There's a well-worn adage about the Velvet Underground: few people bought their records during their existence, but those who did went on to form bands. Robert Quine is one of them; he played a pivotal role in NYC's nascent punk scene as the guitarist for the Voidoids (and later, with Lou Reed). Quine not only bought their records; as devoted fans sometimes will, he documented many Velvets gigs from the audience on a handheld cassette recorder. Now, after years of rumors, delays, and anticipation, Polydor has issued three CDs' worth from Quine's archive. With the exception of one track from a May 1969 St. Louis concert, all the material dates from an extended stay in San Francisco, later that same year. If the Velvets' sojourns into the studio that year indicated a retreat from the amphetamine-fueled aggressiveness of their previous album"Candy Says" and "Jesus" being polar opposites of "I Heard Her Call My Name"the dynamics of their live gigs swung to both extremes. "I Can't Stand It" sports one of Reed's trademark frenzied solos, and "Foggy Notion," with its twin guitar duel between Reed and Sterling Morrison, charges through a visceral garage-band romp with aplomb. "I'm Waiting For My Man," on the third disc, sheds the junk-jitters staccato of the studio version, with a languorous pace (and a spontaneous verse about dreams) that suggests a narrator who's already scored and come home. "Follow The Leader" eluded bootleggers for years; while it's not one of Reed's greatest compositions, the Velvets' monolithic jam on the song's simple chords for seventeen minutes is vastly preferable to the bland, two minute slice of sax-and-keys cheese that surfaced years later on Rock And Roll Heart. Each disc closes with "Sister Ray," the centerpiece of White Light/White Heat. Although the performances have less of the apocalyptic crunch of the originalwithout John Cale's organ, there's more room to breathethe Velvets pumped fresh blood into the improvisatory heart of the song every time. Here's Reed the raconteur showman, singing "he shoots him down dead on the floor... like this," and then emitting a sharp blast of feedback (he does it again, which prompts a stoned audience member standing near Quine to croak, "Wow, that was even better than the last time."). Even when playing through a P.A. that makes Reed sound like a subway announcer, the raw power of the music outshines any deficiencies in audio quality. The fact that this period of the group has already been covered by the 1969 Velvet Underground Live album doesn't make The Quine Tapes any less essential, as the Velvets' shows were hardly freeze-dried affairs to be unthawed every night. The box set is optimistically titled Vol. 1; supposedly, Polydor is waiting to see how well it sells before continuing on. Here's hoping that they do so: even if this series doesn't generate a windfall of money for them, they've got instant karma in spades.
Another Velvets box set has just been released, albeit only in Japan, and with much less fanfare. Final V.U. also consists of audience tapes, although unlike Quine's recordings, these have been in circulation among collectors for some time. A look at the yearspan in the title might give some people pause. It's possible to be a casual Velvets fan without knowing that a group bearing its name soldiered on after Lou Reed quit in 1970; the Spin Alternative Record Guide makes no mention of the fact that a VU record called Squeeze was released in England in 1973. But Reed didn't own the name; Doug Yule kept the band going with Morrison (who left soon after Reed), Maureen Tucker (who departed after 1971), and a revolving cast of musicians (the mostonly?notable name being Willie Alexander, a cult figure in Boston's music scene). The idea of a Velvet Underground without Lou Reed seems silly to some and sacrilegious to others; the post-Reed outfit has been referred to as "The Velveeta Underground." As Cale's replacement, Doug Yule carried none of his predecessor's iconoclastic musicianship; he's been perceived as Reed's yes-man, in stark contrast to the stormy personal relations that Cale and Reed maintain to this day. So does Yule deserve all the critical scorn and neglect? Final V.U., licensed through his archives, gives him a chance to present his side of the story. To quote from his liner notes: "Bands were, and occasionally are today, one of the few truly democratic institutions. You can fire a back-up musician and call the union for another one. You can fire a session musician and order up another one. But in a band, everyone's equal. If they're not, it's not a band. When bands need to change, to lose one or two people, they break apart and reform. The majority keeps the name." This is enough to make one's jaw drop. The Velvet Underground as a democracy? They may have helped inspire Vaclav Havel's fight against communist Czechoslovakia, but it's never been suggested that Lou Reed was anything less than the band's self-appointed leader; the simple fact that he wrote 90% of the group's material is proof enough, without going too deeply into all the accounts of his manipulative behavior (indeed, Reed's insistence for control over future projects sunk the mid-1990s reunion). It should go without saying that the Velvets wouldn't have been the same without the others' contributions; Cale, Morrison and Tucker were remarkably unique musicians, and absolutely vital to the group sound, both through their approaches to their respective instruments and the ways in which their personalities interacted. Yule, of course, was present on the last two Velvets albums with Reed, and his prettier singing voice has to be counted as a factor in the change in direction. But the handful of songs he sang in the studio were Reed's, not his, and he did so only because Reed directed (or allowed) him to do so. To claim himself as an equal is nothing short of ludicrous (to his credit, however, in interviews published elsewhere, he's offered a less deluded perspective), and is a denial of the integrity that accompanies a well-known group name. When bands such as T.S.O.L. and Yes, to cite two disparate examples, carried on with no original members, audiences viewed them as shams. When the Yardbirds play a local bar in the year 2001, it's understood that someone is merely cashing in on a famous name. I'm hard pressed to think of any group that continued producing worthwhile music after losing everyone who was present at its inception. Leaving aside the arguments raised by Yule's assertions, does the music make a case for its inclusion in the Velvets' pantheon? The first two discs are from a November 1971 European tour; Moe Tucker is still in the drum chair, and although her primeval beat had moved closer to a more conventional style by this point in time, she provides some sonic linkage to the original band (most overtly on "After Hours," which she sings in her affectingly fragile voice). Yule assumes vocal duties on Reed's songs, and does a creditable imitation of his hero's phrasing. His own tunes show his debt to Reed, with character portraits of "Dopey Joe," "Little Jack," and sweet "Caroline." Disc three dates from a December 1972 concert in Wales; Tucker has been re placed by a fill-happy drummer, along with everyone else in the 1971 incarnation, save Yule. The final disc, from a 1973 Boston gig, finds yet another lineup shuffle (including Doug's brother Billy, who subbed for a pregnant Tucker on the final show with Reed). Even Yule, in his liner notes, expresses some disgust for calling this group The Velvet Underground, placing the blame on an unscrupulous promoter. This assertion is somewhat undercut by the fact that the group is still playing Reed's songs (to say nothing of his decision to include this material on a VU box set). The music is not awful, by a long stretch; viewed as a Velvets cover band, one could do far worse. But it's unlikely that Final V.U. will do much to reverse the opinion that the Velvet Underground was a shadow group after the departure of its creative forces.James Lindbloom