Weary readers might wonder what connection the Velvet Underground had with the Grateful Dead. Weren’t they complete opposites? Didn’t the Velvet Underground hate hippies, psychedelia, and laughter? Sunny, pleasant acid trips for dancing hippies vs. dark, abrasive anti-life heroin dirges - could any two bands be more different?
The story isn’t so simple, though. In some strange ways, the two bands were like flip sides to each other. As Richie Unterberger says, “Both were once known as the Warlocks; both have made their music heavily associated with the ingestion of drugs; and both were prone to performing lengthy improvisations onstage that are comparable to those of few other bands.”
“Once when we were playing on a bill with the Grateful Dead, some reporter from the Daily News asked me what was the difference between us and the Dead. With a perfectly straight face, I told him, ‘The difference is that they take the kids backstage and turn them on – but we shoot ‘em up!’ Don’t you know, he actually believed me and printed that.”
Despite a totally different style and sensibility, their musical approach is closer than seems obvious at first. The Velvets were consistent in using songs as jumping-off places for extended improvs – Lou Reed was as much a fan of Coltrane and jazz horn players as the Dead were, though he favored the noisy ‘skronk’ style of Ornette Coleman & Albert Ayler. “When I started out I was inspired by people like Ornette Coleman. He was always a great influence.” He’s said that ‘European Son’ was his way of imitating Coleman with guitars.
Reed: “I had been listening to a lot of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, and wanted to get something like that with a rock & roll feeling. And I think we were successful, but I also think we carried that about as far as we could, for our abilities as a basically rock & roll band. Later we continued to play that kind of music, and I was really experimenting a lot with guitar, but most of the audiences in the clubs just weren't receptive to it at all."
(The Dead’s admiration of Ornette was a quiet one, but acknowledged when he played with them in the ‘90s. Garcia said after working on one of Coleman’s albums, “When I hear his playing, I hear something that I always wish would be in mine – a kind of joy and beauty.”)
Both bands liked to take simple modal patterns of one or two chords and spin them out into long jams, though they took these in different directions. Both the Velvets and the Dead were innovators in using feedback as a meaningful musical statement (of course they weren't alone - the Who and Hendrix among others were doing the same – feedback was an exciting new thing in those days). If you’ve heard the Velvets’ early soundtracks for Warhol films, they’re freaky ambient noise not far removed from the Dead’s later ‘spaces’.
The Velvets were one of few rock bands I know of to do half-hour freeform improvisations in 1966. Rock music was stretching out and solos were getting wilder, but not many instrumentals had gone to such monstrous lengths yet. (The list of 20-minute live rock jams is a short one that year – there’s Moby Grape, ‘Dark Magic’ – Butterfield Blues Band, ‘East/West’ – Pink Floyd, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ – readers can probably think of a few more.)
Improvisation is very much a live art, though, and was frowned upon in studio recordings of the time - as was any tune longer than three minutes. (A couple rare instances of rock album tracks over ten minutes in ’66 are Love’s ‘Revelations’, the Stones’ ‘Goin’ Home’, and the Blues Project’s ‘Two Trains Running’. Even on Cream’s first album, the longest track is six minutes!) As a result, there are many bands who were known for their exciting long jams onstage (like, later on in the ‘60s, Buffalo Springfield or Fairport Convention), who confined themselves to short pop material on their records – their live sound was never caught on tape. So people were probably hearing more live jamming in ’66 than we can recover today.
One recommended Velvets show is from October '66, a complete two-hour show (in poor sound, as usual) where they play no less than TWO half-hour improvs (called "The Nothing Song" and "Melody Laughter"), which don't sound quite like anything else. (Nico moans over the music, kind of like Donna...)
Then by '68, with Sister Ray they had a piece that could be transformed into something different each time they played it, and they were happy to stretch it out to thirty, forty minutes or more. There's one famous show from April '68 where just the INTRO to Sister Ray is a forty-minute quiet trance drone!
Other songs could sprout ten-minute guitar solos as well, depending on the band’s mood; long jams would develop in the sets and then disappear. (One example is the otherwise unheard, rambling ‘Follow the Leader’ on the Quine Tapes set.) And practically none of these were recorded by the band – just a few instances were captured by audience tapers.
And while the Dead had Phil Lesh to give them that avant-garde dissonant edge (especially apparent on Anthem), the early Velvets had John Cale who brought a quite different avant-garde slant from his previous noise/drone experiments. In much the same way as Lesh came to the Dead fresh from absorbing Luciano Berio and Stockhausen, John Cale had studied with LaMonte Young and brought that strong influence into their music. There's a 1965 recording from the Dream Syndicate (with Young & Tony Conrad) which is just ONE NOTE (on two or three violas) sustained for about a half-hour. Now that's a serious drone! (Cale has also released a 3-CD set of some of the noise/minimalist experiments he was doing in the '60s outside the Velvets.)
One thing about the Dead's music is that they did not like repetition too much in the jams - the music is always busy, restless. Lesh is not one to be pinned down to a single bassline for too long – and Garcia will often find some beautiful phrase, repeat it a couple times....and then drop it to do something else, never to be heard again. So, in spite of the Indian music they liked, we almost never get drones in their jams or 'trance Dead'.
The Velvets, of course, were sworn enemies of the Dead’s music.
In ’71 Maureen Tucker called the Dead the most boring band she’d ever heard. Sterling Morrison also loathed them, and despised San Francisco music in general. (But he did make an exception for Quicksilver Messenger Service, saying they sounded great and John Cipollina was a really good guitar player.) Lou Reed also had harsh things to say (although he did like the first Moby Grape album; and they were fans of LA bands Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds.)
Reed and Doug Yule, in a 1970 interview:
LOU: We had vast objections to the whole San Francisco scene. It's just tedious, a lie, and untalented. They can't play and they certainly can't write. The Airplane, the Dead, all of them...
DOUG: They lose track of where the music comes from - they start thinking it instead of playing it. Especially the Dead. Now I saw the Dead when they just started, and they were a bunch of scuzzy kids just having a ball playing rock & roll - they were a lot of fun. But then they started thinking about what they were doing too much.
LOU: I can get off understanding the kick it was to play Lovelight.... But they're amateur...they can't play. Jerry's not a good guitar player. It's a joke, and the Airplane is even worse, if that's possible.
DOUG: Jerry, he'll play the same solo for a half hour, but if he'd done it for just two minutes....he plays the same notes over and over again.
LOU: You listen to the Beatles, or you listen to 'Gimme Shelter' by the Stones, and Keith isn't playing many notes, but the notes he's playing are so thought out, so perfect...
Q: But don't you think a lot of people get off on something like the Dead because it's so loose?
LOU: It's what people are settling for....they're getting third-hand blues. It's a fad.... People like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, all those people are the most untalented bores that have ever lived. Just look at them - can you take Grace Slick seriously? It's a joke. And the whole thing is, the kids are being hyped this on FM radio. Well, now finally it's dead, the whole San Francisco thing is dead.
The Velvets had first come to San Francisco in May ’66 - they played the Fillmore with the Mothers of Invention, and developed an instant mutual dislike for Bill Graham. (They also hated Frank Zappa – Lou Reed later called Zappa “the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life – he’s two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything. He can’t play rock & roll.” Reportedly Reed also hated the Jefferson Airplane’s music so much that he refused to share a bill with them.)
Cale admitted that on this first San Francisco trip, “No one liked us much.” Audiences met them with bewilderment – one witness remembers, “they had this weird stuff onstage with some chick getting whipped, and I went, ‘Oh wow, this is music?’” Ralph Gleason wrote a very hostile review of their ‘sick, campy, dull, joyless, non-artistic’ show – “a bad condensation of all the bum trips of the Trips Festival… Opening night was really crowded, even though hippies were continually walking out shaking their heads and saying ‘Wow!’ in wonder that such a bore could be.”
The Velvets ended a Fillmore show by putting their guitars against the amps and letting the feedback howl as they left the stage. Bill Graham couldn’t stand this, or the rest of their stage act – he called them perverted, sickening, and negative, “the worst piece of entertainment I’ve ever seen in my life” - and they all agreed that the Velvets would never play any Fillmore show again. (The police in Los Angeles that month also found the Velvets’ show so offensive they shut down the club they were playing in!)
The Velvets later believed that Bill Graham had even stolen the idea of their light show – they found the Fillmore’s current light-shows laughable. Doug Yule said this was “one of Sterling’s rants…they felt that when they showed up with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, that Graham was doing kindergarten-level light shows, and they opened his eyes and then he ripped ‘em off, took all their ideas and put that out as his own.”
In any case, the Velvets didn’t return to California for two years. As Sterling said in his usual manner, “We left California alone for two years, because they’re so determined to do their own thing, their own San Francisco music. We were just rocking the boat – they don’t want to know about that. ‘There’s only one music, and we all know what that is…it’s what the Grateful Dead play. That’s the very best rock & roll can ever get…’ We said, ‘You’re full of shit, your city, your state, and everything else.’”
But they did come back. In fact, in ‘68/69, they played San Francisco more often than anywhere else except for Boston, playing numerous shows at the Avalon, Family Dog, and Matrix. One reason was that by then, the audience had caught up with them, and loud hard rock was the order of the day, so the Velvets were now well-received by enthusiastic fans. Peter Abrams liked them enough to record hours of their Matrix performances (“I wanted to get as many recordings of them as I could”), and Robert Quine was one fan who’d recently discovered the Velvets and also taped as many shows as he could. (Both of them, though, had to erase most of their recordings and keep only highlight reels, since they couldn’t afford all that tape.) But ironically, most of the Velvets’ live releases come from San Francisco!
One audience member saw a show with the Velvets and Quicksilver Messenger Service in ‘68, and noted the Velvets’ “depressing drug-type songs, very heavy, very dark, very heroin, with a dangerous underground feel…while Quicksilver was light and color and acid and mind-wandering.”
Some California newspaper reviewers tried to describe the Velvets’ sound in their shows:
“The band makes a sound that can only be compared to a railroad shunting yard, metal wheels screeching to a halt on the tracks. It’s music to go out of your mind to.”
“In the middle of Sister Ray, they created this harmonic that sounded like the roof of the building was cracking open! It was just wild; it went on for a long time. It was really the ultimate in trance music, even beyond what La Monte Young was doing, because it was so loud and there were so many instruments.”
“The Underground played an extremely involving two-hour set which completely destroyed the audience, left limp at its conclusion. The music was earthy with a heavy beat and moderate use of electronics and feedback. The sound it created was all-enveloping. Catharsis was particularly strong in Heroin and the 45-minute concluding number, which included electronic viola and organ as well as the guitars…they’re a heavy group.”
Doug Yule admits, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a recording that gives you the feeling that the group put out live. It was a locomotive.”
The Velvets and the Dead played together a couple times in 1969.
One remarkable night at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, February 7, the Fugs, the Velvets, and the Dead all played. One newspaper reviewer wrote, “Such a collection of freaks could hardly lead anywhere but up. The Velvet Underground…opened up the festivities with Heroin, one of their religious songs.” The Dead offered two typically intense hard-jamming sets.
They shared a bill again just a couple months later, at Chicago’s Electric Theater, April 25 & 26. (Detroit band SRC was the third band on the bill.) By then, the Dead’s live approach was much sloppier, with many new songs in the set.
It’s commonly believed among Dead fans that on the 25th, the Velvets opened and played a very long set, leaving the Dead only a short time to play. In revenge, when they switched and the Dead opened on the 26th, the Dead played for almost three hours, making the Velvets wait through their 40-minute wall-of-feedback encore.
This story is wrong, though! If you listen to the end of the Dead’s short set on the 25th, it’s clear that they were the opening act that night – when the audience cries for more, Weir says, “We’re gonna come back and do a second set in a little while, and we’re gonna bring on two other real good bands, and they’ll blow your minds anyway; so we’ll be back in just a short while.” (Which obviously raises the question, is there a whole second set from April 25 that we’ve never heard?)
Doug Yule reports that the first night “the Dead opened for us – we opened for them the next night so that no one could say they were the openers. As you know, the Grateful Dead play very long sets, and they were supposed to only play for an hour. We were up in the dressing room and they were playing for an hour and a half, an hour and 45 minutes. So the next day when we were opening for them, Lou says, ‘Watch this.’ We did Sister Ray for like an hour, and then a whole other show.”
(The entire tape we have of April 25, though, is only about an hour, and it sounds like the complete set. Did the Dead really open the show with two sets in a row? Or perhaps the Velvets found the Dead so awful their set just seemed to last forever!)
Apparently the theater had no time restrictions, so the Dead seem to have been encouraged by the Velvets’ long noisy set on the 26th to play for even longer! My theory is that listening to that long Sister Ray is what gave them the idea to close with a huge Viola Lee going into fifteen minutes of feedback mixed with What’s Become Of The Baby….they certainly didn’t do anything like this at any other ’69 shows!
One audience member says of this famous show, “I believe the Velvet Underground played first…then the Grateful Dead came out and played til about 2 or 3 in the morning. And literally, the only people left in attendance when the Dead were through playing were people that were laying on the floor. Eighty percent of the crowd had gone, and the Dead just kept on playing.” (What he doesn’t mention is that he must have lingered through the whole show, too! At one point he tried to talk to Owsley by the soundboard, but “the whole thing was up so loud that we couldn’t hear each other. We just looked at each other and shrugged.”)
It’s not known whether Bear taped the Velvets’ shows. But even if he did – between Bear hanging for life onto his journal tapes and never authorizing releases, and the Velvets also refusing to release any more live shows, we’d probably never hear them.
I’ll conclude with a quote from this interesting book review:
“When you look at the state of both bands at their founding moments in 1965-66, you find that the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead started out, in an odd way, as basically the same band. In fact, both bands started with the same name in 1965: the Warlocks. And both were quickly taken up by other cultural movements and artists from other genres to furnish ‘house bands’ for collective projects.
On the West Coast, Ken Kesey hired the Dead to provide music for his acid tests... The Palo Alto acid test, the first to involve a real stage, took place in December 1965… In New York, meanwhile, Warhol took up the Velvets as a vehicle for his Factory events and a featured role in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which had various incarnations between January 1966 and its first broad public invitation in April, each of which also involved some combination of Warhol’s dancing fools, slide-projector gels, light shows, silent films and chaos. (Warhol took first billing in all advertisements, above the Velvets, though presumably he just stood around and watched.)
Both bands’ music depended on a tight association with drugs – LSD for the Dead, heroin for the Velvets (plus amphetamines) – but the musicians drew fewer distinctions in their personal lives...
Each band’s early development was paid for by benefactors from the scenes of communal presentation: the Velvets had Warhol; the Dead had Owsley Stanley, supplier of LSD for the acid tests…
Like the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground started out as a platform for extremely long, wandering, repetitive live improvisations, appropriate to multimedia events…. The Velvets’ principals insist in interviews that they were far better as a live band than in anything captured on record… Morrison, Reed and Tucker all complained about the failure to capture their live work… The Dead cultivated a ‘taping’ culture of audiophiles who recorded each and every performance…and, at the far extreme, created a unique audience of people willing to listen to forty performances of ‘Dark Star’ to find the passages of improvisational transcendence in each… Imagine that there could have been an alternate world in which people would have listened to forty versions of ‘Sister Ray’ for similar moments of transcendence, or to thirty-minute improvisations like ‘Melody Laughter’…made up of feedback, guitar, organ and vocals from Nico. But the Velvets had few tapers...
Both bands originally imagined themselves as the ‘Warlocks’ essentially because each had a vision of enchantment, underlaid with darkness. (They both had to choose a different name because it turned out that a third band had already put out a record as the Warlocks.) Cale says that the ‘aim of the band on the whole was to hypnotise audiences so that their subconscious would take over… It was an attempt to control the unconscious with the hypnotic.’ This accounts for the drone, and the songs built on long vamps of two chords… ‘We thought that the solution lay in providing hard drugs for everyone,’ Cale said, but ‘there is already a very strong psychedelic element in sustained sound, which is what we had … so we thought that putting viola [drones] behind guitars and echo was one way of creating this enormous space … which was itself a psychedelic experience.’
While both groups initially aimed to hypnotise with their music, lyrically they were worlds apart.”