Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Rivals in Art 2 - Frank Zappa and Lou Reed

I didn't get into The Velvet Underground until four years after their debut album, "The Velvet Underground and Nico." It wasn't until David Bowie released his 1971 album, "Hunky Dory," upon which he recorded "Queen Bitch" that my interest in The Velvets was piqued. On the liner note's Bowie wrote this about the song - 'Some VU White Light returned with thanks." I had no idea what it meant nor indeed what VU was. I soon found out.

Oddly, Bowie was also a fan of The Mothers.

I first read about "Freak Out" in the pages of a Marvel comic. It was an ad that depicted the cover which was enough to startle small grandmothers and large infants. It was 1966. I was into The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and The Monkees. The latter band was best not mentioned in front of older boys who'd snigger. I had never seen the like of the men who adorned the sleeve especially the one in the fur coat with the menacing hair and weird facial fuzz. He looked threatening. This was cool. The band was The Mothers of Invention. The scary man was Frank Zappa.

"[Zappa] is the single most untalented person I heard in my life, he's a two-bit, pretentious academic, and he can't play rock 'n' roll, because he's a loser. And that's why he dresses funny. He's not happy with himself and I think he's right." - Lou Reed

Frank Zappa's satirical humour following The Mother's supporting The Velvets at a gig where Zappa said, very tongue in cheek, "These guys really suck," proved to be the start of an ugly friendship. Further animosity was added after record label Verve, who both bands were signed to, delayed the release of "The Velvet Underground and Nico" as they wanted to promote Zappa's "Freak Out." The album had been ready since early 1966 but wasn't released until the following year whereas The Mothers debut was given pride of place and was released nearly a year before. 

As the 'summer of love' threw its clothes off and people danced naked high on a variety of drugs, so relations between the two bands went from bad to worse.  In New York, 1967 at the Garrick Theatre, where the Mother's were due to perform so down the road at a local venue were "The Velvets." Zappa thought he'd drop in. He wasn't alone though as the rest of his group also went along. On centre stage was Nico singing in her ice-queen pseudo-Weimarish fashion. Her detached manner, the way in which she seemed removed from the songs she sang were much appreciated by the fans. She sang the songs accompanied only by an organ. When she finished, and no sooner off the stage than Frank Zappa got up, walked on and sat behind her organ on the seat she had been seated at and began what is remembered as being one of the greatest moments of Rock 'n Roll theatre. Screaming at the top of his lungs he performed a biting caricature of her performance. From his mouth came a litany of vegetables, from carrots to cabbages, broccoli to broad beans, all over the dirge-like sound of the organ. After only a minute he stopped and walked off. It was a brilliant bit of satire.

For two such great groups fronted by two such great and gifted men, this all seems so silly now. They had such a lot in common. Neither were fans of the industry they were part of finding it shallow and cheap. Both wrote songs in a similar vein even it the sounds they made were poles apart. Both were incredibly original and both added greatly to music.

After Frank Zappa's death in 1993, a year after in fact, Lou Reed was called upon by Frank's widow Gail to make a speech at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame who wanted Zappa inducted. What he said is one of the most moving speeches I have heard.

"It's very rare in life to know someone who affects things, changes in a positive way, Frank Zappa was such a person, and of the many regrets I have in life, not knowing him better is one of them. Frank was a force for reason and honesty in a business deficient in those areas. As we reward some with money for the amusement they supply to the cultural masses, I think the induction of Frank Zappa in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame distinguishes the Hall as well as the inductee."

Now, of course, Lou Reed has also passed away. All things must pass but must the loss of them be so hard to bear? At least I had the privilege and pleasure to have lived through such times, times that gave us such talented men

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog