The Quine Tapes

How many times have I had this same experience? I learn about some piece of Velvet Underground product of which I was previously unaware. Immediately I want it, but I resist, telling myself, “The VU stopped recording (x) years ago, there is no new thing under the sun, this is simply the nefarious forces of commerce attempting to extract more dollars from you.” Time passes, little by little my resolve weakens, finally I break down and get it, and immediately I have buyer’s remorse, sure that disappointment is to follow. Then I actually listen to the thing, and I am reminded: the VU were gods, their dross was other people’s gold, they could do no wrong, to think otherwise is the worst sort of heresy.

The Quine Tapes are live performances from 1969, almost all of them in San Francisco, recorded by future Voidoids guitarist and Lou Reed collaborator Robert Quine. Quine used an early portable cassette rig, so the sound quality is less than stellar. It helps to imagine that the Velvets are playing in town but you haven’t be able to get a ticket, and thus must stand outside the club in a light rain, angling your head to hear over the street sounds and traffic noise.

Ironically, many of the shows these tapes are drawn from were very sparsely attended. “There were a few nights,” says Quine in the liner notes, “when they started the first set with only four or five people in the club.” This has led me to a possible future business idea: Once time travel is invented, brokers can sell tickets to underattended shows by historic bands. I would pay good money to see the Velvets in S.F. in 1969, though of course I would prefer to be comped, in view of my having come up with the idea and all. (There are a few wrinkles to be worked out here, temporal paradoxes and butterfly effects and whatnot, but I leave all that up to the technicians; I’m an idea guy.)

Anyway, back to the music — the material here is drawn pretty equally from all the phases of the Velvets’ career, from “Sunday Morning,” “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” to “Rock and Roll” and “New Age” (no “Sweet Jane,” interestingly; perhaps it had yet to be written at this juncture?). There are also songs that would not see the light of day until the release of VU many years later, and a few that never were officially recorded so far as I know (“Too Much,” “Over You,” “Follow the Leader,” and “Ride into the Sun”).

Of special note here are the versions of “Sister Ray,” of which there are three, totaling 80 minutes between them (though one technically is a medley with “Foggy Notion”). They are as different from each other as they are from the original — probably improvised around the basic structure depending on how much time was left in the show and that night’s drug mixture and quality — with the longest clocking in at 38 minutes, making for exciting but exhausting listening. One of these days I’m going to listen to all three back-to-back-to-back, but I want to make sure this is attempted under controlled, medically safe conditions. I’ll report back when it’s done.