Most of what you read concerning the Velvet Underground will inevitably note how woefully under-appreciated the group were during its brief lifespan. But the VU were superstars — and not just in the Warholian sense — in certain parts of the U.S. Especially Boston. This quintessential New York City band made Beantown its home away from home for much of the late 60s, playing dozens of sold-out shows at the Boston Tea Party to a devoted cult of followers.
What kind of people attended these shows? Let’s hand the mic to Jonathan Richman, Velvets superfan, who was often in the audience at the Tea Party: “[T]he crowd was FUN! Wall-to-wall hippies, bikers, Harvard students, Northeastern students, fashion models, professors, drug dealers, art teachers, groupies, MIT students, photographers, local thugs, local disc jockeys, skinny-bohemian-artist girls, visiting dignitaries from the New York art scene, and the royalty of the Boston music set — the local singers and guitar-players in their mod suits strolling around with their beautiful girlfriends.”
The bootleg of the January 10 show, recorded 50 years ago next week, is probably the best fidelity of the various audience tapes made in 1969 at the Boston Tea Party. Not to say it’s fantastic — it’s still a half-century-old audience tape — but crank it up and it’s highly listenable. “This January 10 1969 show was the way I liked them: kinda rough and creepy,” Richman says.
The performance is also downright sublime. The Velvets shift effortlessly from the lowdown noise boogie of “Run Run Run” and “White Light/White Heat” to hymn-like renditions of “I’m Set Free” and “Candy Says.” While an instrumental version of “Move Right In” appeared on the Another View odds-n-sods compilation, the one that appears here is the definitive reading, with Moe Tucker raving up a storm. Naturally, the megalithic “Sister Ray” closes out the set, offering a twisted, 21-minute trip through parts unknown. Doug Yule was just a few months into his time with the VU, but he sounds right at home on “Ray,” coaxing wicked sounds from his keyboard, bravely battling Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison’s insanely blown out guitars. Glorious.
Also on the bill during the VU’s early January Tea Party run were the radical Lower East Side folkies the Holy Modal Rounders. Interestingly, the Rounders’ Peter Stampfel recalls the Velvets playing “Rock & Roll” at one of the shows (sadly not the one taped) — which would’ve been one of the very first performances of this future classic. “I [had] never heard the song before, and besides knocking me out, I could understand all the words of the song,” Stampfel told VU scholar Richie Unterberger in White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By Day. “It was really great to have a new loud rock ’n’ roll song and have all the words. I was, like, doubly delighted by that.” Alas, there doesn’t seem to be a tape of the Rounders’ set …
Let’s give the last word to Richman: “[S]ometimes you just plain couldn’t figure out where on the stage those strange sounds and harmonics were coming from, because of the eerie calm with which they played and improvised in front of you, and because every time they’d come to town they’d introduce at least one new song that would, for better or worse, sound like nothing else that had gone before in rock music.”
1. Heroin 2. Move Right In 3. I’m Set Free 4. Run Run Run 5. I’m Waiting For The Man 6. What Goes On 7. I Can’t Stand It 8. Candy Says 9. Beginning To See The Light 10. White Light/White Heat 11. Pale Blue Eyes 12. Sister Ray