Cornwall, Connecticut, Thanksgiving morning.
The 45th Anniversary edition of The Velvet Underground was released last week, and along with various mixes of the band’s great third album, there is a two-cd live set from shows taped, in remarkably clear four-track stereo, at San Francisco’s The Matrix over the 26th and 27th of November, 1969.
If those dates ring a bell, you clearly are a fan of rock history, for surely you realize the 27th was the first night of the Rolling Stones’ shows at Madison Square Garden, from which came both the concert scenes captured by the Maysles in Gimme Shelter and likely the greatest live album ever, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!
Think of it: in New York, The Rolling Stones were playing sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, on a tour that washed away the detritus of ’60’s psychedelia; The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band In The World playing Chuck Berry songs alongside “Midnight Rambler” and “Stray Cat Blues.” And in San Francisco, before maybe 200 people, the Velvets were playing a 37-minute version of “Sister Ray” and an early version of “Sweet Jane.” And 45 years later, we realize that both bands, playing on the same evening, were laying down the epochal music that would influence every subsequent band that we love, that would, each in their own way, change our life, which of course was saved by rock’n’roll, if not “Rock And Roll.”
We already knew that The Velvet Underground & Nico was released the same day as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The notion that the Velvets were opening with “I’m Waiting For the Man” maybe three or four hours after the Stones, on the East Coast, were opening their set with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” reveals the Velvet Underground to be the perfect alternative act to the mainstream of ’60’s music, the perfect counterpoint to the conventional counterculture, their greatness tied up not simply in their music, but symbolically in in their obscurity, their swimming far from the established sea lanes of popular culture.
If you can, you really should buy the expensive “45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition,” of The Velvet Underground, even if it means a second job. Easy for us to say, we know. We do not feel the slightest compunction about recommending this extravagance, this extravaganza. If you wish to know where any of our favorite bands come from, it’s here: both Talking Heads and The Modern Lovers captured in “What Goes On,” Galaxie 500 contained in the included version of “Ride Into The Sun,” The Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Jesus and Mary Chain contained within it all. It’s all worth it, especially when you think of The Velvet Undeground as the counter history of rock’n’roll.
The Basement Tapes Complete is such an intimate portrait of Dylan’s creative life in 1967, it feels like you are spying. From the early sessions when he and the Band settle in by playing Johnny Cash and Hank Williams covers, to the amazing CDs 3,4, and 5, when most of the original songs we’ve long known as “the Basement Tapes” come one after another, the power of Dylan’s muse gathers momentum. Spending most of a week immersed in it, as we have just done, is to be transported into a private world gone public, and us — finally — the better for the privilege of witnessing those Big Pink sessions.
We thought the joy from finally having The Basement Tapes Complete would lie in the word “complete” — the songs we’ve never heard, or at least only in the flat mono bootlegs we’ve plunked down money for since 1971. Instead, honestly, the joy lies in hearing the core 14 songs that have comprised our understanding of what Dylan and the Band created, finally available in expansive, amazing stereo. Instead of hearing “Yeah! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” in the compressed monotone of the official 1975 release, we can hear it in a glorious low-fi, intimate space. We find that many of the choices Robbie Robertson made in ’75 over which takes to choose were correct. (The exception, maybe, is that he chose the first take of “Too Much Of Nothing” over the better second take, choosing to overdub the off-putting harmonies by Manuel and Danko rather than deal with the initial flub by Dylan. But yeah, the 2nd take is much better, as has often been claimed by Basement Tapes aficionados.)
You have to work your way through all 138 songs to really get a sense for how much joy was at work in that basement/garage near Woodstock where Dylan and the Band decamped. How many times does Dylan crack up midway through a song, only to pull it together to quit the stoner laughter and finish?
The sequencing does not appear to be precisely sequential, but good Lord, disks 3-5 indicate that at a certain point Dylan settled into a rhythm of unparalleled creativity, with all the songs that were on the ’75 release as well as such missing evidence of genius as “I’m Not There,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Quinn The Eskimo.”
And then there are gems that we will be listening to for years: “Silent Weekend,” “Wild Wolf,” “Dress It Up, Better Have It All.” The good news is that, for most, buying The Basement Tapes Raw — the two-disk compilation — will be sufficient. For Dylan completists, finally having his version of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” in stereo, not to mention originals like “Get Your Rocks Off” or “French Girl” is like having Christmas presents delivered early.
The collective and individual brilliance of the Band’s playing is only matched by Dylan’s voice – allowed to shine clearly without the “raunching and rheuming” that Tom Wolfe described in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And importantly, without the accompaniment of harmonica. This was Dylan working in intimate scale with one of the greatest collections of musicians on the planet, capturing originals he typed upstairs and put to music moments later in the basement, not to mention all the covers of folk songs he was teaching the R&B maestros from Ontario.
James Joyce once famously said that it took him 17 years to write Finnegans Wake and it should take the reader 17 years to read it. It has taken 47 years for us to get these recordings in full, at a sonic level that lets us know precisely what was being accomplished as these musicians played with joy, with no sense anyone ever would be listening to them at home and in full. This should keep us going another 47 years.
The Stephen Bartels Gallery online website just relaunched, and a dozen of our black and white images of animals in their natural habitat in Botswana are displayed in higher resolution — and at a more attainable price — than was previously available.
Congratulations to Stephen on having navigated an arduous process of moving to a new website platform for the many excellent photographers he represents. And for those looking for holiday gifts of fine art, no need to shop anywhere else.
Hard though it may be to believe, at last night’s bravura performance by the Fleshtones at D.C.’s Gypsy Sally’s, some friends came who had never seen the band before. You shake your head in disbelief, we know. Never seen the only CBGB era band that has toured continuously for close to 40 years… that still puts on the most entertaining performance in all of rock’n’roll… that has almost single-handedly carried the garage rock movement since Jimmy Carter was president.
Yes, they’d never seen the ‘Tones, but loved them, and asked, “What are the five best Fleshtones records?”
So we emailed them this:
“1. Take A Good Look (2008), is probably the closest the ‘Tones have come to a real hit record in the past two decades. A very good collection of modern Fleshtones songs, it was heralded by rock critters as a way for the uninitiated to catch up, which makes sense to me. Listen to this and you will immediately want to hear more.
2. Roman Gods: their first official album, an attempt by IRS Records to make them radio friendly off the bat, and though it provides something of a false picture, it will give you a sense of why they were so powerfully different from their peers circa 1977-’82. The way you likely can find it is as a 1985 combo with their first IRS EP, which takes great early songs, but does not render them well on vinyl. Which I wrote, disappointed, in NY Rocker in 1980.
3. Beautiful Light,1994, produced by Peter Buck of REM. Just a great album. Maybe a highpoint in terms of reflecting the Fleshtones as a serious band, beyond the entertainment value. Though Lord knows there is plenty of that. But people sometimes forget the Fleshtones are a serious and deep band, and Beautiful Light, to me, makes that case. Also, listen to this record and then go listen to REM’s Monster, which came out a year later. Yeah, that’s why REM’s sound was so different and better: Buck grafted Keith Streng’s guitar sound onto his band!
4. The Fleshtones Vs. Reality — This was the first record to truly capture the early Fleshtones sound on vinyl. “Whatever Makes You Happy” may be my favorite Fleshtones song of all time. Really great.
5. The Fleshtones Live At Double Door: 2004, actually captures a version of what you saw last night! Alas, you really need to see them to grok how much fun they are, but this does provide an audio record.”
So we just spent the afternoon with the band and read them our list. They found it respectable, though when we referenced the live album, they’d never heard of it! Though we bought it on iTunes, it’s a bootleg! So don’t buy that.
Mulling it over, their consensus fifth choice would be More Than Skin Deep, a really great record that came out in 1998.
So thus would be our list of the records, though of course you should also read SWEAT, the excellent history of “America’s Garage Band,”and don’t forget to watch Pardon Us For Living But The Graveyard Is Full, the excellent documentary about the most fun, hardest working combo in showbiz.