Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen
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White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day
By Richie Unterberger
Jawbone Press (London), 2009
367 pages, USD $29.95
If it’s true that God is in the details, then White Light/White Heat must be considered some kind of scripture, especially for those Velvet Underground fans, both informed and not.
But I get ahead of myself.
Richie Unterberger has a long record of rock journalism, with a number of books, including the topics of obscure bands, the history of folk rock, and the Beatles; this is only the latest in a long line of his informative and enjoyable readings by him. WL/WH is the latest in a series of Day-By-Day tomes by different authors about various bands, such as the Byrds. I haven’t read the others, but this is certainly a good start.
Essentially the book is broken down into sections, usually in calendar headings with a date – exact if known, vague if not – but Unterberger still keeps the flow going at all times in as close to chronological order as can be expected, if not more so.
It starts with the pre-original band (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Angus MacLise, and Nico), and brings the reader up to speed, as it were, with their history just prior to /relevant to the band, with what was happening in their lives that would influence them, or direct them, into this group of both like-minded musicians, and not (i.e., Nico). Some of the other musicians aren’t “revealed” early on, such as Maureen Tucker, until they show up in the time of the band.
Unterberger takes many sources, including previous books (such as Victor Bockris’ Transformer: The Lou Reed Story [who is of the dreaded “This is what Lou Reed was thinking when…” style] and Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon, by Richard Witts), articles, fanzines, and first hand accounts from over 100 people interviewed personally by the author. He does not just repeat the information, however, he synthesizes all of the accounts, and then clarifies whenever he can. For example, he might say that something is quoted – even by the band members - as being on a certain date, but since so-and-so was someplace else from such-and-such a time, it more likely was around this time. This thoughtful processing and evaluating makes WL/WH an invaluable resource.
It is also this progression that takes the conglomeration of old and new information that keeps it all fresh and, well, fascinating. Like oral histories, there are definitely some contradictions from the different multitude of sources, and Unterberger works it into a nice mixture that respects the source, and yet makes it innovative and new.
This is a big book in many ways, but certainly due to the importance of the subject matter in a cultural context, and the physical volume itself. I’ll start with the latter.
An oversized paperback on thick, glossy paper (it is physically heavy), with clear and often large photos and images throughout, the text is teeny-tiny serif type (7 pt?), with three columns per page. On a normal book, that would be the equivalent of three pages there to one page here. In other words, this 360-plus page book would actually be over 1,000 pages in any regular size print book. The reader is definitely getting his or her money’s worth on sheer volume alone.
Needless to say, it took me a hell of a long time to get through this book, which is a good thing, because I did not read it as much as savor it. There is a lot of detailed information to process, and to Unterberger’s credit, I never felt bored or lost interest, even after Nico, Reed and Cale left the band, their places taken up by Doug Yule and Willie Alexander, to name a few.
Who can argue that the Velvet Underground were one of the more important musical entities during their period – whether one enjoyed their music or not – on so many scenes, be it rock’n’roll, rock, avant-garde, jazz, and yes, punk. They would as easily be put in the Captain Beefheart category as, say, the Stooges. Unterberger takes their influential status in the musical strata and is hardly cowed by it, nor is he condescending, but he seems to be as objective as possible (of course, there is no such thing as true objectivity), while it is obvious he is a fan at the same time.
My long-time friend Walter Ocner is a veteran VU fan in good standing, and he recently summed up WL/WH in one word: “Brilliant.” It’s hard to argue with that.
Some additional Richie Unterberger's books, in no particular order: