Dec 25, 2023

1970: Grateful Dead vs. Velvet Underground


Of course there has always been the Great Abyss. On this side, concrete, printed circuits, pollution, and human excrement of all sorts. On this side, more is less. The other side of the Abyss is pure energy. No designations, no regimentations; but rather some kind of absolute disorder. "Beware of structure freaks!" says Abbie Hoffman. On the other side of the Abyss even happiness is eclipsed by freedom.
So we're standing here at the edge of the Abyss. A situation with a lot of potential. (This side is always potential; the other side is kinetic.) But there is this immense guard rail, or wall actually, that reaches nearly to the clouds and outwards to the horizon. And the only way through it appears to be through this barely noticeable pin-hole. 
Which obviously brings us to the subject of rock 'n roll music. 'Cause as any school child knows, rock music conceptualizes and contextualizes everything. And it was rock music that re-discovered the Great Abyss, or at least put it back in the international spotlight where it belongs. (Although Time magazine has somehow neglected to put the Abyss on any of their covers.) 

Abyss pioneers are few, indeed, due mostly to the dangers of exploring unknown dimensions. The two most successful are the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground. 
No doubt, the Grateful Dead are a magic band. Their music transcends planetary identification. It's not (merely) galactic; but truly cosmic. They conjure up enchanting and enticing spells. Their music floats. The Grateful Dead are lighter than air! 
Their new album, "Live-Dead," is a sort of log of their journeys across the Abyss and back again. 

The Velvet Underground's Abyss expeditions date back two years before other rock explorers. The Velvet Underground definitely do not float. Much too weighty for that. They pound and vibrate, writhing loose and bursting free of any holds. 
No doubt a certain A. Warhol (who produced their first record) helped point them in the right direction. But it was the very weighty psychical consciousness of both guitarist and leader Lou Reed and former bassist John Cale that provided the means. 
Said LeRoi Jones of John Cale's bass playing: "So deep, so satisfying: especially the way it goes thud, thud." 
Unlike the Dead's journal, VU has given us a recording of their actual trip across the Abyss in "Sister Ray," a 17-minute work on their second album, "White Light-White Heat." 

The Dead and VU use entirely different methods. Where the Dead's music as in the incredibly beautiful "Dark Star" caresses and carries you away, "Sister Ray" by VU lacerates your flesh and rips out your intestines. Where the Dead makes love to you, VU rapes you up and back down again! 
The reason for the differing methods is easy to identify. The Grateful Dead are from San Francisco; the Velvet Underground are from New York. A cultural (coastal) clash - West versus East. Or more precise, Acid versus Heroin. 

Jerry Garcia, guitarist for the Dead, employs a Magic Surge that cuts through you like a hot knife through butter. On the other hand, Lou Reed's guitar playing smashes you in the face and then gets under your skin as his nervous system explodes and overloads. 
The journey across the Abyss caused a most sterling change in VU as is evidenced by their third and most recent album. Their thunder was replaced by a kind of understatement. This album is exquisite in a simple and subtle way. The Velvet Underground appeared at the Quiet Knight Cafe on West Belmont in January. To hear their new unrecorded compositions such as "New Age" is to know the lessons they learned on the other side of the Abyss. Obviously, the way the VU used to travel was just too demanding. Or maybe on the other side they learned less is more.

The Grateful Dead keep going further and further. They have endured longer because their music is primarily emotional, where VU's is more physical. Compositions on "Live-Dead," like "Dark Star" and "The Eleven," continue to carry more and more people across the Abyss. And with every trip, the Dead get stronger and stronger. 
The Abyss, as always, awaits.

(by Hank Neuberger, from the Daily Northwestern, 20 February 1970) 

1 comment:

  1. Dead Sources returns. Articles are now going to be posted frequently - and what better way to resume than with an early comparison of the Dead and the Velvets?

    Neuberger was a music critic at the Daily Northwestern (the student newspaper of Northwestern University). The Velvet Underground had played a long run at the Quiet Knight club in Chicago in January 1970 - this was the only time the Daily Northwestern reviewed them.
    Most people would hear "Live-Dead" and "White Light-White Heat" as being totally different albums with nothing in common. But Neuberger discerns a common purpose - the style & methods differ, but both bands are "exploring unknown dimensions," taking the listener on a journey to the other side. (Collegiate claptrap, perhaps, but it's rare to find these bands compared when they were both active.)

    Neuberger had written an unenthusiastic review of a Blood Sweat & Tears show at McGaw Hall earlier that month (2/3/70 issue), calling them "lame, distorted and contrived" despite their talent. But he spoke to drummer Bobby Columby, who said: "The thing most other groups don't have any knowledge of today is dynamics. All they know about is volume. Like the Grateful Dead; just plain pretentious."
    Neuberger protests: "What Bobby says about the Dead is not true."

    I don't know what Neuberger thought of the Dead's 1970 albums, which took kind of a similar turn as the Velvets' third album. He'd seen them at the Village Theatre in December '67 ("the loudest, rockinest set in history"), and raved about how they used to be: "They really could breathe fire. On a good night, their white heat-rave up-break on through-high energy-killer-New Age music could melt the sun!" (Shades of the Velvets again, in a more understandable context.)

    But reviewing them again in October 1971, he was very disappointed: "It's been a while since the boys dared to do that kind of stuff... The whole two-record [live] set is a throwaway. It stinks!... It's a patchwork of shallow imitations and half-baked homages... It's a sad day when the Dead make such a boring, low energy record. They just sound anemic [without Mickey Hart]."
    Seeing their Chicago shows that month didn't impress him: "At both shows, they played generous 4-hour-plus sets. And they sure did play sweet and mellow. But what they didn't do is breathe fire; in fact, it seems they held their breath!" (with more commentary, comparing the Dead to the Band this time)