lyman, who drifted from harmonica player in Jim Kweskin’s jug band to Timothy Leary acid eater to an East Coast guru with a whole lot of power and a bigger family than Charles Manson. Luckily, he never killed anyone. Maybe. There are many a lurid tales of the ridiculousness of the music business at that time; the mob involvement, overwrought producers who thought they were geniuses and blatant attempts at thievery and swindling like sending multiple “C” level (one local hit record) type bands on tour in different areas of the country to maximize profits…and what happened when some of those bands crashed into each other. (Hilarity ensued!)

There are many tales of “The Bosstown Sound”, The legendary Boston Tea Party Club, the Velvet Underground, Jonathon Richman, Peter Wolf and all of the many bands who blew through Boston that year making it a great rock and roll place to be. Besides lots of rock and gurus we also encounter hippies, early experimental television with WGBH’s What’s Happening Mr. Silver?, Black Power, James Brown, The Boston Strangler, The Thomas Crown Affair, MK-ULTRA, legendary record executive Joe Smith (who also makes a few appearances in the Grateful Dead movie I reviewed and is the guy who made the payoff to get Van Morrison out of his “contract” with “the mob”), Yoko Ono, Avatar Magazine, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, drugs, revolution, disillusionment, and death and at least 25 other items I don’t recall at the moment. The author’s dogged inquisitiveness and desire to organically tie together all of the connections he encounters on his trip into the subsoil presents a startling whole; a fascinating tale and a secret history. Boston was the right-sized city to become one giant scene / dysfunctional family and there was much overlap on how all of these seemingly diametrically opposed forces interacted with and affected each other.

You may have noticed by now there are no links to anything in this review because you should read this book. I always read now with my phone in hand so I can look stuff up as I go along and because this book 1/4 story, 1/4 Police Gazette, 1/4 Encyclopedia and 1/4 Gemstone File I had lots to look up and I learned a lot and you’ll learn a lot too! By then you will also be on the edge of your seat and want to know what happened with Van Morrison and Astral Weeks; and did Mel Lyman die or did he fake his death and move to the South Pacific; and why did Lou Reed eat huge amounts of wheat germ before gigs when he was singing about heroin; and was Albert DeSalvo really The Boston Strangler or was it someone else; and will the loss of the power of radio, predicted by Edgar Cayce, usher in the age of Armageddon; and is this related to that one-eyed celebrity cult thing? And many more questions you never knew you had but now know that you NEED answered. Have Fun!