December 3, 2014

The Velvet Underground (1969): 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

Today a professional reviewer opined that the The Velvet Underground “still holds up, after 45 years.” Easy money, reviewin'. Of course it holds up. But does The Velvet Underground (recorded 1968, released 1969) hold up to the extent of a 6 CD reissue? Actually, it does. I’m going to concentrate on the last three discs, because those represent not one but two dreams come true for VU fans. But first, in brief, the three LP mixes.

Aficionados know that Lou Reed supervised the dank and idiosyncratic “Closet mix,” released in some countries on LP; and that veteran producer Val Valentin created the “Val Valentin” mix, released in the other territories on LP; and they may know there is a mono mix, released on a radio promotional record. The power of imprinting is very great; the LP from which I got to know this record was a mispress that had the Closet mix on side A and the Val Valentin mix on side B. Those still sound right to me.

So on the first three discs, the present set gives us:

* The Val Valentin mix. I haven’t auditioned this CD, because the Val mix has been released through HDtracks, and I have those files, should I ever want to hear this.

* The “Closet Mix” has already had a CD release, twenty years ago, on the box set “Peel Slowly And See.” That mastering was very good but this is better. Appended is an “alternate closet” mix of “Beginning To See The Light”: less trebly, with the “edge” of the instrumentation radically tamed, and Reed’s acoustic guitar and vocal dominating. It’s as claustrophobic as all get out.

* The “promotional mono” mix. I don’t know that the world was clamoring for this, but, I thought, since this limited edition is confessedly For Completists Only, why not? It sounded to be less than essential -- but it isn’t. The mono sounds great. Where the Closet mix sometimes relegates single instrumental tracks to a place where they sound distant and weak, the mono brings everything further front, and of course the mono, with I think some added compression, makes the ensemble jell. Of course “The Murder Mystery” suffers, losing its antiphonal character. I don’t know whether this is a dedicated mono mix. It is given the same production byline as the Closet (Reed and Valentin), it uses the Closet take of “Some Kinda Love,” and so far I don’t hear anything that couldn’t be the Closet mix folded down. Tacked on at the end we have the mixes (mono) of the 45 rpm single: a savagely truncated “What Goes On” (2:35!) b/w “Jesus.”

One disappointment in this set is the absence of any alternate takes from, er, the Velvet Underground’s third album. On the deluxe White Light/White Heat set, we were treated to the stompingest prototype of “Beginning To See The Light,” and I had hoped for some tracking sessions here. Are the reels not extant? Nothing is said in the booklet.

The disappointment is offset by a brilliant new re-edition of the fruits of the 1969 “fourth album” sessions released by Polygram on VU, Another View, Peel Slowly And See and (on vinyl) by Sundazed as 1969. Admittedly these tracks are in no way part of the third album or its sessions, but where else are you going to put them? A few, dating from John Cale’s tenure with the group, were included on the deluxe White Light/White Heat set (where “Stephanie Says” was a radically different mix from the multitracks that I can’t bring myself to prefer).

These tracks (with three exceptions) were issued on VU etc. in mixes that were made in 1984 and sounded it – with gated drums, splashy reverb, and (as it turns out) a certain amount of messin’ round. (“Ocean,” “Ferryboat Bill,” and “Rock And Roll” are the exceptions; 1969 rough mixes were issued, murky but adequate to everyone’s purposes.)

This time, wherever 1969 mixes were not considered usable, Kevin Reeves has made new (2014) mixes. They are true to the spirit of ’60s artistry and they sound sensational. A lot of count-ins and tailpieces are included. It’s less like getting an acetate of the album that might have been, and more like being invited into the studio to hear the new stuff.

In particular, “Coney Island Steeplechase” is transformed. The distortion effect on Lou’s lead vocal, as heard on Another View, is revealed to have been a 1984 decision. In this new mix his lead vocal is undistorted, and there are several backing vocals that we hadn’t heard before.

“I Can’t Stand It” is also a startler. Its distinctive beginning – the rhythm guitar entering only after a full bar – is revealed as a mixing decision; here you have both guitars from the top. Reed counts down “8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1” before the return from the guitar break, a detail mixed out in 1984. This track was simply drenched in reverb on VU; here it's about half-undrenched, and what a beauty! You'll see why Maureen Tucker disliked these 1984 mixes. She sounds like herself again, where on VU it sounded like Phil Collins was on the drums.

The second dream come true is a two disc collection of live recordings from the San Francisco club The Matrix on November 26 and 27, 1969. Some of these tracks formed one of the two tributary streams that fed into 1969 Live.

About that record (1969 Live): it is perfect. The takes were expertly selected, which is fascinating in itself when you recall that it was compiled at a time when there were few in the public and fewer in the industry who appreciated what the VU were up to.

VU fans have known for ages that The Matrix had a professional four-track recording setup. We yearned to know more about this, and now, here are eighteen tracks, remixed from the Matrix’s tapes. The sound quality is amazing.

“Some Kinda Love,” “Beginning To See The Light,” “Lisa Says,” “Rock And Roll,” “Sweet Jane,” and “White Light/White Heat” are the same performances that we know from 1969 Live, which is fair enough, because I don’t see how these takes could possibly be improved upon. The sound is cleaner, less “shattery” than before. I’m not sure this is always an improvement, but you have to feel for the engineer: it’d be kind of stilted to deliberately reproduce the shattery effect of too much tape copying in this new mix. “Sweet Jane” is absolutely improved; the depth and power just has to be experienced.

It always seemed like, on 1969 Live, there had been some editing in “Lisa Says” (just before “Why, am I, so shy?”) and on the evidence of this new issue this is true: a matter of a few seconds where the band hangs fire, audible here. The decidedly substandard “Over You” has a woefully ham-handed solo by Sterling Morrison and radiantly confident singing from the late Lou Reed.

On “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” they are having a good time but Yule’s harmonies are ahem not quite Together, and furthermore Lou omits to say “Aw, now watch me!” I don't know if I can do without that. “Pale Blue Eyes” is a new performance. The harmony vocal is faint but Lou is magnetizing. “I Can’t Stand It” is just brutal and has an extended atonal guitar break. It’s something awful, if you ask me, but some value this band for precisely that, pushing people’s buttons. It’s funny how “I Can’t Stand It” seems, on the evidence of this set, to be the song with all the surprises in store.

Splendid “Venus In Furs,” as minatory as the album version, with electric organ (Yule, I guess, though someone is playing bass [Morrison?]) subbing for Cale’s viola very effectively. The way the Matrix setup captured the drums is fantastic; they could have worked at this sound in a studio for a long time. “There She Goes Again” is electrifying. I don’t think this was commonly part of their set in 1969 and they just tear into it. This is the track I’d play to someone who wants to know what’s special about Reed as a rhythm guitarist. “Sister Ray” is tremendous. It’s 37 minutes long. It’s also your first and only chance to decipher the lyrics. This has appeared, in less than satisfactory sound, on the Quine Tapes CD set. Here it’s crystalline.

My conclusion as a collector has long been that, during this period of the world’s history, the Velvets were going around giving incredible performances of “I’m Set Free.” This previously unheard one is no exception. I don’t think it equals the one on the End of Cole Ave. bootleg (what a testament that is) but it is certainly better recorded. Lou introduces “After Hours” as a song he had intended to sing himself, in a single spotlight and wearing “a gold lamé dress,” had people been “ready for it.” Maureen sings better than on the studio album. A charmer.

Aside from the non-appearance of any outtakes from the third album, what else is not here? Well, there must be more tapes from the Matrix, and if not published here, then where?

Also, where is the mind-bending FM radio ad (“You don’t really know how you feel . . . Why? Because you haven’t heard the new Velvet Underground . . .”). Of course it wasn’t produced by the band, but it’s hilarious, it’s only a minute long, and it’s mentioned in the booklet. So, nu?

Despite certain amputations, these are the only criticisms I can make of this boldly and gorgeously produced set. And if you read this far you already bought it.

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This review was written on an airplane. I invite corrections to the facts. BG

November 6, 2014

United States v. Mark Twain

This post was commissioned last year during Banned Books Week.

United States v. Mark Twain

No such case as my title implies was ever brought, of course. The United States has no banning—that is, no centralized prohibition of books. Here, a ban has come to mean any decision to eliminate a book from a library or a school reading list.

It’s true that, until fairly recently, the Postal Service exercised a censoring function by enforcing laws against sending obscene matter through the mail. But Supreme Court decisions of the ’60s and ’70s have rendered obscenity pretty ungainly to work with as a criminal charge.

Huckleberry Finn was “banned” several times in Mark Twain’s lifetime—always by librarians. In 1885, when the book was new, the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, withdrew it, citing the characters’ “low grade of morality” and “irreverence.” Huck lies, talks dialect, is friends with a black man, steals and fails to return stolen property (the black man).

Mark Twain’s response to the ban was immediate. He told his publisher: “That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure.” The commercial blessings of banning, in this country, are well known. Howard Hughes campaigned to ban his own film, The Outlaw, in order to get it released.

The early twentieth century saw some more Huck bans. They were short-lived; but Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary, published in 1906 and banned by the Charlton, Massachusetts, public library, was restored to the shelves just two years ago. It was the illustrations (by Lester Ralph) that offended: They depicted Eve as a naked woman—stylized, but naked.

Today, Huckleberry Finn gets challenged, not in the name of public morals, but to protect something (the student, or the classroom atmosphere, or the school) against the unpredictable effects of the word “nigger,” which makes some students—I'm quoting from a report by the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom—“uncomfortable.”

Back in 1885, the book’s detractors feared that children would become too comfortable with Huck: with his “low” company—and, I suspect, with Jim’s. Mark Twain’s response to this criticism, in his Autobiography, was that children were already routinely damaged by a book the library kept on open shelves—the Bible:
The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old.
It was only right, he said, for librarians to escort Huck and Tom out of that book’s “questionable company.”

In my opinion, at the core of our contemporary debate over Huckleberry Finn in schools is a confusion between, on the school’s side, encountering racism and legitimating racism; and a confusion, on the students’ side, between reading words—even heavily ironized ones—and being attacked by words.

This is certain: Mark Twain wouldn’t understand our solicitousness about “comfort level.” He might have wondered what comfort had to do with school, the discomforts of which had caused him to pack out at age twelve. No “Stay in school, kids” for Mark Twain!

November 5, 2014

Einstein said that "the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious". Then why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus apparently depriving it of its mystery?
-- Leonard Bernstein, 1976
In the mid-twentieth century, the word of Einstein -- a genius who explained our universe, was against bad things, and played the violin -- was something you could take to the bank. But Leonard Bernstein didn't need any special authority for this insight, which is not his alone -- I myself had the same reflection back when I was the King of Ur, and again, some centuries later, when I was Czar of All the Russias. (It's an odd title, know, but "Czar of All the Mexicos" didn't sound right either.)

About "genius." I have meant, for long and long, to write something about Schumann. Among Schumann's most remarkable qualities was the ability to discern genius at long range and without a scope. And he never bothered himself with beating around the bush.

One diary entry -- the one that mentions the first visit to him of a young musician named Brahms -- reads simply:
"Brahms to see me (a genius)."
His review of the first works of Chopin to come to his attention begins: "Hats off, gentlemen: a genius!"

In you or me this kind of judgement would be called "hasty." It is only redeemed by the fact of its being correct. Schumann, it seems, perceived genius the way other people perceive the newness of your haircut. Shoot, something's different about you ... did you get your hair cut? Did you write the Raindrop Prelude?

Of course, I've never read Schumann's personal papers just smack through; I suppose it's possible that he was greeting the milkman, the postman, the corner prostitute, with the same cry of delighted discovery. But so far as I know his record is good.

Returning to Leonard Bernstein. If I recommend his series of Harvard lectures The Unanswered Question, and I do, it is really because one thing from it sticks in my mind. That is his "explication" of a Chopin mazurka. Bernstein characterizes the mazurka's various feints in the direction of establishing, or retreating from, some kind of tonal base. The mazurka itself is the music's protagonist, yearning for various tonalities, and variously trying them out and rudely refusing them.

What is interesting about this explication is that it is totally vulgar; that it carries no conviction; and that it nevertheless has proved to be, for me, "the way into" that piece of music.

The true critic of any art will quite rightly be troubled by the question Bernstein poses above: of whether his business is demystification or re-mystification.