Notional Velvet Underground: What The Late Show In Heaven Sounds Like
There are times when I listen to a song and it makes me think of the Velvet Underground. Brian Jonestown Massacre. Luna. Mazzy Star. Jesus and Mary Chain. You get that, right? The Feelies, Modern Lovers. That case is easy to make. And then I’ll listen to a song like the version of Dylan’s “Most of The Time” that’s on the 3rd CD of Tell Tale Signs and it makes me think, swear to God, of the VU. And then I go and listen to the Velvets themselves and they don’t sound anything like my notional Velvet Underground. What is that?
There was a story going around in 1969 about the groupie in LA who would sleep with guys and say, “Well, he’s good, but he’s not Mick Jagger.” And then she slept with The Mick and her take was, “Well, he’s good, but he’s not Mick Jagger.” Myth and reality. But in this case, the question is: was there ever a reality to the Velvet Underground? Eno’s line that only 1000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but they all formed bands is, of course, on some level true. And not all the bands sounded like the Velvets, but they’re all connected, in some way, at some level. But what does it actually mean to sound like the Velvet Underground?
For me the quintessential VU sound came on the 3rd album, with songs like “What Goes On” and the delicate “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Beginning To See The Light.” There’s a residue of folk and Motown and Farfisa organ-based garage rock. And to me, this sound shows up everywhere from Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets” to the Talking Heads’ “The Good Thing.”
Is it Sterling Morrison’s guitar sound? That’s a lot of it. That and the simple, propulsive drumming of Moe Tucker, the organ overlay. Sterling Morrision’s echoes can be heard in everything from Luna (not just when he sat in with them) to William Reid of JAMC to the BJM for sure. But how to account for the fact that when I put together a Velvets-sounding playlist, I put on it bands like the Warlocks, who are of a completely different school, who were beamed to Earth from a whole different constellation?
Here’s the playing order (bands, not songs) of my Velvets playlist: Pere Ubu, Modern Lovers, BJM, JAMC, Warlocks, Luna, The Darkside, Mazzy Star, Dylan, Neko Case, The Stems, Galaxie 500,The Feelies, Van Morrison. Not a lot in common between them all, but they all plug in, in the songs contained therein, to the Velvets amp. Who am I missing?
Another thing that’s weird: Lou Reed has a very distinctive song structure, or at least the solo artist Lou did. And yet few, if any of the bands referenced sound like Lou. It’s almost like the Velvets sound of mental myth is Lou-less. Weird.
All I know is that, having never seen the Velvet Underground, but having seen the three fictional film versions — in The Doors, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Factory Girl — I have some sense of what the late show in Heaven sounds like. Angus McLeish may sit in on drums for a song or two. Peter Laughner will be there on guitar. Mark Smith will curse and spit on stage. Dean Wareham waits his turn near the amps. And we’ll have a real good time together.