Somewhere around the summer of 1965 Lou Reed sold his soul to the Devil. Or maybe he just bartered it to Andy Warhol. Either way, a transformation occurred that led The Velvet Underground away from a Simon and Garfunkle-meet-Bob Dylan sound to a realm where no band had tread before, and most every band has tip-toed since.
This moment has somewhat been resurrected after John Cale found demo tapes from the proto-Velvets in his basement. These tapes became the first disc of a much-awaited new box set, "Peel Slowly and See", a bunch of demos that provide a rare opportunity in the rock world, to travel back in time to a rare moment of recording history. For the first time since it was done we hear Lou play harmonica on a folky stab at "I'm Waiting for the Man". From there we find Cale doing vocals on a version of "Venus in Furs" that would, funnily enough, fit right in on Simon and Garfunkle's "Scarborough Fair"; and then of course the evolution of "Heroin" over the course of a few takes, a peek into Cale's famed Ludlow St flat to listen to what changed, and the difference Moe Tucker's primal pounding, side-turned skins made. In a time where most music is shaped in a studio, it seems strange that one of the best albums came right out of The Factory. Not a factory, but The Factory, of Andy Warhol fame.
"It was not even a party every night," Tucker (Moe is short for Maureen) told Revelation, recently. "It was just sitting in your living room and having people stroll in and out whom you really enjoyed. You'd sit on the couch and just enjoy." Warhol brought the Velvets into his scene as the musical portion of theExploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia troupe. He added a chanteuse (Nico) to try to give them a slightly lighter edge and a centerpiece. History again would have it that the Velvets coalesced not so much under his guidance but in his aura.
"I don't really remember him being there, but he must have been." said Moe thinking back. The result was an untamed sound from a band that really had no bounds lyrically or musically. That first album contained many of the "classic" Velvet's songs, "I'm Waiting for the Man," "All Tomorrow's Parties," and the song that set the music world on its ear, so to speak, "Heroin." "We've never gotten a "Heroin" down which represents what it was," Moe said "which really irritates the hell out of me because I think that it's a wonderful song."
Considering the versions of Heroin that they did get down, it could be considered a fairly rough comment. And indeed the Velvets went on to play some spectacular gigs with the Warhol ensemble, however, for those who couldn't be at the Dom in New York in 1966, the box is probably the next best thing.
"What we did was real interesting because it was real simple actually, and because no one else was doing it," said Moe, adding that these days, "touring shows have just become damn Broadway shows." "I think everything is too high tech."
Listeners get some great live cuts on the box set, a good feel of the raw energy that emanated from the band at their prime, such as the guitar shriek on "What Goes On," from a show at La Cave in '68. Some of the outtakes from the first legitimate bootleg ever, "Live at Max's" appear hear for the first time, like "Some Kinda Love." According to Moe there is more where that came from out there. "I have a bunch of tapes that fans have sent, just some pretty bad recordings of shows. I think that even though the quality isn't the greatest in the world, a lot of these are really exciting, great versions of these songs. I would like to have seen more of the bad stuff," she said.
On the boxed set we also see several songs that showed up in Lou's solo career, including "I Love You," and "Satellite of Love," but in earlier versions recorded with the Velvets behind him. As the backbone, the four Velvet's studio albums are presented in their entirety and 'as Reed intended them to sound.' On "The Gift," this meant fully splitting the words to the narrative from the music into separate stereo channels. For "The Velvet Underground," this meant releasing the "closet" mixes where Reed 'monkied' with the 'final' tapes to bring his vocals to the forefront - burying some of the guitars. They are also referred to as the 'closet' mixes because, as the late Sterling Morrisson put it, they made the album "sound like it was recorded in a closet."
Sadly, Sterling died of lymphoma shortly before the release of the box, which has brought the Velvet name back into the spotlight yet again. Again, with velvet timing, Morrison died right as he was regaining confidence in his own contribution to music, and was going to start playing more. "It really pisses me off," says Moe about Sterling's death. "What a drag. Sterling was such a real intellect. Full of life, which I guess is a really tacky thing to say, but when any one dies that young it just sucks no matter what they were like." "It's really irksome since Sterling was just ready to get back into music. One of the good things about him touring with me is that he got to see that people really did appreciate his playing. I think that he didn't realize th
at. I'm really glad that we had the opportunity to play together for that reason if nothing else."
On a more personal level, Moe said "I'm heartbroken. I've known him since I was 11. He was more like a brother than a cohort." Put death aside for a moment, and the box set comes at a time of heightened activity for all the remaining Velvets. Moe and John have just come off tour together in Europe and the East Coast of the U.S. Lou is getting ready to put out his first solo album in years, which is said to be much more upbeat than his last two projects, "Magic and Loss," and "Songs for 'Drella".
And also, Victor Bockris, who had teamed up with Factory dancer Gerard Malanaga to write "Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story," has put out a biography of Lou called "Transformer", which paints a rather unflattering picture of a schizophrenic man not too comfortable with any of his myriad images.
Moe was not impressed by what she'd heard of the book, but she couldn't make any direct remark because she wasn't really interested in reading it. "This was not a book Lou was really thrilled about having done. It's a lot of unnecessary bull shit. Lou's sex life or whatever," said Moe. "To me that's just a waste of paper."
Bockris' book highlights the conflicts that eventually tore the Velvets apart. Stories of how Sterling stuck it out with the band longer than any of the original Velvets, perhaps because no one had any beefs with him. John got the boot from Lou after "White Light/White Heat," because of the ever popular "creative differences." Doug Yule then entered the picture. "The atmosphere became more calm," said Moe reflecting on the revisionist history and the reality of the change to the Velvet Underground sound.
"Doug was a very good musician, but he wasn't John. Nobody could bring what John brought to it. There was no replacing John. I can't conceive of replacing any of us."
Nonetheless, after Moe became pregnant in 1970 and left the band, she too was 'replaced', by Doug's brother Billy, and the sound of the Velvets changed dramatically. Creditwise Billy Yule did some of the drumming on "Loaded", and all of it on "Live at Max's Kansas City." In spite of the ever eulogising, today, Moe Tucker, mother and rock legend, remains ever the innocent and downplays the band's alleged influence over the past twenty so years.
"They say we did, I guess we did. If I was not in the group at the time, and I had gone to see us I'd have been awfully excited." "We were so different and it was really so powerful. I think that anyone interested in being a rock and roll person would have to be somewhat influenced."
Of course. Impact and talent don't often lead to financial success, and none of the band's albums really sold copies comparative to the band's mythology. Across the board it has been agreed lack of acceptance of the Velvets image in the face of wider trends in popular music scared distributors off promoting their products. "After a while it became aggravating when you knew there were lots of people who would buy the record if they could find it," Moe said. "But of course they weren't distributed. That kinda pissed you off when you didn't have money to buy a pair of shoes." Perhaps the box will change some of that, like the recent live re-union recordings were meant to do. Perhaps it will shine a little well-deserved light back in the Velvet's direction, finally push them over the top on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballots.
Or perhaps you should just pick it up for yourself and decide, I'm sure the band wouldn't have it any other way.