I wasn’t intending to write about Todd Haynes documentary, The Velvet Underground. But after wondering how I should see it (there was never any doubt that I in fact needed to see it), I finally left my cocoon and last night. I went to watch it in the theater. And I am happy that I did. I had a number of discussions on line about whether I should do the theater or play it pandemic safe and watch it at home on a computer with headphones. My default at home since I don’t own a television. Some people suggested that it didn’t make any difference since the sound was muddy, etc. I beg to differ and that’s in part where we are going today…but there will also be a zig down a frontage road later too.
This is a perfect movie. No, not a perfect movie like Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia. Those are movies and this is a documentary. This is a perfect movie. It covered the period to a T. We are carefully introduced to all of the major players and heard their voices and saw them in action. There are a lot of historical video and film clips from the period and from Andy Warhol’s vault. I had seen some and loved seeing them again. And of course I have never seen some and would never have the opportunity if not for Mr. Haynes film. He provided the history and stayed in line with the time line and told the story complete, warts and all.
I am sorry that I hadn’t gone to see it earlier because I am interested in seeing it again but it moves on now so maybe I will follow up with streaming.
But here is why this needs to be seen in the theater. There are minutes and minutes of side by side video or side by side photo to video or video within video that wouldn’t be as mesmerizing as it was on the big screen. There was a warning before the film started about flashing effects that might cause issues for some…and there were…but oh my gosh was it true to the period.
And the sound: well as someone who grew up with this music, it wasn’t muddy at all. It sounds just like I remember it. And yes it isn’t up to contemporary standards but it was what it was. And yes some of the live bits and demo stuff were a bit less than optimal but again to a musician of the period, that was the limitation of the equipment that was available. And we need to keep in mind that the VU wasn’t selling thousands of records and making their record companies rich. So they weren’t getting access to the best recording gear. They actually were lucky to get recorded and released (and at one point Lou Reed admits that Andy Warhol’s name had something to do with that).
And a bit more about the sound. In the theater with a multi-speaker system it seemed like it was more than simple stereo….which is what I’d get at home. So that was really an amazing experience as well. But one thing to quibble with: TURN IT UP! And yes, because the Velvet Underground is meant to be heard at ‘volume’ but there were a few people being interviewed who are a bit soft spoken, particularly John Cale, and I didn’t always catch everything he said.
Now down that frontage road(s):
When I was in art school in the late 1960s, I shared a class with a painter and during studio periods he would bring in the VU to play while we worked. That was my first reference to them but I wasn’t enamored of them because I was working on art. But at the end of the year, he suggested that we spend the summer heading off to New York City and trying to get to Warhol’s Factory. I was too timid and too poor to give it a go. I needed to work that summer to pay the next year’s tuition. I don’t know if he went or not, he didn’t come back in the fall and I never saw him again. So who knows?
Then I went off to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee for my junior and senior years. And because of the move, my last blues band split up. And through a mutual friend I met a singer who was putting together a band and he needed a bass player. Now he’d seen me play in the blues band so he knew I was capable. So my audition was to put on his leather motorcycle jacket, sunglasses, and sneer. I apparently passed and was offered the gig. He said the band was going to play Velvet Underground and Stooges material. So I knew the VU but not the Stooges…but figured what the heck…I needed a gig! The band was Death.
So how does this relate to the movie? The band was heavily reliant on the Velvet songs Sister Ray and Waiting for the Man for our basic sound. We used the bones of these songs to build up a drone that propelled the songs and allowed for the soloists to improvise in between the vocals. We never really talked about it , we just did it. But in the movie there is a great deal made around the drone underlying the music in the VU’s early years with John Cale. I heard it then but never thought about it…we apparently just felt it. And this was the first band that I played in that openly improvised. And apparently the White Light/White Heat album was improvised. I had always joked that I thought much of it was one long song and the producer had cut it into tracks. But the looseness of the album would obviously result if the band was improvising the things they were working on.
Death is the only band in my music history where I am still in touch with the other surviving members. That music solidified the group in ways unexpected. We have gotten together from time to time and trade taunts on social media. Interesting to me at least.
But this wasn’t always Eden and the lead guitarist and I got tossed at some point when other musicians who were closer friends of our band mates became available and had an interest in joining. So he and I formed our own group called Doggs that with two exceptions was a pure Velvet Underground cover band…but instead of improvisations we stuck closer to the recorded versions of the songs but tailored our sound to the Velvet’s Live At Max’s Kansas City album. We didn’t last long and only played out twice, both times opening for Death. LOL!
So the Velvet Underground was instrumental in my development as a musician. I learned to play a lot of their songs as both a bass player and a vocalist/rhythm player. They had a major influence on what I listened to later in life and I still pop them in the CD player in my studio or car today. And I play them as loud as my tinnitus will tolerate!
So Todd Haynes documentary The Velvet Underground is the perfect movie. It perfectly treats the music and the time. I can feel it in every moment the film flickered on screen. I remember and relived every song from my ears to my soul. I walked out of the theater into a cool dark fall evening feeling 50 years younger and lighter in my step.
So if you are an aficionado of the Velvet Underground, this is a don’t miss event. If you are a music nerd, you will enjoy this film a great deal. But if you are casual music enthusiast or a person of a certain age (from THIS century) you may be like the young lady leaving ahead of me who was asking her companion, ” did you like that”?
Side bar: a real review can be found here by long time Milwaukee Music Writer David Luhrssen!