Social democracy in peril.
The new fascism.
Coming Together at the Seams
The view from Porto Alegre ...
... and direct action in New York.
Not Just Black and White
LOCAL MOTION: Oak Park, Illinois
A Scandal Bigger than Enron.
An Open Letter to George W. Bush
Kenny Boy? Never heard of him.
The military busts the 2003 budget.
Bush stealth-attacks reproductive rights.
Bush hands AIDS policy to the Christian right.
Chechnya remains mired in misery.
Ann Pettifor: Discrediting the Creditors.
BOOKS: Micah Sifry follows the third way.
BOOKS: Randall Kennedy's Nigger.
MUSIC: Something is in the water.
FILM: Let's play Rollerball.
February 19, 2002
Welsh for Zen
as there ever been a band as immediately identified with a specific place as the Velvet Underground? The New York group, among the most influential musical acts of the past 30 years, perfectly epitomized the local squalid sex-and-drugs scene, setting the stage for the rise of punk and setting the standard for grungy verisimilitude in song. But so much has been made of the Velvet Undergrounds role as Andy Warhols house band that one wonders what the rest of the country might have thought about the obscure quartet.
The band never played Peoria, but it did occasionally find its way outside the bounds of New York. The previously released 1969 Velvet Underground Live set gives a glimpse of the band at its musical peak, touring through Texas and San Francisco. The performances capture several otherwise unreleased songs and definitive arrangements of album tracks (like the slow Sweet Jane). In a sense, the Velvets were ambassadors venturing out into a great wild world, where the rivalry between squares and the counterculture didnt leave much room for oddballs like them.
More recordings of New Yorks finest, out of their element, can be found in the essential Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes, a recently released three-disc set. Recorded mostly in 1969 on the bands West Coast leg of the tour, where their shockingly fresh minimalist sound must have unsettled the less confrontational and more psychedelic counterculture there, these discs offer further testament to the skill of the Velvets as a live act. Rather than flaunt abrasive edges and avant-garde pedigree, The Quine Tapes find the band in complete control of its twin tendencies toward noise and quiet.
art of the Velvets power stemmed from founding member John Cale, easily their most versatile player and no stranger to balancing light and dark. Lou Reed still gets the lions share of credit, but the bands early output underscores Cales invaluable contribution. Reed may have provided New York swagger, but it was Welshman Cale who brought to the band its out cred and, possibly, its gentler inclinations as well.
The tracks on The Quine Tapes feature Cales replacement Doug Yule, whose workman-like playing makes for a fine Cale proxy, and perhaps provided some additional stability. (Cales own copious drug use rivaled only Reeds.) Whether speeding through Foggy Notion or taking their time with a nearly 12-minute Waiting for the Man, the Velvets sound in a weird way like the classic pop act the perverse Reed always wished for. At least, they do until you hit any of the three versions of Sister Ray included herein, ranging from 24 to 38 minutes in length. The lascivious goof-off of a song may represent Cales most apparent contribution, and even though by this point hes long gone, the band revels in sheets of distorted and droning sound.
Cale first arrived in New York to study classical piano and viola, which he had begun to master back in Wales. But once in New York, Cale quickly fell in with Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, players in the nascent minimalism school, whose compositions were sometimes little more than hours and hours of multi-layered drones; the qualities lay more in nuance than in melody. Cales pre-Velvet years were documented in New York in the 1960s, a collection of lo-fi recordings made with the likes of Conrad, Young and Angus Maclise. Here one gets the wall-of-noise blueprint for songs such as Sister Ray and Venus in Furs, both boasting Cales tearing, distorted viola playing.
After his departure from the Velvet Underground, Cale continued to explore the world of edgy rock, but he eventually returned to his classical and Welsh roots. In Wales, Cale found his calming center, a quiet corollary to New Yorks volume and certainly the antithesis of the reckless spirit he brought to the Velvets. Reading his candid autobiography Whats Welsh for Zen, it becomes clear that Cales upbringing played a big part in fostering the dual extremes of his personality and his music. Wales instilled in him the contradictory spirit that would bring a quiet schoolboy who practiced organ at the local church all the way to New York to hang out with the wild things and make a bigger racket.
n recent years, Wales has again become something of a center for new and adventurous rock bands. Cale himself appears on the new album by the Super Furry Animals, whose manic and unpredictable structures owe as much to classic psychedelia as they do to the Velvets more disturbing take on drug music. Rings around the World is also more dramatic and conventionally melodic, but the disc does display a certain familiar dedication to chaos and compositional anarchy. Veering radically from sweet soul (Juxtapozed with U) to noisy pop ([Drawing] Rings around the World) to electronica ([A] Touch Sensitive), the album refuses to settle down at some compromised sonic center. The disc is pure id unleashed, as if the Beatles developed with the same ear for abrasive mischief as the Velvets. The disc does bear at least a sideways semblance to a good deal of Cales solo work in the mid-70s, a period when he teamed up with Brian Eno for a trio of ambitious and weird rock albums.
More mellow is the latest from Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, How I Long To Feel that Summer in My Heart, a gentle album that has more in common with the Velvet Undergrounds softer, post-Cale music. The group is the yin to the Super Furry Animals yang, though in its younger years Gorkys mined a similarly unpredictable rock sound. How I Long continues in the acoustic vein of their preceding EP, The Blue Trees; Honeymoon with You, Stood on Gold and Let Those Blue Skies are pure bliss and heartache. The band does get slightly wilder and weirder with Her Hair Hangs Long and Hodgestons Hallelujah, respectively, but Gorkys never go as far out as the Super Furry Animals.
Yet both bands have found a way to incorporate their national heritage into their music; both have recorded in Welsh, and often return to the language as a badge of pride as well as willful display of stubborn eccentricity and obscurantism. In a sense, the music they make is as much a part of their particular location as the Velvet Underground were to their own. The isolation of Wales mirrors the isolation of New Yorks outsider scene of the late 60s, enabling artists to gleefully make music free from the constraints of expectation. Whether in his writing or in his music (like the Dylan Thomas tribute Words for the Dying), Cale regularly returns to Wales as a source of energy and inspiration. There must be, as the saying goes, something in the water.
One assumes that the Super Furry Animals and Gorkys Zygotic Mynci find their homeland as magical as Cale does. Paired together, the two groups represent the same extreme dualities that Cale brought to the Velvet Underground, teamed to create something fresh and exciting. Both bands wield the element of surprise like an instrument, and while its doubtful well be listening to archival live sets from either outfit in 30 years, theres no question that they make for an invigorating now.
Joshua Klein is a freelance critic in Chicago.