BOOK REVIEW: The Velvet Underground by Chris Roberts
Almost 60 years after they first emerged on New York City’s avant-garde art scene, The Velvet Underground continue to fire the literary and cinematic imagination. In the last few months alone we have seen the American filmmaker Todd Haynes’ compelling documentary, The Velvet Underground, and AndyWarhol’s America, the BBC’s three-part series about the life of the pop art titan and man who was the band’s early manager, benefactor and publicist. And now we have The Velvet Underground, the book, written by respected journalist Chris Roberts who wrote for Melody Maker – the erstwhile British weekly music magazine – and has previously published works on The Velvet Underground’s most famous member Lou Reed, as well as Elton John, Scarlet Johansson, ABBA, and many others besides.
Chris Roberts’ The Velvet Underground not only serves as the perfect companion to both of the aforementioned films but also adds far greater insights into the band’s internal dynamics, their creative processes, and the impact that the Velvets’ music had upon the cultural movements of the time, most notably that of mid-1960s New York.
After an introduction to the key dramatis personae – that is the VU’s core members of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker, plus the enigmatic model turned singer Nico and Andy Warhol – Roberts’ book then follows a chronological narrative from the band’s genesis in New York City in 1964 to what is an understandably perfunctory mention of the group’s fifth and final studio album, Squeeze. Essentially a Velvet Underground record in name only, by the time that record was released in 1973 all of the band’s original members had departed.
Then the book takes a detour through Lou Reed’s solo work, informed, in part, by Chris Roberts having interviewed him on three separate occasions, most recently in 2011 only a couple of years prior to Reed’s passing at the age of 71. It then returns to The Velvet Underground and their perhaps ill-considered reunion tour of Europe in 1993. Shortly thereafter they finally broke up for good “via a series of irate faxes.”
Throughout the book, a picture emerges of Lou Reed as a clearly talented yet complex, some might even say troubled individual. He was someone capable of demonstrating the most difficult, controlling, bloody-minded, contrary, and irascible behaviour. I can attest to some of those characteristics from when I saw him in concert for the second time (of four occasions in total). It was at Liverpool Philharmonic in 2005 when, after a fairly lacklustre performance, he took great exception to some punter in the crowd having had the temerity to call out for what is perhaps Reed’s most famous song, ‘Perfect Day’. Lou Reed promptly left the stage returning a suitably lengthy time later to play – out of spite, you would imagine – the most godawful version of that tune you are ever likely to hear.
Yet Lou Reed was evidently a person who also had an occasional glint in his eye. Alongside this undoubted charm, he could display both sensitivity and consideration. His reaction to the premature death of Sterling Morrison in 1995 illustrates such tenderness on his part. Roberts’ skill as a writer is that he does not seek here to impose his own view of Lou Reed as a man but leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions in that regard. But where The Velvet Underground is at its strongest is by making you want to return to the band’s records and play them over and over again, listening to this groundbreaking music with a far greater understanding and through much fresher ears as you do so.
The Velvet Underground by Chris Roberts is published by Palazzo Editions on 7th April 2022.
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