Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 12, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day’

The contemporary trend in Rock & Roll retrospectives is the day-by-day chronicle; exhaustive accounts of the where and when of every doing—both major and marginal— of Rock’s hugest institutions. I’ve read books of this nature about The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Monkees. All of these have been essential and valuable reference guides even if they don’t provide the fluid reading experience of a straight biography.

Published last year by Jaw Bone Press, Richie Unterberger’s Velvet Underground chronicle delivers even greater OCD exhaustiveness than these other books, while also dragging the genre closer to the realm of classic biography. As such White Light/White Heat is the most traditionally readable day-by-day chronicle I’ve perused, tethering all of those dates and details about recording sessions and concerts together with insightful critiques of the band’s records and shows, as well as personal information that truly attempts to answer every conceivable lingering question about the freaky East Coast horde. If you’re still wondering why John Cale quit, how and why the band made such a radical transition from hedonistic avant-gardists to a pop group that could record stuff like “Who Loves the Sun?”, or how they fell into the hands of Doug Yule, Unterberger does his damnedest to answer you. As a Brit Rock fanatic, I was tickled to read about the Velvets jamming on stuff like “Day Tripper”, “The Last Time”, “My Generation”, and “I Can’t Explain” and Lou Reed’s effusive praise for The Easy Beats and Something Else by the Kinks. This certainly cleared up the pop question for me.

Along with covering all relevant incidents pertaining directly to The Velvet Underground, Unterberger allows no periphery detail escape him. Amusingly, he even mentions the BMI registration of a song written by one Lewis Reed— who clearly is not the Mr. Reed relevant to this book. I also like the way he gradually folds the various stars who will be most influenced by The Velvet’s into the story, particularly David Bowie, Jonathan Richman, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Patti Smith. Such artists are crucial figures in VU history since a good deal of the band’s significance lies in how heavily they altered Rock & Roll by inspiring a new generation of artists.

As fine as White Light/White Heat inarguably is, all but the most devoted fans may still find themselves skipping around a bit. The incredible number of concert overviews gets a bit repetitious and I quickly lost interest in all details regarding pre-fame Velvet Angus MacLise, whose activities are chronicled here long after his departure from the band. Still I was greatly appreciative of how closely Unterberger followed Nico and John Cale’s post-VU careers (I can’t wait to pick up a copy of The Marble Index!). The writer’s obsession with cult acts, which made his earlier books Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll and Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers so indispensable, fully flourishes when detailing Rock’s ultimate cult act. Maddeningly definitive.

Buy it here: White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day (Genuine Jawbone Books)
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