Since the Velvet Underground were never much for historical reverence, it comes as a relief — and a kick — to hear the band playing fast and loose with their legacy on this reunion-concert album. Despite the mock (I trust) portentousness of the Roman numeral in the title, the Underground refuse to succumb to the burdens of expectation and reputation — the typical Second Coming syndrome — or to let this music ossify into myth.
Who cares if Lou Reed’s phrasing can’t match the methedrine rush of “White Light/White Heat,” John Cale blows a lyric on “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Sweet Jane” is practically tossed away — the musical charge is capable of bristling nerve ends and scorching synapses at every surge. Instead of embalming the corpus at these Paris concerts, offering themselves as the ultimate Velvets tribute band, the Underground blow the cobwebs off the skeleton and rattle those bones.
After all, anyone who wants definitive versions of most of this material can start with the four touchstone studio albums, each significantly different from the others. The first (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967) was, as much as anything else, a showcase for art-song chanteuse Nico; the second (White Light/White Heat, 1968) was the last with Cale, and both the third and fourth (The Velvet Underground, from 1969; Loaded, from 1970) were primarily vehicles in which Reed could expand the range of his songcraft. In addition, the Velvets in live performance have already been documented by a low-fi recording from their natural habitat at Max’s Kansas City (Live at Max’s Kansas City, 1972) and the more expansive 1969: Velvet Underground Live, which (though without Cale) ranks among the most revelatory concert albums ever done.
But as Reed sings, “those were different times.” Following a quarter-century’s hiatus, the reunited Velvets are less concerned with re-creating what was than with exploring what could have been and what might still be. For those of us who think that the band’s third album was their best, the reunion’s relentless version of “Some Kinda Love” shows how it could have been even better if Cale had been on hand; his piano intrusion pushes the tune toward Cecil Taylor territory after the guitars of Reed and Sterling Morrison have already turned the song inside out. Similarly, the obscure “Hey Mr. Rain” emerges as the albums show-stopping centerpiece, as the controlled chaos of Cale’s viola and Reed’s guitar approaches the intensity of the epochal “Sister Ray” (and almost compensates for the absence from MCMXCIII of that Velvets-defining number).
With the exception of Neil Young, there isn’t a rocker who understands as well as Reed does that stylistic extremes have more in common than either edge shares with a safer middle ground. The Velvets push the envelope at both ends, as the taste of the whip in “Venus in Furs” offsets the innocence of “Guess I’m Falling in Love,” and the nihilism of “Heroin” anticipates the redemption of “Pale Blue Eyes.” Reed’s streetwise eye for detail and ear for everyday poetry find common spirit — and frequent challenge — in Cale’s conservatory-trained experiments with dissonance, decibels and repetition, while the jittery precision of Maureen Tucker’s garage-band drumming is as crucial to the Velvets as Charlie Watts’ is to the Stones. After the professorial tone of Reed’s recent tours and the elegiac turn of his ’90s albums (including the Songs for Drella collaboration with Cale), the physical rush of this music has him sounding like a man possessed.
For all of the music’s spontaneous combustion, MCMXCIII sidesteps the key issue of where the Velvets go from here, of what a band that embodied so much experimentation might mean in the middle age of both its members and rock & roll. To the generation of U2 and R.E.M. — both steeped in VU influences — “Sweet Jane” is classic rock, “Heroin” is ’60s nostalgia. Inevitably, these four musicians have become different people as well, and it remains to be seen what common ground they share beyond these memories of a few years spent together. It’s encouraging that the album-closing “Coyote,” the one new Reed-Cale composition, could have fit just fine on that third Velvets album while sounding equally reflective of the maturity these writers have gained over the years.
Whether Live MCMXCIII is simply a compelling curiosity or the beginning of a new age, it reaffirms the Velvet Underground’s place in history — the same history that the urgency of this music does its best to deny. Though much has been made of Reed’s literary predilections, Cale’s avant-garde precociousness and the band’s involvement in the Warhol camp, this music never needed to justify itself by any extraneous standards of cultural legit imacy. Instead, the Velvets showed that rock could be art on its own terms. For all of the band’s seriousness of purpose, the opening track on Live MCMXCIII promises that “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” and the rest of the album delivers.