At first glance, “White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day,” looks like a coffee table book. Written in a timeline-like style (almost literally “day by day”) with three-column pages, it seems like just a list of dates and facts and short, unconnected pieces of trivia. But if you start reading from the beginning, you’ll find that it’s much more like reading a complex story, one that jumps between characters and locations and peripheral events, and combines them all together in an enjoyable way. Richie Unterberger points out the significance of events, and doesn’t just list them, making the book an insightful look into the story of the Velvet Underground, revolving around Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Nico, along with many other characters.
At 368 pages, “White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day” is extremely comprehensive. It starts in 1958 with Nico’s first acting roles in Europe and Lou Reed’s high school band The Shades, and goes to 1973, past the time when all of the original members had left the band, when Doug Yule’s “Velvet Underground” played its last show at a date and place still unknown. The last chapter (1973 – 2007) is devoted to the explosive popularity and influence the band had years after their demise.
Besides drawing on numerous newspaper and magazine articles, as well as personal letters, Unterberger did more than 100 new interviews specifically for this book. The result is lots of entertaining facts, with every page providing insight into the motivations and emotions of the characters. We see John Cale’s accidental introduction into the rock and roll world through Pickwick Records, the budget/exploitation label in New York that Reed worked at after college. Detailed events demonstrate how Cale’s roots in contemporary classical composition and the avant-garde inspired his sound, such as his choice to amplify his viola, a trademark sound on the band’s first two albums (he was fired by Reed before they recorded their third album, replaced by Yule).
Besides major events like these, the book is also full of smaller, unexpected and often humorous details. For instance, before settling on the name the Velvet Underground, the band went through a few other names, one of them being the Velvet Hermaphrodite Jug Band, according to a letter. (As is widely known, they get their name from the title of a book documenting sexual corruption, which Reed calls “the funniest dirty book I’ve ever read.”) A lot of the reviews of the band during their time are also funny, mainly for being quite negative and very confused, failing to grasp the band’s new sounds and lyrical content that were so cutting-edge at the time.
Overall, the “White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day,” is a treasure for Velvet Underground fans, and interesting and entertaining for anyone who enjoys a well-researched, well-written biography. The book also includes more than 100 images, some of which are published here for the first time. Every recording session, every show, every song and its numerous versions, all of Nico’s dramatic encounters with famous people – everything is presented here in an organized style that is as full of life as the people themselves.