Winding through the astral plane with the Velvet Underground
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
One cool thing about living in greater Boston is that it’s not hard to see history around every corner. For every glass-plated, wood-framed luxury condo building that goes up to house a growing tech workforce that doesn’t mind spending $1 million on a condo, there are five brick-layered buildings that have been standing for decades. The streets wind and turn and dead-end without real reason. The bars still close earlier than most cities, leading to your requisite weird scenes and methods for passing the time.
This all goes without mentioning the Freedom Trail-type history of the city, with your actors in high socks and tri-cornered hats leading tourists around. There’s a deeper and weirder history to a region that’s been shaped by the push and pull of the Puritans and the freaks, tensions between authorities and everyone wriggling out from under authority’s thumb. It’s an area that pushes back as it welcomes. It’s a living paradox, then and now.
The “then” has been on my mind as I’ve blazed my way through Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. I picked it up specifically because I was happy to learn more about Van Morrison’s time living on Green Street in Cambridge as he remade his career and crafted his landmark second album. That meant, for the first couple of days I read the book and learned about the groundbreaking work happening on TV at WGBH and on the radio at WBCN, I was well tuned into Astral Weeks, which still plays as a comforting mystery as it unravels and spills and gathers itself.
But as the book rolls on, and through tales of cult-style communes, misguided public relations ploys with Boston as an East Coast San Francisco and all the civil upheaval of the time, it soon enough lands on the Velvet Underground, who had also made Boston their defacto base. They played the legendary Boston Tea Party 43 times after freeing themselves of Andy Warhol and Nico, and Lou Reed used the city as its new laboratory in remaking the band and pushing the music forward.
I wasn’t enough of a scholar of the band to realize quite the impact they had on the Boston Tea Party itself — at its original location on Berkeley Street in the South End before moving behind Fenway Park on Lansdowne Street and transforming through various closings/reopenings/rebuildings into the current House of Blues — and the subsequent impact that the venue and city had on the band. Practically ditching New York City for Boston and Cambridge sounds almost inconceivable when considering how the band, and especially Reed, were all the cool of New York City personified.
But facts are facts, and Reed stating on stage that the Tea Party was his favorite place to play carries a good amount of weight — he wasn’t into empty platitudes, then or ever.
Good feelings on Boston aside, it doesn’t take too much of a push to get the Velvet Underground back into heavy rotation. So out from Astral Weeks, and in it went into their self-titled third record, the true transition from the wildest of the experimental days and towards the dedicated song craft and production that would be the calling card of my personal favorite, 1970’s Loaded, as well as the early days of Lou Reed’s solo career. I understand that critical consensus lies with The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat. Everything they did was incredible, this is just a preference.
Anyway. That third album gave way to Loaded and from there, an item in their catalog I’d neglected too long — 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, originally released in 1974 as a double album, later expanded and split into two volumes on CD and remains split in various digital formats. Take the 19 songs as one long set, and the result is a fascinating two hours that plays like a dream bootleg.
All this was recorded in Dallas and San Francisco, with the songs edited together into the current running order and including two versions of “Heroin.” Much of the source material has been re-released in more comprehensive live collections, but it’s hard to beat the punch here. From the opening “I’m Waiting For the Man,” noted here as “Waiting For My Man” and trotting out with a casual gait, the set is equal parts joyous and determined.
Some reading further reveals that these tapes were relatively crudely made, and the CDs and digital sources may themselves be even further degraded, sourced straight from the original LP releases. Whatever’s going on, it only seems to add to the music. There’s an atmosphere to this album that is, while not totally divorced from their studio work, certainly feels more in the moment and completely comfortable with all its imperfections.
And then there’s Reed. From the jump, he thanks the crowd in Dallas, asks the crowd if they have school in the morning, ribs the attending Texans, talks football and then rolls into the music with what I can imagine was a sly smile. Through all these performances, he’s engaged as he determined. He feels his way through the early lyrics of “Sweet Jane” without a hint of hesitation. He sings “Femme Fatale,” originally helmed by Nico on the band’s debut, with a fearlessness that makes his authorship of the song obvious and natural.
Perhaps the most powerful moment comes during the nearly 11 minutes of “Ocean,” a song which wouldn’t see the light of day for years. Mo Tucker’s cymbals crash and fall, Doug Yule’s organ swells and pulsates underneath Reed’s and Sterling Morrison’s twin guitars and Reed himself, singing with as much determination as he ever would, delivering this new message unto the audience. It’s hypnotic, pulling the listener into the band’s insular world, with all of Reed’s metaphors crashing against each other in concert with the music until—
Until I’m standing on the sidewalk again. It’s a little after 8 a.m., the sun is shining and my bus is crossing the traffic light and pulling to its right towards the curb. It’s 50 years forward into the present, I’m not at the Boston Tea Party or a club in Dallas or San Francisco, and I’m listening to all of this digitally with my headphones pressed against my ears and my work bag slung across my body. Reality interrupts this little time machine and throws me back into the throes of responsibility.
But even then, there are some fun thoughts. Maybe the band took our crippled transportation system to and from gigs when they weren’t lugging equipment around. Maybe they hopped on the T or the bus to get a burger before heading back to a crash pad in Central Square. Maybe they walked these streets, enjoying the sun and the people with thoughts of “Sweet Jane” and “New Age” rattling around in their collective brains before heading back to rehearsals and gigs.
It’s a nice thought, that that connection could still stretch on from those equally hectic days to today. And it’s one I’ve had frequently lately. On that morning, I tapped my card on the reader, walked back towards an empty seat on the back of the bus, slipped my headphones back on and ventured further back into the slipstream and back into the late 60s, when the Velvets and Van quietly crafted masterworks within the same geographic footprint where I’ve lived for the past six years.
July 31, 2019
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org