Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed and the natural wine movement

Lou Reed was not the kind of guy to support natural wines. He was a longtime chain smoker, abused a lot of drugs before that, and before the natural wine movement really got underway, he had to give up drinking because his liver was in such bad shape.

And Lou was a dark cynic. When most '60s beautiful people were talking about going back to mother Earth, he was talking about tasting the boot of shiny, shiny leather.

But I was sitting in yoga yesterday -- how non-Velvet Underground -- thinking about Lou Reed and the natural wine movement.

The connection is a quote from Brian Eno, who says the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies, but those 30,000 buyers formed bands.

Journalists at the time who bothered to notice the band weren't fans. They rightly pointed out the lousy sound quality of the production, for which Andy Warhol took the credit. The kind of discordant noise that Velvet Underground made wasn't fit for popular consumption either: a DJ playing "White Light White Heat" on the air would get calls complaining that there was something wrong with the transmitter.

Forget the lyrics, forget the subject matter. The music sounded flawed. Few people heard it, and most of those who did, hated it; it was challenging and not entirely pleasant. How could it ever be popular?

Seeing the parallel yet?

 When Lou Reed left Velvet Underground in 1970, the world wasn't clamoring for more of his music. He went to work for more than a year at his father's company as a typist -- wow, there's an outdated profession. He was fortunate that David Bowie remembered him. Bowie produced a solo album, Reed had a hit with "Walk on the Wild Side." And little by little his influence spread.

By the time I started listening to music, most of the bands I liked cited Velvet Underground as one of their influences. A lot of bands that Andy Warhol wouldn't have recognized were direct descendants: as disparate as Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins, as popular as Nirvana and obscure as Slint.

But there wasn't anything quite like Velvet Underground again, including Reed's solo work, much of which was excellent. Reed on his own was more polished, better produced. Not always more accessible -- in fact, he was often much less so. In his solo career he was influenced by his own early discoveries and used them as he chose.

I understand there was another argument about natural wine at the European wine bloggers' conference last week. It's a topic that gets many people hot under the collar, while the wider public couldn't care less.

I think the point of the natural wine movement is not in the wines it makes today, though like the original Velvet Underground songs, some of them are fragile tinctures of frightening pain and beauty.

Rather, I think the natural wine movement today will be viewed in 2035 as Velvet Underground was viewed by 1990. Just about every good and talented winemaker will have been influenced by it.

The story of wine in the 20th century was the story of the advance of technology, and this has been a tremendous boon for wine lovers. The fresh, fruit-driven wines of today simply would not exist without many of the technological advances that some natural winemakers shun.

Most of today's wine is high-fi. But there's a tiny, unpopular undercurrent of low-fi, and one day it might prove more important than any wine that's selling stacks of cases in Costco.

"Velvet Underground & Nico" was released in 1967. A site that compiles best-album rankings now lists it as the second-best album of 1967, behind The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

You know what the top-selling album of 1967 was? "More of the Monkees." Ask yourself, in 30 years, will the best wines have a little Velvet Underground in them ... or will they be more of the Monkees?

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rapopoda said...

I don't think the "flawed" nature of various aspects of Lou Reed's music, is what made it great or interesting or long lasting or...

I'm always puzzled by the lauding of flawed, as if it somehow is more "real".

The JS Bach Cello Suites are some of the most utterly thrilling music imaginable - from any point in human history. As thrilling as pure sound as they are for understanding their accomplishments intellectually.
I would not want to hear a "flawed" performance just because of how noble the intentions of the performer are claimed to be.

Anything with the depth to be worthy of praise and longevity, deserves the best performance possible

Larry Brooks said...

I was actually one of those 30,000 folks who bought this album in 1967. I was mostly in some sort of altered state while I listened to it. The drinks of choice for me at that time were Almaden jug wine and Ballantine ale. For style of music at the time it was quite avant garde, and deeply sexy in a perverted sort of way. It was about moving forward into something unknown. I'm afraid I don't see the connection to natural wine, which seems to me about moving backwards to some sort of pure ideal that never existed in the first place.

awaldstein said...

Such a beautiful post!

As a long-term fan of Lou's music (native NYorker here) and natural wine, I so loved this post yet agreed with little of it.

I see the 'movement' as a ground up populist connection between a general cultural change.

This says it best I think-->Natural Wine…an idea in tune with the times http://awe.sm/hHlSb

But this is amongst your best writing and really kinda made my day.


Fabio said...

Interesting parallel, but like for all analogies, I don't know if I go all the way with this one! As a producer of natural wine I can see that there is a certain amount of bucking the trend involved, as it were, but that's not the primary reason for making natural wine, nor for making avant-garde music, surely! Neither do I shun or reject technology, nor am I trying to somehow go back to a cleaner, simpler more idyllic, age or whatever. I just like to choose what machines/technology I use according to my needs and purposes, and not be a slave to the latest gizmo or technique or process, just because it's there. As in all things human, the pendulum tends to swing from extreme to extreme before settling down to a sensible middle ground. In the case of wine, I think we've gone too far in the direction of industrial, faultless, analytically correct wines, which are also boring and soulless (but which have of course eliminated vinegary, bretty, spoilt, undrinkable wines from the market). Maybe now the pendulum will swing back, not necessarily to faulty undrinkable wines, but hopefully to interesting, local terroir-expressing ones. That would certainly explain why so many people get all upset about natural wines, out of all proportion to the amount of natural wine actually produced and sold and drunk!!!