Modest As Cake

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Velvet Underground at New York Public Library, December 8, 2009


It's not a complicated thing to describe what happened at the New York Public Library's LIVE event on Tuesday.

Three people who used to play music together were interviewed by a music journalist. People in the audience parsed each word, and each silence, and each movement, for personal meaning.

Usually NYPL LIVE events on Tuesday evenings are polite affairs, with a tidy string of New Yorkers lining up inside the building's stone hallway, starting at about 6:00. Many are usually people over 50, who have brought reading materials, and iPods, so that they can catch up on the New Yorker or NPR. They often radiate dismay that one of their favorite institutions cannot provide seating while they wait, but they are a mannered bunch. Mild confusion about ticketing is a constant: Do I stand in the line for people who printed their tickets at home? Is that other line of people more special, or less special, than my line of people?

By 6:00 on this particular Velvet Underground event Tuesday, it was clear that the line would be forming outside, on a ramp, and had, in fact, begun to form well before 6:00. Several nervous women in sharp-toed black boots and dyed-black hair patrolled the line, plaintively asking if anyone had extra tickets, in the same voice used by hungry children panhandling at bus stations. The line grew quickly, snaking from 42nd Street down Fifth Avenue.

Security asked the line to back up, away from the double-doors leading into the lobby. A sudden whiff of festival-seating fear was in the air. Simultaneously, people who were practiced in the black art of self-confidence began to appear near the doorway. Some young women cried into their cellphones while inching to the front; some clumps of balding, disheveled musicians were led in by a man declaring, "This is MY event, and these are MY guests." By the third time he had led six people through, the line completely despised him. Later reports indicated that the event was "oversold," but it is more accurate to say that nonpaying guests of the event were in force in unprecedented numbers, as were people who had press IDs.

The NYPL LIVE events typically have a few rows of reserved seats. In this case, fully half of the seats were labeled as reserved. Twenty-year-olds asked 50-year-olds if they had ever heard Lou perform live. The audience speculated that there would be a musical performance, but this was not to be the case. However, the audience was suddenly rapt when "Heroin" was played from vinyl on stage. The audience was also treated to genuine repeated needle drops as the tech struggled to use the turntable; no one minded.

David Fricke was the interviewer of Lou Reed, Mo Tucker and Doug Yule. David has a compulsive fan-boy air about him. Much of the questioning was like watching a Mr. Spock fan interview Leonard Nimoy; that is to say, Fricke came close to the VU equivalent of wearing Vulcan ears. Fricke's approach was initially reverent, analytical, micro-detailed. However, he soon began to compete with his icons ("Actually, that was written when I was in high school", "I'm a collector") and didn't have the sense to let interview questions bloom. Reed began to tell a story of taking his songs at age 14 to Harlem, and Fricke cut him off. Fricke stuck to his own agenda, and his own list of questions, most of which included the words "seminal" and "influence." His anxiety level rose as Reed gave one-word answers and then left the stage without explanation. Upon his return, Reed corrected Fricke with a sharp gaze when Fricke said that in the music industry, "Well, there's no "them" now." If Fricke could excise the tic-word "actually" from his vocabulary, future interviewees would be grateful.

Reed told a great story of being pulled over in California in a car that included Nico and Warhol. He quoted the police as saying: "You're really near the state line -- why don't you cross it?" Reed's life-long deadpan has evolved into a riveting mixture of Buster Keaton and the elderly Jerry Lewis. He recounted being approached by someone: "Remember me?" and his response: "Oh, please." He despaired of ever putting the rumor to rest that his birth name was "Louis Firbanks," complaining that he "couldn't get into Wikipedia" to edit his own entry. Despite his crotchety quality ("No one knew anything back then"), he was composed, reflective, and responsive. His most loving words were reserved for Warhol, for his musical influences, including Ornette Coleman, and for Mo as a unique, irreplaceable drummer.

Mo and Doug were content to play Lou's long-lost friends from Long Island. Mo explained that early on VU was oddly paired with other performers, referring with glee to an accompanying female contortionist act as a "compatible booking." They nodded in agreement when Reed said, "I can't imagine where we would have been without Andy."

While Fricke attempted to give the band members credit for awareness, or even calculation, of their avant garde impact, Reed deflated him each time: "Andy fed us." "I was not capable of thinking 40 years in the future." "We didn't wear black because of anything; that's what we wore. It was cheap."

When it was time for questions from the audience, Fricke again inserted himself in follow-up questions rather than giving the band opportunities to tell their stories. A master interviewer, like Ira Glass, would have set the band to musing. A master filmmaker like Al Maysles would have helped the band express emotions that captured the historic nature of the reunion moment. But none of us in the audience could have done better than David Fricke did, face to face with his resolutely down-to-earth heroes.

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