Waiting For His Man
♦ Peter Hogan is a writer with a career that includes co-writing with Alan Moore and writing Tom Strong on his own. He has also worked for 2000AD and Vertigo. He has also in recent years created Resident Alien with Steve Parkhouse which has been published by Dark Horse. But Hogan started working in music and has written a number of books on REM and The Velvet Underground. Tripwire’s senior editor ANDREW COLMAN just spoke to him about the updated Dead Straight Guide To Velvet Underground, out now…
This is your third book about the Velvet Underground. What is it about this band that keeps you fascinated with them?
Actually, it’s more like I just keep writing the same book over and over, correcting and expanding it each time. What keeps me fascinated ? Partly the fact that it’s an interesting story, and they’re actually aren’t too many of those in rock. It’s almost unheard of to have two people as talented and creative as Reed and Cale in the same band, and Warhol’s involvement adds a whole other layer to the thing. But mostly it’s about the music, which if you include all the solo albums is an extraordinary body of work. Perhaps uniquely so.
Do you see this book as the ultimate starting point for the band, being both primer for the uninitiated and source for the dedicated fan? It certainly touches all bases, being both a biography and reference book.
That’s a nice way of putting it ; I hope it’s true. One thing I realized very early on was that there was no one single book available that told the whole story. That was something that was scattered across all of the books on the Velvets and Lou and Nico and Cale and Warhol and the whole Factory crowd. So, my major achievement is probably simply gathering all that information together in one place. Having done that, my opinions maybe have a little more insight into the work and the personalities involved than most.
Was the death of Lou Reed a catalyst in any way for writing / compiling this book?
No, not as such. I think the last edition of the book came out in 2007, so there was ten years’ worth of story left to tell – which of course included the major event of Lou’s death and its aftermath – and I wanted to do this update to make the book as complete a version of their story as possible.
Lou Reed and John Cale both came very close at various points in their careers to self-annihilation and insanity. Do you see this arguably crucial component of the creative process as something that is now absent in current music, rendering it less important or significant?
Oh, I’m sure popular music still contains a fair number of artists with booze and substance problems, and it probably always will do. But that doesn’t mean those people will necessarily produce any great art, and I also think it’s a big mistake to romanticize self-destruction. Beyond a certain point it becomes a simple choice between death and rehab, and the entire Factory crowd are abundant proof of that.
As for the Velvets, Sterling and Moe never really had any substance problems, but the others all reached a point where they really had to quit. Nico was desperately trying to get straight when she died, and Lou struggled with his addictions for decades, right up to the end. Only Cale managed to shake addiction off entirely, but not before it damn near killed him.
The Velvet Underground cast a very long shadow over the lives of the key members, despite the existence of the band being quite brief. Do you see Reed’s attitude regarding the Velvets as frustrating? He happily mined the VU back catalogue throughout the 70s, and the reunion, when it finally happened, led to virtually no new songs.
I think Lou struggled with the Velvets’ legacy. On the one hand, he was always immensely proud of it, but on the other hand he was also trying to persuade people that his latest album was just as good, which it usually wasn’t.
With the reunion, Reed treated the others really badly, and as if they were just another backing band. Cale had only signed up on the grounds that they’d make some new music together, but it all fell to bits with only one new song to show for it. It’s a shame.
Overall, would it have been better for the Velvets legend if they hadn’t reformed?
If they hadn’t, people would have just have maintained a fantasy that it would all be wonderful if they did get back together, and it’s probably better to know the truth. Plus, some parts of the live album are really good.
Also, the spur for the reunion was Songs For Drella, which was effectively a Velvets album – and also a work of towering genius, and proof that Reed and Cale could still inspire each other to produce amazing work together.
You pull no punches when it comes to the protagonists’ works – you state that but for Bowie, Reed’s career might’ve ended after the weak first album, and that certain albums, like Sally Can’t Dance, are poor. Reed and Cale’s works were often hit and miss – do you consider the failures to still be of interest, simply because of the artist’s trajectory?
Yes, but … I listened to much of this stuff only because I was doing this book, and one of the book’s functions is to advise people which bits they can safely skip. I listened to it all so you don’t have to.
On quite a few occasions, you mention that an album by one of the Velvets, for example Reed’s Berlin or Magic and Loss, is to be admired as art but not necessarily to be enjoyed. Would you say that this dichotomy is unique to the Velvets?
Not at all. It may be rare, but it’s not unique – and that goes for all forms of art. For example, I think Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is an amazing film, and I’m really glad I’ve seen it … but I also never want to ever see it again.
Do you find the sheer amount of product, both in terms of Velvets rarities / reissues / remasters etc. as well as Reed and Cale’s solo careers, daunting?
I certainly did when I realized I was going to have to wade through it all. There was a small pile of Velvets-related avant-garde material that was really hard work to listen to … and I had never realized before just how prolific John Cale was. There are at least a dozen movie soundtracks by him, semi-classical instrumental works which are really hard to track down – but also worth the effort if you can find them, because they’re all good, and some are quite beautiful.
Do you find that when prospective fans think of the Velvets they are only aware of the “avant-garde” side of things – the dissonance, the influence of freeform jazz, white noise, etc. Quite a lot of material is very accessible, such as The Velvets’ third album, Loaded, VU etc.
Actually, probably the opposite is true. Most Velvets compilations draw almost entirely from the first and fourth albums. The more tuneful stuff, in other words, and that tends to be what most people hear first.
Would you say that people aren’t really aware that a lot of Cale’s early work, like Vintage Violence and Paris 1919, is as accessible as the Velvets albums after he left? Is he more of an acquired taste than Reed?
It’s not a matter of being an acquired taste. Cale’s a fantastic songwriter, much of the time, but … he never had any hits, in the way that Lou did, so he simply never received that kind of exposure.
Do you think John Cale never got his due, as a Velvets member, producer of key albums for other bands, and solo artist? (I remember at school a friend of mine wrote on his desk – “Lou Reed is God. John Cale is better than God”)
You don’t have to sell me on him – I think the guy’s a genius, and vastly underrated.
Would punk have happened at all without the Velvets, or post-punk, indie, goth, etc? Was there any contemporary of theirs who could’ve been even vaguely as inspirational (who wasn’t on Elektra!!)?
Punk would have still happened, but it wouldn’t have been quite the same. The Velvets dragged intellect and art into the equation, to a degree that no one else did apart from Bowie, and he was heavily influenced by the Velvets.
If you’re hinting that the Doors also qualify, I disagree. They’re interesting, and they’re important, but they’re not in the same league. Few people are.
How much do the Velvet Underground, and Reed in particular, owe to the English rock press (including yourself)?
Very little, I should think. Maybe there were some people here who championed them when they were being overlooked in the States … but they were always American writers who loved them too, like Lester Bangs.
Have you learnt anything new about the Velvets in writing this book, and has it changed or altered your perception of them in any way?
Yes, because the conclusion of Lou Reed’s story is kind of redemptive. He was always a difficult person to be around, to put it mildly, but … according to most accounts his relationship with Laurie Anderson mellowed and humanized him, and at the end he was rather sweet.
Before I ever started writing about the Velvets, I obviously knew they were important ; the revelation I’ve experienced through doing these books has been that the Velvets were – and are – far more important than I or anyone else realized.
Peter Hogan Velvet Underground Lou Reed interview www.tripwire
The Dead Straight Guide To Velvet Underground And Lou Reed is available now