The Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City? At first I thought it was some kind of joke. As if someone was trying to rig a re-run of the Terrible ’60s by conjuring up old ghosts in old haunts. The Velvets, after all, had been the darlings of the Pop/amphetamine culture, whose spiritual center was often to be found at the round table in Max’s back room, and it was not inconceivable to imagine some entrepreneur attempting to cash in on what would certainly be a premature revival of those jaded, faded years.
But no. The Velvets have changed considerably since they left Warhol’s gang. No more demonic assaults on the audience. No more ear-wrenching shrieks of art. No more esoterica. “We once did an album with a pop painter,” Lou Reed told the audience last Wednesday as the group began a two-week engagement upstairs at Max’s, “because we wanted to help him out.” “You’re doing better without him,” a fan yelled back.
And so they are. It seems the Velvets are now back to where they once belonged, functioning as a genuine rock ‘n’ roll dance band, dedicated to laying down strong rhythms and a steady beat that gets the vital juices flowing. No fuzz tones, no academic exercises. They were always good musicians, sometimes precocious and lacking discipline, but admired by their peers, nevertheless, for originality and innovation. Now they are all bloody virtuosos, with a mature sense of knowing when they are good and enjoying it. The result can be positively exhilarating.
The audience told me that. Opening night, of course, was something of an event, a kind of Old Home Week that brought together various elements of the rock/pop hierarchy, plus nostalgia seekers and true believers, most of whom had not seen the Velvets since they exercised at the Gymnasium three years ago. I don’t know what they expected to hear, but they certainly weren’t disappointed.
The Velvets served up scads of crisp, new material, along with what Lou calls “rock ‘n’ roll versions” of the group’s old standards, like “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “I’m Waiting for My Man.” The first set was done “in concert,” with the audience seated behind tables, but in no time at all everyone was fighting the urge to dance. People started smiling, sometimes in amazement, as the boys began pulling these incredible notes from their instruments, and then they started beating time on their knees and bobbing their heads.
By the time they were halfway through the first set people were yelling “Right on!” and you know what that can do to a performer, especially if he’s white and the guy yelling is black. The room is small, and very conducive to that kind of rapport. After two nights of this the group was firmly convinced that they had done the right thing by coming into Max’s to make their return appearance on a New York stage.
By Friday, night they were at the peak of their power. The word must have gotten out that the Velvets were back and in rare form, because the audience was right there from the beginning. They applauded the first notes of each old number and when Doug Yule, playing lead guitar, went into the bluesy, heart-tugging solo on “Sweet Nothing,” which is the Velvets’ “Hey Jude,” they went wild, interrupting it twice with applause.
I don’t know what effect this will have on their careers, but judging from past audience reactions to the Velvets (and other groups), I would say things are at an all-time high. I, for one, have always believed that the Velvets have never received the attention they deserve, but I attributed this to the fact that they have never tried to be commercial. They seemed to enjoy being artsy and esoteric. I also think that they were so indigenous to New York City that they were probably too sophisticated for the rest of the country. Oh, they always had a loyal following, even in the most obscure burgs, but it was all purists. No mass market. They’re more eclectic now, so things may change.
They have made significant contributions to rock music, that’s for sure. They have influenced many groups, including the Beatles, the Stones, and the Airplane (who lifted one of Maureen Tucker’s drum riffs line for line and used it on one of their biggest singles). The Velvets are also the foremost exponents of something I call white/urban East Coast rhythm and blues, a form that doesn’t rely on a white singer doing black face. All rock has black roots but the Velvets are one of the few groups around (along with the Stones) who have succeeded in developing their own style without coming off like a pale imitation. They have managed to evoke a culture born of the Long Island Expressway, and what’s wrong with that?
They’ll be at Max’s another week, at least. Two shows a night, Wednesday through Sunday, starting at 11:30. There’s a $3 admission fee, but once inside you can relax and enjoy. There’s no hustle. ♦
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 10, 2020