The Velvet Underground
Live at Max’s Kansas City
ive albums suck. Really. Often released for contract fulfillment purposes, the average live platter ends up either serving as a bookend or coaster a few days after purchase, or else sits in your local record store's cutout bin; if you're jonesing for Eagles Live or Depeche Mode's Songs of Faith & Devotion Live, this is the place to look.
It's interesting how music lovers whose unanimity withers when asked to defend the merits of something like Fountains of Wayne can almost always agree on which live offerings work. Want feedback-drenched versions of classics? Neil Young's Live Rust or Arc will do. Can't understand how the questionable consistency of a major artist is supposed to work? Pick up James Brown's Live at the Apollo.
Some artists' official live releases outnumber studio albums (Dave Matthews Band), while for others a sample of their prowess would do wonders towards reevaluating their catalogue (the Go-Betweens); and it's this second point that's worth stressing. The essential live records strengthen a band's legacy by recontextualizing their sound and vision. It's a question of emphasis.
When first released in 1972, the Velvet Underground's 1969 Velvet Underground seemed like a cheapo knockoff. The crotch shot on the cover, the divvying up of tracks into two records that were sold separately—all of it was reminiscent of two-dollar K-Tel compilations. However, 1969 proved to be one of the Velvet’s seminal albums: a relaxed, genial document of a band at the height of its powers, despite the absence of a crucial member (John Cale) and the raised profile of another whose contributions are still debated today (replacement Doug Yule). Disregarding its image as fearsome champions of depravity, the Velvets simply sounded like a magnificent jam band having the time of its life. Who would ever have thought that Lou Reed would sound scarier discussing the Cowboys’ chances that season and cracking jokes about curfews than extolling the virtues of shiny leather and sailor orgies?
The reissue of Live at Max’s Kansas City presents the group on the verge of breakup, and it’s appropriate that the legendarily shoddy recording (recorded on cassette by longtime fan Brigid Polk) reflects the disinterest with which Reed, Yule, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Billy Yule (replacing Maureen Tucker) greeted this stage of their career. Given the circumstances the album is passable, if redundant and somewhat depressing. “I Can’t Stand It” and “What Goes On”, for example, are far superior on 1969 compared to the versions found here. Especially “What Goes On”, which goes on for almost 10 minutes, but seems to go on for 40 more—a train going round the bend birthing whole bands (The Modern Lovers, the Feelies) along the way.
Indeed, Max’s most worthwhile merit is historical: we listen to a band breaking up. Reed’s apathy—he sings like a paunchy Little League coach pumping morale into kids throwing paper airplanes at him—portends the ho-hum shocks and crass yuks he’d exploit on most of his ‘70s solo output. Morrison, who went on to get a Ph.D in English literature, plays like he’s reading Daniel Deronda. If you ever thought a metronome showed more emotion than Maureen Tucker’s drumming—and frankly, those critics should go listen to ELP instead—then notice how Billy Yule matches his attention-grabbing bete noir brother Doug note for note; his sloppy fills and normal 4/4 beat finally succeeding in reining in a band whose subversive rhythmic impulses signified more than its sophomoric early lyrics.
Live albums suck. Who needs ‘em?