Feb 052010

The following piece originally appeared on Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime, a personal blog I have not updated in too long. It’s been a downer of a week on many levels, so I capped it off by revisiting this album. Then I thought, Why not revisit this piece and share it with you while I’m at it? I hope your week has not required a spin of this overlooked gem, but if it has, more power to you! Finally, let me make a special shout out to this album’s second-biggest fan (not), Townsman General Slocum. Enjoy.

This frequently derided live album marks the end of the road for the The Velvet Underground. It’s a cassette-recorded, nearly bootleg affair, in which the band plays to what sounds like a dozen Max’s regulars who are audibly more interested in scoring than checking out Lou’s last show with the band. Although the band’s better-known and cherished 1969: Velvet Underground Live is objectively “better,” Max’s has always gotten more spins on my turntable.

I won’t harp on relative negatives, but let me first deal with 1969. Granted, 1969 has a butt shot on the cover; the once all-important a gatefold sleeve; Mo Tucker pounding away on drums; Doug Yule playing organ, when necessary; and songs not available on any of the band’s studio albums (before the release of those great outtakes albums in the 1980s), but to me it always sounded like a lesser version of how I wanted the band at that time – both in their career, post-John Cale, and in my record-buying life at the time of purchase, post-having-bought-all-the-studio albums, to sound. On 1969, the Velvets sound like a competent, sometimes great touring band. They lack the intimacy of the third, s/t Velvet Underground album, and they lack the fire of the Cale lineup. Too often, on all those “Lisa Says We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together With Bonnie Brown” songs, they might as well be filling time with limp-wristed Chuck Berry covers, like the Grateful Dead might do to fill out their audiences’ collective peak drug cycle. No offense, Deadheads, I’m just trying to make a point.

The Max’s album is the sound of failure and resignation. However, this version of the Velvets, with Doug Yule’s underskilled, overplaying teenage brother Billy sitting in for the pregnant Mo, is not beyond gentle moments of joy and remembrance of musical accomplishments of more vital days. “Good evening,” begins Lou, “we’re called Velvet Underground. You’re allowed to dance, in case you didn’t know. And…ah, that’s about it.” Then the band launches into a thoroughly decent version of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” on which Sterling Morrison riffs away as easily as he might have when he and Lou first played in their dorm rooms. This is the sound of humans doing their best to make something happen when nothing much is left capable of happening.

I was discussing this album with a friend, who felt this is the Velvet Underground as the garage band Lou and Sterling may at one time have intended it to be. Could be, and I would add that this live album and the 1969 live album illustrate a fork in the road that would eventually face future punks and indie rockers who bought the next 1000 copies of the first VU album after the first 1000 copies had been bought by the likes of Brian Eno. 1969 is a side of the band that relies understated ensemble playing; propulsive rhythms; some cool textures, using the limited resources on stage; and frequently Lou’s tough-guy, leather-jacket-wearing voice. To my ears, it’s the sound that would launch many fine indie bands like The Feelies, Yo La Tengo, and thousands more. Max’s, on the other hand, is carried by little more than the songs and singing of Lou Reed and the awkward dynamic of Lou and Sterling’s guitars. No rhythmic or stylistic safety net is in place. No leather, no shades. Lou sings with more expression than usual. This is the road less traveled in VU terms. Early Modern Lovers knew this path. Early Talking Heads would venture down it on occasion. Television and Patti Smith would embrace this clumsy, open-hearted side of this Velvet Underground. There are plenty of good reasons why this path is the least traveled. The brush hasn’t been cleared and the destination is not certain, but it’s a road to somewhere.


  6 Responses to “Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime: The Velvet Underground, Live at Max’s Kansas City

  1. i think it’s funny that you compared them to The Dead in this thread. I always thought certain of VU’s more “boogie” numbers sounded oddly similar to The Dead’s recorded work. Like Real Good Time, She’s My Best Friend, Foggy Notion, maybe even Who Loves The Sun.

    Now I want to hear this album. If any of you have 2 copies of it on vinyl, and live near Philly, give me the shittier one, and I’ll buy you a six pack.

  2. I have it on vinyl and cd. I think I live a few blocks from you. You’re near the North Star right? I’m near Rembrandt’s. You can’t keep them but you can certainly stop by to borrow either whenever you’d like. No six pack necessary.

  3. Mr. Moderator

    Just make sure there’s no shotgun involved on the return!

  4. Wow that’s terrific man!
    I’ll hit you up tomorrow.

  5. jeangray

    Isn’t that beautiful????

  6. Shawnkilroy,
    I can’t find my cd version of it anywhere, but if you have a turn table you can borrow the album.

Lost Password?

twitter facebook youtube