The New Avant-Garde is Just the Blues Played With Real Rhythm

One of these things is not like the other.

Maybe it happened a long time ago, maybe it’s going to happen soon, but I can feel a sea change. Somewhere, in the temporal time line in the back of my mind, I can feel something of a massive change in music coming. And I think it will come from a very special place. Maybe that people will finally stop pretending to give a shit about the Velvet Underground.

Don’t get me wrong: the beauty of music, and culture at large, is that I could write this stuff down now, publish it, promote it and band about the belief that this is what I truly believe for the next two weeks before I change my mind and go back on myself, and say “disregard that, I was huffing gas from my stove over breakfast. Sorry.” Maybe I’m writing this out of a momentary lapse of ‘getting it,’ whatever it may be at a given time. But I have to say that I have been suspicious of anyone who sits down and claims that anything that the Velvet Underground has ever done is the most important music ever recorded.

And don’t get me started on that “only a few people bought the album, but all of them started bands” crack. Jokes can only take you so far in terms of a career. Ask Rod Stewart and his horse about that.

“The Velvet Underground and Nico” is constantly banded about as the best thing that they’ve ever done, and the single most important record, yada yada yada, for anything to ever be considered punk, or psychedelic, or garage. But when you sit down, and listen from cover to cover everything that the Velvet Underground has ever done, knows that their best material is the stuff that is immediately pleasing to the ears, and not the trippy experimental stuff, and that goes with few exceptions.

I bought White Light/White Heat when I was really hanging on to “Black Angel’s Death Song.” I sat and listened to that track on repeat several times around, and wished that more stuff sounded EXACTLY like that song. But the problem with bands is that when they make one great track, worthy of praise and citing it as ‘influential,’ is that nothing will ever sound like that song. Believe it or not, but what is the final say for studio releases is a collection of moments being captured and built, lest it was truly recorded live. “Black Angel’s Death Song” was constructed out of so many perfect takes, and thus what is put on their record is not just their best performances committed to four tracks, but it’s the best of each individual person, playing their absolute fucking heart out.

So, given a good friend’s word that White Light/White Heat was like a full album of “Black Angel’s Death Song,” I picked it up, finding it in the ‘best-of’ bin at a record shop, for just under ten bucks. Thank goodness I didn’t pay anymore than that, because beyond a few key moments, a lot of White Light/White Heat is obnoxious tripe, laziness mistaken for grungy experimentalism. Maybe the band had yet to perfect that image of theirs, being full of self-styled junkies who played in a band, and that’s what the music sounded like. And to a point, yes, that’s fine, and well, and it serves a niche, whatever it may be.

Maybe I should back up a minute.  Let me make it clear and say that I did not just pick up White Light/White Heat. I’ve had it for quite some time, and it’s found it’s way in and out of my life in terms of when I feel like listening to it. Lately, that’s come down to never listening to it out of frustration with how lazy it sounds. Established that? Good.

So where is that out-there sound? Where is the real danger, aside from the grim stoicism in delivering lines about heroin and murder? Are people sure they know what’s really interesting about the Velvet Underground? I think some people aren’t going to like the answer I got, which is simply that they weren’t really a psychedelic band at all. They had nothing to do with psychedelia, other than their associations and the fact that they produced experimental music at a time when you could construe anything not-normal sounding as ‘psychedelic.’ They’re just a really good, messy, rock band, and nothing more than that.

To the best of my knowledge, there are maybe three bands and artists total who have ever taken a real, genuine influence and heart to sound like the Velvet Underground: The Black Angels, The United States of America, and The Modern Lovers. The United States of America, I will just say flat out, that it’s a happy accident that they sound almost akin to the Velvet Underground, being contemporaries of their era, with a songwriter who also studied avant-garde composition. But their focus was never in taking avant-garde concepts and playing them in a rock and roll setting: they just happened to have a poppy approach to the avant-garde!

The Black Angels (and to an extent, Modern Lovers) enjoy a hindsight approach to copying and pasting elements of the VU. Of course the Black Angels sound like the Velvet Underground! They’re fuzzy! Their tempos are set to ‘druggy!’ They named themselves in honor of “Black Angel’s Death Song!” But it’s all from a passing glance perspective, and I’m sure, as much as they would liken their sound to that of the Velvet Underground, they wouldn’t want to carry that banner forever. I’m sure they would rather be known as the Black Angels, and not that band that REALLY sounds like the Velvet Underground for the rest of their careers.

But the Modern Lovers, being near-contemporaries, perhaps takes the best, most obvious gift from the Velvet Underground and made it his own: he saw that Lou Reed is just some snot-nosed fuck playing loose rock, and decided ‘so will I.’ Without dragging the comparison too far out, I will just instruct you to do this: set up a playlist, and put “I Am Waiting For the Man” on before “Roadrunner.” If Modern Lovers ain’t nothing but the Velvet Underground’s New England outpost, I’ll be damned.

So why do so many critics point to the VU as some emancipator of garage and psychedelic rock, when other bands, before and after, have done these styles either earlier (or in some cases, after and better) than the Velvet Underground? Are critics giving more credit to John Cale than he really deserved, and out of fear of his wrath, overprasing Lou Reed?

Unfortunately, I think it comes down to that most dangerous territory for any critic, and have it simply be that it’s the artists’ intention that separates the Velvet Underground from their contemporaries, or influences. But the intention of a rock band being to make the most fun music imaginable, it comes down to the Velvet Underground being a band of artists (in the hoity-toity, holier than thou sense) who made rock and roll, but not rock and roll artists.

This may be getting into a serious US/UK debate here, but the intention of most US psych bands, the ones who were fortunate enough to have a big enough money bag in their possession, were the ones who took on the whole idea of psychedelia as a new art form, the perfect opportunity to tap into the avant-garde. And, frankly, the point of avant-garde is to be everything that is not fun. After all, even within the Beach Boys, some members thought that Brian Wilson’s compositions during the Pet Sounds era was just ‘avant-garde horseshit.’ And I will say, as beautiful and light at the album is, Pet Sounds is an intense listen, but because of it’s staggering composition, it isn’t particularly fun to listen to. I put it on often because it’s beautiful, but I can’t dance to it.

By this logic, the definition for ‘fun’ would be somewhere in the realm of ‘dance music.’ But that’s not fair at all, being so narrow to limit the idea of fun as that which inspires movement. Yet, I can’t think of any other appropriate reaction that I can associate with the idea of fun. How often do you sit still and have fun? Not bloody often, that’s for fucking sure.

Even for being ‘loaded with hits,’ Loaded doesn’t even inspire much hip shaking and hand clapping. Even “Rock and Roll,” arguably the most fun song in the Velvet Underground catalog, has more of a religious feel to its most inspiring moments. It goes without saying that it’s the only song on the subject ABOUT rock and roll to get it, and not sound like some horribly square attempt at being flat fun rock music, but at its heart, it’s a song of a spiritual need and salvation. It’s very hard to dance to lyrics about escaping the suburbs.

But wait, didn’t I start the essay with the hypothesis that they weren’t artists, and that they were just a sloppy fucking rock band? I did, and that’s why it’s so dangerous to introduce ‘artists’ intention’ as the divisive factor, because now the accusation lays, like an elephant on your Oriental Rug, sitting in the middle of room. They were TRYING to take rock and roll seriously.

So let’s go further into the past-future for a moment, and consider what that may mean in terms of where we are today musically, how the VU’s output looks in light of the members’ post-VU output, and why I sure do hope we stop thinking that Lou Reed is the exiled god incarnate.

In a nutshell: John Cale went on to produce a whole wide range of folks, go classical, then make some scary-spooky punk records, go back to classical, then produce a whole wide range of folks, ‘til he earned the respect of the Queen and got an MBE last year. Mo Tucker, meanwhile, releases a handful of albums about rock and roll, and they’re well and good, not great, oh well, whatever. Sterling took the helm of a tugboat.

And Lou? Well. . . Lou made Berlin, and Coney Island Baby, and perhaps the most notoriously of all (say it with me, kids!) Metal Machine Music. Here’s a little taste if you’ve never had the fortune:

And it’s on that note, that I turn to Lester Bangs to explain why Metal Machine Music is actually a good album. In summary: (1) it’s the essence of what makes the Stooges and MC5 so raw (guitar feedback, minus the other stuff that guitars do). (2) It’s the epitome of music made by common folks (anyone could have set up the guitars, amps, and effects and just switched it on, Lou just happened to be the first guy to DO it). (3) That despite its avant-garde quality, it’s still, technically, done on the cheap, which is the basis of most of good things rock and roll, stripped of the indulgences that take rock to the level of art-rock. But most strikingly (and I will quote directly now from Bangs’ essay, “The Greatest Album of All Time,” from Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung:

                “I have heard this record characterized as “anti-human” and “anti-emotional.”  . . . “[Any] record that sends listeners fleeing the room screaming for surcease of aural flagellations or, alternately, getting physical and disturbing your medication to the point of breaking the damn thing, can hardly be accused . . . of lacking emotional content.”

He then goes on:

                “Why do people go to see movies like ‘Jaws,’ ‘The Exorcist,’ or ‘Ilsa, the She Wolf of the SS?’ So they can get beaten over the head with baseball bats . . . and be generally brutalized at least once every fifteen minutes or so.”

Barring the fact that White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground & Nico produces a more aurally pleasing result than Metal Machine Music in this regard, it could still be argued that if we’re going to be pushing emotional buttons with records by singing (about things) and performing (in ways) that are generally unacceptable to the audience at large, much of The Velvet Underground is built on the idea of being disturbing, but to a point of acceptance. But what gets me here, is the inhumanity of their means.

Let me be clear: I love feedback. I love reverb. I love all the things in rock and roll that don’t belong, but are there any way, because rock music is the all-encompassing force that moves and represents all of us. God didn’t put us on this planet for anything more than to express ourselves in a manner seeing fit, and rock is the one arm of creativity that anybody can break into, and be successful with.

But at this point, the Velvet Underground is dated, and I hate to say it, but this may be the case where the results tarnish the reputation of the impetus. Music being free of humanity has become so passé, and so normal, that not even going back to its nexus feels refreshing anymore, and there is nothing that Lou, or John, or Mo can release in the next couple of years to convince me otherwise that we still need electronics to shock our senses musically to enhance masterful playing.

In the past decade, from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, right up to Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion, the music that has been praised as best has been awash in heavy, humanity-muting reverb. Feedback has been contained, mastered, and looped endlessly, and not just in dance music anymore. Sure, the Twee and Emo kids tried to fight it through the middle of the decade, but for a selfish grab at that feeling of ‘humanity.’ Where’s MY emotional moment in the sun, they scream and melodize (or, as the case may be, hum and whisper to while they play a god damn Play-Skool xylophone). Even the ‘earthiest’ of the modern folk bands still drown out their voices in echo and reverb, like they’re crooning from the wells in which they belong to tread.

Music, as a force made by humans, regardless of technology’s relative ease of slipping into how we produce it, is still representative of us and best manipulates our emotions. And while still recognizing a desire to be challenged intellectually, or emotionally, I propose forgetting the old ways. Let us move on from the fossilized records of the Velvet Underground, and instead embrace another past – forgotten traditions that grow with us even today.

Let us be challenged rhythmically, and our vocal notes should scream, and wail, and whisper. Let our new bands be organic, mixing dirt with blood and spit in the ground. Let’s stop messing with the volume and technical hoo-ha that fooled with our past, like some clone misplaced in an elevator full of grave diggers with lunch beers. Let’s play the blues again! Or punk rock! Or country, even! The kind of country sung by hardasses who was down on their luck and trying to get better, not like today’s redneck-embracing crooners who harbor a love for KISS.

Because so much of today’s indie music is equally inspired by Avant-garde as the rest of rock music through it’s very short history, it’s become the norm for nearly every band to do something like incorporating looping, pitch-shifting, electronics, or incorporating non-conventional instruments, but a lot of the results, musically, is homogenized. What differs now between every other band is the personality of it’s members (which, I guess we can now look at indie bands the same way as we did boy bands in the late 1990’s), and their own fashion statements and antics live on stage. It’s tiring, and exhausting, to go through the weekly record store newsletters, hoping for something ‘new’ and radically different to strike out, only for these arm chair Christgaus to resign saying “these guys are like [last week’s band o’ the week], except they perform wearing Donald Duck hats, and the difference is in how much [loose, tight]-er the music sounds because of it.” It may be midway through 2011, and too late to make such a plea, but my sincerest hope is that there’s a sea change in the next year that turns the musical direction around, to our most basic elements, and still finds its way to still stab through the heart of art-rock/indie-rock/alternative, whatever. And it goes back to saying that anyone could have made Metal Machine Music, much in the same way that anyone can learn how to play the blues (any kind of blues) and mess it up royally. But sometimes, it takes a true genius to take our most basic instincts and wishes and desires and turns it into something we can’t immediately comprehend, and only so many artists in the past 50-some odd years of rock’s existence have we run into artists capable of reaching such an ideal. It is outright lazy nowadays to play a melody, loop it, and fuck around with it on a drum machine, and I am damn well tired of paying $10 cover charge, plus $7 a beer to listen to it. I am looking at you, Cults.

New bands, I beg of you, at the very least, can you give Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band a chance? I know Trout Mask Replica is a daunting listen, but just let Clear Spot run around your player once before you decide it’s not for you?


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