VU Velvet Underground A 1960s Cult
“I wish I were a Warhol silkscreen, hanging on the wall. Or Little Joe, Or maybe Lou, I’d love to be them all. All New York City’s broken hearts and secrets would be mine I’d put you on a movie reel and that would be just fine.” Ian Curtis, February 14, 1973
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VU Velvet Underground A 1960s Cult
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Introduction The Velvet Underground Lou Reed John Cale Nico Stering Morrison Maureen Tucker
INTRODUCTION Perhaps no other musicians of the 20th century were as roundly criticized and undervalued at their outset as were the Velvet Underground. When the most famous line-up began performing and recording in 1966, more listeners than not reacted with disgust or bewilderment. The group failed to land anything close to a hit record by the time Lou Reed left in 1970, and had yet to gain a sizable national following despite increasingly ecstatic acclaim from rock critics and a growing cult audience. Today the Velvet Underground are not so much reviled as revered. Their status as one of the very greatest rock bands of the 60s – indeed, one of the very greatest of all time – is uncontested. Their albums have become catalog perennials and continue to sell to new generations of fans not yet born when the group were active. They have been cited as a major influence by countless rockers, from David Bowie and Patti Smith to Brian Eno. And their music – considered by so many to be shocking and inaccessible at the time it was produced – is now recognized as having pioneered many innovations now regarded as standard in rock music, from the incorporation of avant-garde composition and electronics to lyrics dealing with drugs, sex, and street-level reality. The disparity between the failure of the band to achieve anything near to success and recognition they deserved in their lifetime and the stratospheric status they now enjoy supplies the hook to most histories of the Velvet Underground. So too does the aura of their dark and mysterious image, their faces often hidden behind dark sunglasses; the individual members so contrasting and striking, both visually and personally; their music so enigmatically packaged. On top of that, there is the group’s renowned – if rather brief – association with the one of the most famous visual artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol, and the legendary multimedia shows they pioneered as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable when Warhol was involved in the band’s management from early 1966 to mid 1967.
For years it was hard to actually find out much about the group, how they had formed, and how they’d recorded their brilliant music. Even finding the Velvet Underground’s records was, for a long time after their demise, something of an adventure, assuming you were even lucky enough to hear about the band in the first place. Despite Lou Reed’s subsequent solo stardom and John Cale and Nico’s status as cult icons, the Velvets’ music was rarely played on the radio. Even basic information about the group was hard to acquire, beyond occasional passing raves by critics in the rock press. If you were a teenager in the late 70s, buying the VU’s first album unheard, based on its reputation alone – after scouring for it in a seemingly disused section of a record shop, as I did as a 17-year-old in 1979 – was not just an unavoidable inconvenience, but a solitary rite of passage. Not one person I knew had even heard anything of consequence about the band, let alone actually heard them. As Lou Reed admitted in so many words in ‘Rock & Roll,’ his life was saved by the music. The Velvet Underground’s music in turn has done much, if not quite to save our lives, then to enlighten and enrich us beyond Lou Reed and John Cale’s wildest expectations when they joined forces to co-found the band in early 1965. No rock group becomes as great as the Velvet Underground without addressing themselves to all dimensions of human existence. And no rock group has done so with such unflinching honesty and power. Richie Unterberger – San Francisco – September 29 2008 9
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND The Velvet Underground were outgoing individuals who claimed to use no drugs now and were far more literate and intellectually inclined than your average run of pop groups. Lou Reed sat and talked with a relaxed intensity, clarifying where they’d been and what they still hoped to accomplish, together with their constant plans of achieving large-scale success without pandering in any direction; Sterling Morrison laid back with a lovely lady wrapped around him and a tolerant smile on his face, benignly consigning all the competition to oblivion: “Well, the Band is fine if you wanta go back to some rural agrarian society and sit on the front porch every night… I mean, you know, I just can’t understand this whole ‘back to nature’ thing-shit-, I go lay on the beach at Coney Island and I get some nature…” and Maureen chuckles, Maureen whohas a certain emotional vulnerability about her that is most feminine and rarer than ever today, hurt in a way but also like somebody’s kid sister, in fact Lou Reed’s kid sister.
And when I met them I thought to come on cool so when the subject of drugs came up I smiled very knowingly: “Well, I think you can take any drug, just so long as you don’t take it too much or too often,” and Lou Reed blandly replied: “Well, yeah, if you wanta be a smorgasbord schmuck.” And people kept coming around, heads, groupies, a 30-ish couple who reminded me of the kind of pre-hippie heads who used to make a big deal out of turning on and going to see 81/2 smiling: “Well, we saw Julian Burroughs when we were in Paris and he said to send you all his regards…” and the Velvets in the middle of all this mildly amused, Lou setting Maureen on his knee: “Whaddaya think, kid, you wanna go get a pizza?”
Dead Lie the Velvet Underground! R.I.P. Long Live Lou Reed Lester Bangs - 1971
Promo Pictures for White Light/White Heat, 1968
Photograph by Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground on tour in 1969
The history of the Velvet Underground is unlike that of almost any other important rock band. Right from the start, long before the musicians had even met each other. There may be no other major group whose three most famous members – the only three who would establish long-running, widely acclaimed solo careers after the group’s heyday – came from such separate social and geographic backgrounds. That their paths crossed in the first place is in itself astonishing. That they would meld, if only briefly, their incongruous sensibilities into the foundation of one of the greatest and most influential bands of all time is nothing less than miraculous.
Lou Reed at the annual dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry at the Delmonico Hotel, January 13, 1966
Lou Reed – the group’s principal songwriter and singer, and ultimately the most important visionary of the Velvet Underground – was born Lewis Alan Reed on March 2 1942, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the oldest child of accountant Sidney Reed and his wife, Toby (a sister, Elizabeth, followed five years later),and moved with his family to a house in the New York suburb of Freeport, Long Island, in 1953. Although his neighborhood, like many in the New York area, was predominantly Jewish, Reed had in many respects of typical middle-class American upbringing. He dated girls, played basketball, and was on the Freeport High track team. Reaching adolescence in the conformist milieu of mid50s suburban American affluence could be deadly dull, however, particularly for a teenager with creative and rebellious inclinations. In high school, Reed began filling notebooks with poems and short stories, and displaying tendencies toward unconventional behavior that his parents found worrisome. “I came from this small town out on Long Island,” Reed is later quoted as saying in Transformer: The Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris. “Nowhere. I mean nowhere. The most boring place on earth. The only good thing about it was you knew you were going to get out of there.” In the mid 50s, however, the explosion of rock’n’roll extended a lifeline to an entirely different world. The New York area was a great place to be if you were just entering your teens and fascinated by the new sounds of rockabilly, doo-wop, and rhythm & blues that were turning pop music upside down – a revolution beamed into suburban homes such as Reed’s by radio DJs such as Alan Freed and Murray The K. Although Freeport
“ If I hadn’t heard rock’n’roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet.” Lou Reed
was only a half-hour from Manhattan, the authentic earthiness of the rock’n’roll records these DJs span sounded like it came from another galaxy. About a decade and a half later, the Velvet Underground would record a classic song about a five-year-old girl named Jenny whose life was saved by rock’n’roll (on a New York radio station, no less). It’s likely however that the protagonist of ‘Rock & Roll’, a highlight of the group’s 1970 album Loaded, was at least in part an autobiographical standin for the real-life teenage Lou Reed, his life saved by the fine, fine sounds he found by twiddling the dial at home in Freeport. “‘Rock & Roll’ is about me,” he admits in David Fricke’s liner notes to the 1995 Velvet Underground boxed set, Peel Slowly And See. “If I hadn’t heard rock’n’roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. You know what I’m saying? Which would have been devastating – to think that everything everywhere was like it was where I came from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did it.”
Most of the early rock’n’rollers were African-American, and from modest-to-poor urban neighborhoods, or white Southerners of rural origins who weren’t economically much better off. Yet such was rock’n’roll wildfire spread that it wasn’t long before even middle-class suburban Jewish high school kids were getting involved as both songwriters and performers – as Paul Simon from nearby Queens did when he formed a duo with his friend Art Garfunkel and recorded a minor 1957 hit, ‘Hey Schoolgirl,’ as half of Tom & Jerry. As a child Reed had studied classical piano for a few years, but by high school, rock’n’roll, the guitar, and songwriting had become his main musical interests. He was starting to play in groups like The Shades, who took the stage in sunglasses and sequins. And if Freeport was entire cultural worlds away from Manhattan, it was just a short train ride away from the city’s recording studios. Reed would enter one of them to cut a single with The Shades even before he’d graduated from high school.
Andy Warhol Screen Test of Lou Reed at the Factory, 1966
Across the Atlantic Ocean, John Cale was born in the small rural mining village of Garnant, South Wales, on March 9 1942, just one week after Reed. (“I always knew he had an edge on me!” he exclaims at the start of his autobiography, What’s Welsh For Zen.) His mother was a school teacher; his father, a coal miner, was from the area of Wales near the English border. John’s father understood some of the Welsh language but spoke no Welsh at home. John would not begin to learn English until he was seven. While a later remark by fellow VU member Nico has given some fans the impression that John grew up with a mute mother and deaf father, this was not in fact the case. His father had a hearing problem, but was not dead, and although his mother lost her voice at times when her son left home and approached adulthood, she would, Cale says in his autobiography, “usually get her voice back after I’d been home for a week.” In several other respects Cale’s childhood was not only unusual but rough. According to his autobiography, he suffered “asthmatic or bronchial attacks which I was hazily given to understand were psychologically induced” around the age of seven, and was prescribed a hallucination-generating cough syrup laced with opium.
When he was 12, he was sexually molested by the male organist at the local church. A year later his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent a mastectomy, and was so weakened by the illness that her activities were drastically curtailed upon her return to the Cale household after an absence of about five weeks. At 16 John had what he remembers a nervous breakdown. It was thought to be meningitis at the time, and led to him staying in a hospital isolation ward for several weeks. Despite all of this Cale displayed promise as both a student and a musician from a very young age. He began classical piano lessons when he was seven. His status as a child prodigy might be exaggerated by Sterling Morrison in Diana Clapton’s Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground, in which Morrison claimed, “He was incredible – started piano at three, viola at five, then gave his first BBC performance when he was eight.” But Cale did start composing while still in grammar school, and was recorded doing one of his own pieces, the two-and-a-half minute ‘Toccata in the style of Khachaturian,’ by BBC Wales in the mid 50S. If it had somehow survived, a tape of the performance would almost certainly be the earliest musical recording of note by a member of the Velvet Underground.
John Cale at the Castle at 2630 Glendower Avenue in Los Angeles, May, 1966
John Cale at the annual dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry, January 13, 1966
At 13, Cale became a violist in the Welsh Youth Orchestra, touring with them throughout Wales and even making a trip to the Netherlands. He was also beginning to cultivate the wide-ranging musical and intellectual curiosity that would become one of his trademarks. He developed serious interests in history and philosophy, as well as contemporary composers such as John Cage who went well beyond the bounds of the classical music usually taught in school. He played Dixieland jazz on piano in a band led by classmate Denzil Jones at a school dance in 1959. For all their different backgrounds, musical and otherwise, there was one key similarity between the teenage John Cage and Lou Reed. Cale too was extended to a lifeline into a distant world by the sound of rock’n’roll on the radio, listening – like so many teenagers in the UK in the late 50s – to the likes of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley (as well as the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan and the jazz of John Coltrane) on Radio Luxembourg and Voice of America as he shivered in bed under the covers.
For all their different backgrounds, musical and otherwise, there was one key similarity between the teenage John Cage and Lou Reed. Cale too was extended to a lifeline into a distant world by the sound of rock’n’roll on the radio. 15
There was no rock’n’roll in Christa’s teenage years, and apparently no musical ambition, but she did once claim that the damp apartment in which she lived as a child in Berlin “gave me a bad chest… and the power to overcome this weakness by wanting to be a big singer.”
Nico performing with the Velvet Underground at the Trip in Los Angeles, May, 1966
While Lou Reed and John Cale rode bumpily through adolescence, their future collaborator Nico had already been through much lower lows and higher highs. Always evasive – and sometimes contradictory – about her personal history in interviews, she is variously reported to have been born in Poland in 1938, Köln in 1942, Berlin in 1943, and Budapest in 1944, while also at various points claiming German, Russian, Turkish, and Polish ancestry. She was in fact born Christa Päffgen in Köln, Germany on October 16 1938, one year before the outbreak of World War II. Even before he birth, however, her parents’ marriage had been annulled, leaving her mother, Grete, to bring Christa p on her own as an only child. Christa’s father, Wilhelm, died in combat in 1942; it has been speculated that he was shot to death by his commanding officer after a bullet from the gun of a French sniper entered his brain. Christa attempted to visit and speak with her father’s sister in Köln as a teenager in the mid 50s but, according to the adult Nico’s recollection years later, the woman slammed the door in her face. Shortly after her father’s death, Christa and her mother left Köln for a brief stay with Grete’s sister Helma in Berlin before they moved on to the relative safety of Lübbenau, a small town about 60 miles away. Grete’s father worked in Lübbenau as a signalman, and the family was able to live out most of the war there away from the path of the Allies’ bombing. After Germany surrendered in May 1945, Lübbenau fell under Soviet control, so Grete and Helma moved back to Berlin, where more work was available. Christa and her mother eventually found lodgings in Berlin’s Schöneberg district, in the American-controlled sector of the former German capital. Working as a seamstress, Grete was able to support her daughter in a city in which many neighborhoods had been reduced to rubble, suffering with fellow Berliners through a Soviet blockade in 1948-49 that would have brought the city to its knees without the supplies flown in by the Western Allies during the Berlin Airlift. There was no rock’n’roll in Christa’s teenage years, and apparently no musical ambition, but she did once claim (in the notes for a planned autobiography) that the damp apartment in which she lived as a child in Berlin “gave me a bad chest… and the power to overcome this weakness by wanting to be a singer.” The records to which she was most regularly exposed at home were not rock’n’roll but those by her mother’s favorite vocalist, Zarah Leander, a Swedish balladeer who became the most popular singing film-star in Germany during the Nazi period. Christa briefly took ballet lessons, but her
artistic aspirations centered on the world of fashion. She did share at least one crucial characteristic with the young Lou Reed and John Cale, however: a burning desire to escape her drab surroundings for a more exciting, simulating world. It was fashion, not music, that got her out of a war-scarred Berlin and into the international jet set, long before Reed and Cale had even left home. Christa left school at around the age of 14 and, after a shortlived stint in a clothing shop, took to hanging around the chic Berlin department store KaDeWe in the hope of being discovered by fashion designers and photographers. In 1953, the beautiful blonde teenage was indeed invited to model for the leading German fashion designer, Heinz Oestergaard. She soon began to pose for fashion spreads in newspapers and magazines as well, many of them photographed by Herbert Tobias. It’s not known when the first such photography was published, but her first full-color portrait (taken by Tobias) appeared in Bunte magazine in January 1955, when Christa was still 16. With a scout for Elle magazine, Tobias also arranged for Christa to get regular assignments with the Paris-based German fashion photographer Willy Maywald, which led to her moving to Paris a year later. It was shortly after moving to Paris that Christa Päffgen became Nico, the name – suggested by Tobias in honor of his friend, the Greek nightclub owner Nico Papatakis by which she would be known for the rest of her life. “In front of me stood a list beautiful girl with bright eyes,” Maywald recalled of his first meeting with Nico in his autobiography, Die Splitter Des Spiegels. “She was tall and well-proportioned, and her hair was cut short… I had just had the assignment to shoot some ready-made clothes at the Côte d’Azur. And because Nico was exactly the right look for that I hired her at once.” Nico’s musical horizons broadened in Paris when she saw jazz giants such as Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell perform and was exposed to the music of popular vocalists such as Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, and Juliette Greco. Although she had yet to start singing herself, her artistic aspirations broadened as her assignments took her to Ibiza, where she rented a house for her mother, and Rome. While staying with Italian actress Silvana Mangano in Rome in the summer of 1958, she met Mangano’s husband, the Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis, which would lead in turn her first major step toward developing a career outside modeling.
Photographs by Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground on tour in 1969
The upbringings of the other two members of the most famous line-up of the Velvet Underground were, relatively speaking, fairly ordinary, and much closer to Lou Reed’s than to Nico’s or John Cale’s. Sterling Morrison was born Holmes Sterling Morrison Jr on August 29 1942 in East Meadow, Long Island, just seven miles from where the Reed family would settle in Freeport. Like Reed, Morrison had music lessons before the dawn of rock’n’roll, studying trumpet from the ages of seven through 12. (In a conversation with Nat Finkelstein taped in the fall of 1966, Reed said that the Velvet Underground had been trying to get Morrison to take up the trumpet again, but that Sterling had refused.) When his teacher was drafter, however, Morrison changed to guitar, inspired – like Reed – by the rock’n’roll he heard on the New York radio stations. Doo-wop groups, pioneering rock’n’roll guitarists Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, and bluesmen T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, and Lightnin’ Hopkins were all later cited by Morrison as key inspirations, but he wouldn’t meet Reed until he visited Syracuse University in the early 60s.
Morrison changed to guitar, inspired – like Reed – by the rock’n’roll he heard on the New York radio stations.
Tucker and Morrison, who’d known each other since the late 50s, would become vital cogs in grounding the avant-garde sensibilities of the Velvet Underground in the earthiest elements of rock’n’roll.
There he stayed with his friend Jim Tucker – the older brother of fellow rock’n’roll fan and future drummer Maureen Tucker, who grew up in Levittown, a Long Island town just three miles or so from East Meadow, and a little less than ten miles from Freeport (birthdates of both 1945 and August 26 1944 in New Jersey or Levittown, New York have been reported). Tucker and Morrison, who’d known each other since the late 50s, would become vital cogs in grounding the avant-garde sensibilities of the Velvet Underground in the earthiest elements of rock’n’roll.
Maureen Tucker at the annual dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry, January 13, 1966
Three different nationalities, two different genders, and musical backgrounds that varied from rhythm & blues to classical to virtually none hardly sounds like a recipe for a mid-60s rock group. Yet this was the quintet that formed the most renowned of the various Velvet Underground line-ups, and who in 1966 would record a debut LP that is now acknowledged as one of the greatest and most seminal albums in rock history.
When the Velvet Underground & Nico is released in March 1967, it will sound so unlike any previous rock album that it might seem that the quintet have alighted from another planet, or that they are characters from an Andy Warhol film magically brought to life. In fact, by then they will have been active and working hard to devise their strikingly original sound for about two years. Even before 1965, Lou Reed plays on a number of rock’n’roll records; John Cale establishes himself as an important part of the New York avant-garde scene; and Nico appears as an actress in a major motion picture, while also gracing numerous fashion magazines as a model. In their recordings from 1958-64, you can already hear Reed’s diffident vocal style and irreverent rock riffs; Cale’s ambient drone, on viola and other instruments; original drummer Angus MacLise’s unconventional, frantic percussion; and Nico’s regal, glacial demeanor.
1958 JULY The poet and filmmaker Piero Heliczer – who will later play a key role in the Velvet Underground’s evolution – moves to Paris, where he co-founds the Dead Language Press with Angus MacLise. The two men have been friends since they attended Forest Hills High School together in Queens during the mid 50s. It is probably during the second half of 1958 that the Dead Language Press publishes a volume of MacLise’s poetry, Imprimatur 1281, a short-run rarity that will eventually become almost impossible to find. The entry of MacLise (born Bridgeport Connecticut, on March 14 1938) into the Velvet Underground story adds an interesting and colorful character to the unfolding saga. By the end of his teenage years MacLise had already studied jazz drumming and various forms of ethnic percussion and traveled to Europe more than once, attending the Dolmetsch School in Haslemere, Surrey (around 45 miles from London), from 1945-51. He also did a short stint in the army and studied geology at New York University before coming to Paris. Never one to compromise his art or lifestyle for commercial reasons, he will continue to travel widely and unpredictably throughout the 41 years of his life giving an equal weight to a range of artistic pursuits that includes music, film, acting, poetry, teaching, editing, publishing, and calligraphy.
MacLise’s important contributions to the Velvet Underground during his short stint as the group’s original drummer in 1965 remains obscure and underappreciated. He quits the group shortly before Andy Warhol becomes their manager and never appears on any of their studio releases. But he does leave a definitive imprint in terms of his unconventional approach to rhythm and percussion, sometimes said to have been intended to emulate the sound of falling rain; the other avant-garde figures he helps bring into the band’s orbit; and his thirst for combining music with other media, echoed heavily in the Velvet Underground’s celebrated performances as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. As Sterling Morrison will later write in the literary magazine Little Caesar in 1979, “Angus was the most rabidly artistic of us all, with interests in literature, dance, music, film, lights, slides, incense, diaphanes, and religion – all at once. He mused day and night on a stage spectacle that might combine them all, and on what the dizzying effects of such a cataclysm might be.”
“Angus was the most rabidly artistic of us all, with interests in literature, dance, music, film, lights, slides, incense, diaphanes, and religion – all at once.” Sterling Morisson
1959 JUNE Concerned about their son’s homosexual tendencies and generally unconventional behavior, Lou Reed’s parents send him to a psychiatrist, who prescribes a course of electroshock treatment. Shortly after graduating Freeport High, Reed undergoes a course of electroshock treatment three times a week for eight weeks at Creedmore State Psychiatric Hospital, Long Island. The use of electroshock therapy is not nearly as controversial as it will become in subsequent decades; homosexuality won’t be declassified as a mental illness by the American Association until 1973. Although there are no apparent long-term effects on Reed’s memory or talent, he will later recall (as quoted in Transformer: The Lou Reed Story) that he felt immediately afterward that he had “become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and you have to go right back to page one again. Or if you put the book down for an hour and went back to pick up where you started, you didn’t remember the pages you read. You had to start all over. If you walked around the block, you forgot where you were. It was a problem. It was like a very prolonged bad acid trip with none of the benefits.” Reed’s bitterness at being sent for electroshock treatment will inform some of his later songs, notably ‘Kill Your Sons’ from his 1974 solo album, Sally Can’t Dance. He will also allude to the treatment in the first line of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s closing track, ‘European Son.’ (The song is listed in the songwriting credits as ‘European Son To Delmore Schwartz,’ a nod to the writer, university professor, and mentor to Reed who himself underwent the same treatment.) “When I was younger I was kind of mad at Lou about some stuff, not really angry, just kind of a little ticked off,” says Doug Yule, who will join the Velvet Underground in late 1968 and later play in Reed’s mid-70s touring band. “[Then] I learned about his electroshock therapy, and I said, ‘Oh man, that’s just awful.’ Anybody who’s been through that for those reasons deserves all the slack you can give him. I just let everything go at that point. He deserves every break that I can give him.”
While Reed is in Creedmore, Nico is filming her most famous screen role in Italian director Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. She met Fellini in passing while spending a second summer with Silvana Mangano and Dino De Laurentiis in Rome, attracting the director’s attention while wielding a candelabra being used as a prop on a film set. Nico doesn’t appear until almost two hours into the movie, and hardly stands out. Years later, in the commentary track that accompanies the 2004 DVD release, Time magazine critic Richard Schickel seems wholly unaware of who she is or was referring to her as “the blonde” or “the woman.” Upon its release in 1960, La Dolce Vita becomes a big international success, winning the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Film and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Years later, it is still regarded as a classic, and one of Fellini’s finest works.
1960 “It was just too weird and cutting edge. Lou was presaging the 60s and 70s and we just weren’t ready for it. He was right on the cusp of two generations. A little too far ahead to be admired in the 50s.” Katharine Griffin
SEPTEMBER Lou Reed begins his studies at Syracuse University, 250 miles from New York City. He quickly makes himself known as a maverick on campus by getting kicked out of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps – a freshman requirement for those students not taking physical education – within a few weeks. A decade later, in promotional material for his debut solo album, Reed will claim to have been expelled from ROTC for threatening to shoot an officer, but there is some doubt as to whether he really went to such extremes. Reed will soon be removed from the radio station by program director Katharine Griffin after complaints from several faculty members, including the dean of men. “Excursions On A Wobbly Rail was a really weird jazz show that sounded like some new kind of noise,” Griffin explains in Transformer: The Lou Reed Story. “It was just too weird and cutting edge. Lou was presaging the 60s and 70s and we just weren’t ready for it. He was right on the cusp of two generations. A little too far ahead to be admired in the 50s.” John Cale moves to London to begin his own course of higher education after accepting a scholarship to Goldsmiths College. He takes a triple music course – which includes a study of the viola with Gwynn Edwards – and pursues his interests in musique concrete and adventurous 20th century composers such as Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, and Luigi Nono. Goldsmiths specializes in preparing its student for entering the teaching profession, but Cale has already started to realize that he wants to be a composer, not a teacher.
SEPTEMBER Folk will remain an underestimated influence on Reed’s songwriting but he hasn’t forgotten his first love. He also forms a rock’n’roll band, LA & The Eldorados, with high school friend Allen Hyman on drums, Richard Mishkin on piano and bass, Stephen Windheim on lead guitar, and Bobby Newman on saxophone. Newman will soon be replaced by Bernie Kroll, while the ‘LA’ of the name is variously reported to stand for either Lewis and Alan (Reed’s first and middle names) or Lou and Allen in honor of the two founding members. Fellow student Donald Schupak, who will later play a key role in helping Reed gain his first foothold in the music business, comes aboard as the group’s manager. Another student, Joe Divoli, helps them get local bookings at clubs, bars, fraternity parties, and suchlike a few nights per week. Reed and his band-mates find work as far afield as Colgate (about 50 miles from
Syrcause) and also sometimes perform with black female vocalists, as well as singers from a group called (perhaps apocryphally) the Three Screaming Niggers. Reed will later describe the bands he played with during high school and college as “really bad groups, really bad” in the Rock & Roll Heart documentary. “We were so bad we had to change our name every week. No one would ever hire us twice knowingly.” LA & The Eldorados do nonetheless receive the benefit of some of Reed’s the earliest original songs. One is a version of ‘Coney Island Baby,’ a song that will eventually become the title track on his 1976 solo album. A less serious contribution is ‘Fuck Around Blues,’ which will later be described by Mishkin in Transformer: Lou Reed Story as “an insult song. It sometimes went over well and it sometimes got us thrown out fraternity parties.”
Folk will remain an underestimated influence on Reed’s songwriting but he hasn’t forgotten his first love.
1963 SEPTEMBER Having already set his sights on New York before leaving London, John Cale moves to the city after finishing his course at Tanglewood. He quickly asks John Cage, with whom he corresponded while at Goldsmiths, for help in finding work. He is soon offered a job at the Orientalia bookshop by Nick Cernovitch, lighting designer for Cage’s choreographer, Merce Cunningham, and invited to participate in an upcoming musical event with Cage. In addition to contacting Cage, Cale also calls another New York composer he’s anxious to meet: La Monte Young. Virtually nothing of Young’s work is known yet to the general public, and little of it will ever see the light of day on record. But it is with Young and not the considerably more famous Cage, that Cale ends up collaborating most seriously. “I got La Monte’s number from John Cage, who I’d been in touch with at Goldsmiths,” Cale recalls in an interview for BBC Wales (issued on DVD in 2006 as John Cale). “At that point when I got to New York, Cage had already over the baton to La Monte as the leading figure in the avant-garde. And I’d heard that he had a group that he was playing [with], and I took my viola down there and introduced myself.”
“There was no doubt about John’s musicianship,” Young explains in the same documentary. “The first thing that starts coming through in the phone call is the empathy, the sense that he really wanted to work with me, and that he was very interested in new music. Then I find out he plays viola. He said, ‘Oh, I stopped playing viola. He said, ‘Oh, I stopped playing viola.’ And I said, ‘Never mind, bring it along.’” Cale continues to rehearse rigorously with Young for the next 18 months until the pull of playing rock’n’roll with a new collaborator, Lou Reed, becomes too strong for him to resist. The amplified drones he rehearses so devoutly with these collaborators will become a huge influence on the music of the Velvet Underground. Cale’s activities also start to bring him into contact with other figures who will play a major part in the formation of the group, most notably their first drummer, Angus MacLise.
John Cale’s pre-VU group. From left: Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and John Cale.
1963 NOVEMBER Lou Reed sees Bob Dylan in concert at Syracuse University’s Regent Theatre. Released in May, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan has begun to establish Dylan as the most influential topical songwriter in folk music. According to bandmate Richard Mishkinm Reed has become a big admirer of Dylan, even going so far as to get a harmonica and work out an arrangement of ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down,’ one of the traditional songs from Dylan’s first LP, to play with the Eldorados. The only time Dylan’s influence on the Velvet Underground will become explicit is on ‘Prominent Men’, an early Reed-Cale composition. Highly derivative of Dylan’s early protest songs (right down to the bleating harmonica), it is rehearsed by the group in their formative days but will not be released until a July 1965 demo is included on the 1995 boxed set Peel Slowly And See. Something of Dylan’s songwriting nonetheless echoed in the personal, uncompromising approach to lyric-writing that Reed has begun to develop, and one can’t help but wonder whether seeing a successful performer with a rough, unconventional voice gives Reed the courage to assert his own idiosyncratic vocal persona.
By the end of 1963, some of John Cale’s musical activities with his rapidly expanding circle of young New York avant-gardists are starting to get captured on tape. In his autobiography, he recalls making experimental recordings with Angus MacLise, Tony Conrad, and underground filmmaker Jack Smith at Conrad’s Ludlow Street apartment this year. The instruments on these performances include bowed guitar (Conrad), guitar or viola (Cale), tom-toms (MacLise), and spoken poetry of sorts (Smith). Even if Cale’s chronology is a bit off, it’s almost certain that such sessions would be underway by or soon after the end of the year. Jack Smith is another of the colorful characters helping to shapes Cale’s artistic and musical vision, but most Velvet Underground fans will have no more than a vague (if not nonexistent) knowledge of his contributions. His most famous and notorious film remains his blackand-white, not-quite-feature-length Flaming Creatures from 1962. It’s surrealistic piece, with exotic androgynous sexual images and transvestism. It is banned for being ‘obscene’ before being screened in the Senate in July 1968 by Southern conservative senator Strom Thurmond at a ‘Fortas Film Festival’ as a kind of protest against the liberal Abe Fortas’s nomination for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Something of Dylan’s songwriting nonetheless echoed in the personal, uncompromising approach to lyric-writing that Reed has begun to develop.
Lou Reed’s vocals are halfway between hipster poetry and streetwise rock’n’roll, infinitely more assured and sardonic than on his earlier, Bob-Shad produced efforts.
SEPTEMBER Lou Reed lands a job as a songwriter at Pickwick International Records in Long Island City. He is recommended to the company’s songwriter-producer Terry Philips (born Phil Teitelbaum in Brooklyn) by Philips’s cousin, Leslie Silverman, who went to Syracuse with Reed and is the girlfriend of Don Schupak, manager of Reed’s college band LA & The Eldorados. Reed’s sting at Pickwick is the phase of his long and storied career that most puzzles his later biographers. Less than a year before recording tentative versions of ‘Heroin,’ ‘I’m Waiting For The Man,’ and ‘Venus In Furs’ with John Cale and Sterling Morrison, here he is working as Brill Building-style tunesmith for a company that specializes in budget albums sold for a dollar. Among the records that Pickwick puts out are albums of British Invasion-style music designed to fool listeners into thinking they’re buying Beatles records, and collections of surf and hot-rod songs by studio-only groups ground out as quickly as possible to capitalize on whatever is in fashion at the time. Delmore Schwartz’s admonition to never sell out might still be ringing in his ears, but here Reed looks to have opted for the cheapest sell-out that would be imaginable. “In many ways, this is the craziest part of the entire crazy Velvet Underground story,” write M.C. Kostek and Phil Milstein in their critical discography for the group for the What Goes On fanzine. “No work Lou has done is so trivial, so pre-fabricated, so tossed off.”
The Primitives in 1964
1964 NOVEMBER Only two months after signing on at Pickwick, Lou Reed gets his first shot at making a record of his own – or at least as the leader of a studio-only group – when he cuts ‘The Ostrich’ and ‘ Sneaky Pete’ as the lead singer in the Primitives. This, surely, is the first record on which the Lou Reed we now know and love emerges. His vocals are halfway between hipster poetry and streetwise rock’n’roll, and infinitely more assured and sardonic than on his earlier, Bob-Shad produced efforts. When he yelps – as he does periodically, encouraged by silly, falsetto backing vocals – it sounds more like a drunken party spiraling out of control than a recording session at a professional studio. Sometimes the pummeling rhythms accelerate to the point where a conventional beat is almost entirely lost – something Angus MacLise would certainly have been at home with – and Reed flashes his unrivaled knack for nonsense improvised lyrics over the instrumental break and fade. Ambient white noise cuts across the rest of the racket, making the record sound like it was made in a wind tunnel. All in all, the idea that such a 45 could gain favor among radio DJs seems preposterous, although no less preposterous than the record itself. No event is more crucial to the birth of the Velvet Underground than the first meeting in late November 1964 between Lou Reed and John Cale. Neither would have been able to make the leap from his perspective perch – Reed’s trashy rock’n’roll, Cale’s deep avant-gardism – to the group’s groundbreaking, experimental, and literary rock without the other. Each sees something in the other, and helps bring out qualities that ignite the spark around which the group’s sound and vision are built. As with many intense collaborations, however, the spark is not lit immediately. It takes some time for the pair to feel each other out and begin to venture into territory that was, until now, alien to both.
The Primitives pose in the trunk of Terry Philip’s car, 1964. From left: Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale.
Neither would have been able to make the leap from his perspective perch – Reed’s trashy rock’n’roll, Cale’s deep avant-gardism – to the group’s groundbreaking, experimental, and literary rock without the other.
After touring as The Primitives in early 1965, Lou Reed and John Cale set about forming the core axis upon which the Velvet Underground’s sound is built. Cale continues to perform avant-garde music with La Monte Young and Reed carries on churning out cheapo rock’n’roll discs at Pickwick Records, but their new group begins to gain momentum with the addition of guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Angus MacLise. They record demos, venture into multimedia performance, and use their real-life experiences on the Lower East Side to craft songs unlike any ever written before. By December they have a new drummer, Maureen Tucker. Their management is about to be taken over by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, which will launch the group’s sputtering career into an entirely different stratosphere. Waiting in the wings is Nico, who records her first solo single in London this summer before moving to New York.
APRIL Lou Reed comes by chance across his old friend Sterling Morrison on the New York subway’s D train at around the 7th avenue stop. Morrison is on his way to a class at City College of New York, where he’s still studying English Literature. Reed and Morrison quickly re-establish their friendship, with Morrison soon playing guitar alongside Reed and Cale as their group takes shape.
The Velvet Underground’s first line-up, 1965. From left: John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, and Angus MacLise.
FEBRUARY Although the Primitives are already on their last legs, Lou Reed and John Cale keep in touch, with Reed beginning to visit Cale at 56 Ludlow Street. Cale is increasingly impressed not just by Reed’s songwriting but by his guitar playing, his uncanny ability to improvise lyrics, and his general natural knack for living and breathing rock’n’roll. Reed in turn has grown increasingly frustrated by his position at Pickwick and the company’s unwillingness to release his controversially explosive songs. What he needs now, he realizes, is to get his own band together – and Cale is the man with whom to do it.
Cale and Reed’s neighbor, Angus MacLise, has also started to join in their 56 Ludlow Street rehearsals on drums, but not as regularly as the other three, as he’s not one to be confined to any particular timetable. MacLise plays the same sort of Indian and Middle Eastern-influenced drums he has also been using in La Monte Young’s group. This unconventional setup certainly sets the nascent Velvet Underground apart from the other groups, but might also make MacLise an unsuitable long-term choice once the others begin to evolve in a more pronounced rock direction. On what Sterling Morrison will later describe in Little Caesar magazine as an early spring day, he and John Cale run into Angus MacLise at the corner of Essex and Delancey on the Lower East Side. MacLise and filmmaker Piero Heliczer, who has hovered at the edge of the pre-Velvet Underground story since the late 50s, are in the process of organizing a multimedia happening called Launching The Dream Weapon. The event is set to take place at the Film-Maker’s Cinematheque, run by Jonas Mekas, on of the most esteemed avant-garde directors and critics of the era. Morrison, Cale, and MacLise’s new group are enlisted to provide the live soundtrack.
“In the center of the stage there was a movie screen, and between the screen and the audience a number of veils were spread out in different places,” Morrison writes. “These veils were lit variously by lights and Cale and Reed soon start playing together, improvising slide projections, as Piero’s films shone through them and working around Reed’s songs. When Tony Conrad onto the screen. Dancers swirled around, and poetry moves out of 56 Ludlow Street, Reed becomes Cale’s roommate, further intensifying the friendship and creative and song occasionally rose up while from behind the screen a strange music was being generated by Lou, collaboration between the two men. Reed and Cale John, Angus and me; I think that Piero was back there are now living the true Lower East Side bohemian sometimes too playing his saxophone. The whole event lifestyle, burning crates in their fireplace or wrapping took place in an atmosphere of dense smoke from all the themselves in carpet to keep warm; eating nondescript incense that was burning. I though that it was impresstews and oatmeal in bulk to keep going in the absence sive and pretty.” of money for anything better. The band – probably still without a name – goes on to play at several similar events organized by Heliczer during the summer. These might be primitive compared to the following year’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable concerts, but do at least give the group useful experience of working in a multimedia environment.
JULY For about ten years, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling will feature in Nico’s solo debut. Even without drums Morrison have been assimilating a wide range of influ- (or Nico), and with Cale not yet playing the bass, the ences of rock’n’roll, blues, rhythm & blues, jazz, conessence of both their core repertoire and revolutionary temporary composition, and the avant-garde. It’s not innovation is clear to see. until now, however, that they record something that’s If there’s one thing that stands out above all others as truly recognizable as the Velvet Underground. There a breakthrough – compared both to Reed and Cale’s might have been flashes of it in Reed’s unconventional previous recordings and to rock music as a whole – it’s Pickwick recordings, and in the drones of Cale’s work the enormous leap forward in Reed’s songwriting. With with Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, ‘Heroin’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘Venus In Furs’, and and Marian Zazeela. But apart from Reed’s ‘Heroin’ dem‘All Tomorrow’s Parties,’ he addresses drugs, deviant os, these are just tiny pieces of a much bigger jigsaw sex, and the dangerous exhilaration of Lower East Side puzzle. Now, on a demo tape that the trio make with street-life with fearless honesty and almost journalistic a reel-to-reel Wollensak recorder (inherited by Cale from details. As Reed himself will point out on numerous Tony Conrad), the basic elements of the VU sound fall occasions, these themes are already common in novels, into place. plays, and films, but have yet to be explored in depth Four of the six songs demoed now will be re-recorded in pop songs – or at least with the skill and intellectualias highlights of The Velvet Underground & Nico; another ty Reed brings to the task.
The Velvet Underground performing in the underground film Venus In Furs by Piero Heliczer at 450 Grand Street, November, 1965.
DECEMBER In his new role as manager of the Velvet Underground, Al Aronowitz has landed the group their first paying gig. They’re set to open for his other clients, the Myddle Class, at a suburban high school in northern New Jersey on December 11. The gig must have been arranged at least ten days in advance as the third issue of the Myddle Class fan-club newsletter, dated December 1, mentions a planned appearance by the group with “the Velvet Underground and the Forty Fingers, both of whom will soon have records on the market.” (This seems like quite an optimistic statement given that no label has yet to show an interest in signing the Velvets.) Upon hearing the news, however, Angus MacLise unexpectedly quits the band. MacLise has always been a hardcore artistic purist, and doesn’t want tot be told when to show up and how long to play. He doesn’t even want to get paid, although the Velvet’s fee of $75 is modest even by 1965 standards. “I think Angus and Lou had had some kind of falling out,” Hetty MacLise says today. “’Cause [with] Angus, everything had to be immediate. He couldn’t really stand the thought of having to rehearse at a certain time, because maybe he wasn’t actually feeling quite like it or something. Just when they were about to make a record, or make some money, then he would pull out. He would get tired of it. He wouldn’t want to be involved with that side of things.” Now reduced to a trio, the Velvet Underground need a new drummer fast if they’re to honor their first booking. Reed and Morrison decide to call on the younger sister of their old Syracuse friend Jim Tucker. Maureen Tucker currently works as a computer operator but has been playing drums (and guitar) for a while. And she does at least have a little bit of stage experience, having recently performed with the Intruders. Reed auditions Tucker, whom he had met already during his college days, in the room where she keeps her drums. She’s then invited to join the Velvets despite the initial objections of Cale who, perhaps recalling trouble with Elektrah Lobel, no longer wants any girls in the group.
Maureen Tucker’s recruitment into the Velvet Underground is almost arbitrary in its hastiness, and probably a matter of expediency rather than careful consideration at this point. Tucker has only been playing the drums for about a year and a half, having been inspired by the US release of the first Rolling Stones album in May 1964, which she later recalls playing “’til it was white” in an interview with the Crimewave U.S.A. fanzine. In recruiting Tucker, the Velvet Underground – already one of the most unusual-looking and sounding bands around – now stand out even more, female drummers being a rare commodity among mid-60s rock bands. With her close-cropped hair, thin, tomboyish frame, and mod clothes, Tucker is sometimes even mistaken for a boy in their early days, lending an androgynous air of mystery that will be one of the first things Andy Warhol and his associates find striking about the group. She also brings a stable personality to this often volatile unit – something that’s not lost on Paul Morrissey, who today calls her “one of the best assets they had. Everybody liked her, she always got along with everybody. A really nice girl, and did a great job. She and Nico were the only ones you could really like.” Ultimately most significant, however, is her drumming, which turns out not only to be better suited to the group than MacLise’s but also highly unusual and creative in its own right. Tucker brings heavy, almost tribal patterns that enhance the Velvets’ raw yet arty primitivism. She doesn’t have many cymbals; never uses a hi-hat; plays the snare as a high tom; and puts the bass drum on its side to strike it with mallets instead of using a foot pedal. “At first I literally just put the bass drum on the floor at rehearsals, and at shows we’d put two chairs together, which didn’t work so great,” she later tells Modern Drummer magazine. “But pretty quickly a friend of ours made a stand that would hold it up so I could stand up and pay it.” It’s partly as a consequence of this that Tucker plays standing up, adding yet another mark of visual distinction to a group already well on the way to looking and sounding unlike any other band around.
With her close-cropped hair, thin, tomboyish frame, and mod clothes, Tucker is sometimes even mistaken for a boy in their early days, lending an androgynous air of mystery that will be one of the first things Andy Warhol and his associates find striking about the group.
Maureen Tucker as a mourning bride in the underground film Venus in Fur, November, 1965
“Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard.” Rob Norris The first definite Velvet Underground concert takes place at this high school about 25 miles from New York City. Remarkably, Rob Norris will later offer a detailed eyewitness account in his 1979 article ‘I Was A Velveteen’ for the Kicks fanzine. “Nothing could have prepared the kids and parents assembled in the auditorium for what they were about to experience that night,” he writes. “Our only clue was the small crowd of strange-looking people hanging around in front of the stage. When the curtain went up, nobody could believe their eyes! There stood the Velvet Underground – all tall and dressed mostly in black; two of them wearing sunglasses. One of the guys with the shades had VERY long hair and was wearing silver jewelry. He was holding a large violin. The drummer had a Beatle haircut and was standing at a small oddly arranged drum kit. Was it a boy or a girl?
Flyer for the first public performance of the band as the Velvet Underground, December 11, 1965
“Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song, which the singer introduced as ‘Heroin,’ the music began to get even more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave which was threatening to engulf us all. At this point, most of the audience retreated in horror for the safety of their homes, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of rock’n’roll music. My friends and I moved a little closer to the stage, knowing that something special was happening. “Backstage after their set, the viola player was seen apologizing profusely to an outraged Myddle Class entourage for scaring away half the audience. Al Aronowitz was philosophical about it, though, [saying] ‘at least you’ve given them a night to remember’ and invited everyone to a party at his house after the show.” Unfazed by the puzzled response to the Velvet Underground at Summit High School, Al Aronowitz quickly fixes the group up with a residency at the Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village. The club opened in August 18 1957 with performances by two of the greatest talents of the folk revival, Dave Van Ronk and Odetta.
The final straw comes when, having already worked on Christmas Eve, the group are told to play on New Year’s Eve as well. They want out, whatever it takes. But being the Velvet Underground, they’re going to get out of their New Year’s commitment in style. The room-clearing ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ has for some time been driving the proprietress of the Café Bizarre up the wall. The Velvets get their wish when they decide to play it in their next set. It’s not known whether or not they are allowed to finish the set, but this is definitely their last night at the Café Bizarre, and also one of the most notorious concerts of their career – one too that seals their determination to do things their way, heedless of consequences.
Café Bizarre on West 3rd Street
By the time the Velvet Underground begin their stint, around the third week of December, the club has definitely seen better days. “It was a real clip joint,” Reed will later tell Circus magazine. “It had a hawker outside and everything.” Although the group’s stint at the Café Bizarre is brief, probably lasting no more than a couple of weeks, they quickly tire of playing six nights a week fir five dollars each per night. They’re similarly unimpressed by the relatively grueling schedule of playing several sets a night, alternating 40 minutes of music with 20 minutes of rest; by having to play on a stage so small that Moe Tucker has to swap her drum kit for a tambourine; and indeed by the indifference of both the audience – mostly tourists and pseudo-beatniks – and the club’s unpleasant management.
The Velvet Underground’s brief tenure at the Café Bizarre “I thought I could manage a rock’n’roll group,” Morrissey continues. “I didn’t even mention it to anybody. There house-band comes to a most colorful end. But it’s hardly an ignominious finale as the group could hardly was no interest of anyone in the Factory in going to hear rock’n’roll groups. Andy seldom went to rock’n’roll care less, since they now have the admiration – and groups unless there was a photo opportunity there.” the backing – of Andy Warhol. They might not have It should nonetheless be added that, unlikely many anywhere to play on New Year’s Ever 1965, but within culturally respected figures of his age (late-thirties), days Warhol and his manager, Paul Morrissey, will be Warhol does actually like rock’n’roll. booking much more suitable venues, while starting to plot a course that will soon see the group gain national Morrissey talking about the first time he met the Velvets: exposure and record one of the greatest rock albums “I went up tot hem and said, ‘I manage Andy Warhol, of all time. I’m looking for a rock’n’roll group that we could present at a big night-club that’s gonna open in Queens. Do you It’s unclear exactly when Andy Warhol sees the Velvet Underground at the Café Bizarre. But as Lou Reed later have a manager?’ They said no. [I said,] ‘I’ll bring Andy tomorrow; you can meet him and decide.’ So I brought tells John Wilcock, author of The Autobiography & Sex Andy reluctantly … he sat there. Then he said, ‘what Life Of Andy Warhol, it’s probably during the band’s are we going to do with them?’ He had no urge or last few days at the club. interest in getting involved in any music group. I said, What is known for sure is that Warhol’s manager, Paul ‘Look, don’t worry about it. I’ll manage it, I’ll figure it Morrissey, has been looking for a band to work with for out.’ And proceeded from there. They were a calculated some time as part of the Factory’s general expansion business attempt on my part to be a financially into multimedia activities. “The most unusual idea I lucrative enterprise.” had in order to make money with Andy’s name was to have him present a rock‘n’roll group, something he was Well aware of Warhol’s fame and wealth, the Velvet Underground immediately agree to a proposed manageextremely reluctant to do,” Morrissey explains in the ment deal, and reap some instant benefits in the form documentary Factory Days: Paul Morrissey Remembers of better equipment. Warhol is getting a lot out of the The Sixties. “The opportunities for getting money from deal too, however. There could be no better musical experimental movies were obviously nonexistent. And match for him than a band that has started to break therefore the possibilities in 1965, in the era of the similar barriers in pop music to the ones he has been Beatles just coming to America, the Rolling Stones, and breaking in visual art and film. Sonically and visually, everybody supposedly making a lot of money, seemed the Velvets are the perfect fit for the kind of bold, like a very good idea. multimedia extravaganza Warhol and his associates are “I thought of the idea of finding a rock group that Andy probably just starting to formulate. They’re already could appear to manage, or present, let’s say. He never thinking of getting a rock’n’roll band to play at the airplane managed; he presented. Basically, movies that I made, hangar-sized Queens discotheque tentatively (and or things that I thought of, he presented. He was incafarcically) called Andy Warhol’s Up. But the other events pable of coming up with sensible ideas of what to do, into which they plug the group will end up being far and he very seldom made the effort. The few times that more interesting. he did, I would listen, give them some consideration, but I’d never take anything too seriously. But I made an It might still seem like a miracle for the group and Warhol’s crowd to stumble upon each other at a deadeffort to try to humor him. end Greenwich Village club, but the meeting would probably have happened sooner or later, given the two parties’ overlapping social and artistic circles, assuming the struggling Velvets managed to stay together. This will no longer be an immediate concern with Warhol’s backing, but changes are almost immediately in the offing as 1966 dawns, starting with the introduction, at Warhol’s insistence, of a new singer.
The Velvet Underground performing at the CafĂŠ Bizarre, December, 1965. Barbara Rubin filmed the bandâ€™s performance on the night of December 14.
There could be no better musical match for Andy than a band that has started to break similar barriers in pop music to the ones he has been breaking in visual art and film.
Just as she had ten years before, Nico decided that it was time again to be discovered. In May 1964, springtime in Paris, by the chance she called fate, she met a dishy new singer who heard her singing one of his songs. He told her to shut up; not because she was bad, but because he didn’t like women singing his songs. That distinction was significant. In trying to stop her singing, he provoked her into a fresh career. It was not quite the same as discovery, but for Nico, 25 years old, it was a kick and a start. Robert Zimmerman was a middle-class Jewish boy from the American Midwest who changed not only his name but also his accent (to a yee-har Oklahoma twang) for the sake of his folk-song profession. In that way, Bob Dylan was as much a persona as the Swedish model Nico. When she met him he was 23, two years younger than her. His second LP had been released; it was a sensation, and not only in Nico’s view. He had started out as an imitator of folk and blues in a manner typical of teenage American bohemianism until, in 1960, he discovered the music of Woody Guthrie. The veteran Guthrie, composer of ‘Bound for Glory’, was a brilliant creator of sharp-edged ‘protest’ songs. Dylan donned his mantle so successfully that he rose to a consummate position as a singer-songwriter who has yet, in the view of many devotees, to be equaled. Nico didn’t understand a word of his music. ‘Twing, twang, twing, twing, baybee: that’s how it went.” Dylan had played in London to promote his LP, and had received more acclaim that anyone had then expected. He was a new icon, as Nico would have known before she met him. Dylan had decided to move on to Paris for a few days, not to play but to meet Hugues Aufray, who translated his songs into French. In this way he came by chance to Nico. They met in the street, introduced by their mutual friend. Bob Dylan said he remembered her from La Dolce Vita, and feigned interest enough to get
Bob Dylan at the Factory, 1965
swiftly invited to her studio apartment. They stayed there for an evening and a week: ‘He was so charming. I had not quite met someone like him – assertive and delightful, and young. He did not treat me very seriously, but at least he was interested in my story, which he found to be a sad one, especially about my baby. As I was from Berlin, he asked me if I knew the playwright Brecht. I told him that Brecht had run a theatre in Berlin, but we were forbidden to go there because it was in the Soviet sector. He said, “You see? That would never happen in America. At least we are free to see things.” I said “But it’s the Americans who are stopping us walking through.” For a man who was preaching about politics he did not know his history too well. Anyways, what about William Burroughs? Wasn’t his book banned in his how country? I could buy it in Berlin. ‘So, then we went together to Greece for a short time, a little place near Athens, and he wrote me a song about me and my little baby. I was the first to sing it in public [not true, Judy Collins was]. But he was being chauvinistic and little annoyed that I could sing properly, at least in tune, so he made me more determined to sing to other people.’ The song is title ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, and its opening verse runs: You will search, babe, At any cost, But how long, babe, Can you search for what’s not lost? Ev’rybody will help you Some people are very kind But if I can save you any time, Come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine.
After some pestering from Nico, Bob Dylan records a one-take piano demo of ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ at an unspecified London studio. The record is “not bad, not good, but rushed’ according to Richard Witts, author of Nico: The Life & Lies Of An Icon. It is promptly pressed onto an acetate demo. Nico is no doubt keen to lay claim to this unreleased Dylan song as soon as she can, but its composer has more important things on his mind. Before recording the demo, he sings he a version of the song he plans to record as his next single, ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ Already irritated by having had to wait around with other Dylan girlfriends for hours, Nico tells him that this new song is not as good as ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine.’ The acetate he then gives her is probably the same one Nico will later recall being “sent” by Dylan in the third issue of What Goes On. Continuing her almost desperate mission to record Bob Dylan material, Nico writes a letter to him at the Savoy hotel that will later surface when it is auctioned at Christie’s on April 30 2002. “Please, please, you promised to write me songs & I want to sing your songs,” she writes. “They are the only ones that make sense for me & my life depends on them.” She ten informs Dylan of some “wonderful news”: “I wish that you would be still in London next Friday to see me sing your song on Ready Steady Go! They like me to sing ‘Tambourine Man’ & I will sing it for you especially.”
In a Disc Weekly story titled ‘The Real Bob Dylan… By Nico, Who First Met Him In Paris,’ Nico offers her impressions of the man who has just broken through to superstardom with ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ “I didn’t know what to expect when we met,” she admits. “He was like a god to me. He doesn’t put himself out. And he never tries to change anyone. He accepts or rejects them as he expects them to treat him. He doesn’t like to go out very much. Only walking. Most of the time he talks about people he knows. He loves beautiful people and beautiful movies. He used to write all the time even with the studio full of people. He is scared of being alone. He could cut himself off and write even with a lot of noise around him.” Nico also recalls a time when Dylan played her a new song he’d recorder, and “asked me what I thought. I had to say ten times how good it was before he was sure. He always wants to know what you think and what you are thinking about.”
“ Please, please, you promised to write me songs & I want to sing your songs, they are the only ones that make sense for me & my life depends on them.” Nico 43
Nico in La Dolce Vita
In around early November, Nico travels to New York to do some modeling and, with Brian Jones, visit Andy Warhol’s Factory on the fifth floor of a warehouse at 231 East 47th Street. She will later claim, in a 1986 interview with Melbourne’s 3RRR-FM, that Albert Grossman paid for her ticket to New York, telling her that “he can only do something for me over there.” No such arrangement ever seems to materialize, however, although Warhol’s manager, Paul Morrissey, recalls Grossman bringing Nico to the Factory prior to her joining the Velvets. Nico gives Warhol a copy of her Immediate single, and Warhol in turn gives her a ‘screen test’ – the same rite-of-passage-on-film given tot many visitors of the Factory, including the rest of the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Cass Elliot. These aren’t screen tests in the traditional Hollywood sense: here, the camera is just pointed at the subject and left to roll for a few minutes with virtually nothing in the way of instruction, dialogue, or predetermined action. (Nico will later claim that it was Bob Dylan who introduced her to Warhol and suggested that Warhol do films with her.)
“The way they did movies was very, very bizarre, it was like they spent all day doing nothing.” Peter Sahula
Nico must do something – here or otherwise – to impress Warhol as she’s soon given a role in an actual 70-minute film of his, The Closet. Nico’s photographer friend Peter Sahula comes with her to the Factory for one of these early shoots. “The way they did movies was very, very bizarre,” is his blunt assessment. “It was like they spent all day doing nothing. I can’t imagine how anybody really could have done a movie. There was just a lot of people milling around, and nobody knew what they were doing. Nico was supposed to be in the movie, but she wasn’t doing anything, and everybody was just talking. It was crazy. I said, ‘Get me out of here. What is this?’” The Closet will rarely be seen, and nor will be any of the other full-length films Nico makes with Warhol over the next couple of years. The only one to gain any real exposure will be 1966’s The Chelsea Girls. These probably aren’t the kind of films she had in mind when she first arrived at the Factory, let alone when she studied at Lee Strasberg’s Actor Studio a few years earlier. But they do give her a foot in the Factory door, making her a logical choice when Warhol and Morrissey start thinking about recruiting a female singer for the Velvet Underground later in the year.
Andy Warhol Screen Test of Nico, 1965
Nico joins the Velvet Underground at the start of the year. The new line-up is an explosive mix of rock, the avant-garde, poetry, and the smashing of lyrical taboos. As part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Velvets combine their music with film, light projection, dance, and theater – and do so more successfully and more excitingly than perhaps any other music act before or since. By April they’re attracting national press coverage and recording the bulk of their ground breaking debut album; in May they sign a contract with MGM Records. The group’s momentum is derailed, however, by the muted response to their first Californian tour, and by the inexplicable delays to the release of their first LP. They continue to stir up controversy and media coverage with sporadic touring across the East Coast and Midwest throughout the rest of the year, during which time they’re often unfairly viewed as Andy Warhol’s latest pop-art gimmick.
JANUARY As much as Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey like the “I was just this poor little rock’n’roller, and here was this goddess,” Reed says in the documentary Lou Reed: Velvet Underground, they think the group needs a new – or at least additional – lead singer. This might be Rock And Roll Heart. “We didn’t really feel we had a choice. I mean, we could have just walked away from hard to believe in light of Lou Reed’s subsequent fame and flamboyance, but it’s worth remembering that only it, or we had a chanteuse. So we had a group meeting and said, ‘All right, we’ll have a chanteuse, and Lou a few months have passed since he rather reluctantly will write a song or two for her, and then we’ll still be took on the role of lead vocalist at the insistence of John Cale and Sterling Morrison. As far as Warhol and the Velvet Underground.’ You know, why not?” Morrissey are concerned, the Velvets need someone As John Cale notes in the same film, “When Nico was more conventionally charismatic. In Nico: The Life & Lies introduced as sort of the great headline-maker, that Of An Icon, Morrissey recalls telling Warhol, “The probwas when I started thinking about Andy as the media lem is these people have no singer. There’s a guy who manipulator, the master of all that.” (Warhol’s name sings but he’s got no personality and nobody pays the will be similarly instrumental in getting press coverage slightest attention to him. They need someone with a bit for this otherwise unknown group.) of charisma.” Nico will remain with the Velvet Underground, in an By January 3, the group are rehearsing with a singer, uneasy, on-off fashion, for the next year and a half. Nico, whom both Warhol and Morrissey lobby hard for: While her musical role in the band is limited, the other “Most of the songs were sung by Lou, who had no members will eventually come to appreciate her personality, and I thought that could be remedied,” contributions, if only in retrospect. Morrissey says. “[I thought] Nico should sing in front of them, and also be the girl that can replace Edie for With the line-up complete, the Velvets are put under Andy’s photo opportunities, and she could actually a management contract to Warhol and Morrissey, sing in a beautiful deep German voice. Her appearance although Warhol’s part of the job, like many of the other was spectacular, tall and very feminine, very elegant, activities in which he’s involved, will often be delegatand she didn’t jump up and down and wave her hips. ed to others. “There I was, with suddenly a rock’n’roll It was a perfect idea. But I realized from the start group that Andy was pretending to be the manager that Lou didn’t like it one bit. He made it obvious.” of,” Morrissey later exclaims in the Factory Days documenAccording to Nico: The Life & Lies Of An Icon, Reed tary. “But I was, in reality, his manager, managing them!” specifically asks for Nico to be billed separately from the rest of the group – hence their subsequent billing, live and on record, as The Velvet Underground & Nico. “
Nico at the annual dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry, January 13, 1966
I was just this poor little rock’n’roller, and here was this goddess.” Lou Reed
FEBRUARY Hanging out at the Factory isn’t just a fun thing for the Velvets to do, but also something that has an immediate positive effect on their chief songwriter’s work ethic. “It took us some time to get up to the Factory, but when we finally did, it blew my mind,” Reed later tells Dave Hickey in the June 1975 issue of Oui magazine. “The amount of energy was incredible. You know, people talk about how passive Andy is, but he works all the time, and at that time, so did everybody else who hung around there. We started practicing at the Factory, and when I showed up, Andy would say, ‘How many songs have you written today?’ and I’d go, ‘Oh, ten,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, you should have done 20. You have to do as much as you can.’ I’d never met anybody like that, who had such a clear idea of the artist as somebody who works – you know, all the time.” New York public television station WNET films a segment on Andy Warhol and the group he now manages. “We’re sponsoring a new band,” he announces matter-of-factly. “It’s called the Velvet Underground… Since I don’t really believe in painting anymore, I thought it would be a nice way of combining – we have this chance to combine music and art and films all together. We’re sort of working on that. The whole thing’s being auditioned tomorrow at nice o’clock. If it works out, it might be very glamorous.
“The amount of energy was incredible. You know, people talk about how passive Andy is, but he works all the time, and at that time, so did everybody else who hung around there.” Lou Reed
Lou Reed with Andy Warhol, taken soon after they’d met in December, 1965
Although the Velvet Underground have already made their Warhol-era debut at a psychiatrists’ convention, their six day run at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque marks the true unveiling of their new multimedia show. The event is titled Andy Warhol, Up-Tight, and there are performances each night, at 8pm and 10:30pm, with a 2:30pm matinee on Saturday and Sunday. The show opens with Lupe, the last Warhol film to star Edie Sedgwick, which is projected on a split screen from two separate reels and is based on the last night of Mexican film star Lupe Velez. The Velvets then take the stage to perform in front of more films and slides by Warhol and Paul Morrissey. Gerard Malanga and Sedgwick writhe around in front of the band while Danny Williams, a film editor noted for his work on What’s Happening! The Beatles In The USA, projects lights and colored slides over the musicians. Also listed on flyers for the event are photographic displays by Billy Name and Nat Finkelstein, and appearances of Donald Lyons and Bobby Neuwirth – a singer-songwriter more famous for being Bob Dylan’s road manager – as ‘escorts’ to Sedgwick. The end result is an unprecedented – and to some degree assaultive – way of presenting a concert in early 1966.
The Velvet Underground are just part of the performance, but an important one, although when Malanga simulates a heroin injection while the band plays ‘Heroin,’ it’s just as taboo-breaking a moment in the history of live rock music as the song itself is in the history of rock. The event is judged a success by almost everyone included, except Nico, who is probably displeased to find her role limited to singing just a few songs – and, according to Cale, playing a tambourine badly. Another unhappy member of the Warhol troupe is Edie Sedgwick, who according to Nico’s recollection actually tries unsuccessfully to sing along with the Velvets at the Cinematheque. She is already impatient about getting paid for the films she has made with Warhol, and perhaps jealous of the attention diverted toward the Velvet Underground – and Nico, who is even more beautiful, glamorous, and blonde than Sedgwick. She might also be unhappy about the size of her role in Andy Warhol, Up-Tight – it’s certainly smaller than the one given to Nico who, for all her complaints about limited participation, does at least get to sing a few songs on stage.
Offset-printed invitation to Andy Warhol’s Up-Tight concert series at the Film-Maker’s Cinematheque the very first document linking Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. The photo was probably taken on New Year’s Eve, 1965.
Richard Goldstein, a rising rock journalist who later in 1966 will write the first in depth piece about the Velvets’ music, describes the Factory crowd as “intensely sadistic. They were unbelievably cruel. I didn’t find this to be true at all of the Velvets. But all the Warholian people, and I think it shed to some extent on their aura, were just utterly involved with watching each other destruct. They all were like little kicking Simon Cowells, and just waiting for the next suicide or overdose or whatever.” (Lou Reed, Goldstein says, “didn’t seem that way to me. I didn’t see any gratuitous cruelty in him.”) Although Edie Sedgwick will be remembered among the most charismatic of Warhol’s many quasi-superstars, her role in the Velvet Underground story is ultimately a very minor one: she danced at a few of their shows, and had a brief relationship with John Cale. She does however leave an imprint on their legacy when Warhol says that Reed should write a song about her, asking if he agrees that Edie is a “femme fatale.” The resulting song will become a highlight of The Velvet Underground & Nico, helping to balance the band’s more ferocious and confrontational material with some much needed – albeit often overlooked – tenderness and delicacy.
The Velvet Underground performing at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, February 8-13, 1966
“All the Warholian people, and I think it shed to some extent on their aura, were just utterly involved with watching each other destruct.” Richard Goldstein
APRIL The Beatles at the Cavern Club; the Rolling Stones The EPI shows are a success right from the star, with at the Crawdaddy; the Byrds at Ciro’s; the Who at the 750 people attending the opening night, and others Marquee; the Doors at the Whisky A Go Go: each lives being turned away. With patrons charged two dollars on in the memory as a time when a great group reached on weeknights and 50 cents more at the weekend, the its peak as a performing band, achieving an internal shows bring in $18,000 during the first week alone. unity and a bond with their audience that would never “Every weekend, the crowds got bigger and bigger,” again be matched. For the Velvet Underground, that Morrissey recalls in Factory Days: Paul Morrissey precious time is now, as their music and multimedia show Remembers The Sixties. “The event was the first real blossoms under the name of the Exploding Plastic light-show even given with a rock’n’roll group. We had Inevitable. The twist in the story here is that, while all five motion-pictures projectors with five pieces of film – of the other bands mentioned above move on to internamuch of the footage we’d shot in the past year – tional superstardom, the Velvets won’t get much bigger, running on top of their performance, and reflected on at least in their lifetime. It will take years for the Dom a screen behind them. There were also five slide-proresidency to pass into legend, or for its electric atmojectors showing patterns of pink, green, and blue polka sphere and groundbreaking innovations to be properly dots and things, just enhancing the kinetic effect of appreciated and admired. the movie projectors. It was the first time anybody had As Cutrone later enthuses in Up-Tight: The Velvet seen a strobe light put not just on the stage, but on the Underground Story, “The great thing about the Exploding dancers, plus there was a mirror ball from old dance halls.” Plastic Inevitable was that it left nothing to the imagina“It became the place to be, to be mingling with Andy tion. We were on stage with bullwhips, giant flashlights, Warhol and his Velvet Underground and the Exploding hypodermic needles, barbells, big wooden crosses… Plastic Inevitable, and being part of this happening,” You were shocked because sometimes your imagination recalls Charlie Rothschild, who represented the Fugs wasn’t strong enough to imagine people shooting up and Allen Ginsberg at the time. “The carriage trade on stage, being crucified, and licking boots.” would come down to St Marks Place, which at that time In the middle of all this the Velvet Underground – all was not a happening area, in their limousines and get dressed in black except for Nico, who wears white – funky. Because this was where it was happening. The are now being given the chance not only to sing about Kennedy clan, the Greek shipping magnates – all the whips behind whip-wielding dancers, but also to whip people wanted to feel and touch what was happening. themselves into shape. They have not yet had much It was like, on a certain level, a three-ring circus. People of a chance to perform since coming under Warhol’s came down there for the whole event, not just for the management, but are now able to play their original band. It was the whole package.” material night after night – a crucial discipline as the idea of making a record starts to get tossed around.
It became the place to be, to be mingling with Andy Warhol and his Velvet Underground and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and being part of this happening.
The Velvet Underground and Nico performing at the Dom, April 1966
The Velvet Underground finally enter a recording studio for the first time, laying down the bulk of their classic debut album within the space of a few days. Exactly which (and how many) days the Velvets spend at Scepter is unclear: because they aren’t yet signed to a recording contract, the group are not working within the usual system of preparing material for release – which tends usually to ensure some sort of documentation as to when the tapes are recorded and mixed. But whenever they take place, these sessions don’t just generate the heart of a classic album: they also produce one of rock’s rarest and most expensive relics in the form of an acetate disc (the mere existence of which will not be discovered for nearly 40 years). The acetate resulting from the session is an artistic triumph but a commercial failure as it fails initially to attract any industry interest. A deal with Verve/MGM is however looming on the horizon, and the session can be seen as a great success in that it generates over half of what ends up on The Velvet Underground & Nico. But it will take at least two more sessions, two more studios, and one more producer to complete the final tracks – and almost a year will pass until the record is finally released.
The Velvet Underground in the recording studio, spring 1966
Andy Warhol printing the original banana at the 47th Street Factory, April 1966
The Velvet Underground & Nico is finally released in March, complete with a jacket designed by Andy Warhol. The Velvets gradually establish themselves as a viable live-act independent of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and finally begin to play as a standalone rock band by the middle of the year. But it’s also around then that they lose Nico (who has already recorded her solo debut, Chelsea Girl) and managers Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey (who are replaced by Steve Sesnick). The Velvets’ debut album is not a critical or commercial success, and receives little in the way of label promotion or radio airplay. The band virtually stop playing in New York, deciding instead to perform in other cities, where they’re slowly starting to build a cult following. They also continue to write and perform great music, recording a second album, White Light/White Heat, that’s quite different to their glorious LP, but almost equally impressive.
At last, the long-awaited event: the first Velvet Underground album is finally released, nearly a year after most of it was recorded. The exact date remains uncertain, but the appearance in the March 9 edition of the Village Voice of a notorious advert that claims the record is “so far underground, you get the bends’” suggests that the album is on sale by that date at the latest.
The Velvets begin to discuss something that has been weighing heavy on them for some time: whether to take on Steve Sesnick as their new manager. Sesnick has been making entreaties to that effect for some time; the Velvets in turn have been feeling neglected by Andy Warhol, whose other pursuits have led him to commit less time and money to the band. There’s also a sense within the group that they should be moving closer toward the straight rock scene, and its attendant album/concert business, rather than languishing in Warhol’s art world.
Over the years, The Velvet Underground & Nico will grow to enjoy unquestioned all-time classic status, but when it first goes on sale it’s considered to be something of an anticlimax even by the followers and associates of the band. Furthermore, it’s virtually ignored by the critics, and is nothing short of a dud commercially.
With the split becoming almost inevitable, the Velvets probably make the change official shortly after returning to New York. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia show has run out of gas, and the Velvets are likely itching to do something on their own two feet, rather than carry on being billed as something of an Andy Warhol slideshow. Steve Sesnick meanwhile has plans to turn the Velvet Underground into a much bigger act, so they opt to go with him instead. As Maureen Tucker later reveals in What Goes On, “There was another guy [besides Sesnick] who wanted to be our manager. We might have been better with him, simply because he wouldn’t have been our friend. But we wanted Sesnick because he was more of our type of person. This other guy was too ‘businessy.’”
Over the years, The Velvet Underground & Nico will grow to enjoy unquestioned all-time classic status, but when it first goes on sale it’s considered to be something of an anticlimax even by the followers and associates of the band.
JULY It’s probably around now that the Velvet Underground officially cut their ties with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, since a bill from Warhol’s lawyer, S. Edward Katz, confirms that Warhol, Morissey, and Lou Reed meet to discuss the contract between Warvel Inc and the Velvets prior to August 1. Warhol’s role in the group’s early career was nonetheless vital, and not just because he helped finance the band, get them gigs and equipment, and facilitated that first burst of (not always positive) media exposure that few newly formed acts could have attained on their own. The impression sometimes given is that Warhol and Morrissey might have settled for any old offbeat group to join the Factory’s multimedia world. But as Sterling Morrisson will later note in the 1993 BBC documentary Curious, “I don’t think another band would have done just as well. We seemed uniquely suited for each other.”
Warhol also gave the group enormous artistic encouragement, and helped instill in them a belief in their uncompromising stance at a time when there vision was hardly in vogue. He gave Lou Reed in particular some useful inspiration for his songwriting, both by offering specific suggestions and by stressing the overall importance of a diligent work ethic, constantly pressing him to write more songs. In Curious, Cale goes so far as to doubt whether Reed would have continue to investigate unusual subjects “without having some kind of outside support for that approach other than myself.” And of course Warhol also designed for the group one of the most memorable album jackets of all time.Without his input, the Velvet Underground’s music would not quite have been the same, or quite so brilliant.
Andy gave Lou Reed in particular some useful inspiration for his songwriting, both by offering specific suggestions and by stressing the overall importance of a diligent work ethic, constantly pressing him to write more songs.
HEROIN I don't know just where I'm going But I'm gonna try for the kingdom, if I can 'Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man When I put a spike into my vein And I'll tell ya, things aren't quite the same When I'm rushing on my run And I feel just like Jesus' son And I guess that I just don't know And I guess that I just don't know I have made the big decision I'm gonna try to nullify my life 'Cause when the blood begins to flow When it shoots up the dropper's neck When I'm closing in on death And you can't help me now, you guys And a - You can all go take a walk And I guess that I just don't know And I guess that I just don't know I wish that I was born a thousand years ago I wish that I'd sail the darkened seas On a great big clipper ship Going from this land here to that In a sailor's suit and cap Away from the big city Where a man can not be free Of all of the evils of this town And of himself, and those around Oh, and I guess that I just don't know Oh, and I guess that I just don't know Heroin, be the death of me Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life Because a mainer to my vein Leads to a center in my head And then I'm better off and dead Because when the smack begins to flow I really don't care anymore About all the Jim-Jim's in this town And all the politicians makin' crazy sounds And everybody puttin' everybody else down And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds 'Cause when the smack begins to flow Then I really don't care anymore Ah, when the heroin is in my blood And that blood is in my head Then thank God that I'm as good as dead Then thank your God that I'm not aware And thank God that I just don't care And I guess I just don't know And I guess I just don't know
‘Heroin’ is a classic testament that stares death in the face and comes back poetic if unresolved. But all the Velvet’s songs mark the progress toward that resolution, toward life and joy achieved honestly, outside all the counterfeit wisdom and popular shortcuts to salvation which have failed so miserably. The drug song that corrupts most is the one that advertises any chemical as the mechanism of ultimate self-realization. If heroin is the absolute alternative to enlightenment, it at least makes no false claims, and those who would use this music to score their own self-destructive programs will find no support from the Velvets. I talked to Lou Reed last month, and he spoke long and eloquently on this. He was especially surprised when I mentioned the anecdote of the Rolling Stone writer who asked me if the Velvets were still doing “fag stuff”: “We were never doing ‘fag stuff,’ although some people associated us with that. Just like some people that don’t know her think that Maureen has some sort of really hard, dyke-ish image, and when they meet her they’re surprised to find out what a beautiful, sensitive girl she really is. So I know that those first two albums and that image hurt us a lot. Those songs that everybody typed us with were reflections of certain scenes around us, and some of it manifested where we were at the time. But later we changed and our music changed but nobody else could seem to shake their preconceived notions. Like at the time I wrote ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sister Ray’ I felt like a very rather negative, strung-out, violent, aggressive person. I meant those songs to sort of exorcise the darkness, or the self-destructive element in me, and hoped that other people would take them the same way. But when I began to see how people were responding to them it was disturbing. Because like people would come up and say, “I shot up to ‘Heroin’,” things like that. For a while I was even thinking that some of my songs might have contributed formatively to the consciousness of all these addictions and things going down with the kids today. But I don’t think that anymore; it’s really too awful of a thing to consider. But I do know that that was only one aspect of our music, and we’ve gone through lots of changes since then, and I wish more people would recognize that fact. All of a sudden we started looking out when we went onstage and seeing audiences full of stoned-out, violent people asking for those songs. We didn’t want to appear to be supporting that, which is why we won’t play most of those songs anymore.”
SUNDAY MORNING Sunday morning, praise the dawning It’s just a restless feeling by my side Early dawning, sunday morning It’s just the wasted years so close behind Watch out, the world’s behind you There’s always someone around you who will call It’s nothing at all Sunday morning and I’m falling I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know Early dawning, sunday morning It’s all the streets you crossed, not so long ago
If the Velvets’ first album was thematically grim, it was musically as bold as any statement from any band of the last five years. It rendered the dark street life of New York City in a vision as fully realized as anything in Burroughs or Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book: songs like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Waiting For the Man’ were obvious, but ‘Sunday Morning’ was so lush and lyrical that you might not at first notice that the words described urban paranoia with a terse chill: “Look out/The world’s behind you/There’s always someone around you who will call/ It’s nothing at all…”
Watch out, the world’s behind you There’s always someone around you who will call It’s nothing at all Watch out, the world’s behind you There’s always someone around you who will call It’s nothing at all Sunday morning Sunday morning Sunday morning
John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Lou Reed perform at the Paraphernalia clothing store, 1966
‘Sunday Morning’ was so lush and lyrical that you might not at first notice that the words described urban paranoia with a terse chill. 63
ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES And what costume shall the poor girl wear To all tomorrow's parties A hand-me-down dress from who knows where To all tomorrow's parties And where will she go and what shall she do When midnight comes around She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown And cry behind the door And what costume shall the poor girl wear To all tomorrow's parties Why silks and linens of yesterday's gowns To all tomorrow's parties And what will she do with Thursday's rags When Monday comes around She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown And cry behind the door And what costume shall the poor girl wear To all tomorrow's parties For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown For whom none will go mourning A blackened shroud, a hand-me-down gown Of rags and silks, a costume Fit for one who sits and cries For all tomorrow's parties
A party girl consumed by enervating boredom, her façade crumbling into solitary tears behind her door. ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is not the most renowned of the Velvet Underground’s early songs, but this Warhol favorite is a sleeper contender for the greatest achievement on their debut album. Lyrically, it’s a six-minute wail of despair, made all the more chilling by its detached third-person narrative, enunciated by Nico in her lowest and most booming, Wagnerian tones. Once again Reed is venturing into virgin territory for rock music, detailing a more contemporary, urban, and decadent isolation than is usually heard in laments over failed love: a party girl consumed by enervating boredom, her façade crumbling into solitary tears behind her door.
Andy Warhol in the projection booth during the Velvet’s performance at the Dom, during the Exploding Plastic Inevitable residency, April, 1966
Interview with the Velvet Underground and Nico – Tom Wilson – 1967 In the autumn of 1967, MGM Records issued promotional interview records. This promo series, called From the Music Factory, included an album of Lou Reed and John Cale talking to producer Tom Wilson about the White Light/White Heat album. It is transcribed here. Tom Wilson: Hi, this is your friendly announcer Tom Wilson on The Music Factory. You’ll remember at our last outing Sheila the record maven was hanging from the edge of a cliff by a stereo tone arm while back in the small town of Winnipeg, her lover Boris was having his tattoos overdubbed by a local rock and roll guitar player. Feeling strange vibration coming into his arm from a vibrating E string, he knew that Sheila was in trouble. To pull her out of this predicament tonight we have brought from Timbuktu that very strange group the VU. Yeah… you’ll find out how this all comes out in this next hour. I’m first going to introduce you. Directly across from me is John Cale, who plays organ and bass and all other sorts of plectral things from the Velvet Underground. Hello, John. John Cale: Good evening. TW And to my right, across the table, is Lou Reed. Lou Reed: Hello, Mr. Wilson. TW [Laughs.] How are you feeling, sire? A bootless Lou Reed, I might say. This is the first time in two years that I’ve seen him when he had on a pair of shoes rather than boots. You’re gonna set the whole leather industry back. LR Going to set a trend. [All laugh.] TW The first group that wore shoes… remember, you heard it here. [Laughs.] Here’s a booted group from England. Eric Burdon and the Animals ‘C.C. Rider.’ [Song plays.] The Music Factory, where everything is everything and the Velvet Underground are holding forth tonight. Say, you know, Louis, I’ve often wondered how this whole thing started. I mean, you’ve been in a welter of names that, uh, float around in a mystical sort of way in the American scene. Nico has been wedded with the name Velvet Underground and is now divorced from that same name. Andy Warhol has done covers for you, has figured prominently in your work. John here is the Welshman in the group. You have a drummer who is a secret and a mystery. So- what happened? Where’d it all start? LR We just met down in the Village where I was doing songwriting for a… a company. They would put us in a room and say, “Write ten California song, ten Detroit songs.” And John walked in and we decided, uh, it’d be much better to go play and have fun. So we started playing and everybody had to meet everybody else. It was natural. It was natural.
TW Well, you and John were the originals members then? LR Yeah. TW Where’d you find Sterling? LR I met him on the subway. I hadn’t seen him in three years. And he didn’t have any shoes on and I had boots and, uh, we took him home. TW And what about Mo? LR We needed an amplifier and she had one. Plus, she’s an out-of-sight drummer. She used to sit, she would work for IBM and when she would come home at night, like five o’clock, she’d put on Bo Diddley records and like play every night from five to twelve. And so we figured she’d be the perfect drummer… and she was. TW She has great time. You know, I wasn’t going to reveal the secret. I was going to leave that up to you. This is the only female drummer with a major pop music group, uh, in the whole scene, uh, so far as Europe and America are concerned and, uh, like most things we found out don’t matter; sex doesn’t matter anymore as far as musicianship is concerned; as far as a love for playing groovy music is concerned. LR I’d second that. TW Hey, John, what have you been doing recently around New York besides cutting your beard off? JC Well, let’s see… I, uh, found myself a place to live that is a little better than what I’ve been used to, so, uh, I’m, uh, enjoying myself. I’ve gotten all my instruments together and I’m building a studio slowly. TW What do you play? Let us quickly run down the roster before I play this next side, ‘cause it’s fantastic. JC Uh… viola, organ, bass, uh, all the stringed instruments, the bowed stringed instruments that I can find. Including Eastern ones like the sarinda, saronen, and the dilruba. TW The dilruba? JC Yeah. TW I used to be a virtuoso on that. In fact, some people still call me Tom Wilson, the dilruba virtuoso. LR I heard that at the studio last week. TW Did you hear that? It was goin’ around town. Well, after we play this little thing by the Blues Project, ‘Wake Me, Shake Me’, let’s get back and talk a little more about the dilruba. Here it goes. [Song plays.] Wake me, shake me, don’t le met sleep. I’ve got a group of songs that I’m going to spin for you and for our audience that have to do with a very important element in today’s music.
The fact that the music says something about things; about who we are, where we are, where we’re going, where we’ve been. It’s not fantasy music. It’s not-“If you had a silver horse and I had a golden mule, you know, then we could start an animal farm” or something. [Laughs.] It’s all about real-life situations. Sometimes I get the opinion, after I watch the political popularity charts go up and down, and after I see things that people are willing to buy and do, I think that a thirteen-year-old girl that buys a rock and roll record may be exercising just as intelligent a choice as her parents are when they do more important things… Louis is looking at me, munching his… LR Oh, I agree. I know she’s doing something more important. No doubt about it. These are good. TW Mmm… Good pickles, huh? OK. [Laughs.] Look, let’s start out with Richie Havens from his Mixed Bag LP. ‘Handsome Johnny’ is the track. [Song plays.] ‘The Gift.’ Pretty unusual track. John, Louis, let’s talk about it. LR ‘The Gift’ is a short story, set to music, about a person who doesn’t have much money who wants to visit his girlfriend. So he decides to mail himself, uh, railway express in a carton with some air holes and a cushion and a bowl of water. TW And John did the… LR John did the narration… and also played bass. TW Let’s hear an excerpt from that. [Excerpt plays.] Hmm. Yeah. Hey, let me hip you to something. It’s my food fortune to be the producer on this record with the Velvet Underground, and on the stereo version-this is Stereoville here on The Music Factory-uh, when you’re at home, take that balance control; you flip it over to one side and you’ve got the information that’s on one groove wall of your record, and that’s the short story by itself without the music. Of course, if you just reverse the balance control or your channel selector, you’ll get some very groovy music to hang out with somebody you like. And if you’re a mad friend, like we are, you listen to both of them together. [All laugh.] That’s the best where we at. We got stereo prefrontal lobes here. [All laugh.] Hey, what’s on your mind though, what is the plan of the Velvet Underground? LR Oh, we were going to tell you… we want to ultimately, uh, work on a tape that would take up every minute of every hour of every day of an entire year. I didn’t bother to figure out how many hours that is. Anyways, it’d just be one extremely long tape and it would fit into your wall and it would be personalized. What would happen is that you would come to us, the Velvet Underground, and say, “I want a tape for me.” And we’d say, “Here.” Then, you’d take that, and we’d take you by the hand to Gary, take you down to the recording studio, and Gary
would stare at them a lot ‘til he figured he knew them, you know, and then he would do a mix that would reflect their personality. Then they’d take the tape back and install it in the wall and it would be like theirs and it would go on all the time. Like one of Andy’s movies. Because, like, Empire could be on the other wall, going on all the time. Like John said the other day, the albums that should come out would, like, have a coloring book and kind of toys. It would be like a complete thing, you know, not just a record. People are starting to do that but they haven’t really gotten into it. You know, they’re messing around with covers trying to be hip and doing things. But they haven’t really started what you could have, but it would, like, go on all the time. TW Hey, you could tell a man by the record he plays. LR Right. Right. We’d supply armbands, labels. We’d reclassify. TW Fantastic. [Laughs.] Oh, wow. Let’s play… while I mull over the thought, which is frightening and yet enormous, and it seems logical, uh, in terms of things that are going on now. While I cogitate, let’s play your new groovy thing, ‘White Light.’ [Song plays.] ‘White Light’ from the new White Light/White Heat LP by the Velvet Underground. John, a while back you were telling me about the strange Oriental instruments and what was that one that began with “D”? JC Dilruba. TW What does that look like? JC Um, like a violin. It’s much thicker, much deeper, and it echoes and has resonating strings on it just like a sitar. But it’s bowed and a lot of bowed instruments, uh, all the bowed instruments in the East, they have resonation strings on them. There’s only one in the West, the viola d’amore. And they have this echoey sound, very nostalgic, very warm sound. TW Hey, on your next album, why don’t you trot out some of these things? LR Oh, we are. TW I’m reminded of the fact I used to have a girl when I was in high school and she had a shape like a violin… from the front. And sad enough also looked like a violin from the side. [All laugh.] We have those problems; I think Lady Godiva has those problems, too. [Song-‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’-plays. Next is a promo spot for Nico’s Chelsea Girl LP.] Hi there, gang. If you’ve gotten over shuddering about the idea of facing, for twenty-four hours a day, a recording, a tape that reflects your personality-jot for evil jot-as suggested by the Velvet Underground, we’ve got a couple more ideas that’ll send you into little catatonia. How about that, John?
JC Well, yeah. I was thinking one time about creating weather by using music. TW Creating weather? JC Yes, or, um, altering the temperature of the, uh, of this room for instance, by playing a certain kind of music. I got to thinking. In brain surgery they use ultrasonics for cutting and, uh, cutting away tissue. And the way they do that is cut the tissue with a heating process. They heat up the tissue and I think it’s high frequencies that create heat in, uh, matter. Now, an example of the low frequencies, the effects that low frequencies tend to have is, um, they’re made up of pulses and movements of columns of air. So that an example of an extremely low frequency would be a hurricane or a whirlwind. And in France a person, a professor in France has studied with a death ray machine which uses, uh, propels very low sounds. He has this organ pitch pipe which is 130 or several hundred feet long and, uh, when they tested it out they almost killed a lot of people in the factory where they were using it. He got in a lot of trouble. A lot of people were sick. They only turned it on for maybe a minute and a half and it made everything vibrate rapidly. So, um, what I was thinking was, uh, I’ve been writing music… The music I was writing about six years ago consisted of instruction for performance such as, “Follow the wind and listen to it.” That was one that I wrote. The idea was to listen to the wind and whistling between houses, et cetera, and all the variations of sound. And some of the things I’ve been finding out about in electronics seem to suggest that it is possible to produce by sound, to alter the temperature, to make the air around you warmer or cooler, uh, according to which combination of pitches you use. And, um, I’d like to have a tape, you know, for if you wanted to create a seventy-five-degree temperature, then you play this tape or whatever. Uh, and over a period of days you could have
a tape which regulated the heat around you. The kind of heat it would give off would be in some cases like autumn, winter, et cetera. TW It’d be great to have on a date. JC Yeah. TW You could, uh, like take a girl on a trip to the South Seas just by playing a record. [Laughs.] too much. For an enemy, you could burn up his brain. [Laughs.] Here’s Nico, who has been playing with you on your first LP, the Velvet Underground and Nico and a very haunting song, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror.’ [Song plays.] ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror.’ Nico singing with the Velvet Underground. You know something? After what you just told me, the exposition on using records to create temperature, I think that every DJ in the United States is going to think twice before he says, “Well, here’s a hot record for you folks.” [Laughs.] He might just be right. Burn down the town radio station. Here’s Tim Hardin for you though, he’s always cool. [Song-‘If I Were a Carpenter’-plays.] Yeah, about those birds that flew over, those pigeons. It all goes to prove the power of positive thinking. I did go out there and I looked up and fifty thousand pigeons did a wonderful job on our building. It’s great. They were very Baroque, with just a touch of Neorealism here and there. I like that. So, we’ll be back next week all sparkly and shiny. Our guests were the Velvet Underground, playing excerpts like ‘White Light’, ‘The Gift’, and ‘Lady Godiva’ from their new album, White Light/White Heat, and good luck on your piano-Lou Reed got a new ninetyfive dollar piano-and good luck with all your unpronounceable Oriental instruments and those new ideas. I’m Tom Wilson and my producer is H.H. Calwin.
Lou Reed at the Castle at 2630 Glendower Avenue in Los Angeles, May, 1966
One of the most uncompromising rock records of the era, White Light/ White Heat is released in January. It spends just two weeks at the bottom of the Billboard chart before falling out again, but the Velvets are continuing to develop as a powerful touring rock band. They’re slowly building a grassroots following in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, but a major rift between the group’s co-founders culminates in the September 1968 sacking of John Cale for reasons that will remain somewhat murky. Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule, is a capable multi-instrumentalist and singer in his own right, but not nearly so quirkily original. Just weeks after Yule joins the group, the Velvets record their third album, The Velvet Underground, which is just as fine a record as its predecessors – and just as shockingly different from White Light/White Heat as that album was from The Velvet Underground & Nico.
JANUARY After enduring almost a year between starting recording and finally releasing their first album, the Velvet Underground have to wait only a relatively civilized four months for White Light/White Heat to be issued. Andy Warhol’s name isn’t printed anywhere on the jacket this time, but he does still contribute a vital part of the design. As Lou Reed tells Gerard Malanga in a letter dated December 23 1967, it was Warhol’s idea to use “a black-on-black picture of a motorcyclist tattoo by Billy [Name]. Beautiful. ALL BLACK!” The laminated image of the skull tattoo can only be seen when the LP is held at a certain angle. In commercial terms, the result is about the same as that achieved by The Velvet Underground & Nico – if not worse. White Light/White Heat will spend just two weeks on the Billboard 200 in March, peaking at a lowly Number 199.
Of the four albums released by the Velvet Underground while Lou Reed is in the band, White Light/White Heat is perhaps the least popular, and certainly the least accessible. But like all of these albums, its stock will rise tremendously in retrospect, both among critics and the ever-expanding cult of VU fans who discover the band after 1970. It will even end up at the top of a list of the ’50 Coolest Records’ in the April 11 2002 issue of Rolling Stone. Of the four VU LPs, it’s also probably the most direct antecedent of the punk/new wave sound of the 70s, and will be celebrated by that movement, to some degree, precisely because of its roughness and inaccessibility. It could also be seen as the album that separates the mere Velvet Underground fan from the Velvet Underground fanatic. As Sterling Morrison will note in an interview with LA Weekly in April 1985, around the time that the LP is finally reissued in the USA after years of being out of print: “That’s the litmus test. If you like that album, then you like the Velvet Underground.”
Of the four VU LPs, it’s also probably the most direct antecedent of the punk/new wave sound of the 70s, and will be celebrated by that movement, to some degree, precisely because of its roughness and inaccessibility. 72
JUNE At the Factory, Andy Warhol is shot by Valerie Solanas, a mentally unbalanced writer who appeared with Nico in I, A Man but is irate that has lost a script she submitted to him, Up Your Ass (and hasn’t paid for it, either). Warhol’s wounds are serious, and his life hangs in the balance as he’s operated on at Columbus Hospital.Warhol pulls through, but neither his health nor his demeanor will ever be the same, while the Factory will certainly never again be the same freewheeling way-station for all manner of misfits.
Andy Warhol might have stopped managing the Velvet Underground almost a year ago, but the band are deeply shocked and upset by the incident. As Steve Sesnick recalls, Lou Reed learns about the shooting from the newspaper headlines on the elevator at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where the Velvets are staying in Los Angeles. He calls Warhol at Columbus Hospital later that month, and after an uneasy start to the conversation – with Warhol upset that Reed hasn’t called or visited sooner – they back on good terms.
SEPTEMBER Lou Reed asks Sterling Morrisson and Maureen Tucker Faced with a choice either of no Cale or no band at all, to meet him at the Riviera Cafe on Sheridan Square, in Morrison and Tucker decide reluctantly to go along New York’s West Village, where he drops a bombshell: with Reed’s plan. “Now I could say that it was more he wants John Cale out of the Velvet Underground. important to keep the band together than to worry Neither Morrison nor Tucker are happy with the idea. about Cale,” Morrison admits in his NME interview, They try to talk Reed out of it, but are then faced with “but that wasn’t really what decided me. I just wanted an ultimatum. As Morrison will explain to the New Musical to keep on doing it. So finally I weighed my self-interest Express in April 1981, “I said that we were the band, against Cale’s interests and sold him out.” that it was graven on the tablets. So then a long and The reasons for the firing will remain murky, decades bitter argument ensued, with much banging on tables, after the event. As far as Morrison and Betsey Johnson and finally Lou said, ‘You don’t go for it? All right, the are concerned, Reed is simply jealous of Cale and the band is dissolved.’” attention his striking figure commands on stage. Cale himself points to disputes over musical direction, with Cale generally favoring the more experimental ideas, but Reed keener on relatively more song-oriented concepts.
Reed is simply jealous of Cale and the attention his striking figure commands on stage.
There might be some truth in this. The Velvets are about to record a quieter, more listener-friendly third album, and it’s possible that Cale, who already feels that the group is putting too much emphasis on a conventional rock’n’roll beat, is reluctant to go along with it. But these are the kinds of tensions that, once resolved, have helped make the Velvets’ music so special. What’s more, Cale has of late been playing as well as he ever has with the band - perhaps even better.
John Cale and Edie Sedgwick at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, February 8-13, 1966
OCTOBER Ever Since Lou Reed and John Cale formed the Velvet Underground, new members have been recruited on almost whimsical impulse. Sterling Morrison was absorbed into the line-up after running across Reed by chance in the subway; Maureen Tucker got the call largely because Reed and Morrison happened to know her brother; Nico was installed in the group at Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol’s behest. So it goes when the Velvets need someone to take the place of John Cale. Instead of considering one of the musicians who have played informally with the group at the Dom or the Balloon Farm – or even someone who’s already played in an established recording group – they extend the invitation to an unknown that even they barely know. The new recruit, Doug Yule (born February 25 1947 in Mineola, New York) was, like Reed, Morrison, and Tucker, raised in Long Island. He grew up in Great Neck, but since his late teens has been playing in bands in Boston, home of the Velvets’ favorite live venue. The Velvets have gotten to know Yule while playing in Boston; Morrison and Reed have sometimes stayed at his apartment. Exactly how (and by whom) he is invited to join the group is unclear, however. Some will later suggest that Steve Sesnick extends the invitation, but Sesnick himself claims, in Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, that Morrison brought Yule in. Morrison in turn will later speculate that Yule is brought to the group by VU road manager Hans Onsager, who has invested money in the Grass Menagerie, confirming, in his interview with Igancio Julia, that Yule doesn’t have to audition, as the Velvets already know he can play. “Sterling’s input would have helped to get Lou’s attention,” Yule himself recalls. “I think my own value at that point to Lou was that I was a much more deferential person. I’m much more of a facilitator than I am a leader. I like to take what’s going on and make it work, and that really was helpful to Lou, ‘cause he’s not an accomplished musician. He’s a self-taught, self-made, seat of the pants kind of musician, instinctive, intuitive. I think certainly I took away some of the stress that was there between John and Lou.”
Photographs from a session done for the third Velvet Underground album, probably at the 47th Street Factory.
It’s probably during one of their shows in Los Angeles that Jimi Hendrix comes by after the first set, as Doug Yule recalls in a 1996 issue of The Velvet Underground, “to tell us he loved the music and the energy.” Hendrix is in Los Angeles recording at TTG Studios, which is where the Velvets will shortly record their third album. It might also be around now that Hendrix “expressed disbelief to us that we weren’t bigger than we were,” as Sterling Morrison will later recall in the BBC’s Curious documentary. “There was somebody out in the audience who was jumping up and down, banging a beer mug on the table, and making a lot of noise,” Yule recalls. “and it turned out to be [Hendrix]. He came up afterward and said he was really into it. I was sitting with Lou at a table and I was like, ‘is that you?!’” he adds, his jaw dropping. “I was kind of in shock. But he really liked [us], and I can see why. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a recording that really gives you the feeling that the group put out live. It was a locomotive; it was a good beat, and extremely compelling.” (Also in the audience for a couple of these performances is Jim Morrison.)
“There was somebody out in the audience who was jumping up and down, banging a beer mug on the table, and making a lot of noise, and it turned out to be Hendrix.” Doug Yule NOVEMBER It’s not entirely clear why the Velvet Underground have decided to record their third album in Los Angeles, rather than New York, where they’ve cut almost all of their previous material. For the first time, the Velvet Underground are producing themselves, but Val Valentin is still around, and is credited here as director of engineering. Each of the group’s LPs so far has been a surprise, but The Velvet Underground, as this third album comes to be known, might give listeners even more of a jolt than White Light/White Heat did earlier in the year, albeit for very different reasons. The change in sound is down partly, according to Sterling Morrison, to the fact that much of the group’s equipment is stolen from JFK airport just before the Velvets fly to the West Coast. Without their special effects and high-powered amps, they’re forced to play at a lower volume and make us of more conventional, less distorted textures.
But the song I remember most particularly was one they did at a strange San Diego concert in 1968. They were on with Quicksilver Messenger Service, and much of the audience was apathetic or put off; they wanted those California acid-vibes instead of what they took for cold New York negativism. Lou Reed himself came out from the dressing room and walked around in the audience with his hands in his pockets, a slight, calm figure with a noncommittal expression on his face. Seemingly nobody noticed him, because nobody said anything to him although almost everybody in that place was so busy being cool they could barely get up the gumption to dance, so it probably doesn’t matter. My girl and I wanted to go up and say something to Lou, shake his hand and tell him how much we dug his music, but I was afraid. I thought he would be some maniac with rusty eyeballs or something, the image made me nervous so we didn’t approach him even though she said: “It seems to me like that was all they really wanted was for someone to just come up and tell them they appreciate what they’re doing.” And, as usual, she was right, as Lou confirmed when I talked to him on the phone last month. That was quite a night, though. In a way it was the ultimate Velvet Underground concert. The audience was terrible; those that weren’t downright hostile kept
interrupting the announcements between songs to yell out what they wanted to hear, like, “How about ‘Heroin’!” and even “Play ‘Searchin’ For My Mainline’!” But right in the middle of all these bad vibes the Velvets launched into a new song that was one of the most incredible musical experiences of my concert career. Lou announced it as ‘Sister Ray, Part Two,’ but it sounded nothing like the previous song. It was built on the most dolorous riff imaginable, just a few scales rising and falling mournfully, somewhat like ‘Venus in Furs’ but less creaky, more deliberate and eloquent. The lyrics, many of which Lou made up as he went along, seemed like some fantasy from an urban inferno. But it was the chorus that was the chorus that was the most moving: “Ohhhh, sweet rock and roll-it’ll cleanse your soul…” That’s classic, and no other group in America could have (or would have) written and sung those words. In a way, there are some very old-fashioned emotionsin the Velvet’s music. There is a strain of reverence that recurs, from ‘Heroin’ to the song just described to ‘Jesus’ to ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin.’ The yearning, hymnlike quality is the same-it’s just that the focus has shifted over the years. As Lou said recently: “I think a lot of our music is about growing up, in a way. It’s nice to be mature, to be able to meet things rationally sometimes instead of with all this nervous sort of emotionalism.” Dead Lie the Velvet Underground! R.I.P. Long Live Lou Reed Lester Bangs - 1971
“Ohhhh, sweet rock and roll - it’ll cleanse your soul…” That’s classic, and no other group in America could have (or would have) written and sung those words. Photographs by Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground on tour in 1969
Critical reaction to the Velvet Underground’s third album, released in March, is not just positive, but sometimes ecstatic. The Velvets are finally gaining respect as a band, and not just some weird and possibly sick manifestation of the sleazy New York underground. But The Velvet Underground still fails to chart, and the group’s relationship with MGM starts to disintegrate. At least an album’s worth of material is recorded but not released in 1969, and the Velvets continue to tour nationally, but are still avoiding their hometown. They reach their peak as a live band this year, resulting in the recording of one of the greatest concert LPs of all time. In typically perverse fashion, however, 1969 Velvet Underground Live won’t be released for another five years, by which time the group will have broken up.
Maureen Tucker at their May 6 1969 recording session at the Record Plant in New York City.
MARCH “A lot of people didn’t like our third album because they wanted more of the second. But they didn’t underThe Velvet Underground is also the first of the group’s stand that that’s as far as you go LP to feature an actual picture of the band on the front. with that, then there had to be a Billy Name’s black-and-white photo captures the band on the front. Billy Name’s black-and-white photo captures release, there had to be an ending.” the band on a curved couch at the Factory. Lou Reed Everything about the Velvet Underground’s third album is simpler than its predecessors. The music is more straightforward and accessible, but so is the packaging, starting with the title.
“A lot of people didn’t like our third album because they wanted more of the second,” says Reed. “But they didn’t understand that that’s as far as you go with that, then there had to be a release, there had to be an ending. But I needed room to work, so I needed a separate album for each phase. I couldn’t have the ending on the second album, the second album ended very harsh. Then the third album starts out soft. So that was the idea all along, but no one seemed to pick up on it.” Reed goes on to infer that the third album is his personal favorite of the first three VU LPs, at least in terms of mood and sentiment. “If I heard that song ‘Heroin’ I wouldn’t go near it with a 20-foot pole,” he says. “I’d be afraid. I’d say, “I wouldn’t want to go through that.’ I’d much rather be where the third album is. If I were gonna sit here and listen to all three and say, ‘Okay, you can go back, where would you like to live?’ I’d say gimme the third one anytime. I don’t want that other stuff it’s crazy.”
Andy Warhol Screen Test of Lou Reed, 1966
CANDY SAYS Candy says I’ve come to hate my body and all that it requires in this world Candy says I’d like to know completely what others so discreetly talk about I’m gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder I’m gonna watch them pass me by Maybe when I’m older What do you think I’d see If I could walk away from me Candy says I hate the quiet places that cause the smallest taste of what will be Candy says I hate the big decisions that cause endless revisions in my mind I’m gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder I’m gonna watch them pass me by Maybe when I’m older What do you think I’d see If I could walk away from me
The song is proof that Reed is continuing to draw on the Factory crowd for material long after the Velvets ended their formal association with Warhol. The song has one of his loveliest, most heartbreaking melodies, and some of his most sympathetic lyrics.
‘Candy Says,’ which will ultimately be chosen as the album opener, is not as well known, but is similarly impressive, and one of the most underrated items in the entire VU catalog. The inspiration behind this song is a quite different character: Factory transvestite Candy Darling, a female psyche stuck in a man’s body. The song is proof that Reed is continuing to draw on the Factory crowd for material long after the Velvets ended their formal association with Warhol. The song has one of his loveliest, most heartbreaking melodies, and some of his most sympathetic lyrics. Surprisingly, these are sung not by Reed but by Doug Yule – perhaps, as Morrison will later suggest, because Reed’s voice has been worn down by all the live work the Velvets have undertaken in between studio dates. And yet somehow Yule’s thin, tremulous delivery fits both the song and the overall vibe of the album, which seems to be as quiet and restrained as possible. He’s helped along too by some gentle backing vocals and a refrain doo-wop harmonies at the end. Anybody should be able to see both themselves and others they’ve known in songs like ‘Candy Says;’ as Lou Reed points out: “I’ve gotten to where I like ‘pretty’ stuff better, because you can be more subtle, really say something and sort of soothe, which is what a lot of people seem to need right now. Like I think if you came in after a really hard day at work and played that third album, it might really do you good. A calmative, some people might even call it muzak, but I think it can function on both that and the intellectual or artistic levels of the same time. Like when I wrote ‘Jesus,’ I said ‘My god, a hymn!’ and ‘Candy Says,’ which is probably the best song I’ve written, which describes a sort of person who’s special except that I think all of us have been through that in a way – young, confused, with the feeling that other people, or older people, know something you don’t. And those and things like ‘Sunday Morning’ have always been my favorite Velvet Underground songs; I wish somebody else somewhere would record them.”
SOME KINDA LOVE Some kinds of love Marguerita told Tom Between thought and expression lies a lifetime Situations arise because of the weather and no kinds of love are better than others Some kinds of love Margueirta told Tom like a dirty French novel the absured courts the vulgar and some kinds of love the possibilites are endless and for me to miss one would seem to be groundless I head what you said Marguerita told Tom And of course you're a bore But at that you're not charmless for a bore is a straight line that finds a wealth in division and some kinds of love are mistaken for vision
‘Some Kinda Love’ provides a complete change of mood. It contains some of Reed’s most salacious singing, while the lyrics explore all manner of carnal possibilities and combinations. But it’s still somewhat subdued instrumentally – at least by past VU standards – with Tucker once again demonstrating her knack for less is more percussion by keeping time with nothing more than an ominous cowbell and bass-drum pedal. Two different takes will eventually be issued on different mixes of the album. One features a noticeably hoarse Lou Reed vocal and two guitars, one for each channel; the other has only one.
Tucker once again demonstrating her knack for less-is-more percussion by keeping time with nothing more than an ominous cowbell and bass-drum pedal.
Put jelly on your shoulder Let us do what you fear most That from which you recoil but which still makes your eyes moist Put jelly on your shoulder lie down upon the carpet between thought and expression let us now kiss the culprit I don't know just what it's all about Put on your red pajamas and find out.
Photographs by Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground on tour in 1969
PALE BLUE EYES Sometimes I feel so happy, Sometimes I feel so sad. Sometimes I feel so happy, But mostly you just make me mad. Baby, you just make me mad. Linger on, your pale blue eyes. Linger on, your pale blue eyes. Thought of you as my mountain top, Thought of you as my peak. Thought of you as everything, I’ve had but couldn’t keep. I’ve had but couldn’t keep. Linger on, your pale blue eyes. Linger on, your pale blue eyes. If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see, I’d put you in the mirror, I put in front of me. I put in front of me. Linger on, your pale blue eyes. Linger on, your pale blue eyes. Skip a life completely. Stuff it in a cup. She said, Money is like us in time, It lies, but can’t stand up. Down for you is up.” Linger on, your pale blue eyes. Linger on, your pale blue eyes. It was good what we did yesterday. And I’d do it once again. The fact that you are married, Only proves, you’re my best friend. But it’s truly, truly a sin. Linger on, your pale blue eyes. Linger on, your pale blue eyes.
‘Pale Blue Eyes’ is perhaps the oldest song tackled at these sessions. It’s included on a handwritten setlist from a mid-1966 Chicago show, and was inspired by Shelley Albin, Reed’s old Syracuse girlfriend, whom he still sees on occasion in New York, even though she’s now married. Certainly, the line about the subject of the song being married – and the reassurance that what they did yesterday isn’t a sin, but in fact proves that she’s his best friend – seems to fall in line with their current situation. Reed sounds ambivalent, even guilty, but is unable to let go of a deep emotional attachment and desire. ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ is justly hailed as one of Reed’s greatest love songs. Its melody and arrangement come closer than any other VU recording to pure folk-rock, particularly with the prominence of delicately picked guitar and almost crooning vocals. There’s no percussion save for a lonesome, rattling tambourine, while the subtle organ lends the song a dreamy, almost hymnal quality. Morrison will later single out the song, in an April 1981 interview with the New Musical Express, as a red flag for the emergence of Reed’s “sensitive, meaningful” side now that Cale’s out of the band, having apparently told him, “Lou, if I wrote a song like that, I wouldn’t make you play it.”
‘Pale Blue Eyes’ is justly hailed as one of Reed’s greatest love songs.
Photographs by Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground on tour in 1969
THAT’S THE STORY OF MY LIFE That's the story of my life That's the difference between wrong and right But Billy said,"That both those worlds are dead" That's the story of my life That's the story of my life That's the difference between wrong and right But Billy said,"That both those worlds are dead" That's the story of my life That's the story of my life That's the difference between wrong and right But Billy said,"That both those worlds are dead" That's the story of my life
‘That’s the Story of My Life’ is really the story of the paradoxical mood of our times boiled into a couple of short sentences. What other band would answer ‘the difference between wrong and right” with “both those words are dead,” and finish without drawing a moral conclusion? The Velvets’ music, far from the pretentious dogma so rampant since 1967, solicits both intellectual involvement and an independent judgment.
I’M SET FREE I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound To the memories of yesterday’s clouds I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound And now I’m set free I’m set free I’m set free to find a new illusion I’ve been blinded but Now I can see What in the world has happened to me The prince of stories who walk right by me And now I’m set free I’m set free I’m set free to find a new illusion I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound Let me tell you people What I found I saw my head laughing Rolling on the ground And now I’m set free I’m set free I’m set free to find a new illusion
‘I’m Set Free’ is another underrated gem of a ballad, and one perhaps that will be overlooked later on because it is not included on the various live LPs recorded with the Doug Yule line-up. It’s also another songs that hints at a release into a state of beatific grace, particularly on the exultant chorus. And yet it’s tempered with ambiguity; yes, Reed and the Velvets have been set free, but only to “find a new illusion,” suggesting that all such revelations have their limitations. The idea of being set free is also contrasted with the concept of being bound, which to some listeners sounds like another VU reference to sadomasochistic sex. Whatever the case, it’s another great tune and arrangement, with superb, ghostly harmonies, dramatic, muted drums, and one of the group’s most tastefully understated, fluid guitar-solos.
Reed and the Velvets have been set free, but only to “find a new illusion,” suggesting that all such revelations have their limitations.
Photographs by Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground on tour in 1969
The Velvets leave MGM for Atlantic Records in early 1970 and record their fourth album, Loaded, during the spring and summer. They also finally play New York City again – after a three-year gap – when they take on a two-month residency at Max’s Kansas City. Maureen Tucker’s pregnancy forces her to take a leave of absence from both the Loaded sessions and the Max’s engagement. Doug Yule’s brother Billy fills in at Max’s, but Lou Reed quits the group in August, just weeks before Loaded hits the shops. Reed’s last night with the group is recorded, and will subsequently be released on record as Live At Max’s Kansas City. The remaining band-members carry on without him, but really the Velvet Underground in name only. Even, however, the Velvets have started to become cult icons.
APRIL By the start of April, the Velvet Underground have almost The Velvet Underground are without Maureen Tucker certainly finally left MGM Records and signed with when they assemble at Atlantic Recording Studios in Atlantic; Sterling Morrison himself gives a date of April mid April to begin work on the album that will become 1970 to Mix magazine. Founded in the 40s, Atlantic known as Loaded. Pregnant with her first child, Tucker went on to establish itself as perhaps the greatest indep- is forced to take a leave of absence from the band. endent pop-music label around. It started out primarily “I came down there to try I couldn’t reach the drums as a rhythm & blues imprint, but moved into rock’n’roll I was so fat,” she recalls regretfully in Victor Bockris’s and jazz in the 50s, helping guide Ray Charles, The Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story. “I was really Drifters, The Coasters, Bobby Darin, and Aretha Franklin disappointed at that too, because I really wanted to play to stardom. The label is no longer wholly independent, on ‘Ocean,’ and I just couldn’t.” having been sold to Warner Bros in 1967, but is still The Velvets have a large stockpile of songs to choose a major player in the record industry, having moved in from when the sessions commence – more so perhaps recent years into the rock market with The Rascals, Cream, than at any other point in their career. As well as the ten Buffalo Springfield, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees, and Lou Reed compositions eventually chosen for the final Crosby Stills Nash & Young. LP, they’ll lay down demos and out-takes of at least nine other songs during the course of the spring and summer. Pregnant with her first child,
Tucker is forced to take a leave of absence from the band.
Photographs by Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground on tour in 1969
A surviging Set List in Sterling Morrison’s hand from shows at the Quiet Knight in Chicago, Illinois, January 15, 1970
The album came out okay, as far as production it’s the best, but it would have been better if it had real good Lou vocals on all the tracks.
There’s a simple reason why Reed sings less on Loaded, and it has little to do with Yule’s escalating influence. As Morrison will ruefully note in his 1986 interview with Ignacio Julia, “I knew [playing at Max’s] was gonna hurt Lou’s voice, which it did, making it impossible for him to sing on half of the songs on the album. That’s not desirable, that’s stupid, no excuse for it… The album came out okay, as far as production it’s the best, but it would have been better if it had real good Lou vocals on all the tracks.” “The sessions for Loaded were extremely different than those which produced the third album,” Yule recalls in the fanzine The Velvet Underground. “Many of the songs had been played live, but the recorded versions were very different. The emphasis was on airtime. Every song was looked at with the understanding that there was a need to produce some kind of mainstream hit. On the third album we had just played what we wanted, but now we brainstormed. New things were tried for the first time on the studio floor and they were usually taped. Songs were built intellectually rather than by the processes that live performances brought to bear, instinct and trial and error.”
JUNE Except for a private industry party at the Salvation Club earlier this year, and a pair of benefit shows, the Velvet Underground have not performed in their hometown for almost three years. The drought ends with a bang on June 24 when they begin what turns out to be a two month residency at Max’s Kansas City, perhaps the hippest club in Manhattan – the longest sustained residency of the group’s career, even counting their legendary stint at the Dom in 1966. “It was very small, it was very intimate, it was fun,” says Doug Yule in The Velvet Underground Under Review. “It was like playing in a house concert, just about, ‘cause half the people there, everybody knew. [It was] successful, musically. There was an opportunity – because it was five nights a week and two sets a night – to experiment with some stuff, to try out new material, or different ways of doing new material. Sometimes Lou would say, ‘Uh, why don’t you sing that one tonight?’ So I would. And of course, I never knew all the words, ‘cause I’m not a words person. But we’d do it just for fun”
In an interview for this book, he notes, “I took over some of his stuff when we were at Max’s just ‘cause he was tired of doing it. There was a time when he would like to screw around with the audience’s head by switching me for him in various ways. Sometimes he’d get on and introduce me as his brother, or stuff like that.” Lou Reed however has a very different view of the residency. “I hated it,” he tells rock journalist and future Warner Bros East Coast A&R head Karin Berg. “I couldn’t do the songs I wanted to do and I was under a lot of pressure to do things I didn’t want to and it finally reached a crescendo. I never in my life thought I would not do what I believed in, that’s all, and it made me sick. It dawned on me that I’m doing what somebody else is telling me to do supposedly for my own good because they’re supposed to be smart. But only one person can write it and that person should know what it’s about. I’m not a machine that gets up there and parrots off these songs.”
“It was very small, it was very intimate, it was fun, it was like playing in a house concert, just about, ‘cause half the people there, everybody knew. It was successful, musically.” Doug Yule
The Velvet Underground’s stand-in drummer, Billy Yule
AUGUST August 23 is a most momentous day in the history of the Velvet Underground, and not just because it’s when the recordings are made that will eventually be released in 1972 as Live At Max’s Kansas City. Tonight also marks the end of the final chapter of the most important part of the Velvet Underground’s career, for it’s when Lou Reed unexpectedly leaves the band he co-founded back in early 1965 with John Cale after five-and-a-half jam-packed years, essentially bringing the group’s roles a major force in rock music to a sudden close. The warning signs have been there for weeks, if not months, even if some of the other band-members are largely oblivious to the gravity of Lou’s dissatisfaction with recent events. These include the prolonged absence of pregnant Maureen Tucker; the increasing personal withdrawal of Sterling Morrison, the only other remaining member of the line-up that hooked up with Andy Warhol back in late 1965 (who by now is barely speaking to Reed); and the ascension of Doug Yule and manager Steve Sesnick to increased decision-making power as both push for more influence on the band’s music, image, and career path. But it might also be that Reed has just finally had enough of the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, which has brought him considerable notoriety but little in the way of commercial success. “I just walked out,” Reed tells Lester Bangs in a May 1971 Creem interview, “because we didn’t have any money, I didn’t want to tour again – I can’t get any writing done on tour, and the grind is terrible – and like some other members of the band, I’ve wondered for a long time if we were ever going to be accepted on a scale large enough to make us a ‘success’…” Ironically, Reed’s decision comes just as the Velvets seem poised to make their biggest leap forward in some time. They’ve made a triumphant return to the stage in New York, the city they’d previously shunned for three years, with a two-month residency at Max’s, and have recorded an album that’s without doubt their most saleable endeavor to date. Whatever nuisance finally pushes Reed over the edge, however, his exit comes as a shock to most of his band-mates. For all almost anyone else knows, August 23 is just another night in their Max’s stint.
What happened, according to New York publicist Danny Fields, writers like Lenny Kaye and Lisa Robinson and anyone else close enough to the actual situation not to be taken in by the smokescreen, was that a conflict developed, or had been developing for a long time, between Lou and manager Sesnick. Apparently Sesnick wanted to group to move in certain directions (perhaps way out into… infinity), Lou had other ideas, and no compromise was possible. So Lou left and did indeed go home to Long Island, while the other members of the band, for reasons unknown, stuck with Sesnick. Even though every song they have ever written was in significant part Lou Reed work, and most of them Lou Reed originals; even though Lou was the leader and guiding spirit of the band and always has been, much like Jagger with the Stones, not only singing lead on the vast majority of songs but developing most of the band’s sonic innovations including that wiry, unprecedented style of solo guitar attacked in ‘Ray’ and ‘Heard Her Call My Name,’ which he taught the other members of the band and himself played the best recorded solos in. In other words, Lou Reed is the total spirit and driving force behind the Velvet Underground, as has been perfectly obvious for years to seemingly everyone except their “visionary” manager. When Cale was there they might have gotten along without Lou, because they were twin titans the crowding of whose talents split the original Velvets much the same way that (to indulge a little sacrilege) Steve Stills and Neil Young burst the Buffalo Springfield. But now, without Lou, without Cale, relative newcomer Doug Yule seemingly at the helm, they could be little more than Danny Fields’ nickname for the new group, the “Velveteen Underground.” Dead Lie the Velvet Underground! R.I.P. Long Live Lou Reed Lester Bangs - 1971
“I just walked out, because we didn’t have any money, I didn’t want to tour again – I can’t get any writing done on tour, and the grind is terrible – and like some other members of the band, I’ve wondered for a long time if we were ever going to be accepted on a scale large enough to make us a ‘success’…” Lou Reed 96
The nicest touch on the Loaded album, or at least the one that endears it most to me so I wouldn’t think of vacationing in Gila Bend, Arizona or Surf City without it, is the fact that it contains not one but four instant Rock ‘n’ Roll classics. Their names, surprise, are ‘Sweet Jane,’ ‘Rock & Roll,’ ‘Head Held High,” and ‘Train Round the Bend’. ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Train Round the Bend’ have a suggestion about them of the kind of thing Dylan might be doing today if he’d gone on as a rock’n’roll prince after Blonde on Blonde and elaborated that basic sheet- metal trainwhistle holler of his instead of riverbeddin’ down with a sheet of Coors-cool Nashville steels and dandifyin’ hisself up as the very scarecrow ghost of Preacher Gary Cooper come a-callin’. And now he’s a very sedate man in love in house in hills with kids and chickens and ducks so what’s out here in Mudville for him? The challenge in songs like ‘Train Round the Bend,’ that’s what.
TRAIN ROUND THE BEND Train round the bend Takin me away from the country I’m sick of the trees Take me to the city Train goin’ round the bend Train comin’ round the bend Been in the country much too long Trying to be a farmer But nothing that I planted ever seemed to grow Train comin’ round the bend Train comin’ round the bend Hey, I am just a city boy I’m really not the country kind I miss the city streets and the neon lights See the train comin’ round the bend The train comin’ round the bend Once, she’s goin’ twice She’s gonna do it all up and down She’s goin’ once, she’s goin’ twice She’s goin’, train’s comin’ round the bend You know the train’s comin’ round the bend Hey, up and down, out of nowhere Taking me back where I belong I’ve been here once and I don’t dig it tonight The train’s coming round the bend The train’s coming round the bend OOOh Allright!
What’s more, and this is the real trick: they manage, in a day and age when it’s all but impossible, to bring off a “folksy” thing like this with next to no hint of self-consciousness!
You bet it’s an obvious song: why didn’t you think of it? Just like you shoulda thought of ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and lots of other inevitable, indestructible songs that when suddenly they’re there it seems like they always were or shoulda been because they roll off the spool as natural as life itself and where they now set there was before a void which you just never noticed, because if you had, and been a genius-type void-filler like ole Louie Reed, as the boys down at Jocko’s Chuga-Lug Club with free spittoons call him, why then you woulda had all the glory. What’s more, and this is the real trick: they manage, in a day and age when it’s all but impossible, to bring off a “folksy” thing like this with next to no hint of self-consciousness! And self-consciousness is probably the number-one affliction stooping the wild frame of American music today - just look at the Band for an example of a fine, dedicated group so mired in selfconsciousness that it even touches their pinnacles like their second album. And that is the level of the cold intentions behind their warm, earthy playing and singing. Even Creedence suffers tangibly from this, though not nearly as much. ‘Train Round the Bend’ is folklore and rock ‘n’ roll f the highest order and in fulfilling both functions it pulls off a deft one you don’t often see in these dog days. And if that wasn’t enough, it also was apparently just a quick flash from the Muse, what they used to call a “head” arrangement. Sez Lou: “And ‘Train Round the Bend,” which is about the Long Island Railroad, was conceived and worked out entirely in the studio.”
Lou Reed with the seventeen-year-old president-to-be of the Velvet Underground fan club, Connie Radulovitch, December, 1970
SWEET JANE Standing on the corner, Suitcase in my hand Jack is in his corset, and Jane is her vest, And me I'm in a rock'n'roll band Hah! Ridin' in a Stutz Bear Cat, Jim You know, those were different times! Oh, all the poets they studied rules of verse And those ladies, they rolled their eyes Sweet Jane! Whoa! Sweet Jane, oh-oh-a! Sweet Jane! I'll tell you something Jack, he is a banker And Jane, she is a clerk Both of them save their monies, ha And when, when they come home from work Oh, Sittin' down by the fire, oh! The radio does play The classical music there, Jim "The March of the Wooden Soldiers" All you protest kids You can hear Jack say, get ready, ah Sweet Jane! Come on baby! Sweet Jane! Oh-oh-a! Sweet Jane! Some people, they like to go out dancing And other peoples, they have to work, Just watch me now! And there's even some evil mothers Well they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt Y'know that, women, never really faint And that villains always blink their eyes, woo! And that, y'know, children are the only ones who blush! And that, life is just to die! And, everyone who ever had a heart They wouldn't turn around and break it And anyone who ever played a part Oh wouldn't turn around and hate it! Sweet Jane! Whoa-oh-oh! Sweet Jane! Sweet Jane! Heavenly wine and roses Seems to whisper to her when he smiles Heavenly wine and roses Seems to whisper to her when she smiles La lala lala la, la lala lala la Sweet Jane Sweet Jane Sweet Jane
Lou Reed in the office of Danny Fields, December, 1970
‘Sweet Jane’ is the most immediately striking, memorable song on the album. An arrhythmic wash of high keening pastel notes, then the perennial guitars-as-rhythm-section pushing on and on with their own easy momentum. You want it to go on forever, or at least as long as it might have: Lou said that the whole middle instrumental section was somehow excised in the studio. And once again he sings with such smooth joyous insolence, why, it’s almost Negroid, folksy. The man is a sure master now of the voice we thought he was trying to train in ’68. Once again the lyrics are right out of a young-old American Dream, Main Street this time, an easy time warp between our rockroll prince slouching on that corner dreaming of his hometide girl and how it was all maybe so much realer back when, Jane and Jack down by the fire before Fenders rang, just crisp in the laps of each other while the old radio plays on to no particular frequency: ‘the March of the Wooden Soldiers,’ for “all you protest kids,” Uncle Lou may not wave gratuitous peace fingers and fishy fists your way like Mickey Jagger but he still loves ya almost as much as he loves Jack and Jane in their oldtime lovers’ Shangri-La. Or, as the author himself says: “Sweet Jane sort of refers back to the ‘20s, and a romance-‘Jane is in her corset, Jack is in his vest.’” Posing the musical question: What’s it like to fall in love?, and since ‘Hard’ is only one word we have a little world realized, taking up where ‘Beginning to See the Light’ leaves off. And maybe the next album will carry it to the next level, where love songs fear to tread.
You want it to go on forever, or at least as long as it might have: Lou said that the whole middle instrumental section was somehow excised in the studio. 100
ROCK & ROLL Jenny said when she was just five years old There was nothin’ happenin’ at all Every time she puts on a radio There was nothin’ goin’ down at all, Not at all Then one fine mornin’ she puts on a New York station You know, she don’t believe what she heard at all She started shakin’ to that fine fine music You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out And dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station It was alright It was allright Hey baby You know it was allright It was allright Jenny said when she was just bout five years old You know my parents are gonna be the death of us all Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars Well you know it ain’t gonna help me at all Not just a little tiny bit Then one fine mornin’ she turns on a New York station She doesn’t believe what she hears at all Ooh, She started dancin’ to that fine fine music You know her life is saved by rock ‘n’ roll, Yeah, rock n’ roll Despite all the computations You could just dance to that rock ‘n’ roll station
‘Rock & Roll,’ of course, is simply the most definitive personification of the phrase in a year when fraud and antique quackery are loose in the land. Rather than subject us to yet another tacky period piece, the Velvets sing of our traditions in the context of a gleaming jetstream arrangement that represents some sort of evolutionary pinnacle for them. The words are a perfect distillation of race memory - recall the first song you ever heard that jived your buns right there in the car, when Elvis or the Drifters sent out that vibrato-rumble you could feel right up through the cushions that made you want to leap and shout even as a child. And ‘Rock & Roll’ not only tells you, it shows you. They should make it the theme song of the Voice of America-the Cold War would be won, finished in a single blast of fine, fine music that would have all of Easter Europe dancing in the streets for sheer joy. Because if America has a gift to give, this is it: “their lives were saved by –Rock an’ Roll!”
They should make it the theme song of the Voice of America-the Cold War would be won, finished in a single blast of fine, fine music that would have all of Easter Europe dancing in the streets for sheer joy.
And baby it was allright And it was alright Hey it was allright It was allright Hey here she comes now! Jump! Jump! Like Jenny said when she was just bout’ five years old Hey you know there’s nothin’ happenin’ at all Not at all Every time I put on the radio, You know there’s nothin’ goin’ down at all, Not at all But one fine mornin’ she hears a New York station She doesn’t believe what she heard at all Hey, not at all She started dancin’ to that fine fine music You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll Yeah rock ‘n’ roll Ooh, Despite all the computations You know you could just dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station
HEAD HELD HIGH My mama told me, ever since I was seven, Hold your head up high. My parents toldmy ever since I was eleven, "Hold your head up high." They said the answer was to become a dancer, Hold your head high. Oh, just like I figured, they're always disfigured With their heads up high. Now I'm older, I'm getting so much bolder With my head up high Oh, as I figured, just like I figured Since your head's up high, baby. Oh, just like I figured, You know, they was disfigured Hold your head up high. You know, they says the answer was to become a dancer Hold your head high, boy. Ever since I was a baby on my mama's knee, Oh, just listened to what everybody told me, Oh yes I did. But still the answer was to become a dancer, And hold your head high, But, just like I figured, they're always disfigured, They hold their heads up high, Watch out! Do the dog! Oh, watch out! And now I'm older, they say I'm so much bolder Got your head up high. Oh, and the answer was, hey, to become a dancer, Head up high. Well, but just like I figured, they're always disfigured They got their heads up high. But the answer was, now, boy, to become a dancer With your head up high Head up high, Head up high...
‘Head Held High’ is another slice of unpretentious contemporary folklore, universal memory of those endless injunctions to stand up straight, keep your shoulders back, met not with self-righteous posturings but Lou’s hoot of sanity: “Just like I figured/They always disfigured with they heads up high!” Another history-making line-in fact, if there’s been a rock ‘n’ roll album in the last decade with more classic lines per capita then Loaded, I haven’t heard it. And the arrangement and delivery here are energy music personified: easy, unstrained thunder, rushing ahead in wild glee with the feeling that even greater power is held in interior reserve. You want it to roar on for the whole side, and dancing to it must have been one of the all-time workouts.
You want it to roar on for the whole side, and dancing to it must have been one of the all-time workouts.
Without Lou Reed, new line-ups of the Velvet Underground perform, record, issue an album on a major label, and even tour Europe, with Doug Yule the only constant member. Although Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker are still around for some of this time, the band can’t hope to match their former glories, and eventually peter out almost unnoticed in mid 1973. Reed carries on the Velvet’s legacy, by using leftovers originally recorded and performed live by the Velvet Underground on his first two solo albums, while continuing to sing and play VU classics on stage. The emerging glam-rock star David Bowie cites the Velvets as a key inspiration, while Live At Max’s Kansas City is the first of numerous releases of previously unavailable Velvet Underground material. And in January 1972, Reed, John Cale, and Nico are reunited briefly but memorably for a concert in Paris.
Interview with Lou Reed – John Wilcock – 1971 John Wilcock: What I want to do is start where I start with everybody, which is when you first encountered Andy, which I imagine was that time when he first came to the Bizarre coffee house wasn’t it, with Barbara Rubin? Lou Reed: That’s right. We didn’t encounter him, he encountered us. JW What was his reaction to you the first time he heard you? LR I don’t know. I mean, you were there I think the first night he was there, and spent all your time behind a newspaper. JW Barbara Rubin brought Andy along that time and she had been very impressed by it. She was into making films and stuff with Andy. LR It wasn’t really that, she knew Andy well. That was a very funny period with a very funny group of people at that time, it was just… what happened to be funny about it was that everybody in a certain section was doing almost exactly the same thing without anyone knowing anybody else. So then it was just a matter of just having everybody… we were fired two days after he met us. JW Why? LR Oh, you know why. We couldn’t play that music at the club. JW Oh, yes. How long had you been playing that music at the time? LR I guess a week; it was supposed to be for two weeks. We got fired sometime after the second week. The exact words were, Play one more song like that and you’re fired. Because it’s a well-known tourist trap, except we didn’t know. Alan Werner was new and we didn’t have any money, so he said, I’ll get you this job. So then Barbara, you know how fabulous Barbara is… she was trying very hard to bring a lot of people to get something going for us before the whole thing took off. JW Is that more or less the first place you played? LR Sure. JW The first reaction that people usually had to you, you know, was they didn’t ever hear the music, all they heard was the sound. It was too loud. LR We used to walk out… If you remember, though, we were all doing these things. There was no ballrooms, there was no such thing as a light show. There was no Cheetah, there was no Electric Circus, which at one point was ours, when it was the Dom. It didn’t exist at the time. And I guess it must have been floating around everyone’s mind, Wouldn’t it be fun to put lights with a rock group… so anyway… you know, Barbara brought down a lot of people. She brought down Gerard, and Gerard
brought down Andy. He turned up at it. We never spoke to him. We were fired two days afterwards. They threw us out. It wasn’t a legitimate club. It was tourist thing. JW How did you then get together with Andy, then? If you didn’t speak at that time? LR Oh, we came over and we talked and everything, and he said, Why don’t you come up to the Factory, just like everybody. So we went up to the Factory, and then the idea was broached about doing a… probably Barbara was heavily involved, it was very funny. It was New Year’s and Piero had filmed us doing something up at Grand Street, and we all watched TV, one night, and like Edie and Andy and us were all on the New Year’s Eve news. IT was really weird. The idea then was Andy was getting a week at the Cinematheque. So why didn’t we appear in it? This is kind of what happened. JW Didn’t they make any comments about your music at all, or he was just interested in presenting a group? LR We obviously he loved the music. In other words, we were doing what he was doing, except we were using music and he was doing it with lights. JW Could you define that, when you say you’re doing the same thing. LR Not kidding around. In other words, to my mind, nobody in music is doing anything that even approximates the real thing, with the exception of us. Of doing a specific thing that’s very, very real. In other words, isn’t slick or a lie in any conceivable way, which is the only way we could work with him. Because the first thing I liked about him was that he was very real. JW At the time, Andy was probably about the only person that you would have found suitable to work with, I guess. LR Well, it’s really weird, because in those days we were doing feedback and all of that which, it turns out, like across the ocean in England, people were dabbling in the same thing, but at the time in New York, to do that you were accused of being vicious or antisocial, or this and that. It was really funny, ‘cause now everybody, all the things we were doing, have been totally taken as part for the course. As, of course, that’s what you do. JW But Andy wasn’t fazed. I mean, you were too far out for most people, but Andy was used to that kind of… LR You see, we weren’t far out for us or for… I mean all the people around and for instance, in the New York thing… like it didn’t strike them as far out. It struck other people, say outsiders, as far out, but then you jump a few years and now it’s not considered far out of all.
Whereas we never considered it as far out in the first place and neither did he. People think he’s far out, but I don’t think he’s far out. JW Do you think he learned anything about music as a result of his association with you? LR Oh, I wouldn’t know what Andy learned. I never would ask him a question like that. I learned a lot of things from Andy. JW What kind of things did you learn? LR Oh, just ways of being a nice person. JW How to handle certain situations, and things like that? LR Oh, not ever that. Just how to contain what you do. Especially when you’re constantly put down ‘cause you know he’s put down. We take that show places and just have the most awful things said to us. JW What kind of things? LR Picture the most awful thing anybody can say to you and odds are that was said to us. JW How did Andy react to things like that? LR Just the way a human being would react. He’s a very human, very nice person. Somebody says something awful to you. If you take them seriously, you might be hurt. Since you don’t usually take them very seriously, you’re not. And if they had something constructive to say, you might, but they never do. You can’t pay attention at all to anything anybody says to you. JW I’m interested in trying to explain Andy, I suppose, through some kind of insights that people might have about him. Because it’s for sure he wouldn’t be able to explain himself, you know. I think it’s because he’s a figure of some mystery. It’s kind of an enigma to people. LR There is nothing mysterious at all. I mean, when we worked together, we were very close, working together, that’s all. It was just people working to get onto something. JW Did he give you ideas about presentation that you might not have thought of in any way? LR No, it was just ideas floating. I mean the idea is to let anybody come up with ideas, and if they’re good, they work; if they’re not, they don’t. The real idea is to listen all the time. JW He’s very good at that. LR All, everybody, all of us, were very good at that. At listening. But the thing is, you listen with discrimination, but you can never tell when are idea may come
from. But ultimately you know you operate within yourself. He has great ideas at the drop of a hat. But so do I. Doing within the field that we work, that’s why it always worked. JW He’s very projective in his ideas. I mean, if you say something to him he’ll think of something that comes next in some quite often. LR Well, he’s… see, the thing is, he’s there, you know. There are a couple of people who are floating around, who are there, always seem to get in touch with one another in one way or another. I mean in other words, no other band could have, without the thing being a farce. They wouldn’t have been able to hold it up. It would have dropped at one end. It would have been overwhelmed by the lights or the movies. That’s not, in fact, what happened. And that’s because what we did was very strong. JW It didn’t perturb you at all about movies flashing on all around you and cameras going? LR No. The real point was that was what we expected. We wouldn’t have had less than that, so that way it was always balanced and all. Except that you wouldn’t have… well, I suppose if you… We worked with lights and stuff behind us before we met Andy, we did it in the old Cinematheque on Lafayette Street and it wasn’t like his original conception. It was a lot of people’s conception. In other words, we had done shows at the old Cinematheque where… you know, all the underground filmmakers didn’t have money for sound. They needed sound, so we used to give people tapes. We used to make tapes and give them to people. Our tapes would be soundtracks to seventeen to twenty different movies and then it got to a point when Piero showed a movie and we just sat behind a screen and played along with it. Then it was a natural step to meet Andy and then say, Oh, you’ve got a week at the new Cinematheque; so obviously since we combined music with movies and everything, it was just such an easy step to say, Why don’t you all show movies while you play. No, we said, we’ll play along with your movies. Then we said, You’ve got all these things; why don’t we show lights? Doesn’t matter whose idea it was. It was just so obvious. JW All your ideas coincided for a time. I remember that trip to Ann Arbor, when we all went out on the bus. Barbara freaked everybody out at that. A lot of people freaked a lot of people out on that. You can’t keep that type of person cooped up for any period of time without something happening. Do you remember Andy ever being particularly surprised or absolutely stoned by anything, or did he take everything always in his stride like he seems to? LR Well, it’s all just being alive.
JW It’s true that nobody has come along and given him a million dollars. LR Andy’s not under the vision of someone who really believes in something, who has no outlet. Andy does have an outlet, but the thing is, if he wanted to make his movie, he knows how he could, and he would. I don’t think he’s ready for it. He’s not ready to handle it yet. Like he’s still finding certain things out. As soon as he finds it out, then he’ll do it. And he’s, happily for him and all of the people that love him, in the position where he can just kind of traipse around and not really do anything yet. And then he can always say, Oh, but why don’t they come over, and all that kind of thing. But he knows why they’re not coming over and he also knows what he has to do about it. That means he has to cut out certain shit and have someone who can talk with the band and trust somebody and then if that’s what he wants to do, then it will all happen. If he doesn’t want to do it, it won’t. The twenty-four-hour movie is unbelievable. Did you see that? It was shown once and then it was shown with the edited thing. I was at the whole thing. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. You just couldn’t believe it. And that thing will never get shown, it’s very sad. Some day. The thing is, I just thought of it as… there are different varieties of trees and Andy, like God, just made one and that if they showed it forever it would be, just people would visit New York and say, let’s see the Empire State Building; let’s drop in to see Andy Warhol’s movie; ‘cause most people couldn’t sit through the whole thing. JW It would be running permanently. Any segment… LR Right. JW What does the movie consist of, the whole twenty-four hours of it? Collages and stuff? LR I couldn’t possibly tell you. It was constantly two films on each other, usually in color. Couldn’t tell you anything. JW Just all the different fragments he shot, like all put into one? LR But it was a specific order, like if you really are in touch, you can put things in whatever order you feel like it and it will work. Not only will it work, but the people who view it will find reason to make it work that exists in their own heads. That’s all. He deserves every bit that he gets, including all the animosity and being shot, all the really horrible, awful things. I think he knows how to stop that, but he hasn’t quite figured out how to. what he wants to do. I don’t think he’s sure of what he wants to do. It’s something a lot of people have to get together with.
JW How do you explain that? Why is it that so many people really try to put him down or dislike him, or are jealous or something? LR They’re all people that don’t know him. You never hear it from people that know him. Well, people always put down what they don’t know… what they don’t expect. I mean they somehow apparently seem to have this idea that Andy’s involved with the bottom of society, whatever that means. Overtly it may seem like that, but well, the things is, Kansas is not New York, the gap, as they say… words that will be used are so open to meaning that nothing is said; on any kind of real level. It’s just like exchanging a big hello. Andy doesn’t really do that. Everybody says, oh, what did that mean? So he makes enemies. Most very big people seem to have enemies, and seem to be getting shot, which is something a lot of people should keep in mind. There is a lot to be said for not being in the limelight. In other words, Andy doesn’t have wear the sunglasses and the jacket, the two things that draw attention to him. So the point is, that’s the way he is and that’s the way he does things. Anybody knows that if you go out and do that, you’re going to attract a certain bunch of people, both on the negative and positive sides. JW He regards publicity as being a very positive thing in itself. He digs the whole idea of it. LR Why shouldn’t he? There’s no difference between communicating one-to-one and one-to-a-million. There’s not really any big difference. What has to be borne in mind is it doesn’t matter what happens next week or in a year; it matters what’s going to happen in ten years, even though you’ve worked for the present. The point is that some of the things you do aren’t going to show up for a long time. Assuming you live through it, whatever it is. People just constantly think he’s strange; he’s this or that. They don’t understand they’re talking about a very, very good person. A very good, honest person, who’s enormously talented. Therefore, those who know him really love him. Those who don’t, hate him.
Andy doesn’t have wear the sunglasses and the jacket, the two things that draw attention to him. So the point is, that’s the way he is and that’s the way he does things.
Apart from a one-off performance in 1990 and a brief reunion tour of Europe in 1993, the Velvet Underground don’t play or record together again after Doug Yule’s final line-up sputters to a halt in 1973. And yet, in a way, the Velvets seem to receive more attention than ever with each passing decade and with the explosive growth of their devoted cult following. Many punk, new-wave, and alternative-rock bands cite them as influences, and after years of neglect, the Velvets’ core catalog is restored to availability, bolstered by numerous other releases from the archives. Critics belatedly recognize the VU as one of the best and most important bands of all time, culminating in the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The Velvet Underground’s popularity and influence continue to expand in the 21st century, attracting more and more devotees with each new generation.
The Velvet Underground: New York Art Johan Kugelberg 2009 White Light/White Heat The Velvet Underground Day By Day Richie Unterberger 2009