In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Rob Jovanovic’s new book Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground is the most thorough history of the band I have read, a definitive exploration of both their music and iconic members.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“In this moving tribute and first-rate history, rock journalist Jovanovic gives us an absorbing chronicle of the Velvet Underground’s rise to fame, its bitter arguments, and its unparalleled musical genius.”
Many writers listen to music while working, and when I’m writing about a band I listen to little else for weeks at a time. Sometimes it takes me years before I can go back and listen to that band just for pure enjoyment, and in a couple of cases it’s ruined my ability to enjoy that band ever again. Luckily that wasn’t the case with the Velvet Underground. Here are some songs.
1. R.E.M. – “There She Goes Again”
When I heard my first Velvet Underground song I didn’t even know it belonged to them. I was getting into R.E.M. in the mid-1980s and they’d often cover Velvet’s songs like ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Femme Fatale’. When they included these and ‘There She Goes Again’ on their 1987 compilation of odds and ends, Dead Letter Office, I decided I had to seek out the original recordings and have never looked back.
2. Velvet Underground – “I’m Waiting for the Man”
Like any long project, writing a book has ups and downs. Sometimes the words would flow easily, some days it was a real struggle. While working on Seeing the Light, I’d sometimes use this abrasive, unrelenting track to shake me out of any lulls and get me back to my keyboard. It always works, I just put it on to help me finish this list. You should try it.
3. Velvet Underground – “Venus in Furs”
In 1993, around the time that the Velvet Underground briefly reunited, a Dunlop tyres TV advertisement was aired using the slogan “Tested for the unexpected” with this track as its soundtrack. The choice of track was unexpected to say the least. It carried some of the band’s most blatant sexual imagery and was now on mainstream TV, showing just how far the boundaries had shifted in popular culture since the Velvet’s time.
4. Velvet Underground – “Who Loves the Sun”
Some people forget, or choose to forget, that the ‘classic’ VU line-up of Reed / Cale / Morrison / Tucker lasted for only two of the band’s four core albums. While it’s true that the experimental nature of the band changed when Doug Yule replaced John Cale, he certainly added pop craft and in this case the vocals for the opening track on Loaded. Today at least, that’s my favourite VU album, and Yule’s contribution is forever underestimated.
5. Velvet Underground – “I’m Sticking with You”
Everything I’d read was true. Moe Tucker was one of the nicest people in music. When I talked to her for the book I was surprised to hear that she’d almost been too shy to sing this track and had insisted that everyone else leave the studio when she finally agreed to do so. In her comeback years she toured Europe as the leader of her own band. Quite a transformation and quite a lady.
6. anything by The Bizarros
When Sterling Morrison walked out on the band, he managed to perform one of rock and roll’s great disappearing acts. For years no one outside his close circle of friends seemed to know where he was. It later emerged that he was studying and teaching in Texas and had been playing in blues bands at the weekend. His widow, Martha, sent me a couple of CDs of his post-Velvets music and any track from his band The Bizarros would have to get a place in this list.
7. The Replacements – “Alex Chilton”
Not a Velvets song, or cover, in fact it doesn’t really have anything to do with the Velvets. Except this: Alex Chilton could be a wily and difficult person to deal with, he did things his way and sometimes without an obvious reason. Then Paul Westerberg came along and wrote this song, which kind of made Chilton seem more human, in a distorted way. Someone should do the same for Lou Reed. No, really.
8. Beck- “Sunday Morning”
In 2009, Beck gathered a selection of musicians together and covered the entirety of the Velvet’s debut album live in the studio. This version was a beautifully bare and eclectic take on the original recording. Beck’s grandfather and mother had both spent time at Andy Warhol’s factory in the 1960s and this cover brought the family connection full circle.
Rob Jovanovic and Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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