Opposites Attract

mark greif considers the congruences of the velvet underground & the grateful dead.

Both bands originally imagined themselves as the ‘Warlocks’ essentially because each had a vision of enchantment, underlaid with darkness. – Mark Greif, “The Right Kind of Pain”

Mark Greif throws out a number of provocative ideas in his review of The Velvet Underground by Mark Witts. Most strikingly, he fruitfully compares the Velvet Underground to the Grateful Dead in order to think through the stale (but not entirely unaccurate) binary of California hippie rock and New York City proto-punk.

…When you look at the state of both bands at their contemporaneous founding moments in 1965-66, you find that the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead started out, in an odd way, as basically the same band. In fact, both bands started with the same name in 1965: the Warlocks. And both were quickly taken up by other cultural movements and artists from other genres to furnish ‘house bands’ for collective projects.

…The most striking fact is that, like the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground started out as a platform for extremely long, wandering, repetitive, live improvisations, appropriate to multimedia events.

…The logical consequence is that the Velvet Underground were not necessarily anti-psychedelic as such (though that was what they said), but instead insisted on a different, less sunny affect-world than was associated with West Coast psychedelia: ‘We thought that the solution lay in providing hard drugs for everyone,’ Cale told Witts in a BBC interview, but ‘there is already a very strong psychedelic element in sustained sound, which is what we had . . . so we thought that putting viola [drones] behind guitars and echo was one way of creating this enormous space . . . which was itself a psychedelic experience.’

This would be the meaning of the odd simultaneity of approach between the Velvets and the Dead when they started out: 1966 was a moment in the history of popular music when the phenomenology of popular song was changing, partly under outside ‘art-cultural’ influences (the Merry Pranksters, Warhol’s Factory), and partly, one presumes, because of increases in amplification, the widespread ‘electrification’ of folk music (Dylan, Reed’s hero, went electric in 1965), and evidence from Liverpool to Los Angeles of a wish to record or augment the effects of drugs vocally and musically (the Beatles, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors etc).

Once he explores the striking similarities, Greif moves to the important differences:

While both groups initially aimed to hypnotize with their music, lyrically they were worlds apart. Lyrics are fate in pop. Bands become committed in funny ways to the lyrical content and thematics of their work, perhaps through the loop of the expectations of their audiences, perhaps because they’re singing them every night themselves. Grateful Dead lyrics, from the beginning, however carelessly put together, were about roads and rivers. They drew from blues and bluegrass a promise of continual rambling – with the occasional respite of dew-bejewelled meadows, barefoot dancing, and rolling in the rushes down by the riverside. It’s no accident that their first single was ‘The Golden Road’, that their signature song (apart from the tripped-out ‘Dark Star’) was ‘Truckin”, and that the band matured, from 1970 onwards, by turning the endless-trip LSD premise into an endless-travelling touring premise, summed up in the ultimate Dead-lyric cliché: ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been.’ Velvet Underground lyrics, by contrast, are about not going outdoors, and the wish for pleasurable self-destruction (‘I thank God that I’m good as dead’). …The Dead were fated by their lyrics to travel, which they did, creating a unique phenomenon of mass social affiliation across thirty years of steady touring (with just a one-year hiatus in 1975), and playing, much of the time, to an even mix of loving aficionados and grotesque burn-outs. …The Velvet Underground were fated by their lyrics never to attain a live audience, but to be passed on, from hand to hand, on record.

What gets interesting is that after focusing on the lyrics as the crucial difference between the Velvets and the Dead, Greif moves back from the lyrics to the music.

He puts forth a theory of music succeeding through “congruence.” It’s an odd word to use when listening to the Velvet Underground, since one thinks more often of their intense sonic dissonance. But by congruence, Greif means that the lyrics and the sound of the Velvets compliment each other to produce a powerful emotional experience: that of the “closet drama” of vicarious transgression in which listeners, who came to the band as a secret “passed on, from hand to hand, on record,” could experience danger, rebellion, and abjectness at a distance.

In fact, for Greif, the lyrics in fact feed back into the sound. He argues that the semi-incoherent, naughty lyrics of the infamous Velvet Underground classic “Sister Ray” are in fact a kind of nonsensical signage pointing the listener toward the screeching, grinding sounds, rather than vice-versa. Lyrics are background; sound becomes front and center.



Sitting on the same sixties stoop? Velvet Underground and Grateful Dead.

By returning back to the sound as the key component, Greif somewhat undermines his Velvets-Dead comparison. Wait, wasn’t it the sound they had in common, but the lyrics that distinguished the two groups from each other?

Yet, crucially, with a small adjustment to Greif’s theory of congruence, his comparison can be understood as quite convincing.

Perhaps it is not through harmony of lyric and sound, but rather through a broader patten of incongruence — through playing with the possibilies of incongruence as aesthetic experience — that these bands both converged and diverged. Across the continent from each other, they grappled with the same new possibilities of electronic amplification, collective social experimentation, and the strange Warlockian alchemy of avant-gardism and mass culture. Through their shared (though difference) tendencies toward inconsistencies, contradictions, and disorienting fragments incompletely brought together, both bands constructed parallel audiences, superficial kinds of communities in which individuals could experience surprisingly powerful awakenings and discoveries of self and group.

Incongruity marked both bands. Darkness always haunted the supposedly happy hippie world of the Dead, beginning with the addictions of their central figure, Jerry Garcia; and there was often a kind of heartfelt secret handshake among Velvet listeners that provided a humanistic bond among the fantasies of bondage.

Thinking of both groups as caught up in and playing with impossible contradictions, incomplete puzzles, and odd tensions allows us to see the deeper commonalities between tie-dyed hippies and safety-pinned punks while also keeping in mind the important stylistic and social differences.



2 thoughts on “Opposites Attract

  1. Great article.

    I’ve been on this same VU/GD compare/contrast thing for a while. I was into both in high school, but annoying college hippies made me drop any association with the Dead for, oh, a good twelve years. I’d deny any knowledge of the Dead just to get them away from me.
    But, like a planet slowly revolving around the sun, for the past year I’ve gotten way back into the Dead and have written a couple bloggy type things
    in regards to my guilty feelings about it.

    here are some other things to consider (if you already mentioned them, shame on me for poor reading comprehension):

    —on VU’s The Quine Tapes there’s an otherwise-unreleased song called “Follow The Leader” which, at 18 minutes, bears an undeniable sonic resemblance to late 60’s Dead, albeit with a tighter rhythm section and more limited lead guitar vocabulary.

    —on “Fallout From the Phil Zone” there’s a version of Viola Lee Blues from one of the two shows in Chicago, April 1969 that the Dead and Velvets shared a bill. It’s probably my reading into it, but parts of the Dead’s jam call to mind Sister Ray. It’s pretty awesome.

    –I read in some book that Garcia loved “Walk on the Wild Side” and based “Franklin’s Tower” on it. (who woulda thought? I think Lou would puke if he knew…)

    –I’ve heard a couple live versions of “Sugaree” from the late 70’s where, winding down his guitar solo, Garcia plays the “Walk on the Wild Side” bass line for a minute or so

    –I wonder if the mention of a “Sweet Jane” in “Truckin” was a coincidence or not?

    –someone on a Dead forum recalled going to a party after the Chicago Dead/VU shows, where Lou was overheard taunting the Dead that they “couldn’t survive a week in the Chelsea Hotel.” Later I read that Robert Hunter in fact wrote Stella Blue while staying there.

    –both the Dead and Lou Reed got signed to Arista in 76-77. Both then made a series of crappy albums.

    –Lou and Bob Weir both had projects with bassist Rob Wasserman in the late 80’s. Over all, I think Bob Weir’s a wanker (at least since the late 70’s)

    –Jerry and Lou both had mullets and horrible guitar tones in 1989.

    Now here’s the germ for a psychological study:

    Lou Reed: Comfy Long Island upbringing. Syracuse grad. Amphetamine, which promotes linear thinking, is the drug of choice and thus informs the music he makes (everything very straight), had luxery of moving back home to mom and dad after Velvets break up in 1970, adopts bristly, heroin-chic, cold personae as defense mechanism for his higher education and conventional upbringing (ok, there was the electroshock thing too–his parents, fearing he was gay, subjected him to electroshock treatment as a teen).

    Garcia– saw dad drown at 5, ran away as a teen, lived in car, self educated, early drugs of choice promoted hearing the beats between the beats, mom died just as big success hit, adopts open family/ Papa Bear personae to make up for not having much of a bological family.

    (and I think you mentioned this) Both Lou and Jerry started bands called the Warlocks in 1965. Both were adopted by older, successful, controversial men to play dance music at their drug-fueled functions (Warhol for VU, Kesey for GD).

    anyway, there’s my spiel. take it as you may….

    here’s a link to my recent thing, which also ties in The Minutemen, and has a link to your article:


    if you have to be my facebook friend to read it, then you can read it (in almost the same form) at:


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