Back in September, when word leaked out that Loaded, the Velvet Underground’s fourth and final studio album was getting the deluxe reissue treatment. I emailed a record company contact to get the lowdown. But I forgot that Loaded was released on a different label than the previous three albums.
My contact Todd reminded me of this but suggested we keep in touch because Polydor/Universal was going to release something I might find interesting.
This was a late Friday afternoon, I wasn’t sure what coast Todd was working from but thought I’d give him a call. He said that they would be doing a project on the Matrix tapes, but couldn’t offer many details at that point. But like his email said, “Keep in touch.”
Hmm — Matrix? — the jazz-fusion group from Appleton, with ties to Lawrence University? Maybe Todd thought the Wisconsin connection would make sense.
Then a bomb went off in my head. The Matrix was a San Francisco club where the Velvet Underground played in 1969.
After the band had called it a day, Paul Nelson at Mercury Records released a live transcendent, face-melting two LP set comprised of material recorded at the Matrix and also a club in Dallas called the End of Cole Avenue. For years rumors circulated the Matrix tapes had been recorded on multi track and were even better than what had been released in 1969.
The Complete Matrix Tapes captures the Velvets’ performances on November 26 and 27, 1969. The 26th was the day President Nixon signed a bill authorizing the Vietnam draft lottery and the 27th was Thanksgiving. By this point the band had become road dogs and long since shed the novelty tag of “Andy Warhol’s group,” that initially saddled them.
It is 1984 and my roommate Norm just bought used copies of Loaded and Live 1969 at a store that specializes in comic books. The owner has a small rack of his own LP’s he is unloading. The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is half a continent away from San Francisco, but the Velvets live album was our main soundtrack. It sustained us then. Today it still works wonders.
The previously unreleased Matrix material is a near-revelation. Like a jazz band that reinterprets its repertoire each night of a residency, the Velvet Underground are playful, experimenting with the resilience of their material. “Sister Ray” clocks in at just under 37 minutes. Bassist Doug Yule recalls Lou Reed adding new verses to songs or shifting perspective. “New Age,” Reed said, “had three different iterations – the same song looked at in a different way.”
In the early 1980’s the late Robert Quine played guitar with Reed, but in 1969 he was at the November 27th Matrix show, recording it on cassette for his own reference. “People have asked me. ‘Were you aware that you were preserving something historic?’ I definitely was.”
It is March 13, 1996 and my buddy Mickey and I are in Austin, Texas where Lou Reed is playing his first concert in Texas since perhaps 1974. The day after the show we chat with David Fricke who wrote the liner notes for the Velvet Underground reissues. On the drive down we had located the building that once housed The End of Cole niteclub. We had it bad.
Like any great works of art, the live Velvet Underground continues to reveal itself. On the The Complete Matrix Tapes “White Light/White Heat” sounds like Chuck Berry in the Twilight Zone, it simply levitates. Modern music still has not caught up. We hear the soul of the band, Sterling Morrison’s jagged riffing on “Venus in Furs,” the power of drummer Maureen Tucker’s tribal thump on “Ocean,” and vocal innocence on “After Hours.”
We feel the taut R&B punch of “There She Goes,” (with an intro riff swiped from Marvin Gaye) and throughout the performances Doug Yule’s bass runs and organ parts now find a better place in the mix. The manic energy of Reed and Morrison’s amphetamine guitar strumming is contrasted with the small club intimacy of the band’s all but overlooked lyricism.
It’s one hundred years from today, and everyone who is reading this is dead. I’m dead. You’re dead. And some kid is taking a music course in junior high and maybe he’s listening to the Velvet Underground because he’s got a to write a report on classical rock & roll, and I wonder what that kid is thinking.
Elliott Murphy – 1969.