Rehearsing For the Inevitable
I know I’m in the minority here, but I love recordings of band rehearsals. I guess I get some kind of kick out of eavesdropping on these rough, rare moments not intended for the ears of the public — they’re both de-mystifying and mystifying. How does a band get from these often slipshod practice sessions to utter greatness? There are a handful of extant Velvet Underground rehearsals that are worth your time — and I’ve got them here for you today.
EXHIBIT A: At The Factory
Recorded in the infamous Factory at the very start of 1966, this fascinating document captures what I assume was one of the VU’s very first rehearsals with Nico — on a few of the tracks, you can hear Lou teaching her lyrics. Lots of cool moments here. In what has to be an intentionally mocking moment, while Lou recites the lyrics of his ode to S&M, “Venus In Furs” to Nico, Sterling Morrison and John Cale vamp on “Love Is Strange” in the background. Ha! There are some other nods to pop music, demonstrating that the VU was not hermetically sealed in some minimalist New York bubble — Morrison plays the riff to “Day Tripper” and there’s a jam on Booker T. & The MGs’ “Green Onions.” The highlight for me is the ultra-nasty, one-chord stomper “Miss Joanie Lee,” a song that I imagine morphed into “Run Run Run” at some point later in the year. Reed’s self-destructo guitar prefigures the No Wave movement by at least a decade. The only real disappointment on this tape is that Moe Tucker is barely there — you can only hear her banging away on percussion on a few tracks. Maybe she didn’t feel like lugging her kit up the stairs?
Download “At The Factory, 1966”
EXHIBIT B: The Matrix, 1969
Almost four years later, Cale and Nico were long gone (with little Dougie Yule filling in on bass and keyboards) and the VU found themselves in the lion’s den of peace & love — San Francisco, CA. This tape, made by superfan/awesome guitarist Robert Quine, lets us listen in on the quartet as they try out new songs like “Sweet Bonnie Brown,” “Lisa Says” and the embryonic slow version of “Sweet Jane.” Kind of fun to hear Lou trying out different lyrics off the top of his head (I presume), and the band fumbling around behind him. My favorite thing here is the long version of “I Can’t Stand It” (actually not that new of a song at that point), which features a long, “Eight Miles High”-ish 12-string workout from Reed.
EXHIBIT C: Max’s Kansas City, 1970
Our final example of the Velvets rehearsing comes from the summer of 1970, when the band (with Billy Yule filling in for a pregnant Moe Tucker) was simultaneously recording Loaded and playing several sets a night at the newly opened Max’s Kansas City club. The recording quality starts out kinda dire, but improves, so stick with it. Lou was just a few steps away from leaving the band at this time, but you wouldn’t know it from this tape — they really sound like they’re having fun, goofing around on a few semi-improv things (including the charming “Max’s Jingle”) and feeling out a bunch of the new Loaded tracks, not to mention some songs that Lou would carry over to his first solo album. Billy Yule is (as he is on the officially released Max’s Kansas City live album) the weak link here, trading Moe’s Spartan pulse for a fill-a-minute style that doesn’t quite work. But he gets in some neat things, including a rhythmic rework of “What Goes On” that actually sounds kinda funky.
Download The Matrix, 1969 and Max’s Kansas City, 1970