With the October death of Lou Reed - Velvet Underground leader, influential solo artist - rock lost one of its most adventurous souls. It's Lou Reed's time, as it never was while he lived, and that of the Velvet Underground, as it never was while members were, so briefly, together.
They are the subject of books (Mick Wall's Lou Reed: The Life); a compilation of the band's primitive best (the music label Sundazed gives us Velvet Underground); and an extravagant box focusing on the 1968 album White Light/White Heat, complete with live rarities.
Most strange of all strange things, a Velvet Underground cover band, led by actor and kazooist Macaulay Culkin - yes, the Home Alone guy - will bring its rather sunshiny version of the Velvets to PhilaMOCA (Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art) on Saturday.
The band's name? Pizza Underground. OK. . . .
"The Velvets made it possible for rock lyrics to be about anything," says Bill Bentley, the Vanguard label A&R chief, who was Reed's one-time publicist and confidant. "They wiped the slate clean and brought the spirit of hard novelists, from Raymond Chandler to William Burroughs, to music. Then, Reed and John Cale's instrumental inventiveness expanded what bands could sound like. That opened the door to the revolution."
Philadelphia-born Rolling Stone scribe David Fricke penned notes for the Sundazed set and the White Light box. "Writing about the Velvets - liner notes, my other journalism - is a passion and a responsibility," he says. "Their albums were vital to my rock-and-roll adolescence, as important as my Stones, Dylan, and Yardbirds records - a long, deep window into extremes of expression in guitars, words, and art. I never run out of discoveries."
In Fricke's final meeting with Reed, in August, the pair relived the good-old-bad-old days. "We talked about how VU's formative experiences performing improvised sound tracks to experimental films, in 1965 and '66, was pivotal to the violent, spontaneous dynamics on White Light, especially on 'Sister Ray,' " says Fricke.
"White Light captured VU's live sonics with more feedback, pounding, and, let's face it," Bentley says, laughing, "the influence of massive amounts of amphetamine."
For Reed, his work as a Velvet and as a soloist were but different books of the same epic bible. "The Reed in 'Heroin' was the same inside Metal Machine Music," notes Fricke. Bentley seconds the emotion. "Lou believed in the total freedom of expression to facilitate the path forward."
That path forward has included imitators and acolytes whose monotone delivery, hypnotic rhythms, and lyrics stem from VU - including David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Nirvana. Brian Eno joked that 100 people bought the first Velvets album, but that each of those people went on to start great bands.
"The Velvets are one of my writing's biggest influences and its . . . attitude," says Adam Weiner of Philly garage band Low Cut Connie. The musicians recently worked VU's "Rock & Roll" into a live tribute in December (bit.ly/1dvDja2), and they dedicate a song to Reed - "Little Queen of New Orleans," about a trans streetwalker - on their forthcoming LP. "It's romantic, seedy, dark, and human," says Weiner, "in a way I couldn't have pulled off without Lou's voice in the back of my mind."
We return now to Pizza Underground, a project of Culkin and his pals. In the silliest fashion, the Pizzas have stripped Reed's songs of heartbreak and abuse and transformed them into pizza paeans, with Reed's music behind their tales of mozzarella and tomato paste.
Deenah Vollmer, "pizza box" percussionist, says PU - the only time we will use that abbreviation - started as a joke in 2012. "But we believe jokes are windows into truth, like pizza can literally create windows with grease." She's not certain what cover came first, but it had the word slice in it. "We soon realized you can replace most any word with slice or cheese."
Glockenspiel player Phoebe Kreutz goes further: "We view it more as turning the lyrics back to pizza-themed ideas. We assume that the Velvets was originally writing about pizza, but got pressured into making the songs 'sexier' by the standards of their day."
Is rejiggering Reed's songs blasphemous? "It's sacrilege," says Weiner of Low Cut Connie. But others who value VU see it differently. "Lou's songs are sturdy enough to withstand parody," Fricke says, laughing it off. "Personally, my idea of a Pizza Underground is picking up a couple of slices after work and dining at home with VU's Loaded on the stereo."
Reed's pal Bentley points to VU's future-forward attitude at all costs. "If you believe in the lesson of the Velvets, there are no wrong ways to do things," says Bentley. "Find your own world, go as far out as you want, and never listen to anyone tell you what you can and can't do."