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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is Velvet Underground America’s Greatest Band?

Richie Unterberger delivers ‘White Light/White Heat'

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"Name your favorite Velvet Underground album," I once challenged a friend.

"Which Velvet Underground?"he responded.

From the relentless, mind-crushing throb of "Sister Ray" to the delicate strum of "I'll Be Your Mirror" to the four-on-the-floor stomp of "Rock and Roll," my friend's response was right on the money.The Velvets entered the scene as black-clad beatnik thugs from New York City, smirking at the hippies through the Summer of Love. The individual parts were Mo Tucker's tribal drums and John Cale's scraping viola, topped off with Nico's deadpan vocals. Add the locomotive guitars of Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, and Reed's catalog of fantastic songs and, well, you get the picture. Sort of

In my opinion, the Velvet Underground remains the greatest band America has ever produced. While some listeners may disagree, the proof exists in both the humanity and ingenuity the band infused in its music over a four-album career.With a far-reaching influence, they virtually define the term "cult group." Richie Unterberger's White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day (Jawbone Press) traces the group's history from the members' early forays in the scummy business of popular music to a fateful alliance with pop artist auteur Andy Warhol and beyond.

Other than Warhol, who ever thought the Velvets would earn coffee-table-book status? Yet here we are four decades later with Unterberger gathering nuggets, diary entries and other ephemera like a squirrel preparing for the harshest of winters.

Beyond the well-trod facts, we get the back story on the members' formative years, including Nico as a model and actress in Europe before coming to America and being grafted unto the band by Warhol. After leaving the group, she would again work with Cale and Reed. Cale's early music studies in Wales blended classical training with a bent toward the avant-garde. The author explores Reed's apprenticeship as a doo-wop fan working for budget record labels looking to cash in on the latest dance craze. Unterberger even includes a reprint of a 1967 article on Tucker, "Spotlighting the Single Girl: She Gave Up Computers to Play Drums in a Band."

Unterberger's name is known (he is the working authority on all things Byrds-related) and his attention to detail plays right into the group's fan base, long known to salivate over every thread of arcana. (Three years ago, a 1966 test pressing of material from the Velvets' first album was attracting bids upward of $125,000 on eBay.) Telling the story chronologically, Unterberger creates a calendar of gigs and recording sessions with great anecdotal stories from those behind the scenes, ranging from studio engineers to fans that road-tripped and recorded the band.

As the band evolved toward a quieter, less edgy sound when Cale was replaced by Doug Yule, it comes to light that the real villain in the group's ultimate demise was manager Steve Sesnick. The book covers the Velvets' triumphant return to New York in 1970 with a two-month residency at Max's Kansas City.But it would be a bittersweet return: Tucker is on pregnancy leave and Reed confides to her that he is leaving the band, thus ending the VU story proper.

Unterberger's clear-eyed assessment of the band's post-Reed career paves the way for uneven reviews of a 1993 reunion tour that ended with recriminations and simmering grudges. Morrison would die of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1995, effectively ending any further chapters for the band. But Unterberger's book is a comprehensive study of the essential group.