“If this is what America’s waiting for, we are going to die of boredom because this is a celebration of the silliness of café society, way out in left field instead of far out, and joyless.” – Ralph Gleason, reviewing a Velvet Underground show in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 1966.

“Sales are not the be all and end all of rock’n’roll … Inspiration and artistic freedom is the cornerstone of rock’n’roll.” – John Cale, from his acceptance speech at The Velvet Underground’s induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, January 17 1996.

“A tasteless, vulgar review that should never have opened.” – Hitline, reviewing a Velvet Underground show in Los Angeles, May 1966.

“These are your lyrics, hand-printed and translated into Czechoslovakian. There were only 200 of them. They were very dangerous to have. People went to jail.” – Vaclav Havel, explaining to Lou Reed the importance of The Velvet Underground’s music in the dissident movement that overthrew communism in the Czech Republic, April 17 1990.

“The first Velvet Underground album, the one with Andy Warhol’s banana on the cover, has recently been cut out and can now be bought at unbelievably low prices, like at the Harvard Coop for $1.99.” – The Tech, the student newspaper of MIT, October 17 1972

“For decades this album has cast a huge shadow over nearly every sub-variety of avant-garde rock, from 70s art-rock to no wave, new wave, and punk.” – The website of the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library Of Congress, upon the addition on March 6 2007 of The Velvet Underground & Nico to the National Recording Registry, established in 2000 “to maintain and preserve sound recordings and collections of sound
recordings that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Perhaps no other musicians of the 20th century were as roundly criticized and undervalued at their outset as were The Velvet Underground. When the most famous line-up began performing and recording in 1966, more listeners than not reacted with disgust or bewilderment. The group failed to land anything close to a hit record by the time Lou Reed left in 1970, and had yet to gain a sizable national following despite increasingly ecstatic acclaim from rock critics and a growing, fervent cult audience.

Today The Velvet Underground are not so much reviled as revered. Their status as one of the very greatest rock bands of the 60s – indeed, one of the very greatest of all time – is uncontested. Their albums have become catalog perennials and continue to sell to new generations of fans not yet born when the group were active. They have been cited as a major influence by countless rockers, from David Bowie and Patti Smith to Brian Eno. And their music – considered by so many to be shocking and inaccessible at the time it was produced – is now recognized as having pioneered many innovations now regarded as standard in rock music, from the incorporation of avant-garde composition and electronics to lyrics dealing with drugs, sex, and street-level reality. The group have become chic enough in some respects to have infiltrated the mainstream, with a Velvet Underground clothing shop operating in Santa Cruz, California; a top London record store, Sister Ray, named after one of their most notorious songs; and a conductor on the mass-transit BART trains in the San Francisco Bay Area even announcing to his passengers ahead of a tunnel, “We’re now entering The Velvet Underground.”

The disparity between the failure of the band to achieve anything near the success and recognition they deserved in their lifetime and the stratospheric status they now enjoy supplies the hook to most histories of The Velvet Underground. So too does the aura of their dark and mysterious image, their faces often hidden behind dark sunglasses; the individual members so contrasting and striking, both visually and personally; their music so enigmatically packaged. On top of that, there is the group’s renowned – if rather brief – association with one of the most famous visual artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol, and the legendary multimedia shows they pioneered as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable when Warhol was involved in the band’s management from early 1966 to mid 1967.

For years it was hard to actually find out much about the group, how they had formed, and how they’d recorded their brilliant music. Even finding The Velvet Underground’s records was, for a long time after their demise, something of an adventure, assuming you were even lucky enough to hear about the band in the first place. Despite Lou Reed’s subsequent solo stardom and John Cale and Nico’s status as cult icons, the Velvets’ music was rarely played on the radio. Even basic information about the group was ard to acquire, beyond occasional passing raves by critics in the rock press. If you were a teenager in the late 70s, buying the VU’s first album unheard, based on its reputation alone – after scouring for it in a seemingly disused section of a record shop, as I did as a 17-year-old in 1979 – was not just an unavoidable inconvenience, but a solitary rite of passage. Not one person I knew had even heard anything of consequence about the band, let alone actually heard them.

Some fans and critics would like that mystique surrounding the group to remain, and for collecting and listening to the Velvets to continue to be a somewhat private, elitist pleasure unshared by the huddled masses. Some would also like to emphasize, above all, the group’s songs about drugs, sex, sadomasochism, and rock’n’roll – as well as some of the members’ semi-legendary pursuits along those same lines in their private lives – as the alpha and omega of what the VU have come to mean to popular culture. That’s admittedly a big part of the story, but hardly the whole story. Getting as close as possible to the whole story about this fascinating group is what White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day is all about.

Certainly this book has a wealth of information about the concerts they played, the music they recorded, and the events that sparked their numerous and sometimes fractious changes of personnel and management. My main reason for writing it was not, however, simply to ascertain as accurately as possible what happened when, although I did learn a lot of fascinating and sometimes previously unearthed information along those lines as well. What fascinates me more is how all of these stories add up to more than a mere document of the group’s often confusing, misreported history. Far more important, I think, is the insight it affords us into the creation of their music – the aspect of The Velvet Underground’s legacy that is, after all, the most enduring.

It’s partly for that reason, then, that this book includes not only basic nuts-and-bolts facts, but also numerous behind-the-scenes stories as to how the group’s songs were written and recorded; how their strikingly original stage shows were devised; how they were perceived by reviewers at the time of their 1965–70 heyday (not just in retrospect); and how the group as a whole underwent a most improbable, incessantly unpredictable evolution from the most avant-garde of bohemian origins into a highly accessible yet still boldly creative rock band by the time Reed left the group.

To draw the whole picture, I felt it was not only necessary to fully document those years in which Reed was in the group, but also the individual members’ surprisingly extensive (if mightily obscure) pre-1965 activities; the solo or extracurricular projects in which they were involved during 1965–70, which were numerous and often quite intimately related to what the group themselves were doing; and the ways in which the band’s legacy was both influential and expanded upon after 1970, not only via numerous volumes of unreleased Velvets material, but also through the way the stature of their achievements has grown and grown with a wealth of posthumous honors and tributes. (The work of the group between late August 1970 and their dissolution in mid-1973 is covered relatively lightly in comparison, as is their brief 1993 reunion tour and numerous post-1970 solo projects. It’s really the years prior to 1971 that count most when you’re surveying The Velvet Underground’s achievements.)

Although this book is the product of a couple years of intensive research – involving careful sleuthing through mounds of printed and recorded material as well as about 100 firsthand interviews – it should be acknowledged that some incidents might still have escaped discovery by myself or other Velvet Underground fans. It’s entirely possible, particularly as the group weren’t granted heavy media coverage while they were active, that some concert dates have escaped detection, or that other events took place at different times than those suggested in this book. With all rock artists, not just the Velvets, some concert dates are changed or canceled after being advertised; some reviews, even in major daily papers, contain inaccuracies; and some performances have yet even to be reported. Corrections, clarifications, memories, and eyewitness accounts from interested readers will be welcomed at my email address,

What I most hope this book reveals to the many fans of The Velvet Underground around the world is a true appreciation of just how multifaceted
their music is, and just how many myths surrounding their career have turned out to be more complex than they first seemed. While it’s often claimed that the group were wildly unpopular in the 60s, for instance, they did in fact receive quite a few critical raves as the decade progressed, and sold more records, while gathering more committed fans, than is usually documented. The Velvets are often perceived as operating in opposition to or in isolation from the rock trends of the day, when in fact they did interact with and even influence quite a few of the era’s greats. And while there is a lot of drugs, sex, and depravity in songs such as ‘Heroin,’ ‘Venus In Furs,’ and ‘Sister Ray,’ there is also a lot of beautiful, compassionate, and highly melodic romanticism in tunes such as ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and ‘Candy Says,’ as well as flat-out, joyous rock’n’roll in classics such as ‘What Goes On,’ ‘Sweet Jane,’ and ‘Rock & Roll’ itself.

As Lou Reed admitted in so many words in ‘Rock & Roll,’ his live was saved by the music. The Velvet Underground’s music in turn has done much, if not quite to save our lives, then to enlighten and enrich us beyond Lou Reed and John Cale’s wildest expectations when they joined forces to co-found the band in early 1965. No rock group becomes as great as The Velvet Underground without addressing themselves to all dimensions of human existence. And no rock group has done so with such unflinching honesty and power.

Richie Unterberger
San Francisco
September 29 2008

The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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