Pete's Blog

The Velvet Underground

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I was cruising YouTube last night when I came upon a BBC documentary about the Velvet Underground, the short-lived New York City rock band that was produced by Andy Warhol and featured Lou Reed. The first thing I need to say is, yes, I bought the first two VU albums when they came out. The second thing I need to do is ask my hipster friends not to shun me for life, because listening to them now it is clear to me that the Velvet Underground was the Most Bogus Rock Band of the 1960s. I'm not going to analyze all the reasons they stunk. I'm going somelace with this so I don't want it to be just a put-down. Besides, the group's total lack of instrumental, rhythmic, or lyric competence is usually cited by their boosters as evidence of their importance. And there's more to it than that. Watching the old, grainy footage of socialites dancing with pretty boys at various parties and happenings what's most apparent is the essential falseness of it all. At a time when rock musicians and audiences were defining themselves in comparison to the emotional truth (and political oppression) of R&B, you didn't see ANY black people at these parties. What person of any race who had ever danced to Sam and Dave could ever dance to this static, unswinging, painfully self-conscious pastiche of borrowed riffs and snobbish attitudinizing? But this scene was not about music. It was a about creating a version of rock and roll for people who were uncomfortable with the real thing and its Afro-American, hillbilly, or Liverpudlian creators; people whom, if you told them their scene was emotionally dead and artistically bankrupt would say, like Pee Wee Herman, "I meant to do that." Ok, there were good bands that claimed the Velvets as influences. The best of these (it says here) was Television. And Television was great because it had in spades two things the Velvet Underground utterly lacked: real musical ability and real emotional commitment. The other caveat is that there were and are plenty of other scenes that weren't/aren't about music, among them bluegrass and the post-Grateful Dead nouveau-hippie thing. That may be so, but the bands in these scenes, for all the brainlessness of some of their fans, are at least trying to play the blues. And this attempt, however clumsy, means that they're dealing in good faith with the audience's emotions. That's worth a lot.

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