By Christopher Scapelliti
When legends die, the media cash in.
So it was with a fair amount of skepticism that I opened the new Lou Reed: Tribute DVD box set. I was expecting to find a hastily assembled patchwork of Velvet Underground photos and Lou Reed clips tied together with commentary by “where-are-they-now?” musicians and some cheesy VH1-style voiceover.
I wasn’t completely off the mark. But while the title and cover suggest that this is a new and extensive celebration of Reed, who died this past October 27, Tribute is actually a compilation of three previously released DVDs.
As it turns out, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Each of the volumes here sheds light on Reed in its own way. The Velvet Underground: Under Review drily but informatively analyzes the group’s music and cultural influence. The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy and Lou 1971 – 1973 explores a momentous period in the early Seventies when Reed, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop crossed paths and inspired one another to create their most groundbreaking albums. Punk Revolution NYC, the third DVD, traces the roots of New York’s punk movement from the Velvet Underground to the emergence of CBGB as the spawning ground for the mid-Seventies punk and no-wave scenes.
It’s a substantial and smartly chosen trio. Each DVD explores a distinct period of Reed’s music and career without mining much duplicate territory. The result is an informative and often entertaining overview of the first decade of his career and its influence on an emerging generation of musicians. (And you get it all for about half what you would pay for each DVD individually.)
Released in 2006, The Velvet Underground — Under Review provides first-hand reminiscences from VU drummer Maureen Tucker and bassist Doug Yule, who replaced founding bassist/violist John Cale in late 1968. The film is subtitled “An Independent Critical Analysis,” which is pretty accurate. Light on historical detail, Under Review spends its 75 minutes examining VU’s music, with rock critic and Consumer Guide columnist Robert Christgau and others delivering earnest insights into the group’s music and Reed’s artistry. Those interested in VU’s biography will be disappointed, but anyone who likes to dig deep into the music will come out a little wiser.
Originally released in 2010, The Sacred Triangle explores a thin slice of time when all three of its subjects were at career crossroads. Bowie, enjoying an upsurge of popularity after the critically acclaimed Hunky Dory, was uncertain of how to capitalize on it. Pop was floundering after the demise of the Stooges, and Reed was trying to salvage his career from the wreckage of the Velvet Underground.
From a chance encounter at Max’s Kansas City in 1971, the three would give each other the impetus to create some of the greatest albums of their careers: Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and Reed’s Transformer. The Sacred Triangle tells the story using excellent archival footage, photos, and interviews with David’s ex Angela Bowie, Warhol collaborator Billy Name, and others. It’s the freshest of the three discs, revealing a central intersection in the artists’ lives that most viewers probably aren’t aware of.
But it’s Punk Revolution NYC that provides the most entertainment. Subtitled “The Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls & the CBGBs Set,” the 2011 documentary is a NYC punk-rock feast that clocks in at over three hours. The film is packed with performance footage and takes in a wide swath of New York’s Seventies music scene, including the New York Dolls, Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Blondie and electronic no-wave duo Suicide. Interviews with artists like Richard Hell, Alan Vega, and Blondie bassist Gary Valentine provide first-hand reminiscences and help explain how the music, art, and social movements of the period were knitted together to form one of modern music’s most influential and fertile eras — and, of course, how perhaps none of it could have happened without Lou Reed.
Lou Reed Tribute is released by Chrome Dreams and is available for $19.95.