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Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’

Probably the best compliment I can pay to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary is to say that it’s made in the spirit of the music. His switchblade editing, abundant use of split-screen and fantastic material from all sorts of archives creates a tone parallel to the sounds we’re hearing and to the lives we’re watching.

An important decision was not to include testimony from anyone who wasn’t actually a witness to the events the film records. Every voice you hear bears the glory and the wounds of what happened in that short time when Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico rewrote the rulebook. Cale is wonderfully engaged with a story that, for him, ended badly. Tucker still sounds like the real glue of the band. The voices of the departed members are heard in archive interviews. Among others who shed light are the veteran avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the actress Mary Woronov, the superfan Jonathan Richman, the composer La Monte Young, the scenemaker Danny Fields, Merrill Reed Weiner, Lou’s sister, and Martha Morrison, Sterling’s wife. (No Gerard Malanga and only the briefest glimpses of Edie Sedgwick, which is a bit of a surprise.)

It’s quite a demure film, given the milieu; the sexual merryground is glimpsed but not explored. Neither is Haynes interested in deep musicology. He wants impressions rather than details, which keeps the film moving. He doesn’t try to analyse the divide in Reed’s personality between the brutal and the tender. But we do get a feeling for the characters, as when Cale sums up Nico quite beautifully: “She was a wanderer. She wandered in and she quietly wandered out again.” And we certainly get an idea of how the chemistry between Long Island doo-wop fan Reed and Welsh avant-gardist Cale turned 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side into such a potent musical laboratory. Haynes leaves us with a lovely colour clip of Reed and Cale performing “I’m Waiting for My Man” during their reunion at the Bataclan in Paris in 1972, with Nico waiting in the wings.

Throughout the film, the great songs — “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Sister Ray”, “White Light/White Heat”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Rock and Roll”, “Sweet Jane” — are allowed to emerge in the perfect setting. And as they issue from big cinema speakers, you may yourself experiencing once again the seismic effect they had when you first heard them, brand-new. There were times when I wanted to cheer.

Hipster, still eminent

Of course there’s nothing really new to be heard on the pair of live albums Donald Fagen has just released, one under his own name and the other under that of Steely Dan: Northeast Corridor, a selection of the Dan’s songs recorded at the Beacon Theatre in New York and Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, and a concert version of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo masterpiece, pieced together from those and a couple of other venues across the US. Why would there be? The original recordings were pretty close to perfect in the first place, or as close as Fagen and his late partner, Walter Becker, could make them across days, weeks and months in state-of-the-art studios.

So what’s the point? Perhaps it’s to allow us to replicate the sensation of hearing them for the first time, which is what even the slightest shift of emphasis or ornament allows. The slightly adjusted harmonies of the chorus to “Kid Charlemagne”, the melodica on “Aja”, the drum coda to “Reelin’ in the Years”, the brand-new rhapsodic trombone intro to “Things I Miss the Most”, the ceding of the solo bridge passage of “Maxine” to a member of the close-harmony backing choir — they’re small changes, but they help us to see the bigger picture anew. Otherwise the proportions and trajectories are much as they were on the originals — although in the case of The Nightfly the overall feel is a little more, shall we say, fatback: fuller and funkier, but not so much as to change the tone.

Maybe the most significant change is to Fagen’s voice, and even that doesn’t really alter the listener’s response. Always the instrument of someone who had to be persuaded to to take the lead on his own songs, and the more authentic for that, age has cost it some of its strength but none of its capacity to beguile and engage. It was always a sidelong voice, and his delivery of the confessions of a graveyard-shift DJ on The Nightfly‘s title track seems even more affecting.

When Fagen made The Nightfly, he was looking back 20 years to the time immediately before the Kennedy assassination, when capitalism seemed ready to share its material abundance throughout the western world. Now, another 40 years later, in a period of disillusion and uncertainty, the evocation of that period’s Madison Avenue-inspired optimism carries extra weight.

The musicianship across both albums is, of course, immaculate. Keith Carlock’s drums and Freddie Washington’s bass make those mid-tempo rhythms as crisp as a brand-new button-down shirt. The two-brass, two-reeds front line swivels on a dime (with a special mention for Roger Rosenberg’s baritone solo on “Black Cow”, and no blame to tenorist Walt Weiskopf for not quite being Wayne Shorter on “Aja” or Michael Brecker on “Ruby Baby”). Guitarist Jon Herington produces a great Denny Dias tribute on the euphoric “Bhodisattva” and pianist Jim Beard romps through “Glamour Profession”.

As a coda to the Steely Dan album, Fagen and his superlative quartet of backing singers leave the stage to a single-chorus instrumental arrangement of “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry”, a blues-ballad from a 1958 Joe Williams album. It’s a reminder of the depth of Fagen and Becker’s knowledge and love of music — as are these two albums as a whole. Which, come to think of it, is by itself a good enough reason for their existence.

* Steely Dan’s Northeast Corridor and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live are out now on Universal Music. The photograph of Fagen is from the booklet with the Steely Dan album and was taken by Nick Antaya.

Supreme in Seattle

When John Coltrane died in the summer of 1967, aged 40, he left us engaged in a discussion that will go on for as long as people are still listening to his music. “Late Coltrane”, as the music of his last two years is known, provides an endless source of speculation over its intention and argument over its value.

With the original studio version of A Love Supreme, recorded in December 1964 and released a month later, he reached a pinnacle that marked the end of his middle period and signalled the beginning of something new. Formally, the album retained the by-then familiar and much admired approach of his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). But its explicitly devotional message hinted at the direction he was about to take, towards a music in which the individual notes were less important than the feelings they expressed and the spiritual release they sought.

His subsequent music, often featuring expanded versions of the line-up, with more horn players and percussionists, tended to stir up trouble among those who didn’t appreciate his engagement with the newer forms of expression that freed him from the last vestiges of Western song-form. From Ascension, released in January 1966, to the benefit concert at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in New York in 1967, this last music inspired some and infuriated others, and continues to do so.

For those still searching for a key to unlock the apparent mstery of Late Coltrane, the release of a hitherto unknown live version of A Love Supreme, recorded in October 1965 on the last night of a week-long run at the Penthouse in Seattle, provides a perfect portal to his changed universe. The quartet had played the four-section masterwork at the Antibes jazz festival in the summer of 1965, sticking close to the studio blueprint. The Seattle version, although following the same scheme, is very different in approach. With the quartet augmented by Carlos Ward on alto, Pharoah Sanders on tenor and Donald Garrett on bass, the approach is far looser, with solo space for the guests and the individual movements separated (or linked) by interludes featuring solo passages by the bassists and the drummer.

Well over twice as long, at 75 minutes, as the original, this version allows the listener to hear the new initiatives in the context of a familiar, albeit flexible, structure, which may help some to make “sense” of it. Exalted moments abound. Following Coltrane’s opening solo, Sanders’ soft-edged buzzsaw lifts “Acknowledgment” to another level of energy, driven by Jones’s Latin-inflected barrage. In the first interlude, Garrett and Garrett play together, entwining their pizzicato lines. (In the third and fourth, they play consecutively.) Ward has a beautiful solo on “Resolution”, the Panamanian saxophonist — later a valued partner of Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim — displaying his personal approach to Eric Dolphy’s angular phrasing. Jones’s interlude is a six-minute solo tour de force that sets up the bravura performance of “Pursuance”, on which Tyner plays what might be one of his mightiest solos, ideas flooding from the keyboard at a blistering 80 bars (or 320 beats, if you prefer) per minute. As for Coltrane himself, the beautifully controlled winding-down on the concluding “Psalm”, arco basses echoing the tenor, is as nakedly affecting as anything he ever played.

By comparison with the unsuccessful sextet versions of two of the movements Coltrane recorded on the day after the original studio session, when he experimented with adding the tenor of Archie Shepp and the bass of Art Davis to the quartet, this is fully realised music, all its elements held in perfect balance. Not surprisingly, given the sustained intensity and unbroken beauty of what the Penthouse audience has been hearing, there’s a lengthy silence at the end before the applause begins.

The audio quality, restored from the original recording made at the club by the flautist Joe Brazil on a reel-to-reel machine, is far better than adequate. What little it might lack in perfect balance is outweighed by a clarity and an immediacy that bring us very close indeed to the first-hand experience of an historic occasion. For anyone who has ever been touched by Coltrane’s music, and perhaps wants to understand it better, this is essential listening.

* John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is released on October 22 on the Impulse! label. The photograph of Coltrane in 1965 was taken by Chuck Stewart.

Patti Smith at the Albert Hall

When she was 15 or so, the woman said, she’d dreamed about a certain boy, about walking down the street holding his hand. And now here she was, performing at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, and she was going to sing one of his songs. And at the end of a most elegant version of “One Too Many Mornings”, Patti Smith said quietly: “Bob Dylan.”

The last time I’d seen Patti was in 1995 at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, when she and Dylan were touring together. She came on to sing “Dark Eyes” with him during his acoustic section, and then she joined him in the encores for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. It was nice to be reminded last night of the history they share, and she honoured it beautifully on the very stage where, 55 years ago, he sang “One Too Many Mornings” with another band.

But that was just one highlight in a night crammed with them, starting with the lyric to “Piss Factory”, the B-side of her first single in 1974, which she declaimed unaccompanied to start the 90-minute set. That was electrifying, and at the end of the evening my only regret was that she hadn’t done more reading.

But would I have swapped that for the lovely “Grateful”, the driving Velvets drone of “Dancing Barefoot”, the collective exhilaration of “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a most surprising and tender mid-set version of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun”, Lenny Kaye’s dedication of the Stones’ “I’m Free” to Charlie Watts, the cathartic “People Have the Power”, which Patti wrote with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, or the thunderous closing run through “Not Fade Away”, when the instruments cut after the last “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be”, allowing Patti, the band and the entire pan-generational audience to bellow “You’re gonna give your love to me”?

What I also admired was the way she and the band — Kaye and Jackson Smith (guitars), Jesse Paris Smith (piano), Tony Shanahan (bass guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) — put on such a well calibrated show while keeping their garage-band rawness and honesty. Jackson Smith’s raga-rock solo on “Dancing Barefoot” was a beauty, as was Daugherty’s ability — probably learnt from reggae drumming — to leave spaces within a bar without losing power.

But I wasn’t really taking notes. I was on my feet, with everyone else.