"We're your local Velvet Underground": This season's one essential box set is the "Complete Matrix Tapes"

Six CDs of Lou Reed and the Velvets, at an old pizza place in 1969, captures a masterful band, playing to no one

Published December 12, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

It is December, the season for deluxe CD box sets. I’ve been making my way through some interesting ones: the Ork Records box with essential rare singles (and a superb accompanying book) from New York’s punk era; the Velvet Underground’s six-disc expanded edition of "Loaded"' and Bob Dylan’s "Bootleg Series Volume 12," which collects alternate studio takes and demos that Dylan recorded in 1965 and 1966. It is available either as six discs, 18 discs (!), or a two-CD package that contains the highlights. To me the highlights are already overkill; these alternate takes and rehearsals are interesting enough if you like to hear versions that didn’t quite work, but they are not truly compelling. The one box I find myself listening to over and over is "The Complete Matrix Tapes" by the Velvet Underground.

In 1978, a sophomore in high school, I bought my first V.U. record, the double LP "1969: The Velvet Underground Live" (hereafter "Live ’69"), at Disc-O-Mat in Grand Central Station. At that point the band’s first three albums were out of print; the only records available were their fourth album ("Loaded"), "Live ’69", and "Live at Max’s Kansas City" — which is an interesting document of their final show with Lou Reed, but sounds pretty dreadful (it was recorded by Brigid Polk, in mono, on a portable cassette player, and suffers greatly from the absence of the band’s drummer, Maureen Tucker, who was pregnant and on a hiatus from the band).

I holed up in my bedroom, fired up my Onkyo receiver and Acoustic Research turntable and listened while reading the liner notes by a young Elliott Murphy:

It’s a hundred years from today and everyone who’s 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 . . . I hope someday they’ll teach rock and roll in history classes. I hope that the music on this album is one of the more important elements of that class.

Forty-four years removed from the date he wrote those notes, it seems Murphy was on to something. This particular live album has been studied and greatly expanded since, culminating this year with the release of "The Complete Matrix Tapes."

"Live ’69" was my favorite record for quiet Friday afternoons with my girlfriend (OK, we also listened to Gloria Gaynor and the Bee Gees and “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel). My girlfriend was two years older than me, had hung out at Studio 54, and had actually met Lou Reed at Max’s Kansas City. This confused me, because in my ignorance I didn’t understand why she would have been in Kansas at all.

This was the most romantic record I owned, from “Lisa Says” to “I’ll Be Your Mirror” to “Over You” to “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together.” Reed’s vocal phrasing is quietly sexy and so are the tempos. The Velvets demonstrate so well the power of repetition. Overall there is a great balance to the mix; it might be a just little murky but it feels right. Moe Tucker often plays with a mallet in one hand and a stick in the other and goes easy on the cymbals, leaving more space for vocals and guitars. And one of the great pleasures of this record is the tasteful lead and rhythm guitar playing of Sterling Morrison.

This double album contained performances from October and November 1969, live on stage at two clubs: The End of Cole Avenue in Dallas, and The Matrix in San Francisco. The Matrix was a former pizza shop, converted into a nightclub by Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane, and the Velvets played a series of shows there in November. The band’s lineup was their second classic one, following the departure of John Cale, who was replaced by Doug Yule after the release of "White Light White Heat." The result was a very different band, and by late 1969, certainly a groovier live band. Cale is undeniably a brilliant musician, arranger and producer, and when he goes a lot of the avant-noise experimentation goes with him. But without him the band records a quiet masterpiece, their closet-like third album, featuring delicate, muted guitars (plus some not-so-quiet ones) and pretty vocal harmonies for which some credit must go to Yule.

By late 1969 the band, whose first three albums sold poorly, had been dropped by their label Verve, and had not yet been signed to Atlantic. Between contracts is the smartest time to record a live album, because in those weeks or months you actually own your own performances — which otherwise belong to the label that signed you. In the early 1990s two bootlegs (one from each night) from Dallas 1969 expanded on the Texas recordings heard in "Live ’69" (these are now officially available as "Live at the End of Cole Avenue"). And 2001 saw the release of the "Quine Tapes," exciting recordings made with a cassette player by Robert Quine (later mind-blowing lead guitarist with Richard Hell and then Lou Reed), who had attended V.U. club shows in St. Louis and San Francisco.

But while Robert Quine was recording the Matrix shows to a portable cassette deck, Peter Abram, co-owner of the club, was simultaneously capturing four-track recordings of the band’s performances. These are the only multi-track live recordings of the band in existence. Abram set up separate channels for vocals, bass/drums, and electric guitars running into an Akai half-inch tape reel-to-reel tape machine running at a high-quality 15 inches per second. After the gigs were done, he had some quick mixes made of about 40 minutes of material, material which some five years later made it onto "Live ’69," apparently without Abram being informed. But for years there have been rumors that a there was a treasure trove of further recordings in Abram’s possession, just waiting to be released.

Last year two discs of this material, newly mixed down from the four-track, were released inside the six-disc deluxe edition of the Velvet Underground’s third album. This year, on "The Complete Matrix Tapes," we finally get to hear all the extant Matrix recordings, some four hours worth, in new, cleaner mixes with less noise and better separation.

Sterling Morrison said somewhere that these live shows represent the band as they sounded in small clubs, but not in bigger rooms where they would play louder and with more abandon. And we know that their early shows (as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable) were sometimes described as a sonic and visual assault on the senses. What is startling about these Matrix gigs is just how empty the club sounds at the end of each song. The low turnout might be on account of these shows taking place on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and on Thanksgiving itself — but you get the sense that this band did not have a big following.

On the exact November nights that the unsigned Velvets are playing a renovated pizza shop in San Francisco, the Rolling Stones are across the country at Madison Square Garden and Baltimore’s Civic Center, recording what will become "Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!" Some critics and fans will tell you that is one of the great live rock albums, but to my ears it is not particularly exciting. OK, it’s cool to hear their wonderful new guitarist Mick Taylor on his first tour, but the truth is that the final "Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out" contains a numerous vocal and guitar overdubs, recorded months later at Olympic Studios in London, so you are left wondering what is live and what isn’t. And the sound of the album is somehow enervating rather than alive. Like many live arena-rock albums, the drum sound is literally neither here nor there. A good drum sound is at least partially a function of the room it is recorded in -- and though this is Madison Square Garden, what we hear is the sound of a band spread out on a dead stage. At any rate, the performances themselves do not improve on studio versions of “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

If it was Lou Reed’s fate to be playing in small clubs that year, we are all lucky to possess these well-balanced recordings of an ensemble playing on a small stage, watching and listening to each other. From the opening seconds of this set you feel like you are standing right there, in the best possible spot in the room.

Disc 1 opens with a short introduction from Reed: “Good evening, we’re your local Velvet Underground. . . We’re particularly glad on a serious day like today that people could find a little time to come out and have some fun with some rock and roll. Because these are serious times.”

A glance through that week’s New York Times headlines confirms that it was a heavy week (though surely no worse than weeks in October and November of 2015). On Tuesday the Apollo crew splashed down in the Pacific; this was the good news. That same day Lieutenant William Calley was officially charged with the premeditated killing of at least 109 men, women and children at Songmy (the My Lai or Pinkville Massacre). John Lennon announced that he would return his OBE, partially in protest of British support the Vietnam War. President Nixon made a couple of important announcements himself: 1) the U.S. would not engage in germ warfare but could still use chemical weapons for “defensive purposes” and as a defoliant, and 2) he was introducing a draft lottery for the war in Vietnam, to be implemented next week. Perhaps this is what Reed is referring to.

And then he introduces “I’m Waiting for My Man”: “This is a song that was written under the influence of dreams and it’s about one man’s journey from uptown to downtown.” This unhurried performance of the song approaches 12 minutes in length, and features rambling new lyrics that are not on their first album. That original recording, with John Cale’s trademark unrelenting eighth-note on piano, is much quicker; it is downright anxious. Now, with the piano part removed, it almost sounds as if the band is playing on heroin, instead of nervously waiting to score.

Next up is “What Goes On,” in an outstanding version that is already part of my beloved double album, but presented here with less room sound and less tape hiss. I have always loved this one, so different from the studio take but at least as compelling, a hypnotic nine minutes that feature both Lou and Sterling on rhythm guitars while Doug Yule takes the solo on organ. And at the end of these nine minutes, a polite smattering of applause; maybe there are 15 people in attendance.

With two sets each night, the box contains multiple takes of songs, sometimes four each (“Heroin” and “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together”). As they’ve been playing shows all year long, everyone is playing their best and they seem to know the songs inside out (despite the V.U. legend that they only ever practiced the beginning and end of the songs, and improvised the rest). Lou Reed is singing with attitude and sometimes fire (particularly on “I’m Set Free”); his phrasing is playful but dead-on.

There is a lot of music here. Highlights include a rousing and never-before-heard version of “Sweet Jane” at its original slow tempo, with Reed a singing couple of alternate verses that he later abandoned; the seldom-played “Venus in Furs”; three beautiful takes of “Some Kinda Love” and three of “Over You,” one of them markedly slower. As a band you are always searching for the perfect tempo but this illustrates that there is more than one way to play the song well. There are improved mixes of the "Live ’69" performances of “Sweet Jane,” “Rock N’ Roll,” “Lisa Says” and “New Age.” “Rock ’N’ Roll” rivals the studio version in its power. “New Age” is sung here by Reed (whereas Doug Yule takes the vocal when they later come to record "Loaded"). The new mix brings out drum fills I have never noticed, and the build-up to the final chorus is sublime, the Velvet Underground at their best. Disc 3 contains a 36-minute version of “Sister Ray”; there are other bootleg performances of this out there but nothing that sounds nearly this good.

And lastly there are some enjoyable introductions from Reed, like the one for “I Can’t Stand it Any More” which is he says is a song about the sorrows of the contemporary world. He jokes about his years at college in Syracuse: “I passed with honors in Kierkegaard. . . After that communism was the only answer for me, I thought. And if you can’t be a communist and make money, you have to be a rock and roll singer.”

By Dean Wareham

Dean Wareham fronted Luna and Galaxie 500, and currently plays with Dean & Britta. His most recent release is the album "Dean Wareham." He is the author of the memoir "Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance."

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Bob Dylan Dean Wareham Lou Reed Music Rolling Stones The Complete Matrix Tapes Velvet Underground