Rob Jovanovic has penned very competent and comprehensive books on artists including R.E.M., Pavement, and Big Star. His latest book on the music world is Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground. Although it may be comprehensive in a no-stone-left-unturned (but accuracy be damned) sort of way, it is hardly competent writing.
First of all, the book could have used at least one more major edit. Jovanovic tells his readers in the Author’s Notes that he had been working on this book on and off for eight years, and it shows. Each chapter reads as though the author had dropped the book for a few months and gave the preceding chapter(s) a cursory glance before revisiting and plugging away.
The lack of editing may be the reason for the narrative redundancy throughout the book. Jovanovic describes Lou Reed’s effect on the production of The Velvet Underground’s self-titled album: “The resultant mix was somewhat flat sounding and is referred to as the ‘closet mix’ because it sounds like it was recorded in a cupboard, an accusation levelled by Sterling Morrison… ‘I thought it sounded like it was recorded in a closet,’ said Morrison.” No shit. Way to reinforce your point, Rob. Also, the blurbs at the beginning of each chapter are frequently repeated verbatim throughout the book either before or after their citation.
There are numerous spelling, grammatical and factual errors or contradictions, not to mention SNAFUs like: “[Doug] Yule first played up a guitar at the age of 12, when his cousin showed him a few chords. Being a natural when it came to picking up musical instruments, this was all he needed and so off he went.” The confusion between “picking up” and “playing” is an error that could be easily fixed if any thought were given to this book.
The major laugh-out-loud moment is Jovanovic’s bungling Maureen Tucker’s retelling of ‘The World’s First Mod Wedding Happening’ in NYC:
“As the couple arrived in a black Rolls-Royce, the Velvets played and the car was destroyed. ‘That was lunacy,’ laughs Moe Tucker. ‘We were playing but [Paul] Cézanne was recruited to beat the hell out of a car with a sledge hammer, during the ceremony and during our set.” So, The Velvets exhumed the corpse of the post-impressionist master to engage in a fluxus experiment at a New York wedding? It’s likely that Jovanovic was instead referring to the Velvets’ roadie, David Cezanne.
Jovanovic also lacks a voice in Seeing the Light, something that is imperative for non-fiction writers and something he has proved himself capable of in the past. The story of The Velvet Underground often comes across as a book report in Seeing the Light. There is no question that Jovanovic has studied what has been written on the subject prior (particularly considering the extensive bibliography), but the vast majority of the chapters read like a flat regurgitation of facts.
When Jovanovic isn’t drably recalling names and dates, he occasionally slips into poor exposition: “Just as 21-year-old Doug Yule was about to take a shower in his Boston apartment, the phone rang. He said hello and listened to what the caller had to say. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Of course…you mean this weekend…er, yes…okay…tonight? I guess so…okay…right….yes, bye.’ As he put the phone down his mind was racing, his head spinning.” What was in reality a pivotal phone call, when Doug Yule was invited to the band, sounds utterly dull when written in the style of a high school student.
As hinted at before with the lengthy bibliography, Seeing the Light fails to offer much in the way of new information on the band. It becomes clear that Maureen Tucker (original drummer) and Doug Yule (John Cale’s replacement) were the only two band members interviewed for the book.
This would be fine if Jovanovic didn’t overtly sympathize with Yule and try to vilify post-Warhol manager Steve Sesnick. There is no doubt that Sesnick was a savvy, manipulative asshole with an already emotionally tumultuous band but that doesn’t mean that half of the book should be spent covering Doug Yule’s two-plus cents. Yule should not be written out of the band’s history by any means, but at the same time he’s a creative footnote. Maureen Tucker seems like a total sweetheart, though.
The book could have seriously benefited by some interviews with John Cale, Steve Sesnick, or even Gerard Malanga (stage performer). One can’t blame Jovanovic from steering clear of Lou Reed; the man’s proved himself a musical genius time and time again, but is also entirely narcissistic which would have skewed the relative objectivity of the story.
If you’ve never read a book on The Velvet Underground, this wouldn’t be the worst place to start necessarily, but Jovanovic’s take is riddled with factual errors and borderline silly exposition.
For fans, it offers little more than a reaffirmation of the band’s greatness. Seeing the Light does have its merits, scattered with interesting tidbits like the prose poem story behind the song “The Gift.”
It also covers the pre-Warhol and post-Cale/Reed (more boring) days of The Velvets, but if you’re going to read about the band, consider starting with something like Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day. Why waste your time with a sloppily packaged chronological retelling of Velvet factoids?