Over the years we’ve tinkered here and there with our syllabus for Writing New York, trying to fix little problems that have plagued us along the way.
One challenge I’d never expected when we planned this course originally is that the beloved unit I’d conceptualized as “from the Beats to the Punks” would run into a little roadblock: most of our students weren’t familiar (yet) with the music we assigned them to listen to: The Velvet Underground and Nico and Patti Smith’s Horses. We assign these albums in part to talk about what happens in the East Village from the late 60s to the mid 80s: a lot of folks who start out with ambitions to be poets — Tom Verlaine would fit in here too — wind up being rock stars instead. (When I lecture on this unit I also spend a lot of time on Highway 61 Revisited, but to this point we haven’t required them to listen to it in advance of lecture. That may change this year.) A related problem: many of our TAs haven’t really had prior experience with the Velvets or Patti, which means the discussions they lead on the album have been uneven at times.
What to do? How to prepare them in advance — beyond simply asking them to listen to a record many of them have never listened to before? Our attempted solution for the coming semester is to have them buy the 33 1/3 series’ volume devoted to The Velvet Underground and Nico, by Boston music scene veteran Joe Harvard. Like many titles in this brilliantly conceived series, Harvard’s volume is part personal essay, part criticism, part history. Plus it will take them through the album track by track once it provides adequate background. It should work well for us, I think, because it both contextualizes the Velvets in the world of the late-60s East Side scene and demonstrates how just about everything that followed, in terms of rock and roll at least, was authorized by the Velvets. (A related argument I like to make is that the Velvets were authorized in part by Highway 61, but that’s a story too complicated to get into here.)
From Harvard’s introductory section, in which he explains how he came to the Velvets rather late — in the late 1980s — after having been involved in Boston’s punk scene from 1977 on:
My musical life had, in fact, been thoroughly infused with, surrounded by and enriched because of the Velvet Underground. I just never knew it. Bowie, Iggy, the New York Dolls, most key Boston and New York underground bands–all had been so strongly influenced that discovering the Velvet Underground’s records was like meeting someone’s parents. Suddenly, a whole lot of things started to make sense. Little idiosyncrasies, unique mannerisms you find attractive in little Junior — here, their source is laid bare, revealed as hereditary after just a few minutes with Mom and Pop. Listening to the Velvet Underground I could hear bits and pieces of the aural landscape of my favorite records, elements of much-beloved bands who inhabited my world. Willie Alexander’s relentless EMI electric piano drone, the monotone vocal-meets-distortion-over-a-jungle-drum-beat of “Pablo Picasso,” the remorselessly unyielding metallic piano of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” screeching seagulls from Patti’s “Birdland” and the two chord trip around the world in Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner.” It was all there, and a hell of a whole lot more, on The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The other thing there, of course, is a whole set of inroads into Downtown cultural history in the late-60s.