It is with slight trepidation that I present to you the first guest-review on You Aint No Picasso. I did this for two reasons: my Journalism professor suggested that I take a crack at being an editor, and also my friend Jordan is a huge VU fan.
A review of Velvet Redux: Live MCMXCIII by Jordan Rodgers
The reunion tour is at once the best and the worst possibility for the fan of a now defunct band. The trickiness of the situation is compounded even further for a band like the Velvet Underground, who have become almost mythical in the annals of rock music, as the historic godfathers of all that has been great in the last 30+ years of rock, from dream pop to no wave. Once a band has gained historical significance (and few bands have done this quite as thoroughly as have the Velvets), that significance takes on a life of its own. Suddenly, the music is not an immediate presence, here and relevant to us now, in this moment; rather, it becomes merely an object of historical interest. That this would happen to the Velvets, a band that made “now” music if ever there was such a thing, might seem incredibly ironic. The irony, however, lies not in the specific situation of VU, but in the very being of rock music – great rock music is “now” music, music that makes you forget time altogether, music to lose yourself in. And, ironically enough, the music that does this best is what gets remembered for long periods of time. The Velvet Underground are surely one of the best examples of this in all of rock history.
And so, a Velvet Underground reunion presents itself as something very problematic, because it’s hard to view the 1993 reunion concert that is documented on this new DVD as anything other than a historical event. And yet, what made VU historical in the first place was a brash indifference to anything so scholarly sounding as the “historical.” This was a group of people interested in experimenting, whether with drugs or music, and not being tied down by the music of the time. So, while it is a rock historian’s dream to see John Cale, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker together again, after 23 years of silence, it is only a true VU fan’s dream if the show is good, in the way VU used to be good. It’s only a dream if the music retains the urgency, the personality, and the openness that it had back in the late ‘60’s. And unfortunately, by these terms, “Velvet Redux: Live MCMXCIII” is no fan’s dream.
Lou Reed is largely responsible for this failure. Apparently, somewhere in the 23 years between the VU break-up and this reunion, Lou Reed decided that he was a rock star, and his performance in this show can really only be characterized as embarrassing. His guitar playing is solid, if not inspired, but his vocal performance is pitiful. He doesn’t even attempt to follow the melody of any of the songs, preferring rather to improvise his own melody over them. While half the time Reed doesn’t seem to care about following any melody at all, when he does care, he ends up with vocal flourishes and improvisations that sound completely out of place with the rest of the music. The genius of Reed’s sing-speak vocals in VU’s records was their immediacy and honesty – none of this magic translates to this reunion show. Reed sounds very much like he doesn’t care about these songs the way he used to – which is understandable, certainly, but one might hope that he would stop performing them if this is the case. Reed simply ruins beautiful, meaningful songs like “Beginning to See the Light,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and “Some Kinda Love” with these vocal shortcomings.
Oddly enough, it’s quite a relief when John Cale takes the microphone for a very nice version of “Femme Fatale,” and even more surprisingly, a raucous “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Indeed, Cale seems to be the only member of the group that cares about what’s going on – Reed has lost interest in conveying any sort of meaning whatever in his vocals, and Morrison and Tucker look downright bored. This is an unforgivable sin. This is exciting music, and is in large part only good because it is so exciting. To say it once more: if it doesn’t excite you anymore, don’t play it. I hate to sound so critical of one of my favorite bands of all time, but this music must be held to a higher standard than most – it’s too damn good to be played this way.
This is not to say that the whole show is bad from start to finish. As I’ve already mentioned, Cale’s vocal performance on “Femme Fatale” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” is certainly a highlight. Particularly in the former, Cale’s Welsh accent replaces nicely the enigmatic tones of Nico that accompanied the original recording of the song. “I Heard Her Call My Name” is another highlight – a song rarely played live when the band was still together. The band interplay hits its high point here, and while Reed’s guitar solo won’t split your mind open as in the brilliant original, it is certainly one of the best solos of the night. Another exciting moment is the rather beautiful version of “Pale Blue Eyes.” While Reed’s vocals are as poor as ever, the addition of Cale’s viola to the piece creates another layer of beauty, and will make the VU fan wonder what VU might’ve become had Cale stuck around a little bit longer. And “Heroin” is such an amazing piece of music that it is perhaps impossible to ruin – despite Reed’s best attempts to maul the vocals, the song just refuses to be anything but absolutely compelling.
But ultimately, these few bright moments are not enough to make up for the overall feel of the performance, which is overwhelmingly one of boredom and apathy. The DVD itself contributes to this feel by presenting a bare minimum of content – a single page of liner notes, no commentary or interviews of the band members, nothing but the set itself from start to finish. The lack of care, of willingness to get excited about this music once again, is evident throughout the whole experience of watching this DVD. At one point, while watching John Cale sing the beautiful “Femme Fatale,” one can notice a sheet of paper hanging from his microphone stand – the lyrics of the song. Apparently he didn’t care enough about performing the song to memorize the lyrics… that he even had to rememorize them is telling: the song is nothing but history now for him. It’s a shame… I and thousands of other Velvets fans would have no problem remembering every word. This music is still alive for us, still “now” music, and it is depressing to see that the band that created it for us cannot share in this sentiment.