Brian Eno reportedly once said only 10,000 people originally bought The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico—but that each of them started a band. Since then, 10,000 music critics have parroted Eno’s quote, rendering it a hollow cliché. Rob Jovanovic—a music writer who’s published books on Big Star, Pavement, George Michael, and more—counts as No. 10,001. Seeing The Light: Inside The Velvet Underground (first published in the UK two years ago as The Velvet Underground: Peeled) is Jovanovic’s biography of VU, a band whose influence on rock is vast and undeniable. In fact, Jovanovic casually asserts, VU is more influential than The Beatles. His proof? A 2000 BBC listeners’ poll. Oh, and a laundry list of the same dozen bands that are always trotted out when someone wants to prove something about VU: Nirvana, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, etc. Armed with such ironclad data, he goes on to make other hyperbolic declarations, including the corollary idea that The Velvet Underground & Nico is the most influential rock album of all time. The main problem isn’t Jovanovic’s claim—his argument has been made by others, sometimes even convincingly. It’s that Seeing The Light substitutes overstatement and oversimplification for the qualities it glaringly lacks: authority, access, and depth.
Eight years in the making, Seeing The Light features new interviews with just two VU alumni. Lou Reed and John Cale? No such luck. Instead, Jovanovic relies disproportionately on the testimonies of drummer Moe Tucker (who played on the band’s first three albums, and was mistakenly credited on the fourth, Loaded), and multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule (who played on the band’s last three albums, including its maligned 1973 swansong Squeeze, which features no original members). That’s it. And Jovanovic doesn’t even get much meat from them: They reiterate well-established factoids and paint themselves in a noble light. The vast majority of the book—including all the quotes from Reed and Cale, VU’s leading creative voices—is cobbled together from secondhand sources. Of course, music bios often triumph under similar conditions. But Jovanovic offers no fresh analysis or insight into one of rock’s most vital and timeless oeuvres.
The music gets the shortest shrift in Jovanovic’s book. Amid half-formed character sketches of Reed, Cale, doomed chanteuse Nico, their patron Andy Warhol, and their manager Steve Sesnick, Seeing The Light is rife with colorless, perfunctory rundowns of the group’s epochal albums from the late ’60s and early ’70s. But it isn’t just VU’s nervy, exhilarating, rule-shattering rock that gets boiled down into dull descriptors—it’s the music’s context. William S. Burroughs, a looming influence on Reed, is dismissed in a single sentence as a guy who wrote about “heroin addicts, talking typewriters, time travel, and viruses.” The Fluxus art movement is summed up basically as that weird piano-dropping thing. But when the lyrics to signature VU epics like “Sister Ray” are waved away as “crazy stories of counterculture characters,” it’s clear that Jovanovic can’t be bothered to dig underneath the songs’ admittedly thorny skins, any more than he’s tried to plumb the tangled depths of their creators.
One of the book’s few saving graces—that is, besides its competent, workmanlike clarity—is its extended coverage of VU’s brief reunion in the ’90s. After decades of acrimonious estrangement, the classic lineup, minus the late Nico, reunited to tour, record a live album, and bask in the worship of their 10,000 musical children (and the resulting grandchildren). Then again, that portion of the story is exciting mostly because it hasn’t been rehashed to death the way the rest of it has, not because Jovanovic is any better at penetrating the web of relationships, egos, drug abuse, and artistic courage that define VU. Few chronicles of such a passionate subject have ever been rendered less passionately—including an embarrassingly corny epilogue in which VU’s popularity within the Czech dissident movement in the ’60s is blurred into a soggy saga of cheap sentiment and empty superlatives. Rather than being, as its title boasts, a look inside The Velvet Underground, Seeing The Light is a murky, underexposed snapshot of its most easily visible surfaces.