Monday, December 22, 2008

Aural noir: A Velvet Underground DVD review.

Velvet Redux: Live MCMXCIII
Rhino // 1993 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
A DVD review by Cinematic Cteve


"Jenny said when she was just five years old
There was nothing happenin' at all.
Every time she puts on a radio,
There was nothin' goin' down at all, not at all.
Then one fine mornin' she puts on a New York station
You know, she couldn't believe what she heard at all.
She started dancin' to that fine, fine music
You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll."—Lou Reed

What's on the Disc

The four surviving members of the original Velvet Underground reunited in 1993 for a brief European tour, initially as an opening act for U2 and later as headliners for a three-night stand in Paris. This DVD is a document of the Velvet's live shows filmed June 15-17, 1993 at L'Olympia Theater in Paris. It was previously released on CD as Velvet Redux Live: MCMXCIII. Unfortunately, the internal tensions that had destroyed the band in 1970 apparently resurfaced during the European gigs. A planned U.S. tour was scrapped when the Velvets broke up again. They have not performed together publicly in the 13 years since these recordings.

The DVD concert features the original lineup consisting of rhythm guitarist Lou Reed, John Cale on viola and electric bass, Moe Tucker on percussion, and lead guitarist Sterling Morrison, who died of cancer in 1995—a year before the Velvets were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For fans, this disc is worth owning just to see the original quartet alive and performing together for what would be the last time.

Why the Velvet Underground got back together for a few weeks in 1993 remains vague, though it’s easy to suspect a lot of money was involved. The irony of this is the Velvets in their heyday hardly enjoyed more than critical success. They were the darlings of the New York underground and the hipster rock press, but, to put it charitably, record sales were modest. In interviews through the years, Reed has recalled how he worked in his parents' business part-time during the band's salad years, while Morrison was known to bicycle between recording studios and college campuses to finish his degree. Morrison eventually quit the band to teach college at Texas A&M. So by 1993, cashing in on some Velvet Underground equity probably seemed like a solid idea.

On this concert DVD, Cale handles vocals on the tracks that German chanteuse Nico sang for the group nearly 40 years ago on their most famous album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. This was the record with the notorious banana cover created by artist Andy Warhol, who initially managed the band before he was fired by Reed. The pop-art design featured a bright yellow banana with a cardboard pull-tab near the top and an invitation to "peel slowly and see." Those who chose to mutilate their album covers would find a pink banana phallus underneath. Yes, this is what passed for cleverness in 1967, when acid ingestion was more common than acid indigestion.

Musically, that seminal disc, released in March of '67, would deliver an iconoclastic kick in the teeth during the Summer of Love later that year. Lou Reed penned unapologetic songs of despair, New York street life, sadomasochism ("Venus in Furs"), and odes to narcotic addiction ("Heroin"), among other unnerving preoccupations. Incredibly, thought it's one of the most nihilistic statements ever recorded by a rock band, the Velvet's debut album remains a haunting and compulsive listening experience. It is one of the few records that, once started, is impossible to stop. Despite the bleak thematic concerns, the melodies and musical ideas flow seamlessly to create a cohesive statement about urban life in the second half of the 20th century. Reed, who penned the band's best songs, never judges his characters or their unconventional business. Musically, the Velvets would never top their debut album, which today ranks 13 on Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. No coincidence, then, that a third of the tracks on this concert DVD are drawn from that first Velvet Underground record.

The relentless nihilism of the band's early years abated marginally as Reed began to flirt with the idea of a solo career. A classic Velvet track like "Rock 'N' Roll" (the first eight lines of which are quoted above) showed Reed was capable of expressing, well, not quite joy, but at least a heartfelt belief in rock music as salvation. Still, not long after he quit the Velvet Underground in 1970 and forged on with a solo career, Reed started yammering about transvestite groupies ("Walk on the Wild Side") and cutting loose with virtually unlistenable experimental noise (the gawdawful album Metal Machine Music). So the most recognizable face of the Velvets never completely abandoned his fascination with the dark side.

As a live act reuniting in 1993, the band delivers faithful if uninspired renditions of 15 classic Velvet songs. In fairness, documentary footage of the band in its late-'60s glory is difficult to come by, so it's hard to say if what we're seeing from 1993 is the band's standard stage demeanor. A 1966 documentary about the group directed by Warhol is commercially unavailable at this time. On this disc, at least, the Velvets often come off like journeymen—competent musicians who get the job done without evidencing a lot of excitement for the work. Videography is similarly competent and occasionally rises to the challenge of capturing the band under extremely dark lighting conditions, punctuated by ethereal blue spotlights. The Velvet Underground produced dark, often brooding music, and their stage show reflects this. Audio comes through in linear PCM stereo, clean but unspectacular to these ears. There's no evidence of Dolby filtering to spruce up the sound, and the famed laboratory's logo is conspicuously absent from the disc and packaging.

There are no extras. The disc menu permits direct song access and that's it. In sum, the DVD is a decent souvenir of a hugely influential group, but a group past its prime whose swansong performance is, sadly, not even in the same zip code as reference-quality video and audio.

With that caveat, hard-core Velvet fans should lower their expectations and give this disc a spin. What's really missing here is the late, mysterious Nico, who died in 1988 while bicycling in Spain. The Velvet Underground's spooky muse was 50.

As my work here is done, I'm gonna lay that first album in the CD tray, don a set of headphones, and let Nico purr her silky seductions in my ear. There's no denying:

She's just a little tease / She's a femme fatale....

Set List:
• Venus in Furs
• White Light/White Heat
• Beginning to See the Light
• Some Kinda Love
• Femme Fatale
• Hey Mr. Rain
• I'm Sticking With You
• I Heard Her Call My Name
• I'll Be Your Mirror
• Rock N'Roll
• Sweet Jane
• I'm Waiting for the Man
• Heroin
• Pale Blue Eyes
• Coyote

Copyright © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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