Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: ‘The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side’

Is there something inherently wrong about a coffee table book covering the history of The Velvet Underground? Glossy, colorful, souvenir books like Jim DeRogatis’s The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side seem more befitting a group with a cuddlier reputation, such as The Beatles, who have been the subjects of many coffee table tomes. Yet, wasn’t the VU initially promoted as Andy Warhol’s latest pop art project, an entity not terribly far removed from Warhol’s style-over-substance soup cans or Edie Sedgwick? And didn’t Warhol essentially force them to perform with Nico because she looked good? And— let’s face it—didn’t the Velvets look pretty great all on their own, decked out in their matching, too-cool-for-uptown wraparound shades and black togs? And can’t the content of dope and S&M celebrations such as “Sister Ray”, “Heroin”, and “Venus in Furs” be deemed cheap exploitation on some level? And let’s also not forget that the drugging, womanizing Beatles were hardly as sweet as the toys, cartoons, and coffee table books they inspired ever suggested.

So DeRogatis’s book doesn’t violate what The Velvet Underground represented, just as the band’s more exploitative aspects don’t dull the keenness of Lou Reed’s gutter poetry or the completely organic wildness of the band’s noisy attack or the stark beauty of their ballads. But is it necessary? The band’s tale has been told many times before in far more complete form, particularly and definitively in Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day. A lot of the photos in An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, which are the real selling points of any illustrated history, can be found in Unterberger’s book. However, “1966: The Year the Velvet Underground Went Pop”, Warhol’s personal memoir about his band’s earliest days, is only excerpted in White Light/White Heat. It is presented in its lengthy entirety in An Illustrated History… and is an absolute must read for anyone who missed out on attending The Exploding Plastic Inevitable him/herself. There’s also a good interview with Sterling Morrison conducted by the guitarist’s former bandmate, Bill Bentley, some fabulous shots of Reed’s original sheet music for “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” (Jesus Christ, the guy fucking wrote out those songs like he was Cole Porter or something! How many other Rock & Roll songwriters did that?), and an amazing photo of Warhol silk-screening the legendary banana. I also love the totally tacky faux velvet wraparound banner included with the book. It reminds me of Kramer’s coffee table book about coffee tables that actually turns into a coffee table. Warhol would surely approve.

Buy The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side at Amazon.com here.
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