Friday, March 2, 2012

"Up-Tight": she couldn't believe what she heard at all ...

Lou Reed turns seventy today, as impossible as that may seem.

Every generation makes its own icons to suit itself, but in the hazy days of the late sixties, the Velvet Underground upped the ante considerably in the battle of the generations. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, first under the aegis of Andy Warhol, re-wrote the book of love to include obsessions of dirt and noise and sheer panic.

That panic and noise came out of New York City, a far way from the peace-and-love message emanating from San Francisco and the general good-vibes rock generated by Woodstock. The Velvets were more art than rock, more an experiment in tension than release. By the time they came to Warhol's attention the band had already been through some permutations of what is usually called "creative differences." There were more to come.

With that kind of tension it was obvious the band couldn't last, and each of the Velvets' four official studio albums reflected a different side of the creative battles within the group. That the band succeeded in recording at all beyond the marquee patronage of Warhol is a story of record-company insecurities as much as the band's own personal dramas. Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story (re-issued by Omnibus in 2003) is a relatively concise biography that details the trajectory of the Velvet Underground month-by-month, year-by-year, until the group finally splinters for good.

Out-of-focus Lou: The Velvets, 1966 (photo from The Daily Beast)

By now it's an often-told, backbiting and bitchy story. The group evolves from Lou Reed's pop-rock roots to Andy Warhol patronage and art-rock noise, through a subdued, confessional third album and finally, "despite all the amputations," to rock'n'roll. Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga have assembled a witty, detailed, mostly-oral version with first-person accounts, full of the band's personal turmoil, drug use, and ego-fueled confrontations.

The interviews illuminate the art of the music and the band's struggle for commercial success in equal measure, two opposing goals that lead to the inevitable end of the band with centrifugal force. In the main, Up-Tight is rock's original cautionary tale of too much, too soon somehow not being enough: a template that survives, on a much different scale, with every 21st century pop sensation.

Great black-and-white photographs capture a band as interested in its own look as in its music. This is much more than a fan's book, and the Velvets' highwire act performed without a net ought to dispel any notion of the monolithic "peace and love" image of Sixties' music.

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