This is a festival in Italy I am playing at, based on the songs and music of Bob Dylan. Next week May 18th to 23rd 2019
Stan Lee died at the age of 95 on November, 12, 2018. This piece was initially published in early 2016.
People are almost always surprised when I tell them Stan Lee is 93. He doesn’t scan as a young man, exactly, but frozen in time a couple of decades younger than he is, embodying still the larger-than-life image he crafted for himself in the 1970s — silver hair, tinted shades, caterpillar mustache, jubilant grin, bouncing gait, antiquated Noo Yawk brogue. We envision him spreading his arms wide while describing the magic of superhero fiction, or giving a thumbs up while yelling his trademark non sequitur, Excelsior! He’s pop culture’s perpetually energetic 70-something grandpa, popping in for goofy cameos in movies about the Marvel Comics characters he co-created (well, he’s often just said “created,” but we’ll get to that in a minute) in the 1960s. But even then, he was old enough to be his fans’ father — not a teenage boy-genius reimagining the comics world to suit the tastes of his peers but already a middle-aged man, and one who still looked down a bit on the form he was reinventing.
A comic-book Methuselah, Lee is also, to a great degree, the single most significant author of the pop-culture universe in which we all now live. This is a guy who, in a manic burst of imagination a half-century ago, helped bring into being The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and the dozens of other Marvel titles he so famously and consequentially penned at Marvel Comics in his axial epoch of 1961 to 1972. That world-shaking run revolutionized entertainment and the then-dying superhero-comics industry by introducing flawed, multidimensional, and relatably human heroes — many of whom have enjoyed cultural staying power beyond anything in contemporary fiction, to rival the most enduring icons of the movies (an industry they’ve since proceeded to almost entirely remake in their own image). And in revitalizing the comics business, Lee also reinvented its language: His rhythmic, vernacular approach to dialogue transformed superhero storytelling from a litany of bland declarations to a sensational symphony of jittery word-jazz — a language that spoke directly and fluidly to comics readers, enfolding them in a common ecstatic idiom that became the bedrock of what we think of now as “fan culture.” Perhaps most important for today’s Hollywood, he crafted the concept of an intricate, interlinked “shared universe,” in which characters from individually important franchises interact with and affect one another to form an immersive fictional tapestry — a blueprint from which Marvel built its cinematic empire, driving nearly every other studio to feverishly do the same. And which enabled comics to ascend from something like cultural bankruptcy to the coarse-sacred status they enjoy now, as American kitsch myth.
All of which should mean there’s never been a better time to be Stan Lee. But watching him over the last year — seeing the way he has to hustle for paid autographs at a convention, watching him announce lackluster new projects, hearing friends and collaborators grudgingly admit his personal failings — it’s hard to avoid the impression that, in what should be his golden period, Lee is actually playing the role of a tragic figure, even a pathetic one. On the one hand, the characters associated with Lee have never been more famous. But as they’ve risen to global prominence, a growing scholarly consensus has concluded that Lee didn’t do everything he said he did. Lee’s biggest creditis the perception that he was the creator of the insanely lucrative Marvel characters that populate your local cineplex every few months, but Lee’s role in their creation is, in reality, profoundly ambiguous. Lee and Marvel demonstrably — and near-unforgivably — diminished the vital contributions of the collaborators who worked with him during Marvel’s creative apogee. That is part of what made Lee a hero in the first place, but he’s lived long enough to see that self-mythologizing turn against him. Over the last few decades, the man who saved comics has become — to some comics lovers, at least — a villain.
And, to certain comics fans, something of a joke. Lee may have personally made possible an expansive comics culture populated by idiosyncratic voices telling morally complex stories about relatable characters, layered over with much more darkness than had ever come before (achievements for which he still enjoys occasional bouts of adoration from the mainstream press and casual fans). But hard-core comics geeks greet news of his new projects with a certain degree of eye-rolling. Lee has always had a penchant for overstatement, but his pronouncements have grown increasingly hollow in the past 15 years. When he says he’s doing story concepts for a new superhero movie called Arch Alien and says it “is gonna be the biggest hit of the next year,” or when he says a comic-book collaboration with Japanese pop artist Yoshiki “is gonna be like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” it’s hard not to cringe a little bit. Where is the buzz about these projects? Is anyone really paying attention? A creative radical who made his most significant contributions while still carrying a healthy bit of disdain for a corny medium, he finds himself now, on the other end of the revolution he engineered, casually disrespected by the comics vanguard for being something like, well, corny.
Still, the greatest salesman the American comics industry ever had, he continues hawking. Lee and the company he helms, POW! Entertainment (he left active duty at Marvel in the late 1990s, though he still collects a reported million-dollar annual paycheck from the superhero giant), announce a dizzying number of new projects every year. The last six months alone have seen Lee doing promotional pushes for his British superhero TV series Lucky Man, Arch Alien, the Yoshiki project, a mobile game called Stan Lee’s Hero Command (which actually came out almost a year ago), a big-screen sci-fi take on Shakespeare called Romeo and Juliet: The War, a children’s book targeted at the Chinese market called Dragons vs. Pandas, a co-written young-adult novel series called The Zodiac Legacy, and a co-written memoir (with comics scribe Peter David)* called Amazing Fantastic Incredible. ButGoogle searches for “stan lee cameo” (he still does plenty) dwarf the searches for “stan lee arch alien” or “stan lee yoshiki,” and you’ll find hardly any mentions of those projects in geek-news sites.
To be fair, the memoir and Zodiac have been released, and have produced decent sales so far. But in Lee’s current era of output, they’re the exception. As any longtime Lee-watcher can tell you, it’s anyone’s guess as to how many of his future projects will actually pan out. Ever since Lee took his talents away from Marvel, he’s left behind a trail of unfinished and half-finished work — which has made readers wonder just how much of those talents lie in narrative craft, and how much in showmanship. In 2005, Lee enthusiastically announced he’d partnered with Ringo Starr to make a cartoon where the drummer became a superhero. It never materialized. He was going to make a movie with Disney called Nick Ratchet, and it got as far as hiring writers in 2009, then vanished. A comics series called Stan Lee’s Mighty 7 released three issues in 2012 before abruptly stopping on a cliff-hanger (“The wonderment begins next time, pilgrims!” Lee’s narration read. “Miss it at your own risk! Excelsior!”) and never resuming. The list of mysteriously fizzled efforts goes on and on. And within geekdom, people tend not to talk about the stuff that does come out. Longtime friends and admirers within the comics industry will tell you, with a tone of embarrassment, that they don’t read or watch the stuff Lee produces these days. “The style of comics today is so different from the optimistic style that Stan has,” says veteran comics writer and Lee collaborator Marv Wolfman, trying to explain the decline in relevance. “Stan is very, very optimistic, and we’re sadly living in a very pessimistic world.”
The costs of that change are not merely to Lee’s reputation. The most troubling aspect of Lee’s current situation is one entirely absent from the brief, glowing, and nostalgia-tinged pieces of press coverage he gets these days: His company is dying. Its most recent filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission lamented two years of net losses, could only predict the company would survive through January 2016, and declared, “These conditions raise substantial doubt about the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” POW!’s stock currently trades at one cent a share.
It’s a mild October day in Southern California, but the regurgitated air inside the Los Angeles Convention Center is freezing. Lee — wearing a white shirt, beige vest, tinted shades, and his trademark grin — seems unfazed by the chill. He nimbly hops into a chair in a makeshift press area set up just a few feet away from the main stage of his annual pop-culture convention, Stan Lee’s Comikaze. At his side is one of his business partners, a media entrepreneur named Terry Dougas. They’re here to announce Dragons vs. Pandas. Dougas, wisely, plays the straight man while Stan does one of the things he does best: charm journalists.
“Stan has always been focused, of course, on helping with literacy, helping children and families,” Dougas says.
“Sure!” Lee shouts in a gravelly voice. “The more kids can read, the more they’ll buy my books!”
Dougas starts describing Dragons vs. Pandas’ complex international rollout plan, featuring a digital release, a printed book, animation, a translation into Mandarin, and more. Lee, perhaps sensing how confusing this all sounds, butts in again.
“We’re gonna do more to create peace in the world between nations than anybody else!” the nonagenarian crows, pointing at a blowup of the book’s cover. “You may not suspect this, but this little panda is a killer! And this dragon is so scared. But you gotta read the story to get it all!”
The biggest laughs come a few minutes later, during the question-and-answer period. I ask him what his and Dougas’s collaboration process is like. “We hate each other!” Lee says. “He does all the talking, the girls love him because he’s good-looking, and he just keeps me around — why do you keep me around? I haven’t figured that out yet. No, he’s great to work with. He does all the work, I take the credit. You couldn’t have a better arrangement.”
That last bit is more than a little remarkable to hear. On the one hand, he’s just doing the typical Stan routine, one he’s been doing for the better part of seven decades: putting an audience at ease via disorienting shifts between self-promotion and self-debasement. But saying he just slaps his name on other people’s work — well, that’s a topic he usually keeps off the table, even for jokes. After all, it’s unwise to draw attention to the things for which you’re most hated, and since at least the late 1960s, Lee has been accused of stealing credit from two of comics’ most legendary creators, two men who had tremendous creative synergy with Lee before they concluded that he was an unforgivable bastard. Those two men were writer-artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
When you’re a comics nerd, there comes a time in your life when someone more knowledgeable than you — an older kid at school or summer camp, the checkout guy at your local comics shop, a blogger with a vendetta — lets you in on a secret. You know Stan Lee, right? You love him, right? Well, let me fill you in on some real shit. You learn about how he screwed Kirby and Ditko, about how those two were the real creative forces behind Marvel. You get told Lee is nothing more than a flashy, empty suit. If you want proof, you dig in to chronicles of his life like Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon’s Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, or Sean Howe’s masterful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and you see ample evidence for the case against Lee. You force yourself to question your assumptions. You have to decide what your personal take on this iconic figure is, and how you can weigh his accomplishments against his failings. Your conception of him is never the same again.
“The story of Stan, Jack, and Steve is the stuff legends are made of,” one of Stan’s oldest friends and collaborators, comics writer-editor Roy Thomas, tells me over the phone. “It’s on them, more than any other three people, that the whole Marvel thing is built.” Thomas had an experience any comics fan or historian would kill for: He walked the offices of Marvel in the mid-’60s, when Lee and Ditko were working together on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stories and Lee and Kirby were working together on nearly everything else, including The Avengers, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four. Here’s the problem: It’s extremely unclear what “working together” meant.
According to Lee, it meant he came up with the concepts for all the characters, mapped out plots, gave the plots to his artists so they could draw them, and then would take the finished artwork and write his signature snappy verbiage for the characters’ dialogue bubbles. The artists, in Lee’s retelling, were fantastic and visionary, but secondary to his own vision. According to Kirby and Ditko, that’s hogwash. Ditko has retreated into a hermetic existence in midtown Manhattan, where he types up self-promoting mail-order pamphlets claiming Lee had only the most threadbare initial ideas for Spider-Man, and that Ditko is the one who fleshed the iconic character out into what he is today, then came up with most of the plot beats in any given story. Kirby, from the time he left Marvel in 1970 until his death in 1994, swore up and down that Lee was a fraud on an even larger scale: Kirby said he himself was the one who had all the ideas for the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the rest, and that Lee was outright lying about having anything to do with them. What’s more, he said Lee was little more than a copy boy, filling in dialogue bubbles after Kirby had done the lion’s share of the conceptual and writing work for any given issue.
“Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything,” Kirby told an interviewer in 1989. “It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things — or old things, for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories.”
“Stan’s gotten far too much credit,” says veteran comics writer Gerry Conway, who’s known Lee since 1970. “People have said Stan was out for No. 1, and to a very large degree, that’s true. He’s a good guy. He’s just not a great guy.”
“Unfortunately, from day one, Jack was doing part of Stan’s job, and Stan was not doing part of Jack’s job,” says comics historian Mark Evanier, who worked as Kirby’s assistant and has worked on and off with Lee since the 1970s. “When you talk to Stan Lee, when he turns the Stan Lee act off, he’s a very decent human being who is chronically obsessed with himself. He’s very insecure. Those of us who have trouble being angry for some of the things that happened, it’s because we saw the real human being there at times.”
“It’s one of those things where you sit down and you say, ‘You gotta be forgiving of your parents,’” says artist Colleen Doran, who drew Lee’s new memoir. “I don’t know of anyone who knows Stan and doesn’t love him, even if they hate things he’s done.”
To understand the nature of Lee’s bitter blood feuds, you have to take a step back and understand who Lee was before the Marvel phenomenon: a dispirited, middle-aged company stooge working in a dying industry, with no reason to believe anything could change. To understand Stan Lee, you must understand that his is one of the more remarkable second acts in American culture.
He was born Stanley Martin Lieber in Manhattan’s Upper West Side on December 28, 1922, the first child of middle-class Jewish parents. Stanley’s father, Jack, had been a dressmaker but suffered from chronic unemployment during the Depression. “Seeing the demoralizing effect that his unemployment had on his spirit, making him feel that he just wasn’t needed, gave me a feeling I’ve never been able to shake,” Lee wrote in his first memoir, Excelsior!, published in 2002. “It’s a feeling that the most important thing for a man is to have work to do, to be busy, to be needed.”
Poverty drove the family to cheaper rents in the Bronx, where the bookish Stanley attended DeWitt Clinton High School and adopted the nickname Stan Lee. He took to writing around then and snagged a few creative gigs: He wrote advance obituaries for a news service, did publicity material for a hospital, and briefly performed with the New Deal’s WPA Federal Theatre Project. His family couldn’t afford college, but as luck would have it, his cousin was married to a publisher named Martin Goodman, who had leaped into the nascent-but-booming world of comic books, a medium only invented in 1933. Lee got a gig as an editorial gofer at Goodman’s Timely Publications in 1940 and soon started writing scripts for its burgeoning lineup of titles. He usually signed them as “Stan Lee” because — so goes his oft-told anecdote — he wanted to save his real name for when he would someday write the great American novel. He’s earned a paycheck from the company, in its constantly shifting forms and names, ever since.
Upon entering the building, Lee met the most significant man in his life, someone whose partnership and eventual spite will haunt him forever: Jack Kirby, the pen name of a rough-and-tumble Jewish boy from the Lower East Side, Jacob Kurtzberg. He was a writer-artist five years Lee’s senior and already a leading light in the budding comics industry, lauded for co-creating the smash-hit superhero Captain America alongside Timely editor-in-chief Joe Simon just a few weeks prior. From the very beginning, Lee and Kirby were a study in stark contrasts. The younger man was cheerful and animated, prone to leaping around the offices while playing an ocarina; the older pro was quiet and perpetually hunched over his drawing board. Lee was healthy and handsome; Kirby was husky and shrouded in cigar smoke. And while Lee was immediately eager to please the powers that be, Kirby and Simon ran afoul of Goodman and angrily left the company in 1941. Lee, not even 19 years old, was abruptly named editor-in-chief at one of the hottest publishers in comics.
He would hold that position for two decades — a full professional career, really — before Timely transformed into Marvel (two decades characterized by diminishing returns for the business as a whole). Lee had a brief Army stint from 1942 to 1945, serving Stateside as a copywriter (both of his memoirs proudly recall the crafting of a poster reading, “VD? NOT ME!”), and though he returned to his job at Timely afterward, he was never truly satisfied there. With good reason. Goodman was a shameless trend-chaser: When superhero series like National Comics’ Superman and Batman fell out of fashion and Gleason Publications saw success with a cops-and-robbers series called Crime Does Not Pay, Goodman’s company cranked out laughably obvious knockoff versions named Crime Must Lose!, Crime Can’t Win, and Lawbreakers Always Lose. Same went for Westerns and horror when the market shifted toward those genres. Lee dutifully supervised and wrote scripts for these also-rans, drifting through corporate stability and silently seething about the material. “We’re not talking War and Peace here,” he wrote in his first memoir. “In fact, I was probably the ultimate, quintessential hack.”
Then, in the mid-1950s, the industry collapsed under the weight of a moral panic about the medium’s supposed promotion of juvenile delinquency (which prompted infamous,vicious congressional hearings). Goodman was a poor businessman and a worse boss, hemorrhaging cash and forcing the genial Lee to tell staffers they were fired. To make matters worse, death stalked Lee: He and his wife Joan’s second child died three days after birth, then his closest friend at the company, artist Joe Maneely, died after falling in front of a commuter train. As the staff dwindled, Lee was forced to stand alone as the sole writer and editor of virtually everything his boss published. “I was like a human pilot light,” he wrote in 2002, “left burning in the hope that we would reactivate our production at a future date.” Everything was in free-fall; everything was up for grabs. Lee, at age 38, had little to lose.
There are two accounts of what happened next, and they’re impossible to reconcile. According to Jack Kirby — who died in 1994 — the revolution began with uncontrollable weeping. He had returned to Martin Goodman’s company on a freelance basis in 1958, and he recalled a fateful day when the place hit rock bottom. “I came in and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out,” he said in an infamous 1989 interview with The Comics Journal. “Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn’t know what to do, he’s sitting in a chair crying — he was just still out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says, ‘Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I’ll see that the books make money.’” In his telling, he then single-handedly conceived the characters and plot of The Fantastic Four, the quirky, iconoclastic, epoch-defining superhero series that kicked off the resurrection of the company and the industry.
Lee, as you would imagine, absolutely refutes that story and has his own oft-told version of the path to The Fantastic Four. Here’s how he put it in his 1974 book Origins of Marvel Comics: “Martin mentioned that he had noticed one of the titles published by National Comics seemed to be selling better than most. It was a book called The Justice League of America and was composed of a team of superheroes,” Lee wrote. “Well, we didn’t need a house to fall on us. ‘If The Justice League is selling,’ spake he, ‘why don’t we put out a comic book that features a team of superheroes?’” Lee didn’t want to keep churning out trend-following swill, so he said he dreamed up a superteam “such as comicdom had never known,” with characters who were “fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.” He then, so the story goes, conceived the idea for The Fantastic Four by himself, typed out a pitch, and selected Kirby to draw it. Kirby, Lee said, had nothing to do with the initial idea.
This is a pattern you run into for nearly every one of the characters that followed: There’s Lee’s charming, witty account of events; there’s Kirby’s dour, workmanlike one; and never the twain shall meet. The men kept few written records from the time, and the debate over how much credit Lee deserves is the single most controversial matter in the history of comics. These matters aren’t just fanboy quibbles either: In 2009, when Marvel began to rake in cash from its film studio, the Kirby family legally declared Jack was co-creator of all those extremely lucrative characters — and that, because work-for-hire standards were so vague in the early ’60s, they were entitled to a share of the copyright on all those properties. The case went on for five years and very nearly made it to the Supreme Court before Marvel settled under terms that are believed to be quite generous. (To be fair, Lee doesn’t hold the copyrights either — he’s just remained employed by the company that does.)
But when The Fantastic Four No. 1 hit stands on August 8, 1961, all anyone outside Goodman’s offices knew was that the 25-page tale was unlike any other comic book in the medium’s 23-year history. Superhero stories were supposed to be about genial people who happily stumble upon superhuman abilities, then go on their merry way toward justice. That mold was forever broken in the four-page sequence where powers are forced onto the titular quartet — forced upon them quite painfully. Scientist Reed Richards takes his friend Ben Grimm, his girlfriend Susan Storm, and Susan’s brother Johnny on an experimental rocket trip, but they’re bombarded by “cosmic rays.” There are six panels of claustrophobic, crimson-shaded agony: “My — my arms are heavy — too heavy — can’t move — too heavy — got to lie down — can’t move” is Ben’s panicked staccato.
They slam back into Earth and immediately find their situation has gotten even worse. Susan starts to turn invisible and screams as she looks at her disappearing flesh. Ben’s skin melts and expands until he resembles a misshapen pile of orange stones; he immediately blames Reed and tries to beat the tar out of him. Johnny calls his friends “monsters” before levitating and bursting into flame. Reed’s limbs stretch away from him like distended rubber, and he howls, “What am I doing? What happened to me? To all of us?” The characters seem trapped in a horror fable. Eventually, they calm down and decide to use their powers to help mankind — but as they do so, Lee’s dialogue has them tossing passive-aggressive taunts, and Kirby’s pencils show them bearing miserable expressions. The whole thing doesn’t feel like a traditional superhero comic; it’s more like a David Cronenberg movie or a booze-soaked fight at a Thanksgiving dinner. This mix of wild sci-fi invention and human drama continued in the ensuing monthly installments: One issue, the Four would save Earth by transmogrifying alien invaders into cows; just a few months later, they’d face eviction from their headquarters because they’d run out of rent money.
It’s hard to appreciate today just how radical a shift in tone the first Fantastic Four was. But there was another revolutionary aspect of the series, one hidden from the reader but unendingly controversial: It was the first superhero series to use the so-called “Marvel method.” To save time while writing a dozen or more comics at once, Lee had recently developed a thrifty alternative to writing out full scripts. He’d merely come up with a rough plot — ”as much as I can write in longhand on the side of one sheet of paper,” as he put it in a 1968 interview — talk that over with the artist, then make the artist go off and create the entire story from scratch. Every emotional beat, character interaction, and action sequence was now the responsibility of the guys drawing them, who until then had been accustomed to just drawing whatever a script told them to draw. Now it was the artists who built the narrative architecture, and the writers who did something more like buffing up: Once Lee got the artwork back, he’d interpret what he saw and cook up dialogue bubbles, narration, and sound effects. “Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all,” Lee said in that 1968 chat. “I mean, I’ll just say to Jack, ‘Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom.’ Or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He’s so good at plots, I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I.”
The Marvel method gets a bad rap in the comics community these days because it allowed Lee to claim he’d written stories that were actually co-plotted by the artists, but at the time, it was an artistically fertile game-changer. The tyranny of full scripts was over, and artists were free to come up with graphic ideas that worked for them. “I realized that comics from a script was absolutely paralyzing and limiting,” says John Romita Sr., an artist who worked extensively with Lee in the ’60s and has remained a close friend ever since. “When you had the option of deciding how many panels you’d use, where to show everything, how you pace each page out, it’s the best thing in the world. Comics becomes a visual medium!”
“Even before the sales totals were in, we knew we had a major success because of the amount of enthusiastic fan mail,” Lee says in his new memoir, and Marvel feverishly fed this newfound demand. Over the ensuing months, Lee and Kirby cranked out stories about one eccentric superhero after another. Self-loathing scientist the Incredible Hulk, maimed war profiteer Iron Man, literal god Thor, and ostracized freaks the X-Men all appeared in the space of just two years. Lee had writing chores for as many as eight series at a time and was editor of all of them. That was an incredible burden, but also a creative opportunity: When Lee decided to have all these new characters periodically run into each other in their fictional New York City, he was able to keep that new shared universe straight in his head.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Lee’s invention of the idea of a comprehensive shared universe. It was a genius way to move product: If you wanted the full story of what was going on with your favorite characters, you had to buy series that starred other characters. But it was also a creative coup: Marvel was suddenly crafting a massive, unified story in which a reader could totally lose themselves. (It’s no wonder today’s movie studios are all rushing to follow the Marvel model and create their own shared universes filled with Jedis or raptors.)
Young people flocked to newsstands to pick up Marvel comics. College groups would write to Lee, begging him to come speak about the nature of comics art. Newspapers and magazines started writing profiles of Marvel — usually with Lee at their center. He did the talk-show circuit. Filmmakers Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais sought audiences with Lee to tell him how highly they regarded his work. Lee wasn’t a radical leftist, but he knew how to tap the Zeitgeist: He and Kirby created a hyperintelligent black hero, the Black Panther; their female characters were often pugilists, not just pinups; and stories would often depict youthful rebellion and protest sympathetically. Lee was a genius at making fans feel cared for, addressing Marvel’s “True Believers” directly in his delightful letters pages and in missives sent to a Lee-created fan club called the Merry Marvel Marching Society. By 1965, Marvel boasted that it was selling an estimated 35,000,000 comics a year — one comic for every five people in the United States. “He saved the comic-book industry,” says Michael Uslan, producer of the Batman films, comics writer, and historian. “He allowed comic books to grow up and find an older audience. And as we grow up, instead of leaving comic books, we stay with them for the rest of our lives. That’s an incredible thing.”
“What Stan did in the ’60s was really to go out there and evangelize, to be a P.T. Barnum or a Sol Hurok, a promoter of the fact that comics weren’t just a children’s medium and certainly not just a stupid children’s medium,” says longtime comics writer, executive, and historian Paul Levitz. “He seized on every bit of evidence that could be developed: the movie director, actor, the singer, the implied endorsement, the opportunity to talk on college campuses. He certainly enjoys the sound of his own voice and enjoys performing, but he’s really, really good at it.”
The version of that voice that made it into print was another game-changer. Prior to the Marvel revolution, the top superhero series were DC Comics’ tales of characters like Superman, Batman, and the Justice League — and the characters never talked like human beings. (“Green Lantern, the power ring — it’s glowing!” “That means somebody has stolen one of the objects I marked with an invisible aura! Let’s go!”) Lee’s characters used slang, told jokes, and sounded distinct from one another. His narration often broke the fourth wall. And in the comics’ letters pages, Lee spoke to readers like a close friend, directly stoking their enthusiasm and giving them a personal relationship with him. To pick one of hundreds upon hundreds of examples: In Avengers No. 12, there’s a letter from a Steve Lucero of Laramie, Wyoming, who wrote to “compliment you on all your Marvel mags,” say his mom was happy to see him reading so much, and end with a hope that “this letter wasn’t too long and boring.” Lee’s reply: “Aw, you know us, Stevey! No letter is ever boring when it’s flattering us! And be sure to tell your mom ‘hello’ from the guys in the bullpen!”
“This was coming at a time when the baby-boomers were teenagers,” says Lee biographer and comics journalist Tom Spurgeon. “If Stan hadn’t been doing those stories that were for teenagers and not kids, comics would have disappeared. DC was very much doing stories for people under 13, and he was going more for 18.” This is an important distinction, one that helps explain Lee’s significance, as well as his awkward place in current comics geekdom. When you’re a grown-up, you’re going to lump kids’ comics and teen comics in with one another as childish pap. But when you’re a teenager, the difference between the two is massive. In the ’60s, he who controlled the hearts of teens could control the marketplace.
Lee’s most important contribution might also have been his most exemplary case-study:Spider-Man. He swung onto Marvel’s pages in 1962 in a story drawn by a tremendously talented and camera-shy artist named Steve Ditko. In that first adventure, you can see Lee using his unique voice right away with some self-deprecating, fourth-wall-breaking narration: “Like costume heroes?” the first panel asks in thick black ink. “Confidentially, we in the comic mag business refer to them as ‘long underwear characters’! And, as you know, they’re a dime a dozen! But, we think you may find our Spiderman just a bit … different!” He was, indeed. The tale of nebbishy Peter Parker and the spider bite that gave him strength and stickiness is well known now. But it’s like listening to early Beatles singles: They sound dull today because their iconoclasm became a new template.
The story bucked convention in two key ways: The protagonist was a teenager (previously, teens were nearly always sidekicks), and he was prone to being a smart-aleck asshole. After showing off his newfound powers on TV and blowing off a bunch of admirers (“See my agent, boys! I’m busy!”), he blithely lets a criminal run past him and tells an astonished police officer, “Save your breath, buddy! I’ve got things to do!” Of course, the criminal then kills Peter’s uncle, leading him to realize that “with great power there must also come — great responsibility,” perhaps the nine most famous words Lee will ever write. That balance of unconventional humor and emotional agony had never been tried in comics before, and Lee and Ditko deployed it month after month in The Amazing Spider-Man. There was a fundamentally relatable message at the core of the series: No matter how strong you are, you can’t punch your personal flaws.
Speaking of which: Lee’s role in Spider-Man’s creation is the most disputed story of all. For decades, Lee took unequivocal full credit for the character concept, variously saying he was inspired by seeing a spider or remembering a ’30s pulp hero called the Spider. Ditko refuses all interviews, but if you mail a $40 check to a friend of his in Washington State, you can get a stack of Ditko-written manifestos saying Lee just came up with the name and that every other aspect was Ditko’s idea. In a 2001 pamphlet, he rails against the idea that Lee was the sole creator: “So for 30-plus years, the ‘one and only creator’ theme continued to pollute various publication outlets. The subjective and intrinsic mentalities continued their unquestioning, unchallenging, and self-blinding support of the non-validated claims.” (Ditko has a penchant for purple prose.) To make matters even more confusing, Kirby claimed he crafted every aspect of Spider-Man on his own before giving the project to Lee and Ditko.
There’s also the issue of how the artists were credited on an issue-by-issue basis — something far more provably damning for Lee. As Marvel’s popularity grew, he wisely chose to engage fans by giving specific credits at the front of each issue, something the fly-by-night comics industry had rarely bothered to do. But when readers saw “RUGGEDLY WRITTEN BY: STAN LEE, ROBUSTLY DRAWN BY: STEVE DITKO” or “SENSATIONAL STORY BY: STAN LEE, ASTONISHING ART BY: JACK KIRBY,” they were being profoundly misled. The mechanics of the Marvel method meant that, by any reasonable definition, his artists were actually authoring the stories with him. Their resentment grew.
So, though Lee gained the world, he lost the partners who helped him seize it. The principled and eccentric Ditko successfully lobbied to get plot credits in The Amazing Spider-Man but still felt underappreciated by Lee. The two stopped speaking and Ditko quit Marvel outright in 1966. That same year, Nat Freedland of the New York Herald Tribune’s magazine section (the predecessor publication to New York) stopped by to report an infamous feature story called “Super Heroes With Super Problems,” which took a hip New Journalism approach to describing the hot company. Hipness recognizes hipness, so Freedland focused almost entirely on Lee, “an ultra–Madison Avenue, rangy look-alike of Rex Harrison” who “dreamed up the ‘Marvel Age of Comics.’” But Freedland was cruel in his descriptions of Kirby, calling him “a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall–ish suit” and saying, “If you stood next to him on the subway, you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.”
“That article did enormous damage to Jack, personally and professionally,” recalls Evanier, who knew Kirby better than most. “It convinced Jack he couldn’t get the proper recognition there.” Kirby stayed put for a while (he’d later say he wanted to leave but had to earn money to support his family), but abandoned Marvel to work for DC in 1970. Almost right away, he wrote and drew a short story about a thinly veiled Lee analogue named Funky Flashman. Funky is a verbose fraud who orders around a Roy Thomas pastiche named Houseroy and constantly declares his own greatness without ever producing anything. “I know my words drive people into a frenzy of adoration!!” he insists. “Image is the thing, Houseroy!” Kirby’s anger was shared by other people in the industry who disapproved of Lee’s methods: A DC comic called Angel and the Apefeatured a comics editor named Stan Bragg, who asks a creator, “Why are you so ungrateful? When you write good stories and do good artwork, don’t I sign it?” A satirical series called Sick featured a strip in which comics editor Sam Me tells an artist to make some arduous revisions before reminding him, “And don’t forget to sign my name to it!”
Lee felt hurt by this kind of caricaturing, telling Thomas he couldn’t get why Kirby in particular would be so mean to him. But none of the criticisms shook Lee enough to get him to apologize. In fact, he seemed confused as to why his beloved artists departed. “He’d say, ‘I never fully understand why Jack or Steve left,’” Evanier says. “Steve’s reasons were pretty obvious, and so were Jack’s, and I’d explain them to Stan. He would nod. And then three months later he’d say, ‘Can you explain to me what Jack is upset about?’”
Lee remains maddeningly stubborn about Kirby and Ditko to this day. He sings their praises louder than anyone, saying they were the most tremendous collaborators a guy could ask for and that their art was museum-quality. But he refuses to admit he did them wrong, even as, in the past decade or so, he’s started billing himself as “co-creator” of Marvel’s core cast. Take, for example, this exchange with BBC host Jonathan Ross in a 2007 documentary about Steve Ditko:
“Do you, yourself, believe that he co-created it?” Ross asks, referring to Spider-Man.
Lee sighs lightly. A beat. “I’m willing to say so.”
“That’s not what I’m asking you —”
Lee cuts him off. “No, and that’s the best answer I can give you.” He goes on: “I really think the guy who dreams the thing up created it! You dream it up, and then you give it to anybody to draw it! I mean —”
“But if it had been drawn differently, it might not have been successful or a hit,” Ross counters.
“Then I would have created something that didn’t succeed,” Lee replies.
At the back of Comikaze’s main floor in the Los Angeles Convention Center, you find a row of black curtains below a massive sign that reads, “Stan Lee’s Mega Museum.” If Lee is doing an autograph session in there, it’s impossible to enter unless you’ve paid $80 in advance for his signature (for $25 more, you can get a certificate with a holographic sticker saying the signature is official). But when he’s off doing something else, you can walk through the aisles and see an odd array of objects, nearly all of them signed by Lee. One thing you don’t see there is any evidence of the dozens and dozens of superhero characters he’s made since he left Marvel’s daily writing trenches in the early 1970s.
The shift in Lee’s fortunes and reputation began in 1972. In that year, for the first time since he was a teenager, Stan found himself not writing comics every day. Marvel had new owners, and they wanted him to oversee the empire he’d been so instrumental in building. He was made president and publisher of Marvel Comics. He left the president position soon after, but stuck around as publisher and never returned to the writing trenches he’d spent his life toiling in.
He never found a truly comfortable new normal at Marvel. Right from the beginning, he didn’t quite know how an executive is supposed to act. Roy Thomas recalls an incident in which Lee had a minor quibble about the way a writer had done a bit of Thor dialogue, and cornered that writer in the hallway to address it. The writer, understandably, was terrified that one of his employer’s top men was criticizing him — and doing so out in the open, no less. “I said, ‘Stan, you’re the publisher!’” Thomas says. “‘You’re the guy who created this whole thing! You come down like a ton of bricks on him, they’re not gonna think this is just a little correction, they’ll think that it’s all over for them!’ It’s different when you do it as a publisher and people don’t have a lot of day-to-day interface with you.” The C-suite chafed Lee.
He would still occasionally dip his toe in the tide and write a comic or two, but they never garnered the kind of acclaim he’d received when he was cranking out nearly a dozen every month. Part of the problem was that Lee was a victim of his own success. He’d spent a decade lobbying for comics to be seen as more than kids’ stuff, and, as a result, comics became increasingly inappropriate for youngsters. And while the stories he’d turned out in his golden period were darker and weirder than what had come before, a decade later, they seemed timid by comparison — as did Lee himself. Conway wrote a Spider-Man story in which Peter Parker’s girlfriend is thrown off a bridge and dies, and though it was a bold and buzz-creating sensation, Lee broke Marvel ranks and denounced the decision to kill off a beloved and innocent figure. But that was the trend in comics from the mid-’70s, well into the early ’90s: tales in which death stalked at every corner and heroes became antiheroes. Lee put out stories about spacefaring philosopher the Silver Surfer, but the public was more into blood-soaked tales starring characters with names like the Punisher and Son of Satan. What’s more, the so-called “underground comix” scene of R. Crumb and his cohort was proving that the art world could take comics seriously — but only if the comics were about sex, drugs, and rock and roll instead of superheroes. Lee even tried to collaborate with some underground comix artists to make a Marvel comic featuring them, but that was a sales flop and only lasted five issues.
“Stan was pushing the limit of what his voice could do,” says Conway. “Some people, like a Frank Sinatra, can learn to phrase around a song so you don’t have to sing the notes you can’t sing anymore. But for comics, you can’t do that. Comics are a visceral, gut art form. You’re doing it because you absolutely have to do it, and there’s no reason to do it otherwise. And Stan didn’t have to do it.”
He also set his sights far beyond comics. He had Marvel’s owners put out a magazine called Celebrity that largely existed to get him in photos with movie stars. He did advertisements for Personna razors and Hathaway shirts (“When you create super-heros [sic], people expect you to look like one. I wear Hathaway shirts”). He even pitched an erotic comic strip to Playboy, starring characters with names like “High Priestess Clitanna” and “Lord Peckerton.” It was to be drawn by Romita, but the deal fell through: Romita believes he scuttled it when he told Lee, “I don’t wanna do stuff that I’m ashamed to show my grandchildren.”
Lee then aimed for Hollywood, moving to Los Angeles in 1980 to convince studios that his beloved superheroes could thrive onscreen. It was hard going, and Marvel’s owners at the time didn’t share his confidence about superhero fiction’s chances in live-action. “He was just a lone figure in the wilderness,” Spurgeon, the biographer, says. “He couldn’t take a paper out of his jacket pocket and work out a deal there with anybody. He was a PR and concepts guy.”
In that legendary interview with The Comics Journal, Kirby was even harsher. “I could never see Stan Lee as being creative,” Kirby said, and “I think Stan has a God complex,” and “I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything,” and so on. Those words became gospel for a generation of cynical fans who had grown out of their childhood awe, and the Journal launched a kind of holy war on Lee, dedicating its October 1995 issue to scathingly critical essays and interviews about him. The irony was bittersweet: Lee had long campaigned to have comics be treated seriously as high art, and the Journal’s high-minded writing was proof that he’d been successful; but the generation of fans who saw comics as a legitimate medium also thought of him as a childish relic.
Lee claims he had a final reconciliation with Kirby at a comics convention shortly before Kirby died in 1994, but Evanier and Spurgeon say the interaction likely never happened.
Then a fork in the road appeared. In 1998, bankruptcy proceedings voided Lee’s contract with Marvel and, after some tense negotiations, he negotiated an extremely lucrative new agreement: an $810,000 annual salary just for being a figurehead, 50 percent of his base salary as an annual pension for his wife, and 10 percent of any profits Marvel would ever make off of movies and TV. He could have used the money to settle into easy elder-statesmanship, even if Marvel never took over Hollywood like we now know it would.
But Lee couldn’t stay out of the game, partly because a persuasive criminal made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Lee had become friends with a genial professional fund-raiser named Peter Paul, and Paul found out Lee had a clause in his new contract that allowed him to make his own entertainment firm. “He said, ‘Hey, Stan, now you’re free! Lemme build a company,’” Lee gleefully recalled at the time. The company was called Stan Lee Media — SLM for short — and it was a complete disaster.
The plan was to put Lee’s creative genius to work on brand-new characters that he would own, and to push those properties out as comics, movies, toys, video games, and the buzzy new medium of animated “webisodes.” What’s more, there would be brand synergy with hot young entertainers like the Backstreet Boys and the Wu-Tang Clan (“Maybe, in our own way, we can turn them away from gangsta-rapping,” Lee said of the Wu). Lee cooked up one superhero after another: Thunderer! Oxblood! Imitatia! The Streak! Paul raised $1 million in seed money and projected annual revenue of $119 million within five years. It was, in other words, a classic example of a dot-com boondoggle.
Early on in the existence of SLM, Paul admitted to Lee that he had a bizarre and checkered past: He’d served time in federal prison after getting busted for cocaine possession and an attempt to defraud the Cuban government. Lee forgave him for this sin, but what he didn’t know was Paul had already embroiled him in another insane scheme: He was using the Stan Lee brand to rob SLM’s investors. Profits were being exaggerated, there were shady stock sales, and the SEC eventually swarmed SLM to bust Paul for fraud in 2001. He escaped to Brazil, only to be extradited and convicted. Lee was cleared of wrongdoing, but he was humiliated and swiftly severed all ties to SLM. Lee’s new comics-format memoir devotes exactly one panel to the SLM affair. “It ended badly,” a sullen-looking drawing of Lee says, “and the less said, the better.”
While SLM was in its death throes, Lee partnered with two of his friends — producer Gill Champion and lawyer Arthur Lieberman — to form a new venture: POW! Entertainment (short for Purveyors of Wonder!, exclamation point mandatory). Lee wasn’t destitute, but he needed money for legal fees: In addition to the SLM fallout, Lee claimed that Marvel had failed to honor the stipulation of his 1998 contract that called for him to receive a percentage of the company’s film and TV profits. The subsequent lawsuit was a surreal spectacle — like Colonel Sanders suing KFC, as one commentator put it at the time. Movies based on Lee’s co-creations had started to take off at the box office, with 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man, and Lee had made onscreen cameos in both. But his relationship with the company he built had become fraught.
According to historian Sean Howe, Marvel’s newly installed and notoriously prickly owner Ike Perlmutter despised Lee, resented paying him a pension, and had demanded that Marvel stop featuring the phrase “Stan Lee Presents” in issues’ credits pages. The legal battle lasted for three years, concluding with a settlement in 2005. Though the details are secret, Marvel appeared to have made a onetime $10 million payment to Lee. But his profit-sharing for film and TV was ended, just a few years before Marvel started to dominate the box office. If Marvel had kept up its end of the percentage deal, Lee would be making tens of millions of dollars for The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the like. He just barely missed the boat.
While in town for Comikaze, I asked POW!’s publicists repeatedly if I could visit the company’s offices. I was only ever given silence or vague allusions to it being a possibility. Finally, as my trip was nearing its close, I decided to make a last-ditch effort and just show up at the address listed on Google Maps. As I was about to leave my hotel, one of the publicists wrote to inform me that I wouldn’t be allowed inside, but I figured it was worth a little peek. I took a bus to the nondescript Beverly Hills office building where POW! resides, tentatively sneaked up to the floor it’s on, and walked to the suite in question. All I found was a windowless wooden door, adorned only with a printout of the company logo. The printout was torn on one end and listing off at a haphazard angle. It felt like an apt metaphor.
Business has never been Lee’s forte, and his past missteps weigh heavily on him. His representatives declined to give me an interview despite more than a dozen attempts over the course of six months, but I was allowed to send a handful of questions via email. The only interesting response came when I asked him what he’d do differently if he could live his life all over again: “I’d have been a better businessman and attempted to gain a share of ownership of the characters I created.”
With POW!, he would. The problem was the characters. The firm’s first high-profile project was Stripperella, a cartoon with an accompanying comic book, both released in 2003. It was done in partnership with Pamela Anderson and men’s-interest TV network Spike, and it followed the titillating tussles of Erotica Jones, a ludicrously buxom woman who pole-dances by day and fights crime by night. It was a spiritual successor to that failed Playboy pitch, filled with ribald wordplay (episode titles included “You Only Lick Twice” and “The Curse of the WereBeaver”) and a tone that placed its tongue firmly in its cheek. Lee, apparently, wanted to push the envelope pretty far: “Stan wanted nudity,” Anderson tells me. “I didn’t.” It failed to find an audience, and though Anderson says she had a great time doing it and loves Lee, she couldn’t devote too much focus to it. There was never a second season.
For the rest of the decade, the company cranked out a lot of projects on a lot of different platforms, but very few of them managed to make an impact. There was a project released in children’s-book and direct-to-video movie format, Stan Lee’s Superhero Christmas. There was a direct-to-cable movie about a superpowered spy played by Jason Connery called Stan Lee’s Lightspeed. There was a reality show on the History Channel called Stan Lee’s Superhumans, in which Lee sent the show’s host off on adventures to find real people who can do unusual things like push needles through themselves or survive venomous snakebites. There was a truly bizarre partnership with the NHL in which Lee came up with superhero mascots for every team in the league. (They were all a little on-the-nose: The Florida Panthers’ hero was the Panther, the Toronto Maple Leafs got a tree-powered crusader named the Maple Leaf, and so on.) And the underwhelming releases kept rolling out: a mobile game called Stan Lee’s Verticus, a comics/cartoon project targeted at the Indian market called Chakra: The Invincible, and so on.
But there’s a crucial thing you have to know about how Lee approaches these products: He’s not an absentee landlord. He’s always substantially involved in the projects bearing his name, in part because he isn’t happy just playing the role of showman — he wants the airtight creative credit that, in recent decades, has come into question, thanks to Ditko and Kirby. So while Lee’s brand is slapped on so many products that you might imagine he’s become like Krusty the Klown or the members of KISS, letting any random product get the Stan Lee seal of approval for the right price, this is very much not the case.
Perhaps the most arresting example comes from veteran superhero-comics writer Mark Waid. He was in charge of managing a line of three comics series based on story and character concepts from Lee and executed by respected industry talent. Waid tells of meeting with Lee to show him a rough draft of an upcoming issue, which Lee read with consternation. “He got to end of it and said, ‘I can’t have my name on this,’ and my heart sank,” he recalls. Luckily, Waid made revisions, and Lee enthusiastically endorsed the finished product — but Waid has never forgotten Lee’s unwillingness to brand something he didn’t like.
Of course, none of this is the most famous stuff Lee has done in the past 16 years. The most famous stuff is the cameos. Going back to the years before Marvel movies took off, he began appearing in Marvel-based TV shows and Saturday-morning cartoons about his co-creations, and he’s remained visible onscreen ever since. In nearly every movie based on a Marvel comic, Lee briefly appears in a zany fashion, playing a mailman, a strip-club owner, a drunk war veteran — that sort of thing. He gets to attend the premieres and do interviews about what he was thinking when he created the characters that have made it to the big screen. He gets executive-producer and co-creator credits on them. Romita says these connections to the Marvel movies are huge for Lee because fame outside the eternally disdained world of comics has always been one of the man’s ultimate goals. “If there were never any successful Marvel movies, Stan would’ve been gone, he would’ve retired,” he says. “It changed everything. It legitimized it. It satisfied him.”
That may be true, but he’s not so satisfied that he’s willing to slow down. “Y’know, most people, when they retire, they say, ‘At last, I’ll have a chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do,’” Lee said in a CNN interview a few years ago. “But I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do! I’m working with artists, writers, with directors. I’m working on creative things. I’m having fun! I mean, don’t punish me by making me retire.”
Near the end of the Dragons vs. Pandas press conference, Lee abruptly starts talking about the guiding philosophy that drives his work. “When I used to go to bookstores, the only books I would pick out were ones that looked like they were different than anything I normally read,” he says. “We have always tried to come up with things that nobody else is doing. Now, of course, you can do things that nobody else is doing, and the reason nobody is doing it is because they’re stupid ideas.”
Hearing Lee speak at the convention, my mind was cast back to the first and only time we’ve had a one-on-one interaction. It was at the 1998 Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con, when I was 12 years old. I’m honestly not sure when or how I first became aware of Lee — he just seemed omnipresent for anyone who cared about superheroes — but by that age, I was a true believer in his mythology. So I waited in line for nearly an hour to get his signature on a tattered copy of Fantastic Four No. 47. When I finally reached the front of the line, it was like I was in the presence of God. I asked someone to take a photo of the two of us on a disposable camera. The flash went off and he crowed, “You’ve immortalized me!” I could tell it was a joke, but that word, immortal, lingered in my ears. Because that’s just how he’d always seemed to me: somehow above the rest of us, watching with paternal awe at the world he’d made.
Before reporting this article, I’d never had to come up with my own estimation of what Lee means to the world, much less to me, and I had whiplash-inducing changes of heart while reading about him. But his greatest sin was probably overreach: He accomplished so much, but he wanted to claim more; he was a brilliant craftsman in his prime, but he kept creating when he might have been better suited to retirement. Like the superheroes whose stories he wrote, he is a flawed being, capable of pettiness and hubris. But he’s put too much love and joy into the world — into my world — for me to even come close to deriding him.
This puts me in league with the friends and colleagues of his that I interviewed. We understand that he erred, but that only forces us to try harder to understand him and see the man in full. “I think he’ll be remembered as the guy who gave the world the Marvel universe,” says Thomas. “I know various others of us — Jack and Steve — were very important in that. But without Stan Lee, there is no Marvel universe. He’s the one who had the vision.”
In one of his final Comikaze appearances, Lee is onstage having a chat with some younger comics pros, and one of them — Marc Silvestri — tries to rib Lee about being so old that he probably hung out with Moses. Lee seems to take it in stride (or doesn’t hear it, since his hearing isn’t what it used to be), but Silvestri is getting it all wrong. Lee, in a way, is a kind of Moses: a charismatic leader who saved a genre and led his acolytes through the harsh world of mainstream entertainment for decades — only to see his people finally enter the promised land of Hollywood billions without him. So now he stands on the border, smiling and welcoming people in, but always making sure to give them a little tap on the shoulder before saying, Tell ya what, True Believer — if you like this, you’re gonna love the brand-new promised land I’m building just around the corner …
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the memoir was ghostwritten.
In meeting Andy Warhol, the Velvets acquired what few fledgling bands have been lucky enough to achieve: a wealthy patron. In addition, Warhol’s Factory, populated by an enormous range of people of varying talents, provided a fertile cross-pollination of ideas and personalities, whilst also constituting a powerful PR machine.
For John Cale, Andy Warhol’s Factory was like entering a fountain of ideas, with “new things happening every day”; for Lou Reed it was “like landing in heaven”. Everywhere they turned there were odd characters and odd situations, and Reed would write down in a notebook fragments of what he heard and overheard. Many of these fragments would end up in song; others would suggest a title or a story situation. The Factory crowd also noticed Reed as well. “Everyone was certainly in love with him — me, Edie, Andy, everyone,” confessed Factory regular Danny Fields. “He was so sexy. Everyone just had this raging crush… he was the sexiest thing going”.
Warhol and Morrissey had recently been approached to get involved with setting up a new discotheque in Long Island; the plans would come to nothing (after seeing the Velvets, the club owner hired The Young Rascals instead), but at this point Warhol was actively looking for a rock band to play there. Bizarrely (according to Victor Bockris), Warhol had actually contemplated forming his own rock band three years earlier, with LaMonte Young and Walter De Maria.
Seeing The Velvet Underground at Café Bizarre, Warhol liked the fact that Lou Reed looked “pubescent”, and that the audience left the gig looking “dazed and damaged” — according to Reed, Warhol saw them the night they were fired. Paul Morrissey claims that it was his idea to marry underground films to rock’n’roll, but that it was a purely commercial decision to work with the Velvets, rather than an artistic one. At the time, Morrissey also thought that Reed and Cale lacked presence, and that what the Velvets needed was a singer with “a bit of charisma”. He suggested someone who was already a part of the Warhol camp: Nico.
The suggestion that Nico should join the band didn’t go down too well with the Velvets, to put it mildly. Morrissey played them her single on the Immediate label, and according to him Reed was “hostile to Nico from the start”. What changed Reed’s mind was the fact that Warhol was offering them an enticing management and recording deal. There was of course the recognition that his patronage would bring. In the end, it was too good a deal for the Velvets to turn down. According to Nico, Reed agreed simply because he lacked the confidence to refuse — or perhaps, lacked enough confidence in himself as a vocalist. Still, at his insistence the billing would distance Nico from the group, making it crystal clear that she was not a band member. They would be The Velvet Underground and Nico. So Aronowitz was ousted (he’d only had a “handshake deal” — something he subsequently regretted) and Morrissey and Warhol officially became joint managers of The Velvet Underground. In return for 25%, Warhol would invest in new equipment, get them gigs and a recording contract. In fact, after buying two instruments from Vox, Warhol got them to supply further equipment for free, having arranged an endorsement deal (the band would later endorse Acoustic, and then Sunn).
But a problem remained: Nico wanted to sing all the songs, which Reed refused point blank to allow. But since her presence meant that some gentler songs were now needed, Reed wrote three ballads for her, which suited her unique, breathy singing style (“like an IBM computer with a German accent”, as Warhol put it): “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. The gentler songs contrasted interestingly with John Cale’s experiments in drone-like repetition.
According to Cale, Nico was deaf in one ear (from a perforated eardrum), which caused her to go off-pitch from time to time, much to the band’s amusement. “Lou never really liked me” Nico later complained — though that’s hard to believe when you listen to ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. She and Reed were lovers early on, and even lived together for a while. Recalling this period, Nico described Reed as “very soft and lovely. Not aggressive at all”, and even that “you could just cuddle him like a sweet person”. Sterling Morrison was more cynical: “You could say Lou was in love with her, but Lou Reed in love is a kind of abstract concept”. The relationship lasted eight weeks, and was supposedly ended by Nico. Cale, meanwhile, had been seduced by Edie Sedgwick within 48 hours of arriving at the Factory, and moved in with her for the duration (six weeks) of their relationship. Edie had also had a brief affair with Nico. John Cale has described the material Reed wrote for Nico as “psychological love songs”, and even Reed acknowledged her strengths as a performer. Yet after Nico left the Velvets, Reed would write no more songs for her — despite being asked to by both Cale and Nico herself.
Nico had little to do on stage when she wasn’t singing except stand stock-still and play tambourine (usually out of time), and at times things could get a little tense between her and the band. Even so, she was a striking vision: dressed all in white in contrast to the Velvets’ black attire. Her modeling days had certainly taught her how to strike a dramatic pose. She was also taller than all the men surrounding her and, inevitably, she captured most of the media attention. As Maureen Tucker said: “She was this gorgeous apparition, you know. I mean, she really was beautiful”. Critic Richard Goldstein described Nico’s stage presence as “half goddess, half icicle”.
Singing For ’Drella
However little Andy Warhol knew about music (and he never expressed any noted preferences), even he must have sensed that in TheVelvet Underground he’d found more than just another rock band. “Andy told me that what we were doing with music was the same thing he was doing with painting and movies i.e. not kidding around” Lou Reed recalled. He was bowled over by Andy’s way of looking at the world and once remarked that sometimes he would spend days thinking about something Andy said. Reed was also impressed by Warhol’s work ethic: “I’d ask him why he was working so hard and he’d say, ‘Somebody’s got to bring home the bacon’”. Warhol would ask Reed how many songs he’d written that day; Reed would lie and say two. Lou also remarked on Andy’s generosity, pointing out that though Andy was the first to arrive for work at the Factory and the last to leave he’d still take them all to dinner: “He gave everyone a chance”.
But the exact nature of the group’s relationship to their new manager remains vague. As Sterling Morrison pondered: “Was The Velvet Underground some happy accident for him, something that he could work into his grandiose schemes for the show? Would another band have done just as well? I don’t think another band would have done just as well. At that time we seemed uniquely suited for each other”.
John Cale described Warhol as “a catalyst” for the Velvets, that he understood exactly what they were about, how best to bring that out. “I doubt that Lou would have continued investigating song subjects like he did without having some kind of outside support for that approach other than myself” he elaborated. “I think it was just basically Andy and I who really encouraged that side of a literary endeavour”. Morrison echoes the fact that Warhol gave them “the confidence to keep doing what were doing”.
It’s probable that Reed and Warhol each saw echoes of themselves in the other. But Warhol had earned the nickname of ’Drella (a combination of Dracula and Cinderella) that Ondine, another of the Factory crowd, had given him. Warhol had an acid wit that Reed could seldom match, and his jibes were less malevolent than Reed’s — they could be bitchy and funny at the same time, whereas Lou was often just bitchy. But as Malanga states, Warhol also had his dark side: “he could slice a person with a glance”. In fact, Lou actually came in a poor third to Nico when it came to put-downs. Meeting again shortly after their break-up, there was a moment of frosty awkwardness between the two, followed by a long pause after which Nico came out with the charmless “I cannot make love to Jews any more.”
In the end, the Velvets’ relationship with Warhol is best summed up by Mary Woronov, artist and collaborator: “They were with Andy and Andy was with them and they backed him absolutely. They would have walked to the end of the earth for him”. All of the Velvets spoke highly of Warhol ever after, Cale perhaps most succinctly of all: “He was magic”.
At this point the Velvets had been ordered by police to stop rehearsing in their West 3rd Street apartment (above a firehouse), and told to rehearse in the country if they were going to make that kind of noise. Cale was experimenting with an electronic “thunder machine” at the time. The same cop had also accused them of throwing human excreta out of their window. So they began to rehearse at the Factory every day, accompanying Warhol in the evenings to art openings, cocktail parties, dinners and nightclubs, as part of his permanent 10–20-strong retinue. It’s doubtful whether the drug-free Tucker tagged along, and she must have been somewhat bemused by the Factory’s denizens. (They in turn liked the fact that she looked boyish, which fitted right in with all the blurring of gender going on there.) Later on, Moe worked at the Factory briefly, transcribing tapes of Ondine’s rantings for Warhol’s book A: A Novel. However, she refused to type any of the swear words, substituting asterisks instead. Meanwhile, Ondine had turned Lou Reed on to methedrine, which became became his main indulgences for years to come.
A poet and photographer in his own right, Gerard Malanga (b.1943) met Andy Warhol while still a student at Wagner College on Staten Island. He soon became Warhol’s assistant in silk-screening (where he probably did most of the actual physical work, and originated at least some of the ideas), also introducing him to New York’s literary, theatrical and movie crowds. Malanga also eventually assisted Warhol in his own movie-making. His habit of carrying a leather bullwhip everywhere led to his “whipdance” routine on stage with the Velvets during ‘Venus in Furs’ (Malanga had earlier been a dancer on DJ Alan Freed’s Big Beat TV show). He went on to found Interview magazine with Warhol. in 1983, Malanga co-wrote (with Victor Bockris) Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story, the first book to appear on the Velvets.
A photographer and lighting designer who subsidized his artistic work with hairdressing, Billy name (real name Billy linich) once decorated his entire apartment with silver foil. Warhol liked the look so much (“Silvermakes everything disappear”) that he asked Linich to decorate his new studio — the original Factory — in the same way. Billy also worked with Gerard Malanga as an assistant on Warhol’s silk screens, designed the cover for White Light/White Heat, and claims to have been one of Reed’s lovers. Also a musician, Linich was in LaMonte Young’s group for a year, leaving them just before the arrival of John Cale. A genuinely eccentric character, Name was effectively the Factory’s caretaker, living in one of its black-painted toilets (which he used as a photographic darkroom) for years, studying astrological charts and books on the occult given him by Reed; when the Factory moved home, Billy simply moved into the equivalent space in the new one. In 1968, he sealed himself into this room, and was seldom seen at all between then and the time he finally left the Factory (in the middle of the night) at some point in Spring 1970, leaving a note behind telling Warhol not to worry. Linich subsequently gave up amphetamines, moved back home to Poughkeepsie and pursued his own individualistic spirituality. Today, his photographs of the Factory era are much in demand.
A Californian debutante from a rich but troubled Bostonian socialite background, Edith Minturn Sedgwick (b.1943) had spent her late teens in a mental institution (as had several of her brothers, two of whom committed suicide). In 1964, at the age of 21, she moved to New York and met Andy Warhol in early ‘65; for the following year, they were virtually inseparable. She dyed her hair silver to match Warhol’s wig and became a kind of mirror image of him, escorting him to society parties and appearing in a dozen of his movies. “She had more problems than anybody I’d ever met”, Warhol later said. Perhaps that was the appeal of their relationship, which was certainly not sexual (Truman Capote thought that Andy wanted to be Edie).
She became the face of young Manhattan; Vogue magazine dubbed her a “youthquaker”, and she seemed the archetypal poor little rich go-go girl. Reed wrote “Femme Fatale” about her (at Warhol’s request) and, according to some, Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” and “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” are both about her. But though undeniably beautiful and pursued by innumerable suitors (including John Cale), Edie was not so much a femme fatale as a femme catastrophique. She might have been a mainstay of Warhol’s movies and danced on stage with the Velvets during their first couple of gigs, but most of the time she was out of her head on a cocktail of drugs of every description, many prescribed by the legendary “speed-doctor” Dr Roberts (immortalized by the Beatles as “Dr Robert”). She later blamed Warhol for her condition. “Warhol really fucked up a great many people’s — young people’s — lives”, she once complained. “My introduction to heavy drugs came through the Factory. I liked the introduction to drugs I received. I was a good target for the scene. I bloomed into a healthy young drug addict”. “Edie never grew up”, Warhol responded, probably accurately. However, comments of his such as “a girl always looks more beautiful and fragile when she’s about to have a nervous breakdown” don’t show him in too sympathetic a light. When Edie left him in 1966, Warhol joked bleakly to playwright Robert Heide: “When do you think Edie will commit suicide? I hope she lets us know so we can film it”. After Warhol, Edie attempted to carve a career as an actress (but didn’t really have the talent) and a model (but her reputation as an unreliable druggie preceded her), without much success. She died in 1971 of an overdose of barbiturates, at the age of 28.
Underground filmmaker Morrissey (b.1938) had made his own movies ever since his teenage years. As well as managing Warhol’s business affairs for many years, from 1966 Morrissey worked closely on numerous movies with him, eventually making several of his own movies under the Warhol banner. The best known of these are the trilogy of Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), all of which starred hustler Joe Dallesandro. Morrissey parted company with Warhol in the mid-1970s, after two final exploitation films, Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) and Blood For Dracula (1974), made with Warhol’s backing. he continued to make movies into the late 1980s.
Real name Bob Olivo (b.1939) he was also nicknamed “the Pope”. Ondine was a manic and charismatic actor and writer, the hub of the amphetamine-driven “Mole People” gay crowd at the Factory. he had nothing to do with the fashionable new York nightclub Ondine’s — Olivo had adopted the name of the lead character in Jean giraudoux’s 1939 play Ondine, which had been played on Broadway by the iconic Audrey Hepburn. He appeared in numerous Warhol movies, beginning with Batman Dracula (1964), and Warhol’s A: A Novel was simply a transcription of tape-recordings of Ondine’s speed-fuelled rantings over a 24-hour period. he toured the college lecture circuit during the 1970s, talking about Warhol and screening his performances in Warhol’s S&M movie Vinyl (1965) and Chelsea Girls (1966). In the 1980s, he appeared in numerous off off-Broadway plays, until ill health forced him to retire. After Ondine’s death from liver failure in April 1989, his mother burnt all his writings.
Brigid Polk (Berlin)
Brigid Berlin (b.1939) and her sister Richie, who also hung out at the Factory, were heirs to the Hearst publishing empire. Brigid created montage “trip books” — scrapbooks of anything that took her fancy, the most extraordinary containing the impressions of the scars, genitalia, breasts or navels of anyone willing to contribute. She appeared in Chelsea Girls (1966), and also with Edie Sedgwick in the film based on the Factory crowd Ciao! Manhattan (1972). She tape-recorded pretty much everything she encountered, from phone calls to orgies. This led to her taping Lou Reed’s last concert with The Velvet Underground in 1970 — eventually released commercially as Live At Max’s Kansas City in 1972. Her “Polk” nickname evolved from Factory slang — “taking a poke” meant shooting up with a needle. Berlin gave up amphetamines and alcohol in the 1980s.
Mary Woronov (b.1943) was an art student at Cornell University when she met Andy Warhol and became involved with the Factory. She was one of the principal dancers with The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, accompanying Gerard Malanga’s whipdance to ‘Venus In Furs’. Having appeared in Warhol’s movies Hedy The Shoplifter and Chelsea Girls, Woronov moved to Los Angeles and acted in a zillion B-movies, of which the most notable is probably Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 (1975). She revealed herself as a talented comedy actress in Rock And Roll High School (1979), and Paul Bartel’s black comedies Eating Raoul (1982) and Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverley Hills (1989), as well as making cameos in mainstream Hollywood movies. Liver damage caused her to give up all drugs and alcohol in the 1980s. She has been a writer-director for the TV show The Women’s Series and is the author of four volumes of fiction: Snake, Niagara, Blind Love and Wake For Angels, which also contains some of her paintings, and Swimming Underground (a memoir of her time with the Factory).
Excerpted from The Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground, publishing 1 September 2007 by Rough Guides, a division of Penguin Group International. Copyright 2007 by Rough Guides. All rights reserved.velvet undergroundrough guidesnicoandy warhol
The Velvet Underground and Nico embodies a seldom realised idea: that music really can change the world. A financial failure in its time, the loose collection of these New York artists’ self-titled debut took a decade to sell 100,000 copies.
However, despite its commercial failings, The Velvets’ humble flop was a primitively bright conceptual spark. While simultaneously hitting the bargain bins, greater forces were at play. Ripples of inspiration were subtlety mutating the face of popular culture. A powerful influence, the group’s deep-seated creative forces unified into something truly iconic.
Over a prolonged period of gestation word of mouth built in the musical underground. The innovative album passed hands while outspoken critics like Lester Bangs lionised the group’s achievement. To cite Brian Eno’s famous remarks to the LA Times in 1982:
“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
The Velvet Underground and Nico embodied the ultimate album ideal: how the creative influence of five musicians could inform the next twenty years of music.
A central reference point in seemingly every shake-up in rock music since its release, generations of unrelated musical movements drew something different from between the vinyl grooves. Post-punk, glam rock, art rock, new wave, noise, and even industrial can trace their twisted lineages to the iconic album. Its influence still courses fluidly throughout modern music, and remains a seminal name-check for anything primal and completely outside the norm.
Commercial pressures, powerful personalities and creative impulse can often lead to compromise in a band. The Velvets were by no means immune to these factors, but what is remarkable is how true each creative contributor remained to their individual inspirations. Take a moment to profile the unlikely constituents which gave rise to the sonic schizophrenia of the band.
Lou Reed was the cantankerous black sheep of a middle-class Jewish family. Informed by literary studies and a stint in a mental institution at age 17, Reed looked to expand the idea of what popular music could entail. Musically the young songwriter cut his teeth churning out Motown, surf rock and bubblegum pop sound-alikes for the unscrupulous Pickwick Records.
Yet the Long Island native sought to follow in the steps of the visceral literature of William S. Burroughs and his beat generation forbears. Hidden behind the clichés of rock and roll, Reed saw an unlimited potential to accommodate a broader range of meaning.
Breaking down the barrier between rock music and poetic narrative, Lou injected sleaze and degradation into rock. At a time when puritanical values and obscenity laws could still place a chokehold on the avant-garde, Reed sang about heroin, transvestites and rent boys. Yet the band didn’t kick off as some grand artistic endeavour. Looking to capitalise on a more contrary sound Pickwick encouraged Reed to bring together a mock rock group to perform single Ostrich live. Known as The Primitives, the group started gigging live; securing a fortuitous residency at New York’s Cafe Bizarre in 1965.
Playing alongside Reed at this time was John Cale. A Welsh emigrant, Cale was an acolyte of the avant-garde. After finishing his study in London he relocated to New York in 1963 where he made a name for himself playing alongside influential neo-classical musicians like John Cage and Terry Riley. The young artist was probably just as happy to play a single piano chord 50 times with his elbows as anything else, but after meeting Reed at a party, he agreed to join his group.
Sterling Morrison was a Syracuse University graduate who was invited to play with The Primitives after a chance meeting with Reed, his old high school acquaintance, on a Manhattan subway. Contributing a more conventional grounding to his counterparts, he provided both rhythmic bedrocks and duelling solos to ground Reed’s more obtuse fretwork. Leaving the band in the early 70s, Morrison would evaporate from popular music entirely until a brief return in the early 90s.
Filling in for Primitives’ drummer Angus MacLise, Maureen “Mo” Tucker’s biting percussive edge kept the group together. Like Cale, Tucker looked to music from further afield when informing her self-tutored approach. While MacLise had introduced ideas from eastern music into the band’s sound, Tucker made an even greater impact with her appetite for the African beats of Babatunde Olatunji and the economic rhythms of Bo Diddly. The metronomic Tucker provided a viciously pervasive thump. She would only play standing.
Indirectly Andy Warhol remains one of the great unacknowledged influences in popular music. Although he did little in helping the group sculpt its sound, few would deny his influence in fostering their attitude and style. “The Velvet Underground was part of Andy’s group, and Andy wasn’t part of anything,” Reed told Spin in 2008.
Even prior to meeting The Velvets, Warhol shared many links with the group. Andy was familiar with avant-garde musicians La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, both of whom had played with Cale in the Theatre of Eternal Music. This aristocrat of the New York scene also had associations with artist Walter De Maria, a drummer from an early iteration of The Primitives. Introduced through a shared acquaintance, Warhol quickly extended his patronage to the fledgling Velvets.
As art took an interest in popular culture and the mundane, pop and art collided with the Velvet Underground. Trashy could be classy. Ugly could be beautiful. He deconstructed consumer culture and captured unfiltered depictions of modern life. Like Warhol, Reed and company were particularly engrossed with that which was ignored or glossed over by the mainstream. As manager of the group, Warhol impressed into The Velvet Underground the idea that everything and anything could be art.
It was with Warhol’s patronage that the group was brought into the nexus of New York’s underground scene. The group transplanted from Cafe Bizarre to The Factory. With Warhol’s encouragement they become a house band and the sonic centrepiece of Warhol’s multimedia phenomena the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
The group’s immersion within the polaroid art world of Warhol’s Factory placed them within a surrealistic scene where hustlers, transvestites, socialites and living theatre converged. Warhol would also help co-finance their debut album along with Norman Dolph, a Columbia Records sales exec.
Chanteuse Nico was a late addition to the band. Thrown in by Andy Warhol, it was his belief that the chic actor, model and vocalist could provide the group with some extra edge. In his on words the group were lacking a much needed “charisma.” Noted for her acting in French drama La Dolce Vita, the femme fatale’s icy persona belied a burgeoning (if moth-like) creative impulse. In line with Warhol’s fetish for film, she lent a detached and cinematic quality to the group.
Her injection into the band was far from a smooth transition. The German expat struggled to find acceptance amongst her peers. She would often clash with her bandmates due to her partial deafness and general eccentricity. But with her addition the cards were stacked; recording the album in early 1966 the group had few creative restrictions other than what the ubiquitous clarion call of “no blues.”
The deceptively tranquil Sunday Morning opens the album with sweetened pop. A crooning Reed embodies an effortless cool. Jangled guitar and beguiling innocence provide a moment of alluring misdirection, while subtly paranoiac lyrics anticipate the album’s darker undertow.
Things take a turn towards the more abrasive with Waiting For a Man. The second track’s lyrical world is intended to be real. Relating the details of a drug exchange, it weaves outsider depictions of the stark realities of street life and subterranean culture. A jilted piano echoes the Tucker’s juddering pulse.
With all the defiant deviance the group can muster, I’m Waiting For The Manconflates drugs and sexuality. The song lives within a reality aligned against the prevailing values of the day. It conveys a sense of moral decay which would see the record banned from major retailers and banned from radio airplay. Reed is the model of passivity and dependence. As raunchily as the song resounds, its feeling is voyeuristic.
While earlier tracks exude desperation and the idea of living on the edge, Femme Fatal swirls into gentle fantasy. The track places Nico in central focus. Her alluringly deadpan vocals are carried above a baroque chord progression.
The velour S&M fantasy of Venus in Furs verges on hypnotic. While the band averted themselves from the lysergic ripples of West Coast counterculture, it’s difficult to classify the paradoxical Venus in Furs as anything but psychedelic.
Run Run Run raggedly demonstrates the group’s celebration of stupidity and ugliness. Musically they revel in circular-minded banality. All Tomorrow’s Partiesmakes musical sketches of Warhol’s Factory scene.
Despite Reed’s contentions that he wasn’t glorifying anything in his music, Heroinprovided a directness and frankness about substance abuse which made the missives of counterculture seem childish in comparison. Cale’s sound experiments drone over the ostinato of a two-chord motif. Tucker’s percussion imitates a pulsing heart before inexplicably dropping out. Out of tune, primitive and never far from falling apart, here the group remain vital at every moment.
The punchy There She Goes Again situates itself as a straight ahead rocker, albeit one incorporating elastic time signatures. I’ll Be Your Mirror shimmers, while The Black Angel’s Death Song teeters into formless noise. Closer European Son pays homage to poet Delmore Schwartz while distortion and feedback dominate the album’s dissonant conclusion.
The black-clad Velvets would not last long. The group quickly parted ways with Warhol and exited The Factory scene in ’68. Nico and Cale would also depart. After dropping another two albums the group had all but disintegrated. 50 years onward the beauty and rawness of the group’s untamed innovation continues to resound throughout popular culture.
Much of music’s modern history has crossed currents with these New Yorkers’ commercial folly. It provides proof of concept that a group of individuals can instil music with a sense of intelligence and meaning. The Velvet Underground and Nico remains an enduring cornerstone of popular culture, echoing through time with an unwavering magnetism.
Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s
University of Toronto Press, 2011
394 pages, Paperback and ebook $29.95, Cloth $70.00
Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s is an adventure back in time to Yorkville at what many would consider the pinnacle of its cultural history. Fifty years ago, the Yorkville Coffee Mill opened, among the first of many to become a hub for youth exploring counterculture through music and mysticism. Henderson’s book, which stemmed from his doctoral dissertation at Queen’s University, is rich with oral histories and underground press coverage of the day.
Personal experience drew me to Henderson’s work. I grew up in London (Ontario) in the 1990s. My father worked in Toronto for a time and stayed in an apartment on Bay Street near Bloor. Visiting on weekends, my mother and I would wander the “Mink Mile”. By then, Yorkville was a hub of elite consumerism, with couture boutiques and flagship stories. It was cultured, rather than counterculture.
Making the Scene tells the stories of the Toronto neighbourhood of Yorkville and the hip culture that pervaded the district in the 1960s. Henderson argues that, for roughly a decade, Yorkville served as the site in Canada for youth seeking an alternative to the dominant Canadian culture. He asserts that being part of a counterculture – defined as a subculture with values and practices that deviate from mainstream culture – involves the performance of identity. “A hippie,” he notes in the introduction, “does not, never can, exist wholly outside his or her cultural process” (5). In short, counterculture is a negotiation of identity, with cultural hegemony in play.
The book is organized chronologically in sections. Within each section is two chapters, one providing a political and cultural history of the period and the other assessing how the cultural identities in Yorkville were performed at the time. The book’s chronological organization makes Henderson’s argument easy to follow. However, there exists a strong historiography on counterculture-as-performance. Henderson does not especially take advantage of this material, and unfortunately relies on his readers to be familiar with the literature. For example, the performativity of “making the scene” requires the crossing of a threshold. Henderson even states that “as a geographic location, Yorkville was … metaphorically cut off,” and that Toronto was a divided cityscape, with Yorkville a zone of local “foreignness” (17)– both a cultural attraction and a destination. As a historian caught up in the meaning of place, this excited me until I realized that Henderson was not going to explore from where these people were being attracted, and how Yorkville was situated in the context of a rapidly expanding Toronto. In particular, it struck me that there were opportunities for the use of historical maps to tell these types of stories and to better illustrate the growth of the Yorkville coffee houses, followed by their retreat.
While Henderson situates Yorkville very well within its chronological context, the book seemed geographically isolated. The relationship between countercultures, identity, and place has been widely explored, so why not make better use of New York’s Greenwich Village or San Fransisco’s Haight-Ashbury to show what made Yorkville unique? Here, again, I think that the general reader may be disappointed that Henderson expects a high level of familiarity with the themes. Early in the work, I found myself asking questions about other countercultures in other cities and about the history of the 1960s counterculture phenomenon more broadly.
Similarly, the act of performing an identity that Henderson claims is part of “making the scene” requires the crossing of a boundary. Henderson states that “as a geographic location, Yorkville was metaphorically cut off” (268). I interpreted this to mean either that it was fully autonomous or that it had to be filled with people coming from elsewhere—by those who needed to cross the threshold from the dominant culture to the counterculture. Bloor Street between Yonge Street and Avenue Road remains, to this day, a cultural border best crossed under the right economic or social circumstances. I had hoped that Henderson would explore this idea further. Where were the people coming from? How was Yorkville situated in and affected by its geographic context of a rapidly changing and growing Toronto? Most of the images in the book are taken from underground press. There is one map, at the beginning, which shows the streets of Yorkville and their coffeehouses. Indeed, Henderson refers to Yorkville as “tied to a map of meaning which treated it as a circumscribed island of difference within the wider cityscape” (268), but we aren’t shown what exists around the island.
Henderson relies on dialogue from the film The Big Lebowski (1998) to describe the legacy of hip Yorkville:
‘Your revolution is over,’ counsels the conservative figure, as the bemused [Jeff] Bridges turns away. ‘My condolences. The bums lost. My advice is do what your parents did: get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me?’ But he doesn’t. Do we? (273)
The end of a rebellion is nothing new. The 19th century French statesman Francois Guizot has been attributed with the following: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” What makes Yorkville and the 1960s counterculture unique, according to Henderson’s conclusion, is that it influenced the mainstream culture that we see today. That may be the case. He also suggests that the struggle for physical space was ultimately insignificant. This statement ignores the post-1970 gentrification of Yorkville that occurred, in part, because of the displacement of youth from this space.
It felt at times like Henderson was writing for those who were there, or who wished they could have been there. There were moments throughout when I felt like I had to have been there to understand why the event or place being described was important. The writing, much of which is done in first-person narration, is at times valourising in its tone. The book’s strength lies in its archival research and oral histories, and from reading it came some interesting debates about the nature of culture and place in the city of Toronto. I would recommend it for readers interested in the history of the Yorkville neighbourhood, Canadian culture in the 1960s, or youth culture in Canada. I will no doubt return to it for projects that reference these subjects. It would be a good supplemental work for those interested in counterculture, the history of Toronto, oral history, and underground media.
Kaitlin Wainwright is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History program. She’s currently the Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto.
Mapping Our Music: The 1960s
The venues, schools, record labels, stores, and other landmarks that have created the sound of our city and shaped its music history.
The 1960s was the decade in which Toronto’s music scene took shape. With twin focal points in Yorkville and along the Yonge Street strip, the city produced highly regarded folk, rock, and R&B-influenced sounds. Though many of the venues from the decade are long gone, acts that developed their reputations in them, such as the Band and Gordon Lightfoot, became known around the globe.
1 Village Corner (174 Avenue Road, north of Davenport)
Another early folk venue, one where music duo Ian & Sylvia launched their career. As a member of the duo the Two Tones, Gordon Lightfoot recorded his first album here in January 1962.
2 Rockpile (northwest corner of Yonge and Davenport)
For a time in the late 1960s, the main space of the Masonic Temple (now home to MTV Canada) was a Fillmore-style concert hall. It is usually associated with Led Zeppelin, who played there twice in 1969. Before their August 18 gig, manager Peter Grant noticed the extensive lineup outside and threatened to cancel the show if the band didn’t get more money. The burly former bouncer got his way, but the amount handed over played a role in the venue’s closing soon after.
3 Penny Farthing (112 Yorkville Avenue)
Far more respectable than its next door neighbour, this spot specialized in blues and jazz. Veteran bluesman Lonnie Johnson played for several weeks in 1965, resulting in an album with one the venue’s regular acts, Stompin’ at the Penny with Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers, featuring Lonnie Johnson. Johnson enjoyed playing in Toronto and spent the last five years of his life in the city.
4 Riverboat (134 Yorkville Avenue)
Opened in October 1964 and run by Bernie Fielder for 14 years, the Riverboat was usually considered the top venue in Yorkville thanks to a steady stream of high-level blues and folk acts. Sometimes timing worked in the Riverboat’s favour: in order to book bluesmen Sorry Terry and Brownie McGhee, Fielder was pressured by their agent to also slot in a rising folk duo named Simon & Garfunkel. By the time the pair was to perform in early 1966, their songs were rising up the charts. The duo wanted out of their commitment, but a compromise was reached, and Torontonians had what proved to be a rare opportunity to catch the pair in an intimate setting.
5 Mynah Bird (114 Yorkville Avenue, at Hazelton)
Named in honour of owner Colin Kerr’s pet, who could be found at this coffeehouse’s entrance, the Mynah Bird loved drawing attention to itself. For a period, it trotted out the latest innovations in topless entertainment, including Wyche, “the world’s first topless folksinger” (though her long hair covered her bosoms). Kerr also managed a rock group named after the venue, fronted by Rick James—after they separated from Kerr, Neil Young was among the musicians who passed through the group’s ranks.
6 Varsity Stadium (Bloor Street and Bedford Road)
Two major music festivals were held here in 1969. The bill for June’s Toronto Pop Festival ranged from southern soulsters (Carla Thomas) to Quebeçois chansonniers (Robert Charlebois). Local favourite Ronnie Hawkins managed to get a teenager named Jeanne Beker to jump onto the stage. September’s Toronto Rock and Roll Revival went down in history for being the live debut of the Plastic Ono Band featuring John Lennon and the Alice Cooper “chicken incident.”
7 Bohemian Embassy (7 St. Nicholas Street)
Situated at various places around the city over its history, and not to be confused with the condo bearing the same name, the venue founded by Don Cullen called the Yonge-Wellesley area home from 1960 to 1966. One of the city’s first major coffeehouses, it offered up a mix of folk, jazz, comedy, and literary readings—among those whose careers were boosted by appearances at the Bohemian Embassy were Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Tyson.
8 RCA Studios (225 Mutual Street)
Once home to CHUM radio, 225 Mutual Street became one of the city’s busiest recording studios. Operated by RCA during the 1960s and 1970s, then McClear Place, the studios saw acts ranging from Rosemary Clooney to Rush use its facilities over half a century of sound recording. The building was demolished in 2010.
9 Club Blue Note (372A Yonge Street)
A key venue for developing the mix of rock and R&B that came to be known as the “Toronto Sound.” As George Olliver, who sang with the house band The Five Rogues (later Mandala) told the National Post last year, “so many of the hit artists who used to work at the Maple Leaf Gardens came here after hours—people like Stevie Wonder, The Righteous Brothers.”
10 Hawk’s Nest (above Le Coq D’Or, 333 Yonge Street)
Having proven a popular attraction at Le Coq D’Or, Ronnie Hawkins made a deal with its owners: in exchange for free use of the building’s third floor (which ended up housing an office, gym, and after hours parties), he would run an all-ages club on the second floor. The Hawk’s Nest proved a blessing for music fans too young to go into the other venues along the Yonge Street strip.
11 Friar’s Tavern (283 Yonge Street)
Now the Hard Rock Café, the Friar’s Tavern was another stop for bands gigging along the Yonge Street strip. A plaque inside commemorates the morning of September 15, 1965, when Bob Dylan caught a performance by Levon and the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins’ former backing band. For the next two nights, Dylan and the group that became the Band rehearsed at the Friar’s before going out on Dylan’s first electrified tour.
12 Colonial Tavern (203 Yonge Street)
Situated between two historic banks across from the present-day Eaton Centre, the Colonial Tavern attracted a steady stream of blues, jazz and rock acts during its existence. A parkette currently graces the site.
13 Electric Circus (99 Queen Street East)
Opened in December 1968, the Electric Circus was intended by its backers to bring a New York–style trendy nightclub to Toronto. Partner Jerry Brandt told the Globe and Mail that “we think a person should be free to do what he wants. He can dance, he can watch, he can disappear for a while into an environment room…We have set up the facilities for you to have an experience. It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” After its run as a club/music venue, the site was used as the original studio for Citytv, who later resurrected the name for its dance show.
14 King Edward Hotel (37 King Street East)
Between their afternoon and evening performances at Maple Leaf Gardens on August 17, 1966, the Beatles attended a press conference at the venerable King Eddy. John Lennon refused to apologize for his recent statements that the band was more popular than Jesus. They also admitted that the scariest fans they encountered so far on what proved to be their final tour were found in Cleveland.
15 O’Keefe Centre (Yonge and Front)
This all-purpose concert hall, now known as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, was one of the most versatile venues of the decade in terms of performers. The pre-Broadway tryout of the musical Camelot, starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton, opened the O’Keefe in October 1960. Acts that trod its stage during the 1960s ranged from grand opera to the Grateful Dead.
Additional material from Before the Gold Rush by Nicholas Jennings (Toronto: Penguin, 1997) and the December 21, 1968 edition of the Globe and Mail.
Interesting article. I recently went to the Schiele/Klimt exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.
The passage of time tends to either confirm the supposed transgressions of historical figures, or absolve them thereof. But Egon Schiele, whose centenary is being celebrated at museums across the world, presents a particular lens throughwhich to think about the line between art and exploitation.
Egon Schiele first began hosting teenage girls at his studio in Neulengbach, Austria, around 1910. About thirty miles from Vienna, he had a small painting studio with a garden out back. Boys and girls, often from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, would come spend time there with him and his model-slash-lover Walburga Neuzil, whom he called Wally. Schiele was only twenty at the time. Wally was seventeen. The age of consent in Austria was fourteen (as it is today), and their relationship wasn’t much of a scandal. What was a scandal was Schiele’s painting the children and teenagers who came by his studio and, as would be…
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The plotless beauty of his writing, and its fearless look at the emptiness of his own life, put ‘the Scottish Beat’ on a par with Kafka and Camus.
My scow is tied up in Flushing, NY, alongside the landing stage of the Mac Asphalt and Construction Corporation. It is now just after five in the afternoon. Today at this time it is still afternoon, and the sun, striking the cinderblocks of the main building of the works has turned them pink. The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted.
Half an hour ago I gave myself a fix.
So begins Cain’s Book, Alexander Trocchi‘s incredible novel of existential dread. Young Adam, its predecessor, is better known, but the latter is the “Scottish Beat’s” classic.
Asked to name the best existential literature, most of us would probably say Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or Franz Kafka. But Cain’s Book actually takes the reader one step further into the philosophical world of existential angst than any of them. It positively drowns us in a word of unremitting absurdity and meaninglessness.
A roman à clef, Cain’s Book details the life of one Joe Nechhi, a Glaswegian heroin addict living and working on a scow in New York’s Hudson harbor. It is a book almost entirely devoid of plot: Nechhi occasionally details trips into the city to score heroin, recollects his childhood in Glasgow, or talks of his attempts to write a book. What is incredible about the book is its unrelenting bleakness, and the sheer poetic quality of Trocchi’s writing.
Heroin for Trocchi, as Remainder author Tom McCarthy noted in a lecture on Cain’s Book recently, “is a moveable void: taking that void around the city with him, in him, he ensures that he inhabits negative space constantly. This is his poetic project and it’s also the way his whole perception system works at its most basic level (the two are the same).”
In real life, Trocchi seemed very glad to cut himself off from his peers, saying that his only concerns as a writer were “sodomy and lesbianism”, that those were the only interesting subjects in the previous 20 years of Scottish writing and that “I have written it all.”
Sadly, Cain’s Book was his last. As the 60s gave way to the 70s, Trocchi’s addiction to heroin took its toll and his talent lay pretty much squandered. The stories of his wild and tragic life are infamous and extensively documented in many of the leading “swinging 60s” biographies (Marianne Faithfull’s account of doing drugs with Trocchi is one of the best). Despite his addictions, and his sad death at the age of 59, Trocchi left us some of the bleakest, most beautiful writing to come out of the 60s.
In Cain’s Book the writing is all – the words ebb and flow like the inky blackness of the Hudson River. Trocchi’s descriptive powers are mesmerising: one barely even notices the lack of narrative drive until after the book has been put down.
His other books includes some interesting pseudonymous pornography for the Olympia Press. (Titles like Helen and Desire, Sappho of Lesbos and White Thighs deliver their smut with a Sadean political edge.) Young Adam, of course, was turned into a successful film starring Ewan McGregor, and helped to raise the author’s public perception a little. But it’s Cain’s book that best fulfils Trocchi’s hopes for “the invisible insurrection of a thousand minds”.
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
With echoes of the most rapier-like prose written by Marx and Engels (eg “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), so begins Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, the treatise on the modern human condition he published in 1967. It quickly came to be seen as the set text of the Parisian événements of the following year, and has long since bled into the culture via no end of people, from the Sex Pistols to the Canadian troublemakers who call themselves Adbusters.
Its title alone is now used as shorthand for the image-saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures: relative to what Debord meant by it, the term usually ends up sounding banal, but the frequency with which it’s used still speaks volumes about the power of his insights. Put another way, there are not many copyright-free monographs associated with arcane leftist sects that predicted where western societies would end up at 40 years’ distance, but this one did exactly that.
The Society of the Spectacle maps out some aspects of the 21st century directly: not least, so-called celebrity culture and its portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us actually live it. Try this: “As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live.” The book’s take on the driving-out of meaning from politics is also pretty much beyond question, as are its warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion” and the fact that at some unspecified point in the recent(ish) past, “dissatisfaction itself became a commodity” (so throw away that Che Guevara T-shirt, and quick).
But there are also very modern phenomena that fit its view of the world: when Debord writes about how “behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other”, I now think of social media, and the white noise of most online life. All told, the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume – and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme. Not that Debord ever used the word, but his ideas were essentially pointing to the basis of what we now know as neoliberalism.
Some brief history. Debord was the de facto leader of the Situationist International, a tiny and ever-changing intellectual cell who drew on all kinds of influences, but whose essential worldview combined two elements: an understanding of alienation traceable to the young Marx, and an emphasis on what left politics has never much liked: the kind of desire-driven irrationality celebrated by both the dadaists and surrealists. The ideas in The Society of the Spectacle drew on obvious antecedents – Hegel, Marx, Engels, the Hungarian Marxist George Lukacs – and also pointed to what was soon to come: not least, postmodernism, and the “hyperreality” diagnosed by Jean Baudrillard.
To sum up the book’s substance in a couple of sentences is a nonsense, but here goes: essentially, Debord argues that having recast the idea of “being into having”, what he calls “the present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” has led to “a generalised sliding from having into appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.”
Like most of The Society of the Spectacle, you have to read such words slowly, but they hit the spot: he is talking about alienation, the commodification of almost every aspect of life and the profound social sea-change whereby any notion of the authentic becomes almost impossible. Whether their writers knew anything about Debord is probably doubtful, but as unlikely it may sound, one way of opening your mind to the idea of the spectacle is maybe to re-watch two hugely successful movies about exactly the blurring of appearance and reality that he described: The Matrix and The Truman Show.
It’s also an idea to read The Revolution of Everyday Life by Debord’s one-time accomplice Raoul Vaneigem, which works as a companion piece to The Society of the Spectacle. Vaneigem writes more in a more human register than Debord, and is a more straightforward propagandist:
“Inauthenticity is a right of man … Take a 35-year-old man. Each morning he takes his car, drives to the office, pushes papers, has lunch in town, plays pool, pushes more papers, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, greets his wife, kisses his children, eats his steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love, and falls asleep. Who reduces a man’s life to this pathetic sequence of cliches? A journalist? A cop? A market researcher? A socialist-realist author? Not at all. He does it himself, breaking his day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes.”
The words point up something very important: that the spectacle is much more than something at which we passively gaze, and it increasingly defines our perception of life itself, and the way we relate to others. As the book puts it: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
How we confront the spectacle is a subject for another piece: in essence, the Situationists’ contention was that its colonisation of life was not quite complete, and resistance has to begin with finding islands of the authentic, and building on them (though as what some people call late capitalism has developed, such opportunities have inevitably shrunk, a fact captured in the bleak tone of Debord’s 1989 text Comments on the Society of Spectacle, published five years before he killed himself). In truth, the spectacular dominion Debord described is too all-encompassing to suggest any obvious means of overturning it: it’s very easy to succumb to the idea that the spectacle just is, and to suggest any way out of it is absurd (which, in a very reductive sense, was Baudrillard’s basic contention).
What is incontestable, though, is how well the book, and Debord’s ideas, describe the way we live now. The images that stare from magazine racks prove his point. The almost comic contrast between modern economic circumstances and what miraculously arrives to disguise them – the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics – confirms almost everything the book contains. My battered copy features a much-reproduced photograph from post-war America: an entranced cinema audience, all wearing 3D glasses. But when I read it now, I always picture the archetypal modern crowd: squeezed up against each other, but all looking intently at the blinking screens they hold in their hands, while their thumbs punch out an imitation of life that surely proves Debord’s point ten thousand times over.