The Velvet Underground’s importance can probably not be overstated. Even more significant than Brian Eno’s assertion that everyone who ever bought a VU record started a band, the seminal New York band’s noisy brew sewed the seeds for glam, punk, garage and every variation in between. You would be hard pressed to find an act more influential, aside from perhaps The Beatles or Elvis, or for that matter, more worthy of such esteem.
In completely opposite proportion to The Velvet Underground’s significance is the amount of books documenting the band’s time together. Few writers have tackled the band’s volatile career, while it seems like every music journalist has at one time given his two cents on Presley and/or the Fab Four. Perhaps it is the inherently prickly nature of the subject matter (frontman Lou Reed has long had a reputation as being difficult) or simply the lack of readily available sources of information, but you can count the number of volumes on the group on one hand.
Rob Jovanovic, who has written biographies of Kate Bush, REM and Beck, among others, has produced what may be the most accessible history of the band with Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground. Essentially an updating of his 2010 book, The Velvet Underground Peeled, which was released only in Britian, Seeing the Light is fortified by new interviews with members Doug Yule and Moe Tucker, as well as Marsha Morrison, guitarist Sterling Morrison’s widow.
With their initial ties to Andy Warhol, who managed the band and “produced” their first album, The Velvet Underground had plenty of notoriety in their early years. However, the band was an antithesis to all that was groovy in the ’60s. Their subject matter and sound was as dark and chaotic as their New York environ, expressing a more realistic impression of the times than their hippy counterparts’ Summer of Love. Even when they parted ways with Warhol and founding member John Cale and lightened their sound, the band still created records that held as much artistic and literary value as pop music cache.
Jovanovic does an ample job of exploring each iteration of the group. While his resourced quotes don’t seem to always jibe with the main thrust of his argument, his documentation is astute enough to be worthwhile. Similarly, a good editor could have made the difference between the book being a consolation prize for the lack of suitable sources and a definitive annal in the rock canon. Indeed, Seeing the Light seems almost like the abridged version of some greater unpublished work. As it is, though, it provides enough information and insight to gain a proper appreciation of this great band.