Velvet Underground 'Live': Best lies buried in past

Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. But absence hardly accounts for the ardor that greeted the Velvet Underground reunion tour this summer, much less the anticipation surrounding the group's new concert recording, "Live MCMXCIII" (Sire 45464, arriving in record stores today).

True, it has been 25 years since the Velvets' original lineup -- Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker -- last called themselves a band. And it's also true that the group's legacy has grown enormously since that time, to the point that three Velvet Underground albums -- as many as either Bob Dylan or the Beatles had on the list -- were included in a "100 Best Albums" list Rolling Stone published a few years back.


But to say that the Velvet Underground was much mourned when it finally sputtered to an end would be a gross exaggeration. Fact is, the band was roundly ignored by most rock fans. Its 1967 debut, "The Velvet Underground & Nico," peaked at No. 171 on the Billboard Top 200; "White Light/White Heat," the follow-up, never got above 199. The next two albums, recorded without Cale but before Reed jumped ship, didn't even sell that well.

So why would anyone care that they're back? Because even though few people bought those albums when they were new, it sometimes seems as if everyone who did ended up forming a band themselves. In fact, it has been argued that "The Velvet Underground & Nico" has had a more enduring impact on rock and roll than 1967's most famous album, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."


"Sgt. Pepper," after all, led only to the orchestral excess of ELO and the cloying cuteness of Elton John's "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road," whereas "The Velvet Underground & Nico" inspired a whole range of rock innovations. For instance, the jaded decadence and dramatic power of "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Venus in Furs" had enormous impact on David Bowie and Roxy Music; the deadpan thrum of "Heroin" and "The Black Angel's Death Song" set the foundations for bands as diverse as Joy Division, the Cars and Sonic Youth; while the understated beauty and lyrical audacity of "Femme Fatale" and "Sunday Morning" had a profound effect on acts like U2 and R.E.M.

It's no wonder, then, that the V.U. reunion was hailed in some quarters as the alternative rock event of the year. For many fans, the tour was a once-in-a-lifetime shot at seeing one of the most influential acts in rock. And the fact that the band has already broken up once again (due to renewed feuding between Reed and Cale, according to industry scuttlebutt) would almost guarantee a certain landmark status for "Live MCMXCIII."

Yet for a number of reasons, the album never quite lives up to expectations. Obviously, some of that has to do with the fact that each of the four have changed, personally and professionally, over the past 25 years, making it hard for the chemistry between them to remain as it was way back when.

Nor does it help that a number of these songs have, over time, become better known as Lou Reed songs than Velvet Underground tunes, something Reed and the band overcompensate for. "Rock 'N' Roll," for example, is hampered by Reed's exaggeratedly choppy phrasing, the apparent result of his attempt to emphasize the downstroke drone of the Velvets' rhythm section, while the version of "Sweet Jane" sounds tossed off, as if the band were resigned to (and bored by) its anthemic stature.

A bigger problem, though, lies with the fact that what most of us have come to think of as the salient features of the Velvet Underground sound -- flat, dark, clangorous and distorted -- had more to do with how badly recorded those original albums were than with the way the band actually played.

So it's hard not to be at least a little disappointed by the near-pastoral elegance of "Heroin" if you've spent years thrilling to the broken-bottle intensity of the original. Nor will long-time fans be entirely happy with the remade "White Light/White Heat," which trades the cacophonous throb of the original for a playing that's crisp, clean and (God help us!) nearly funky.

On the plus side, the whining, Eastern tonalities in "Venus in Furs" rarely sounded better -- Cale's viola even emulates the semi-vocal intonation of Indian fiddling -- while the blank, circular pulse of "All Tomorrow's Parties" has never been more vivid or enticing as it is here. Then there's the wonderful way the razor-edged dissonance of Reed's lead work on "I Can't Stand It" grate against Morrison's conventionally consonant rhythm guitar. And who could possibly resist the naive charm of Tucker's untutored vocal on "I'm Sticking with You"?

In the end, "Live MCMXCIII" is the sort of project that by its very nature would leave Velvets fans grousing. Because even though it would have to be downright hideous to make most of us hate it, it would also have to be better than perfect for it to be the V.U. album of our dreams.


As it is, it's probably as good as a reunion album could be. And believe me, we learned to settle for less a long time ago.