Now, here’s a book that delivers what it promises. White Light/White Heat is truly a day-by-day accounting of the band that was part of the root system for everything from glam to grunge. The funny thing is, if everyone who claimed (and still claims) to have been influenced by the Velvet Underground bought an album, their record sales would’ve been three times greater than they were … but no matter. The Velvets were too cool for this world and couldn’t have lasted any longer than they did.
Author Richie Unterberger lays the groundwork for his incredibly detailed story with a short intro that gives us some bio background on the five original Velvets (John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Nico, and Lou Reed), followed by a “1958-64” section that hits the highlights of the individual paths that led to the group’s formation. Once we reach 1965 (and the actual formation of the group), the magnifying glass comes out and we begin living life with the Velvets. On stage, backstage, in the studio, hanging out with Andy Warhol … it’s all here.
Although the amount of research this required is staggering, Unterberger’s greatest feat is making the story readable – and interesting. The trap that such minute detailing usually falls into is having the facts all there, but no emotion, no story. You might know everything that happened on such-and-such a day, but you don’t know why it happened or, more importantly, how the parties involved felt and thought about what was going on. Unterberger has dug deeper than the average chronicler, offering quotes and observations that fill out the story and turn it into more than just an overblown journal of events.
Along with a well-told tale, White Light/White Heat is chock full of vintage show posters and black and white photos that are just as scary/beautiful as the music of the Velvets themselves.
Who should read White Light/White Heat? Well, beyond Velvetheads (whose numbers still grow, even though the original band imploded with Reed’s departure in 1970), fans of everything from Bowie to Nirvana to [fill in the name of your favorite modern-day grunge/punk/art rocker] will no doubt find something that’ll cause them to slap their foreheads and say, “Oh – that’s where that came from …” Richie Unterberger has done a great job of offering up a big helping of rock history in an easily-consumed presentation.