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The Velvet Underground never did do anything the way it should have. During the band’s life span—roughly 1965 to 1970—the Velvets ignored hippiedom and made dark, dank records that dwelled on drugs, sadomasochism, the giddiness of ( infatuation, and other addictions. The group’s highest-profile members, Lou Reed and John Cale, have gone on to erratic but always fascinating solo careers, feuding all the way and spewing bile at each other. This summer, the original lineup suddenly announced it would reunite for its first full concerts in a quarter century—but, in typically unpredictable fashion, the group skipped America, where its members are widely acknowledged as founding fathers of alternative rock, in favor of a European tour.
With the two-CD document of the Parisian stop on that tour, Live MCMXCIII (Sire/Warner Bros.), the band confounds expectations yet again. Most rock reunion albums are sad affairs—the sound of over-the-hill musicians trying desperately to re-create the dizzying creative peaks of their youth. Not Live MCMXCIII. As grim, determined, and tough-minded as the Velvets’ original work, it is that rare, and wonderful, beast: a nostalgia-free return to old glories that both recaptures and expands on the tension and beauty that made the Velvet Underground so monumental so long ago.
Technically, there are no surprises on Live MCMXCIII. The group plays its best-known songs (don’t count on hearing any Reed solo hits) plus one newly written tune, ”Coyote,” that has the bumpy languor of its earlier ”Pale Blue Eyes.” What is surprising is the musicianship itself. On versions of rushed, blurry rockers like ”White Light/White Heat” and ”I Heard Her Call My Name,” the group easily slips back into the raw, ravaged intensity of its prime: that mesh of Reed’s cheese-grater guitar, Cale’s salty keyboard or viola lines, Maureen Tucker’s proto-riot-grrrl drumming, and Sterling Morrison’s no- nonsense guitar and bass. Even after all these years and countless imitators, nothing matches the duel between Cale’s viola and Reed’s guitar as they square off against each other for 15 cacophonous minutes in ”Hey Mr. Rain.” The album is the sound of four people rediscovering not only their old songs but the exciting feel of playing those tunes together.
The Velvets may have left a legacy as noise rockers, so Live MCMXCIII serves as a reminder—if any is still needed—that Reed wrote a stunning variety of songs for the band. From a tender, introspective moment like ”I’ll Be Your Mirror” to the gothic ”All Tomorrow’s Parties” (which now sounds like an elegy for the band’s late co-lead singer, Nico) to a rabble-rouser like ”I Can’t Stand It,” Reed’s songs sound timeless—maybe because they weren’t teenage to begin with. The S&M tale ”Venus in Furs” is even more chilling to hear today, as Reed sings about those ”shiny boots of leather” in a weathered-addict croak. And speaking of the original Krusty the Clown, Reed sounds revived, too. On recent solo tours, his renditions of ”Sweet Jane” and ”Rock ‘N’ Roll” have been rote, but here he sounds spurred on by his old friends, biting down harder on the lyrics and guitar chords.
Live MCMXCIII has its warm moments—Reed harmonizing with the shy Tucker on one of her showcases, ”I’m Sticking With You,” for one—but the Velvets were never ones for cheap sentiment. If anything, the world has grown grimmer since the band’s heyday, so it feels perfectly right for them to return, albeit briefly. Combine that fact with the influence of their sound, which was once derided for being too crude, and Lou and the gang must be having the last gruesome chuckle. The Parisian crowd that stomps and cheers its way through the album—even during the quieter sections, like the introduction of ”Heroin”—provides all the vindication in the world. The Velvets—long may they ruin. A