When I write I disturb. When I make a film I disturb. When I paint I disturb. When I exhibit my paintings I disturb, and I disturb if I don’t. I have…Piaf and Cocteau: Les Enfants Terribles
Here is a video of photos that I took of the beautiful city of Ulm, Germany in January 2020. With the music of J.S.Bach.
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.
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.
Will Self takes a walk through the banlieues of Paris and is astonished by the prescience of Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which so accurately describes ‘the shit we’re in’
A small green tent was pitched on the small daisy-spotted patch of greenish grass. It looked tidily enough done; suitable perhaps for a summer rock festival. But this was just outside the Saint-Gratien RER station, north of the rundown riverine port of Gennevilliers, on the outer whorl of the Parisian fingerprint; and the tent – which had the limp-wristed bough of an evergreen touching its flysheet in benediction – was quite clearly being lived in.
The mental picture the non-Parisian has of the city’s banlieues is framed by the fictive: gangster movies such as La Haine, or TV cop shows such as Spiral that do battle with similar Danish, Swedish, British and, of course, American vehicles, in a race to see which can sandblast its respective society with the greatest quantity of grit. But within this framing, content and dimensionality are provided by recent history, and in particular by the widespread rioting of 2005 that thrust these under-imagined locales on to TV screens worldwide. Not since the événements of 1968 had Parisian street fighting commanded such attention, but whereas the soixante-huitardscould be characterised as the vanguard of a stillborn revolution, the young second-, third- and probably fourth-generation immigrants who chucked molotov cocktails at the flics and the CRS during the émeutes neither donned, nor were measured up for, any such ideological camouflage.
Instead, the violent eruption of the Parisian banlieues was anatomised by reference to a body politic sickening with pathological metaphors. Implicitly, explicitly … ineluctably, the rioters were the Muslim Other, which, having been almost accidentally ingurgitated as part of the colonialist couscous, was now playing havoc with Gallic digestion. The French state had found itself – willingly or not – as a fellow-traveller on the neocons’ coach trip to the rapturous intersection of medieval chiliasm and Fukuyama’s neoliberal end-point.
Walking from the RER station towards the Seine, I passed not through what the fictive might lead you to expect, but rather low and hummocky hills, the swoop of a B-class road, outcroppings of commerce, small apartment blocks, car parks, duff public sculpture, off-cuts of quasi-open space – over it all an ambiguous miasma of street furniture and signage: this was France, certainly, but a France at once decoupled from any sense of pays, and divorced from the least suggestion of the urbane. In a comparable district of London – picture, if you are able to, Ruislip or Hounslow, Abbey Wood or Enfield – there would be myriad subliminally registered cues, all of which would combine to force on the spectator the unavoidability of her metropolitan condition. In London, the interwar spread of municipal socialism through the arteries of the tube system was accompanied by the soft-modernism of the suburban stations and Harry Beck’s matching diagram, which completes their connectivity. In London, the map really is the territory, because the territory really is the map. Not here.
The vexed relationship between the map and the territory suffuses The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which argues that not only authentic social relations, but even the bricks and mortar that frame them, and the tarmac that connects one to another, have all been replaced with their representation; a 1:1 scale model. Moreover, for Debord, as a sequel to the paralysis of “historical development”, the contrast between town and country has become submerged in a sclerotic suburbia. He is at pains to point out that this annulling is no cod-utopian “supersession” but rather an “erosion … visible in the eclectic mélange of … decayed elements”.
From the beige depths of a heavily shuttered house beside a hillock from which I could spy the Eiffel Tower, a deep, dark voice spoke: “Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez?” I suppose, had I been the ghost of Jane Jacobs I would have experienced this as reassurance: the eyes, even if unseen themselves, remained on the street. But, instead, I muttered pacifications: “Nothing … just having a look … about”, then walked on down and around the hill through a scree of crushed fag packets, centrifugally impelled aluminium trim and the petrified tears shed by long dead cars. Dragon’s teeth were sewn across the scabrous roadway – I queased between them and found myself within 100 metres of the riverbank. The A15 soared overhead: two pilotisplanted this side of the river, the next pair on the far bank, its two carriageways separated by curved air. Up there was the city, conceived of however you so pleased. Down here, however, was this un-place, an inter-zone, under-imagined and thus free to be itself. Sprays of cherry blossom mimicked by tangles of wire and a shaggy pelt of weedy grass. Two small brown kids sat beside an oblong concrete depression filled with dank water, one had her hair tied in pigtails. They were playing with tin cans, cups and a bucket. Beyond them, right on the river’s edge was their Paris: a bidonville of shacks built from bits of scavenged packing cases, plastic tarpaulin, car tyres and all sorts of other stuff.
Many of its most sympathetic readers experience The Society of the Spectacleas a concerted howl of disgust. I cannot agree – for me it is the Spectacle that, far from being the creation of some malevolent or false god, emerges instead as the hero of the piece, inasmuch as any hero can be conceived of as the unconscious product of insensate historical processes. The Spectacle, Debord writes, “is the heart of the unrealism of the real society”. We are all jammed up against the plate glass of the Spectacle, our faces crushed as we “lèche-vitrine” in search of the same old commodified poison.
The entirely manmade nature of the world from which the individual subject experiences alienation is not, for Debord, a factual programme to be passively viewed on the TV screens of the global village, but a belief that is actively entered into. It is the genius of Debord to have characterised the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post-industrial manifestation. The Society of the Spectacle reads – if you will savour a cliche – as fresh as paint. Debord’s analysis of time itself as a series of epochs is dizzying: such “pseudo-festivals” as sporting events (the Olympics springs immediately to mind), act to convince the denizens of the Spectacle that they are still living in a cyclical and eternal go-round, while only the anointed few, the celebrities, are imbued with the attributes of money and power that signify the ability to make choices – to progress into a better future. “Being a star,” Debord writes, “means specialising in the seemingly lived.” Sound familiar, “Sir” Peter Bazalgette?
But it is most of all in its analysis of the ideology of the Spectacle that Debord’s text repays close reading. It is the Spectacle’s genius to have “turned need against life” and thus effected “the separation and estrangement between man and man”. Hence the Spectacle’s embrace of economics as the only form of instrumental – indeed “scientific” – knowledge worth possessing; hence ritual obeisance made before the gods who will confer growth, and hence the fact that more or less any contemporary western politician – from Hollande, to Merkel, to Cameron, to Obama, and back again – who had eyes to see, could find their own Caliban image raging back at them from the pages of The Society of the Spectacle.
At Argenteuil centre-ville, I found echoic pedestrian underpasses, faux-19th century streetlamps of twirled iron and postmodern apartment blocks built of scaled-up children’s construction toys. I walked on across the oxbow of Gennevilliers, still feeling that I was nowhere at all in particular – standing beside a grocery store or an office block, then crossing between parked cars. The bridge across the re-encountered Seine that led to Clichy was lined with cheerful window boxes, planted with a gaily patriotic tricolour of blooms pinker, pinker and pinkest. Where there are window boxes there must, of course, be a window – this one framed the mirrored cuboids of La Défenseto the west, structures that might have been designed expressly to conform to the Debordian paradigm.
And then, some way past the Porte de Clichy, I was quite suddenly – if at an indefinable point – in Paris, a city to this day that defines itself by the micro-associations of its smaller parts: the awning of an alimentation, a drain cover, the angle of a pissing dog’s leg, the furl of paper around a stick of bread, the white apron around a smoking waiter – quite as much as the high extravaganza of its grand boulevards and gold-leafed public buildings. Rereading The Society of the Spectacle, I was struck yet again not only by Debord’s astonishing prescience – for what other text from the late 1960s so accurately describes the shit we’re still in? – but also wondered how it was that his dérives across the Paris of the time could have so attuned him to the way in which the urban environment of the near future would become quite so decoupled from any element of the felt or experienced life. After all, Pariswas by no means the most Spectacular city of the late 1950s and early 60s; indeed, it’s still not on an equal footing to London. Unplanned London, which has just arrived at its square miles of parametrically designed junk space, its CCTV-overseen gated business cantonments and Chinese party cadre-owned luxury encampments, its logo skyscrapers and purpose-built “iconic” tourist destinations.
It occurs to me that Haussmann’s attempt to impose civic order and authority on the medieval jumble of mid-19th century Paris had not only paved the way for the Spectacle, but it had also afforded its – and his – enemies with the material to rip up for their barricades. There seems a nice congruence between the go-rounds of the Grands Boulevards and centrifugal/centripetal current of French theorising, whereby notions given form in the cafes of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the classrooms of the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure swirl out in widening circles from the metropolis, only to then gurgle back in again, before eventually disappearing up the arses of their originators.
Seen like this, The Society of the Spectacle is at once the bastard progeny of the French Enlightenment – out of Diderot, by means of the Napoleonic Code – and a salutary reminder of how the pursuit of some millenarian ideological purity only ever results – if successful – in the rumbling of tumbrels; or, if a failure, in its wholesale co-option by its stated enemies. That we no longer hear quite so much about “the spectacle” as shorthand for any of the following: the ludic element of consumer society, the post-ideological character of western “democracy”, the web-cum-matrix woven by the internet, the glocal character of late capitalism, may be because Debord’s concept has now been so thoroughly appropriated – one might fairly say détourned – that there’s nothing left of it but its coldly numerical bones.
Had Debord not shot himself in 1994 in his rural fastness of Bellevue-la-Montagne, he probably would have turned his gun on the likes of Tony Wilson and Malcolm McLaren (and no doubt me as well); pop music impresarios whose much-trumpeted situationist influence – such as it was – consisted only in a series of pranks, that, while they may have given succour to the culturally anomic nonetheless only resulted in the profitable sale of records, posters and other memorabilia. I doubt, somehow, that either Wilson – chiefly known for managing Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, and setting up Factory Records – or McLaren, rather more famous for his role as the Sex Pistols’ svengali, can have subjected The Society of the Spectacle to a sustained critical reading. Had they done so, they would’ve realised that their antics were anathema to Debord; that the playful elements of situationist practice – the bowdlerising of cartoons, the daubing on walls of whacky slogans, the exaltation of drunkenness – were only ever to be sanctioned if constitutive of a genuine insurrection, such as the few short weeks of 68, and as precursors of that revolution of everyday life (to adapt the title of the competing situationist theoretical work, written by Debord’s greatest rival, Raoul Vaneigem), which was to follow the final and complete dissolution of the Spectacle.
The relative success of the Situationist International during les évènementsalso sowed the seeds for the détournement of The Society of the Spectacleitself. I say relative success because it can be doubted – and will always be disputed – the extent to which Debord and his loose confraternity of freelance bully-boys and wannabe revolutionists actually succeeded in either manning the barricades themselves, or screwing the courage of the mob to CRS’s sticking post. But the important thing was that the situationists were perceived as having been in the thick of things – as instigators and ideological choreographers of the distinctively ludic elements of this particular civil disorder. The sneering, de haut en bas reception of The Society of the Spectacle on its publication the year before in French, was followed the year after by its rhapsodic one when it appeared in translation. By then, of course, the game was effectively up – something Debord, a man obsessed by war games and strategising, undoubtedly grasped. The Society of the Spectacle so far as being an animator of events, had in a matter of months become simply another text to be subjected to scores, hundreds, thousands of exhaustive academic analyses. The best that could be said for the thing – from its author’s point of view – was that the royalties paid his wine bills, and helped to supplement a lifetime of unabashed – and indeed, self-righteous – sponging.
Of course, The Society of the Spectacle still animates serious protest to this day – or, rather, since to admit to having been one of the Invisible Committee that authored the highly Debordian The Coming Insurrection (2007) is to court arrest on those grounds alone, the very style of the earlier work remains inflammatory. As to its content, The Coming Insurrection has nothing much to add – how can it, when, as I say, never before has Debord’s work seemed quite as relevant as it does now, in the permanent present that he so accurately foretold? Open his book, read it, be amazed, pour yourself a glass of supermarket wine – as he would wish – and then forget all about it, which is what the Spectacle wants.
On the brink of working class and student insurgency came Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the radical book of the 1960s, perhaps the most radical radical book ever written. Its 221 strange theses give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of an epoch in which unity spelt division, essence appearance, truth falsity. A topsy-turvy world where everything and everybody partook in a perverse paradox. Debord mocked the reality of this non-reality, an absurd world in which ugliness signified beauty, stupidity intelligence, subjecting it to his own dialectical inversion, his own spirit of negation. This was theory that identified enemy minefields and plotted a Northwest Passage, getting daubed on the walls of Paris and other cities during May 1968: “POWER TO THE WORKERS’ COUNCILS,” “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “THE END OF THE UNIVERSITY.”
Its refrains were all over the modern high-rise environment at the University of Paris-Nanterre, a classic scene of urban isolation and separation, a “suburban Vietnam,” where a peripheral new town university coexisted with working-class slums and Arab and Portuguese shantytowns. The place was sterile, sexually and socially repressive, and totalitarian. This was the spirit of a society without any spirit. The same centralisation, hierarchy, and bureaucratic obsession persisting in the educational sector persisted in other aspects of the French state. Tough rules governed student dorms and freedom of movement; classes were overcrowded, resources stretched; professors were distant, student alienation rife. The right-wing Gaullist regime attempted to modernise the economy, in line with Common Market membership, and unemployment was growing.
At the University of Strasbourg, two years prior, a handful of Situationists had intervened; angry students of Henri Lefebvre and friends of Debord. They’d riled and denounce, tried to revolutionise students with an influential pamphlet called “On the Poverty of Student Life—Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual and especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for its Remedy.” They’d infiltrated the National Union of French Students (UNEF), accused students at Strasbourg of pandering to a society dominated by the commodity and the spectacle. Student poverty was a poverty of ideas, a poverty of guts. Students were really “submissive children,” labour-power in the making, without class consciousness. They accepted the business and institutional roles for which the “university-factory” prepared them, never questioning the system of production that alienated all activity, products, people, and ideas. The Situationist’s text struck a chord; translated reprints extended its audience, notably to the U.S., Britain and Italy. In Strasbourg, the document caused a scandal; a coterie of students refused to be integrated. Critical awareness gathered steam over the next year and a bit, until, in late March of 1968, it blew a gasket at Nanterre.
On Friday, March 22nd, assorted Situationists, young communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, and Maoists invaded the university’s administration building, and began occupying it. The week before, the “Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International” had been established. Its members put up posters and scribbled slogans on the walls of Nanterre and the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter: “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY,” “NEVER WORK,” “BOREDOM IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY,” “TRADE UNIONS ARE BROTHELS,” “PROFESSORS, YOU MAKE US GROW OLD,” “IF YOU RUN INTO A COP, SMASH HIS FACE IN.” In early May, “the March 22 Movement” met with UNEF at the Sorbonne. The authorities tried to break up the meeting; instead they only unleashed its latent power. The gendarmerie mobile poured into the Sorbonne’s courtyard and encircled its buildings. Several thousand students fought back, inside and outside, ripping up paving stones on the street. Skirmishes broke out elsewhere, spreading both sides of the Seine, flaring up at Châtelet and Les Halles. On May 6 and 7 a huge student demonstration took over the Boulevard Saint Michel and thoroughfares near rue Gay-Lussac; protesters overturned cars, set them ablaze, dispatched Molotov cocktails, and manned the barricades.
On May 13 there was a one-day general strike. With the French Communist Party (PCF) and general worker’s union (CGT) joining the action, “student-worker” solidarity suddenly looked possible. Situationists and students took over the Sorbonne. On one revered fresco they emblazoned the caption: “HUMANITY WILL ONLY BE HAPPY THE DAY THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG BY THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST.” Exams had been cancelled at the barricades; sociologists and psychologists became the new cops. Next day, in Nantes, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant occupied their factory and locked out the bosses. Meanwhile, Renault workers at Cléon in Seine-Maritime followed suit. Then the Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne launched a wildcat action, halting newspaper distribution. Workers’ councils linked up with students’ councils, becoming comrades in arms. The working class, at last, declared its unequivocal support for the student movement when rank and filers at Renault-Billancourt took over France’s largest factory.
By May 20 strikes and occupations became contagious. Nationwide, around 10 million workers downed tools and froze assembly lines. France seemed on the precipice of revolution; a festival of people was glimpsed. Alienation was cast off, momentarily; freedom was real; capitalised time abandoned. Without trains, cars, Metro and work, leisure time was reclaimed, time lived. Students and workers seized the contingent situation, acted spontaneously, created new situations, realising something what no trade union or party could ever do, or wanted to do. And yet, as quickly as things erupted, they were almost as speedily repressed, by state and bourgeoisie, soon backed by the Communists and the CGT. The optimistic promise, the beach beneath the paving stones, had dissipated, for now. The music was over. There was no other side to break on through to.
The occupation of Paris was, and still is, seen throughout the world as an event of historical significance. Solidarity between workers and students had for a moment expressed itself; so too direct action militancy and student internationalism. From the LSE to Berkeley, from Columbia to Nantes, from the Sorbonne to Barcelona, dissatisfaction had spread like wildfire. At the same time, The Society of the Spectacle’s demands, as Debord would write (with Gianfranco Sanguinetti) in The Veritable Split in the Situationist International (1972), “were plastered in the factories of Milan as in the University of Coimra. Its principal theses, from California to Calabria, from Scotland to Spain, from Belfast to Leningrad, infiltrate clandestinely or are proclaimed in open struggles…The Situationist International imposed itself in a moment of universal history as the thought of the collapse of a world; a collapse which has now begun before our eyes.”
In old photos of the student occupations of the Sorbonne, Debord is visible in the thick of the action, lurking with intent. He was no student himself, nor was he particularly “youthful”: in May 1968, Debord, the freelance revolutionary, was thirty-six, older than a lot of junior professors, and almost twice the age of many student leaders (like Daniel Cohn-Bendit). He must have seemed like an old guy to many kids, somebody’s dad drinking in the student bar. Already his appearance had started to deteriorate. Surrounded by a large crowd of student activists, we can see him standing side on, without glasses, wearing a white jacket. His face is a lot puffier than a decade earlier; a boozer’s physiognomy was rapidly becoming apparent. By comparison with other ’68ers, who were mere political toddlers, he was a veteran provocateur.
Debord and other Situationists were genius agitators and organisers, and their presence was felt, practically and theoretically. The spirit of The Society of the Spectacle was there, even if some kids had never read nor fully understood it. On the other hand, Debord was frequently the most sectarian, invariably falling out with allies—especially falling out with allies, being most ruthless with old friends and former comrades. “Guy was a very tenacious person,” Jean-Michel Mension, a past oustee, remembered in his Situationist memoir The Tribe. “He was already very hard—very strict in the way he conceived of existence with this person or that.” There “were certainly jokers who became part of Guy’s group merely because they were friends of so and so, people who had no business there and who lasted only six months or a year before Guy found them really idiotic and kicked them out.”
Debord likewise dissed former pal Henri Lefebvre, the Nanterre Marxist professor, denouncing him as an “agent of recuperation.” He said the sexagenarian philosopher had stolen certain Situationist ideas. Debord reckoned Lefebvre’s take on the 1871 Paris Commune was almost entirely lifted from SI’s pamphlet, “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” Lefebvre recalled in a 1987 interview. “I was close to the Situationists…And then we had a quarrel that got worse and worse in conditions I don’t understand too well myself…I had this idea about the Commune as a festival, and I threw it into debate, after consulting an unpublished document about the Commune that is at the Feltrinelli Institute in Milan.”
Both Lefebvre and Debord believed the Commune some sort of historical antecedent of 1968. For seventy-three days, between March and May of 1871, when Prussian forces at war with France surrounded Paris, the city had become a liberated zone of people power. The barricades went up, even across Haussmann’s mighty boulevards, amid the carnivals and pranks. Freely elected workers, artists, and small business owners were suddenly at the helm. Their rally cries were territorial and urban; their practice was festive and spontaneous. The Communards, until the National Guard massacred 20,000 of them, launched a revolt in culture and everyday life, demanded freedom and self-determination, crushed Louis Napoleon’s authority as he’d once crushed their freedom, occupied the streets, shouted and sang for their “right to the city.”
For the first time, it looked like a working-class revolution wasn’t merely possible, but imminent. In “Theses on the Commune,” Debord said the Situationists believed that the “Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth-century” (Thesis #2). “Underlying the events of that spring of 1871,” he went on, “one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of ‘governmental’ politics as on the level of their everyday life.” “The Commune,” Thesis #7 said, “represents the only realisation of a revolutionary urbanism to date.” It “succumbed less to the force of arms,” the next thesis explained, “than to the force of habit.” “Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement,” continued #11, importantly, “can easily prove that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been fulfilled. They forget that for those who really lived it, the fulfillment was already there” (emphasis in original). “The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune,” #12 stated, “must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the prevailing political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the interdependence of all the prevailing banalities that it blasted to pieces.” “The social war of which the Commune was one moment,” declared the penultimate #13, “is still being fought today. In the task of ‘making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune’ (Frederick Engels), the last word is still to be said.”
In the wake of May ’68, Debord released a film version of The Society of the Spectacle, dedicating it to wife Alice Becker-Ho, whose beautiful image, clad in flat cap, leaning on a wall with a cigarette drooping nonchalantly from her mouth, fills one frame. It evokes an Alice-cum-Brando’s Wild One pose: “Alice, whattya rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” The film’s dialogue closely follows Debord’s original text, but the rapid-fire captions, disarming classical music, and exaggerated footage make it visually stunning. There are battle scenes and moody vistas of Paris, spliced between images of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Castro, all giving speeches; Debord plainly disapproves. There are news clips from the ’68 Renault strike, with workers locked inside the factory by the unions; scenes from the Bourse alive with frenzied traders, participating in money mayhem; there’s a vision of the Tower of Babel amid pitched battles from Vietnam and Watts (Los Angeles), circa 1965; Paris’s streets are ablaze, and students can be seen fighting cops; there are burning barricades at night, the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, street altercations in Italy in the 1960s, Italian police leaping from jeeps, truncheoning a crowd of young people; West German security forces patrol another street, while Soviet tanks push back German workers in Berlin in June 1953.
The Society of the Spectacle, the movie, sealed a magical era for Debord. “Whoever considers the life of the Situationists,” he contended a few years later, “finds there the history of the revolution. Nothing has been able to sour it.” It was how it’d been for the Communards, who really lived it, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfillment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in ’68, and now the music was over. Nothing could sour it. Yet as the dust settled from 1968, emptiness prevailed in the ruins. Many soixante-huitards suddenly found themselves stuck between the rock and the hard place, between a degenerative past and an impossible future. For a moment, the dream of spontaneous freedom became real, in wide-awake time. An instant later, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“NO ONE LISTENED TO IT. BUT THERE IT IS, FOREVER – THE QUINTESSENCE OF ARTICULATED PUNK. AND NO ONE GOES NEAR IT.”– Lou Reed, August, 2013
BY MID-1967, ONLY a few months after The Velvet Underground’s debut album was released, their iconic ice queen singer Nico was a solo artist, and pop art svengali Andy Warhol was no longer managing and feeding the group. Warhol’s parting gift: the all-black cover idea for their follow-up – the album they would name White Light/White Heat. Meanwhile, the band scrabbled to survive in the drug-soaked art-scene demi-monde of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“Our lives were chaos,” VU guitarist Sterling Morrison told me in 1994. “Things were insane, day in and day out: the people we knew, the excesses of all sorts. For a long time, we were living in various places, afraid of the police. At the height of my musical career, I had no permanent address.”
There were mounting internal tensions, too, over direction and control between Lou Reed and John Cale, the group’s founders, especially after their debut album’s failure to launch. “White Light/White Heat was definitely the raucous end of what we did,” Morrison affirmed. But, he insisted, “We were all pulling in the same direction. We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were definitely all going in the same direction.”
From that turbulence and frustration, Reed, Cale, Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker created their second straight classic. Where The Velvet Underground And Nico was a demonstration of breadth and vision, developed in near-invisibility even before the band met Warhol – “We rehearsed for a year for that album, without doing anything else,” Cale claims – White Light/White Heat was a more compact whiplash: the exhilarating guitar violence starting with the title track, peaking in Reed’s atonal-flamethrower solo in I Heard Her Call My Name; the experimental sung and spoken noir of Lady Godiva’s Operation and The Gift; the propulsive, distorted eternity of sexual candour and twilight drug life, rendered dry and real in Reed’s lethal monotone, in Sister Ray.
“By this time, we were a touring band,” Cale explains. “And the sound we could get on stage – we wanted to get that on the record. In some performances, Moe would go up first, start a backbeat, then I would come out and put a drone on the keyboard. Sterling would start playing, then Lou would come out, maybe turn into a Southern preacher at the mike. That idea of us coming out one after the other, doing whatever we wanted, that individualism – it’s there on Sister Ray, in spades.”
White Light/White Heat was also the Velvets’ truest record, the most direct, uncompromised document of their deep, personal connections to New York’s avant-garde in the mid-’60s; the raw, independent cinema of Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas and Piero Heliczer; Cale’s pre-Velvets experiences in drone, improvisation and radical composition with John Cage and the early minimalists La Monte Young and Tony Conrad; Reed’s dual immersion, from his days at Syracuse University, in the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the metropolitan-underworld literature of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr.
“I’m in there with a B.A. in English – I’m no naif,” Reed told me shortly before his death. “And being in with that crowd, the improvisers, the film-makers, of course it would affect where I was going. We said it a hundred times; people thought we were being arrogant and conceited. We’re reading those authors, watching those Jack Smith movies. What did you think we were going to come out with?”
“WE WERE ALL PULLING IN THE SAME DIRECTION. WE MAY HAVE BEEN DRAGGING EACH OTHER OFF A CLIFF…”– Sterling Morrison
1942-2013. Guitarist/vocalist and primary songwriter. “No one censured it,” he said of WL/WH. “Because no one listened to it.”
Bass guitar/viola/keyboards. The classically trained Welshman provided the deadpan monologue for The Gift: “Everyone was hellbent on being heard.”
1942-1995. Guitar and “medical sound effects” on Lady Godiva’s Operation: “Maybe our frustrations led the way.”
Drums. Provider of the group’s relentless, unfussy propulsion. “The songs were the songs,” she drily notes.
1928-1987. Pop art icon, art-director and manager of The Velvet Underground. Parted ways with the group in the run-in to White Light/White Heat.
1931-1978. WL/WH producer and babe magnet. Notable track record with Dylan, Zappa, Simon & Garfunkel, the VU and Nico (pictured).
HUBERT SELBY JR.
1928-2004. Novelist/poet of the New York demi-monde. Inspired Sister Ray: “It’s a taste of Selby, uptown,” said Reed.
Saxophonist/composer, architect of free jazz. His lines influenced Reed’s splintering lead guitar approach on I Heard Her Call My Name.
Jazz pianist and poet admired by Lou Reed. His experimental approach fed into WL/WH. Tom Wilson produced his 1956 album, Jazz Advance.
Players Photos: Getty / Rex
In September 1967 at Mayfair Studios – located on Seventh Avenue near Times Square and the only eight-track operation in town – The Velvet Underground put White Light/White Heat to tape. “I think it was five days,” Cale once told me.
Gary Kellgren, Mayfair’s house engineer, previously worked with the Velvets on part of the debut ‘Banana’ album and engineered the spring-’67 recording of Nico’s solo debut, Chelsea Girl. The producer, officially, was Tom Wilson, also with a track record with the group. In 1965, when the producer was still at Columbia, he invited Reed and Cale to play for him in his office. “We dragged Lou’s guitar, my viola and one amplifier up there,” said Cale. “We played Black Angel’s Death Song for him. He knew there was energy and potential.” At Mayfair, Cale mostly remembered Wilson’s “parade of beautiful girls, coming through all the time. He had an incredible style with women.”
But the Velvets’ volume and aggression posed problems for the recording men, and Reed insisted that Kellgren simply walked out during Sister Ray. “At one point, he turns to us and says, ‘You do this. When you’re done, call me.’ Which wasn’t far from the record company’s attitude. Everything we did – it came out. No one censured it. Because no one listened to it.”
On Sister Ray, Reed sang live across the feral seesawing of the guitars, drums and Cale’s Vox organ as each pressed for dominance in the mix. “It was competition,” Cale says. “Everyone was hellbent on being heard.” The ending, though, was easy. “We just knew when it was over,” Morrison remembered. “It felt like ending. And it did.”
There was a real Sister Ray: “This black queen,” Reed says. “John and I were uptown, out on the street, and up comes this person – very nice, but flaming.” Reed wrote the words, a set of incidents and character studies, on a train ride from Connecticut after a bad Velvets show there. “It was a propos of nothing. ‘Duck and Sally inside’ – it’s a taste of Selby, uptown. And the music was just a jam we had been working on” – provisionally titled Searchin’, after one of the lyrics (“I’m searchin’ for my mainline”).
“The lyrics aren’t negative,” Reed argues. “White Light/White Heat – it has to do with methamphetamine. Sister Ray is all about that. But they are telling you stories – and feelings. They are not stupid. And the rhythm is interesting. But you’d think that. I studied long enough.”
White Light/White Heat is renowned for its distortion and unforgiving thrust. But it also features the simple, airy yearning of Here She Comes Now, one of the Velvets’ finest ballads. And there are telling, human details even in the noise, like the breakdown at the end of White Light/White Heat, when Cale’s frantic, repetitive bass playing leaps forward in an out-of-time spasm. “I’m pretty sure it broke down,” he says of his part, “because my hand was falling off.”
Lady Godiva’s Operation was, Cale explains, “a radio-theatre piece, trying to use the studio to create this panorama of a story” – lust, transfiguration and ominously vague surgery that goes fatally wrong. The Gift was just the band and Cale’s rich Welsh intonation. Reed wrote the story – an examination of nerd-ish obsession peppered with wily minutiae (the Clarence Darrow Post Office) and ending in sudden death – at Syracuse University, for a creative writing class. Reed: “The idea was two things going at once” – Cale in one stereo channel, music in the other. “If you got tired of the words, you could just listen to the instrumental.”
Cale’s reading was a first take. The sound of the blade plunging through the cardboard, “right through the centre of Waldo Jeffers’ head,” was Reed stabbing a canteloupe with a knife. Frank Zappa, also working at Mayfair with The Mothers Of Invention, was there. “He said, ‘You’ll get a better sound if you do it this way,’” Reed recalled. “And then he says, ‘You know, I’m really surprised how much I like your album,’” referring to the ‘Banana’ LP. “Surprised? OK.” Reed smiled. “He was being friendly.”
Wayne McGuire’s ecstatic review of White Light/White Heat, in a 1968 issue of rock magazine Crawdaddy, cited Reed’s playing in “I Heard Her Call My Name” as “the most advanced lead guitar work I think you’re going to hear for at least a year or two.” McGuire also noted the jazz in there, comparing the album – especially Sister Ray – to recordings by Cecil Taylor and the saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. “Sister Ray is much like [Coltrane’s] Impressions,” McGuire wrote, “in that it is a sustained exercise in emotional stampede and modal in the deepest sense: mode as spiritual motif, mode as infinite musical universe.”
It was rare understanding for the time. A brief review in the February 24, 1968 edition of Billboard was more measured: “Although the words tend to be drowned out by pulsating instrumentation, those not minding to cuddle up to the speakers will joy [sic] to narrative songs such as The Gift, the story of a boy and girl.” Still, the trade bible promised, “Dealers who cater to the underground market will find this disk a hot seller.”
“THERE WAS CLOSE COMPETITION WITH BOB DYLAN. HE WAS GETTING INTO PEOPLE’S HEADS. WE THOUGHT WE COULD DO THAT.”– John Cale
That didn’t happen. There was a single, the title track coupled with Here She Comes Now. It didn’t help. By the fall of 1968, Cale was gone. Forced to leave the group he co-founded, the Welshman embarked on a second career as a producer, composer and solo artist that continues to this day.
The Velvets went back on the road, and soon into the studio, with a new bassist, Doug Yule. They found a new power in quiet and more decorative pop on their next two albums, until Reed left in 1970 to begin, eventually, his own extraordinary solo life. Live, without Cale, the Velvets still played Sister Ray.
This new Deluxe collection includes Cale’s last studio sessions with The Velvet Underground. Temptation Inside Your Heart and Stephanie Says were recorded in New York in February, 1968, produced by the band for a prospective single (according to Cale and Morrison). Temptation was their idea of a Motown dance party, with congas and comic asides caught by accident as Reed, Cale and Morrison overdubbed their male-Marvelettes harmony vocals. Stephanie Says was the first of Reed’s portrait songs, named after women in crisis and overheard conversation (Candy Says, Lisa Says, Caroline Says I and II). Cale’s viola hovered through the arrangement like another singer: graceful and comforting.
On a spare day in May, 1968, between shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Velvets returned to L.A.’s T.T.G. Studios – where they had worked on The Velvet Underground And Nico – and taped two versions of another viola feature, Hey Mr. Rain. In a 1994 interview, Cale described the song’s droning melancholy and rhythmic suspense as “trying to have a pressure cooker. That’s what those songs were about – Sister Ray, European Son [on The Velvet Underground And Nico], Hey Mr. Rain. They were things we could exploit on stage, flesh out and improvise. But we were driving it into the ground. We hadn’t spent any time quietly puttering around the way we did before the first album.”
The classic quartet cut another song at T.T.G., a recently unearthed attempt at Reed’s Beginning To See The Light. The song, briskly redone with Yule, would open Side Two of the Velvets’ third album. This take has a vintage kick – Martha & The Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street taken at the gait of I’m Waiting For The Man. You also hear the impending change. “Here comes two of you/Which one would you choose?,” Reed sings, an intimation of the cleaving that would alter the Velvets for good.
“John has said we didn’t get to finish what we started – that is sadly true,” Reed acknowledged. “However, as far as we got, that was monumental.” White Light/White Heat, everything leading to it and gathered here – “I would match it,” he says, “with anything by anybody, anywhere, ever. No group in the world can touch what we did.”
Back in 1994, I asked Moe Tucker about the fuzz and chaos of White Light/White Heat – how much they reflected the daily trials and tensions of being The Velvet Underground, always first and alone in their ideals and attack. She replied with her usual, common sense: “I don’t know if I go along with that. The songs were the songs, and the way we played them was the way we each wanted to play them.”
Anything else, she declared with a grin, was “a little too philosophical.”
“THAT WAS MONUMENTAL. I WOULD MATCH IT WITH ANYTHING BY ANYBODY, ANYWHERE, EVER. NO GROUP IN THE WORLD CAN TOUCH WHAT WE DID.”– Lou Reed