White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day

January 01, 1970

(Genuine
Jawbone)

 

 www.jawbonepress.com

 

 

BY MARK
JENKINS

 

It’s
not true that, as Brian Eno once said, everyone who bought the first Velvet
Underground album went on to start a band. Some of them went on to write about
the vastly influential, if hopelessly uncommercial, New York group. Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat is but the first
of three VU books due this year, and follows more than a dozen previous ones.

 

Although
they haven’t attracted as many pop scholars as the Beatles or Bob Dylan, the
Velvets are well-documented. So there are no big surprises in Unterberger’s
dense book, whose 368 small-type pages are most notable for exhaustive detail.
The author has done impressive research, turning up material that expands the
history entertainingly, if not substantively. The new stuff includes rare
images, including photos, posters and ads.

 

Unterberger
didn’t talk to all the band’s surviving members, but then John Cale and
especially Lou Reed are not known for being reliable sources. He seems to have
learned more from the Andy
Warhol Museum
and the Library of Congress, among other institutions, than from original
interviews. But he does pursue every angle, which is no small undertaking with
the Velvets.

 

Most
fans know that the group spent time in Andy Warhol’s orbit, but White Light/White Heat also annotates
the roles of such diverse figures as Delmore Schwartz, Bob Dylan, Aaron
Copland, La Monte Young, David Bowie, Alain Delon, Federico Fellini, Betsey
Johnson, Serge Gainsbourg, Vaclav Havel, Brian Epstein and — well, you get the
idea.

 

The
book has two major drawbacks. One is insufficient copy editing, which allows
many typos, redundancies and dropped words. Most of the errors are merely
distracting, but some lead to confusion. Guess the missing word, for example,
in the author’s comment on an early Velvets demo: “This landmark tape has
still been heard by the public.” (I think it’s “not.”)

 

The
second quandary is the “day by day” format itself, which encourages
dubious digressions, mind-numbing trivia and inaccurate asides. The book claims
that Strip-Tease, a movie starring
future Velvets vocalist Nico, was released in the U.S. in 1965 with an “R”
rating. But the MPAA rating system wasn’t introduced until 1968, a glitch that
could have been avoided with a more succinct account of this not especially
significant event.

 

The
daily template also yields innumerable discussions about whether such and such
a thing really happened or not, and if it did, if it occurred on a particular
day. I can help with two of these. Unterberger is dubious that the Velvets
actually performed in D.C. on April 26, 1966, but guitarist Sterling Morrison,
who was the band’s institutional memory, assured me in 1993 that he remembered
playing the show. (The other three Velvets did not.) I can also add a small
note about tensions on the ’93 reunion tour: The book gives June 28 as the
first time Reed traveled separately from the others, but Cale was going solo on
June 7, the day I interviewed the group in London.

 

The
day-by-day format will probably be less troublesome to readers who don’t read
the thing from cover to cover. The book functions best as either a reference
work or a grab-bag from which snatch anecdotes at random – impress your friends
with, say, the identity of the young man who got busted for pot with original
Velvets drummer Angus MacLise in Oklahoma on March 24, 1968. White Light/White Heat is not the
definitive history, but it’s loaded with episodes that are fascinating,
revealing or simply fun.

 

 

 

 

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