The Velvet Underground

Imagine a favorite garage band from your youth. If you’re honest, you’ll admit that the actual music wasn’t nearly as important as the scene the music made possible. With garage bands, genuine musical ability is never an issue. In fact, it is almost beside the point. That’s the vibe one gets listening to these digitally mastered bootleg tapes recently released on CD.

Recorded in 1969 by hardcore Velvets fan and future Lou Reed sideman Robert Quine, mostly at the legendary Matrix and Family Dog venues/events in San Francisco, on a standard Sony cassette recorder with a hand-held microphone, the sound is rough, the audience thin, and the band’s playing occasionally sub-amateur. But the vibe? Absolutely great!

By 1969, The Velvet Underground had become the quintessential speed-freak garage rock ‘n’ roll band. Many of guitarist/songwriter/singer Lou Reed’s loftier artistic ambitions dropped right out the Bombay doors when frustrated violist/composer John Cale decided to bail on the band a year earlier. Since Reed reportedly had a hand in driving Cale out, that was probably no big deal: Reed wanted to return to basic, extremely stripped-down rock; Cale wanted to push forward with his sonic experiments.

On these three CDs, we hear Reed’s side of the story. And it’s compelling. In each venue, it sounds like there are little more than 15 or 20 people present—San Francisco never quite warmed to The Velvets’ stark evocations of New York junkies, hustlers, whores, and so forth. What we get, then, is almost a private performance, not only for those “fit few” at the shows but for ourselves as well. “Rock and Roll,” “I Can’t Stand It,” “White Light/White Heat,” “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs,” a couple of versions of “Waiting for the Man,” and no fewer than three lengthy incarnations of “Sister Ray” are among the 23 total tracks. This is The Velvet Underground—Reed, late guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and bassist/keyboardist Doug Yule—naked, fearless and unapologetic. Essential qualities for any great garage band.