In muso terms, the Velvet Underground couldn't play for shit. Maureen Tucker's inability to execute a simple drum roll meant guitar trills had to signal the endings of songs. John Cale's viola playing could've made Jack Benny wince. Nobody had a voice you could describe as soaring or even tuneful during the childlike "I'm Sticking with You," everybody gets a turn to warble in his or her best "my baloney has a first name" voice. Yet none of this matters, since no other combination of people could come up with these songs and make them relevant like the original Velvets did. That's what great bands are all about, using imagination to work around physical limitations and have that color the sound. Regardless of technical prowess, Tucker could challenge Marky Ramone for banging stamina, and Cale's valuable presence, even as an irritant, pushes ol' Lou on to heights on the guitar he never attempts when he's got a band as slick as the Exxon Valdez spill behind him.
This live in Paris DVD captures an all-too-brief 1993 reunion where you get the privilege of seeing the Velvets as a working band instead of an enduring myth. It's not like they appeared on Shindig or The Smothers Brothers. This is it for the visual aid department and it's indispensable; the reunion all came crumbling down before Americans could see it, largely due to the old "internal friction" chestnut. But tension is what makes songs like "Heroin" run, so you'll likely never hear a live version as credible as this one. On the revisionist side, "Hey Mr. Rain" is as interminable as the stuff the Velvet's West Coast opposites were unloading on unsuspecting youth at the same time while "Femme Fatale" sounds like a hit Top 20 single.
Serene Dominic writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].