Agony Shorthand

Friday, April 16, 2004

This is one of those listening “projects” of mine that lie in a netherworld somewhere between pure entertainment enjoyment and painstaking scholarly research. It’s one that I’ve been eager to “tackle” for some time. I finally got around to active listening of all three of the heralded VELVET UNDERGROUND “Quine Tapes” discs in their entirety this past week, and like just about everyone else who’s heard them, I am very, very impressed. The Velvet Underground come away from the experience sitting in the fabled catbird seat for all-time great rock bands, right where they were perched a week ago. The word on the street was that these were the very best of the Velvet Underground live tapes out there, far too good to only circulate on bootlegs, and deserving of a proper release. In October 2001, Polydor Records did just that. I have to agree that they’re among the best I’ve ever heard, up there with “Sweet Sister Ray” and “The Legendary Guitar Amp Tape” and some of the great rehearsal material that surfaced on the “Peel Slowly And See” box set. What makes these CDs special is that this is truly the Velvet Underground at their unadorned, most rocking best, not subject to anyone’s agenda for track listing or to shoddy recording techniques (though Robert Quine’s tapes are a bit RAW). It’s really just one young law student and a tape recorder, taping up his #1 favorite band like the seer, visionary and public servant he was.

In researching this collection on the World Wide Web, I read a couple of instructive reviews that capture some good insights on the set. This is from Jonathan Moscowitz in the New York Press:

“Quine’s tapes were made right before the Velvets went into the studio to record Loaded, an experience so negative it made Reed quit the band and move back home to Long Island. You can hear that sound foreshadowed in the versions of "It’s Just Too Much," "Ride into the Sun" and "Follow the Leader" offered here. Good-natured and bouncy, they show off Reed’s love of old-school rock ’n’ roll and Sterling Morrison’s effortless rhythm work. At the other end of the spectrum sit the old Factory-era chestnuts "Venus in Furs" and "The Black Angel’s Death Song." In their original incarnations both these songs were built around Cale’s heavily droning viola, and it’s instructive to hear how well the band evokes the junky creepiness of their first album without him.”

These shows were recorded in late 1969 at a large hall (The Family Dog) and a small club (The Matrix) in San Francisco, as well as the basketball gym at Washington University in St. Louis, thus illuminating the band in both spacious and intimate environs. There appear to be some extremely small, uninterested crowds in attendance, and the sets, as Moscovitz says, lean heavily to “Loaded” and third album material. There’s also a few big eye-openers: “Follow The Leader”, long considered a “lost” and highly sought-after VU song, is probably not worth much further hype as it’s a middling chugger that goes on about 10 minutes too long, clocking in at a robust 17:05. Yet nothing compares to the not one, not two, but THREE wholly unique versions of “Sister Ray”, one sitting on each disc. You really think the Velvet Underground were the antithesis of the hippie scene? This set gives one pause. Rather than coming in blazing with posturing and standoffish black-leather New York hipster ‘tude, the Velvets instead adapted to their San Francisco environs quite well, and cranked out lengthy instrumental passages that sound like any typical free- form band of the period (just better). Quine says of the November 7-9th 1969 shows, "The first weekend, at the Family Dog, it was basically just a bunch of hippies there. They brought their tambourines, harmonicas, and were playing along. I made tapes of that stuff that came out very well. It was a large place, so they could really turn up the amps." The versions of “Sister Ray” are especially terrific if you’re willing to smoke a fat doob and sit back and feeeeeel them. Built around one of the all-time great riffs, the song has so many different piece parts that it’s really 12 songs in one – now multiply that by 3 different versions (one slow, one hard, one that morphs into an excellent “Foggy Notion”) and, well, 12 cubed = 1,728 different combinations and ways of playing “Sister Ray” on any given night. Quine captured three of them, and they’re fantastic.

There’s also a brilliant distorted version of “What Goes On” and two incredible “I’m Waiting For The Man”s – one gentle and jaunty, one dark and mean. The banana really does peel down to the base once you’ve tackled all 3 discs here, and I’m left with a much better picture of the Velvet Underground live experience than previously captured on various bootlegs. I’m confident that no two shows were identical, and that this was a band well worth slavishly following the way Quine obviously did. In sum, this small box set is essential for those who feel it important to dig deep into Velvet Underground arcana beyond the 4 LPs, the 2 posthumous LPs and the “Peel Slowly” box set. We are a limited crew, granted, but we make up in fanaticism what we lack in self-restraint – an endearing quality for Agony Shorthand readers and those few people who love them.