Editor’s note for January/February 2014 issue.
Brian Eno famously said that only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them started a band. The death of Lou Reed – the Velvets co-founder and solo artist who graced the cover of our Legends issue back in 2008 – has inspired countless tributes in recent weeks. Clearly, his influence extends well beyond what his sales figures might suggest.
In this issue, Reed tells Paul Zollo that his songs were beamed in from what he called his “permanent radio,” a non-stop barrage of music playing in his head. These sounds, both chaotic and tuneful, were set to Reed’s bare-bones street poetry, which told stories of characters living on the dirty boulevards of New York. Reed’s music crumbled walls, literally. Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who later became president, once told Reed that his music helped pave the way for his presidency and the dismantling of communism in Czechoslovakia. How?
In the late ’60s, Havel smuggled one of the early Velvet albums back into his country. It began making the rounds through Prague’s underground arts scene, eventually landing in the hands of the psych-folk band Plastic People of the Universe, which fell hard for the Velvets and began taking its musical and ethical cues from them. The government eventually banned the Plastics from performing in public, and several of its members ended up jailed for subversion, an act that led to the publication of Charter 77 – a declaration of human rights published in the mid-’70s that was authored mostly by Havel. When the Communist government resigned from power, in ’89, the event was dubbed the Velvet Revolution. Not a bad legacy for a man who said he wrote songs simply for fun, because “he got a major-league kick out of it.”
Reed once interviewed Havel during his presidency and asked him if art had the ability to change things. Havell said ‘No,’ but countered that it could change people. And it was up to people to take it from there.
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Uncle Tupelo is another band whose true legacy can only be measured by the depth of its influence. The songwriting team of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy would release four albums over its career and split in 1994, never really graduating beyond the world of small clubs and college radio. But the group’s potent blend of vintage country and folk – married with the energy of hardcore punk – launched an entire movement and spawned a host of flannel-clad imitators. So much of what is now called Americana – middle-class indie music with strong folk roots – seems like it can traced back to Uncle Tupelo.
In our article, Stephen Deusner talks to Jay Farrar – one of the most inspired and idiosyncratic lyricists of the last quarter century – about the band’s newly reissued debut record, No Depression. Deusner paints a grim picture of Belleville, Illinois, the Rust Belt town that birthed this pre-Internet band of young twentysomethings, who were desperate to leave a place decimated by closed-up shops and factories. This urgency to fleeinforms every track on No Depression. Farrar and Tweedy would eventually get out. After the band’s split, Farrar went on to form Son Volt and Tweedy would start Wilco. You know the rest.
We also check in with Jimmy Webb, now the chairman of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, who authored such classics as “Wichita Lineman” and “The Highwayman.” And for our cover story, Elvis Costello talks with Alan Light about his new album, Wake Up Ghost, a stellar collaboration with famed hip-hop band The Roots that finds the Englishman pushing his songs into new frontiers.