It’s frequently said about the Velvet Underground that as dynamic as the band could be in the studio, toggling between melody and cacophony in the span of the same four-minute song, its albums paled in comparison to its mesmerizing live performances.
So what to expect from a book about this legendary group, which achieved little commercial success but had widespread and enduring influence in rock and alternative music? Is it possible to capture the essence of this strange band — the delicacy and the dread, the beauty and the black leather — without benefit of a droning audio track? Of course it is. But Rob Jovanovic doesn’t quite deliver in “Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground.”
The book tells the story of VU, from its humble, rather haphazard origins in mid-1960s New York, with Lou Reed and John Cale at its creative heart, to the band’s iconic, yet overlooked (at the time) recordings, and, finally, its pitiful dissolution and brief reunion.
While it’s clear that Jovanovic, who’s also written books about cult favorites Big Star, Kate Bush, and Pavement, appreciates what makes these musicians so unique, he’s written a fairly straightforward band bio that has the nuts and bolts — Andy Warhol as Svengali, Reed as mercurial control freak, etc. — but not much else. Even by today’s standards, Reed was a decadent sort, but tales of excess — the drugs, sex, and general amphetamine-fueled scene that was the band’s milieu — are mostly missing.
To be fair, the story of the Velvet Underground is not easy to tell if, as it appears from the author’s note, neither Reed nor Cale consented to be interviewed. (Guitarist Sterling Morrison died of cancer in 1995.) Jovanovic instead relies heavily on previously published work — notably books by Victor Bokris — and interviews with drummer Moe Tucker and Doug Yule who is not a central figure in the band’s history but ends up getting an inordinate amount of attention apparently because he was willing to talk.
Still, there’s plenty of fodder here for fans who may only be familiar with the band because over the past 40 years everyone from the Stooges to Sonic Youth, Patti Smith to the Pixies has borrowed — or, in the case of the Strokes, shamelessly ripped off — VU’s sound. To his credit, Jovanovic does a decent job of explaining that sound, which is sometimes sweet, sometimes savage, and often “a mighty howl of outrage and bewilderment.”
The band did indeed strive to, in the words of Warhol, “[a]lways leave them wanting less,” and too bad for them they succeeded. But it wasn’t just a problem with the music. The Velvet Underground, according to Jovanovic, was mismanaged by Steve Sesnick, co-owner of the Boston Tea Party, a club that became something of a home away from home for the group. By pitting members against one another — Reed against Cale, Yule against Reed — Sesnick is the biggest villain here. But he apparently wouldn’t cooperate with the author, so his version of events is not included.
The book goes on to detail the band’s sad denouement, when Yule recorded a fifth VU record — “Squeeze” — with Ian Paice of Deep Purple on drums. (Gloucester’s own Willie Alexander was by then a touring member of the Velvet Underground, but, lucky for him, he didn’t play on “Squeeze.”) “Seeing the Light” concludes with an exhaustive rundown of Reed’s solo career; a bit about VU’s well-deserved 1996 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and a reminder of the band’s profound influence not only on music but also on world leaders. Former Czech president Vaclav Havel was a VU fan who, Jovanovic notes, came to power after his country’s Velvet Revolution.
In the end, Jovanovic has written an adequate history of the band, but anyone wanting to truly understand the Velvet Underground is better off putting on “Sister Ray,” and turning it way up.Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.