“THE MAPPLETHORPE PHOTO SYNTHESIZES MY PASSIONS AND WORLD-VIEW”
In 1975, Arista Records released Horses, the first rock album by New York bohemian poet Patti Smith. The stark cover photo, taken by someone named Robert Mapplethorpe, was devastatingly original. It was the most electrifying image I had ever seen of a woman of my generation. Now, two decades later, I think that it ranks in art history among a half-dozen supreme images of modern woman since the French Revolution.
I was then teaching at my first job in Vermont and turning my Yale doctoral dissertation, Sexual Personae, into a book. The Horses album cover immediately went up on my living-room wall, as if it were a holy icon. Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Patti Smith symbolized for me not only women’s new liberation but the fusion of high art and popular culture that I was searching for in my own work.
From its rebirth in the late 1960s, the organized women’s movement had been overwhelmingly hostile to rock music, which it called sexist. Patti Smith’s sudden national debut galvanized me with the hope (later proved futile) that hard rock, the revolutionary voice of the counterculture, would also be endorsed by feminism.
Smith herself emerged not from the women’s movement but from the artistic avant-garde as well as the decadent sexual underground, into which her friend and lover Mapplethorpe would plunge ever more deeply after their breakup.
Unlike many feminists, the bisexual Smith did not base her rebellion on a wholesale rejection of men. As an artist, she paid due homage to major male progenitors; she wasn’t interested in neglected foremothers or a second-rate female canon. In Mapplethorpe’s half-transvestite picture, she invokes her primary influences, from Charles Baudelaire and Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan and Keith Richards, the tormented genius of the Rolling Stones who was her idol and mine.
Before Patti Smith, women in rock had presented themselves in conventional formulas of folk singer, blues shouter, or motorcycle chick. As this photo shows, Smith’s persona was brand new. She was the first to claim both vision and authority, in the dangerously Dionysian style of another poet, Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors. Furthermore, in the competitive field of album-cover design inaugurated in 1964 with Meet the Beatles(the musicians’ dramatically shaded faces are recalled here), no female rocker had ever dominated an image in this aggressive, uncompromising way.
The Mapplethorpe photo synthesizes my passions and world-view. Shot in steely high contrast against an icy white wall, it unites austere European art films with the glamorous, ever-maligned high-fashion magazines. Rumpled, tattered, unkempt, hirsute, Smith defies the rules of femininity. Soulful, haggard and emaciated yet raffish, swaggering and seductive, she is mad saint, ephebe, dandy and troubadour, a complex woman alone and outward bound for culture war.
Actually, I did know most of this, but not Warhol’s idea of putting a crack on the record to make the phrase ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ repeat over and over again. Inspirational, and an idea later used by the Beatles at the end of Sgt. Pepper but not in quite as radical a way. I also didn’t know about the drums breaking down in ‘Heroin’ or Sterling Morrison’s hatred of Frank Zappa. Although I did know about Lou Reed’s hatred of Frank Zappa and also Frank Zappa’s hatred of not only the VU but also The Beatles and The Doors, and pop and rock music in general!
A half-century on, The Velvet Underground and Nico remains the quintessential emblem of a certain brand of countercultural cool. Not the Haight-Ashbury or Sgt. Pepper kind but an eerier, artier, more NYC-rooted strain. Released on March 12th, 1967, the Velvet Underground‘s debut was an album that brought with it an awareness of the new, the possible and the darker edge of humanity. Bolstered by the patronage of Andy Warhol and the exotic vocal contributions of Nico, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker declared their independence from Top 40 decorum with a gritty, innovative and unapologetically self-possessed work. In many ways, The Velvet Underground and Nico was the first rock album that truly seemed to invite the designation alternative.
Fifty years after its release, the LP still soundsstunningly original, providing inspiration and a blueprint for everything from lo-fi punk rock to highbrow avant-garde – and so much in between. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about the album’s creation.
1. Lou Reed first united with John Cale to play a knockoff of “The Twist.” Reed’s professional music career took root in 1964 when he was hired as a staff songwriter at Pickwick Records, an NYC-based budget label specializing in soundalikes of contemporary chart-toppers. “We just churned out songs; that’s all,” Reed remembered in 1972. “Never a hit song. What we were doing was churning out these rip-off albums.”
When ostrich feathers became the hot trend in women’s fashion magazines, Reed was moved to write a parody of the increasingly ridiculous dance songs sweeping the airwaves. “The Twist” had nothing on “The Ostrich,” a hilariously oddball number featuring the unforgettable opening lines: “Put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it!” While composing the song, Reed took the unique approach of tuning all six of his guitar strings to the same note, creating the effect of a vaguely Middle Eastern drone. “This guy at Pickwick had this idea that I appropriated,” he told Mojo in 2005. “It sounded fantastic. And I was kidding around and I wrote a song doing that.”
Reed recorded the song with a group of studio players, releasing the song under the name the Primitives. Despite the unorthodox modes, Pickwick heard potential in “The Ostrich” and released it as a single. It sold in respectable quantities, convincing the label to assemble musicians to pose as the phony band and promote the song at live gigs. Reed began hunting for potential members, valuing attitude as much as musical aptitude. He found both in John Cale.
The pair crossed paths at a house party on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Reed was drawn to Cale’s Beatle-y long hair. A classically trained prodigy, the young Welshman had moved to the city months earlier to pursue his musical studies and play viola with avant-garde composer La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music. Intrigued by his pedigree, Reed invited him to join the Primitives. Sensing the opportunity for easy money and some laughs, Cale agreed.
Gathering to rehearse the song, Cale was astonished to discover that the “Ostrich tuning” produced essentially the same drone he was accustomed to playing with Young. Clearly on the same musical wavelength, they connected on a personal level afterwards. “More than anything it was meeting Lou in the coffee shop,” Cale says in a 1998 American Masters documentary. “He made me nice cup of coffee out of the hot water tap, and sat me down and started quizzing me as to what I was really doing in New York. There was a certain meeting of the minds there.”
2. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” got the band fired from their residency. Sterling Morrison became involved with the duo after a chance meeting with Reed, his classmate at Syracuse University, on the subway. Together they formed a loose band with Cale’s roommate Angus MacLise, a fellow member of the Theater of Eternal Music collective. Lacking a consistent name – they morphed from the Primitives to the Warlocks, and then the Falling Spikes before taking their soon-to-be-iconic final moniker from a pulp paperback exposé – the quartet rehearsed and recorded demos in Cale’s apartment throughout the summer of 1965.
The fledgling Velvet Underground were befriended by pioneering rock journalist Al Aronowitz, who managed to book them a gig at a New Jersey high school that November. This irritated the bohemian MacLise, who resented having to show up anywhere at a specific time. When informed that they would be receiving money for the performance, he quit on the spot, grumbling that the group had sold out. Desperate to fill his spot on the drums, they asked Morrison’s friend Jim Tucker if his sister Maureen (known as “Moe”) was available. She was, and the classic lineup was in place.
School gymnasiums were not the ideal venue for the band. “We were so loud and horrifying to the high school audience that the majority of them – teachers, students and parents – fled screaming,” Cale says in American Masters. Instead, Aronowitz found them a residency in a Greenwich Village club, the Café Bizarre. Its name was something of a misnomer, as neither the owners nor the handful of customers appreciated the way-out sounds. In a half-hearted attempt at assimilation, the group added some rock standards to their repertoire. “We got six nights a week at the Café Bizarre, some ungodly number of sets, 40 minutes on and 20 minutes off,” Morrison described in a 1990 interview. “We played some covers – ‘Little Queenie,’ ‘Bright Lights Big City’ … the black R&B songs Lou and I liked – and as many of our own songs as we had.”
Three weeks in, the tedium became too much bear. “One night we played ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ and the owner came up and said, ‘If you play that song one more time you’re fired!’ So we started the next set with it,” Morrison told Sluggo! of their ignoble end as a bar band in a tourist trap. The self-sabotage had the desired effect and they were relieved of their post – but not before they caught the attention of Andy Warhol.
3. The album’s co-producer refused to accept cash payment, asking for a Warhol painting instead. Already a prolific painter, sculptor and filmmaker, by the mid-Sixties Warhol sought to expand his famous Factory empire into rock & roll. On the advice of confidant Paul Morrissey, the 37-year-old art star dropped in on the Velvet Underground’s set at the Café Bizarre and impulsively extended an offer to act as their manager. The title would have rather loose connotations, though he did make one significant alteration to their sound. Fearing that the group lacked the requisite glamour to become stars, he suggested the addition of a striking German model known as Nico. The proposal was not met with complete enthusiasm – Reed was particularly displeased – but she was tentatively accepted into the ranks as a featured vocalist.
Now billed as the Velvet Underground with Nico, Warhol incorporated the band into a series of multimedia performances dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable: a marriage of underground music, film, dance and lights. Also assisting was 27-year-old Norman Dolph, an account representative at Columbia Records who moonlit as a DJ and soundman. “I operated a mobile discotheque – if not the first then at least the second one in New York,” he later told author Joe Harvard. “I was an art buff, and my thing was I’d provide the music at art galleries, for shows and openings, but I’d ask for a piece of art as payment instead of cash. That’s how I met Andy Warhol.”
By the spring of 1966, Warhol decided it was time to take his charges into the recording studio. Knowing little about such matters, he sought out Dolph for advice. “When Warhol told me he wanted to make a record with those guys, I said, ‘Oh, I can take care of that, no problem. I’ll do it in exchange for a picture,'” he said in Sound on Sound. “I could have said I’d do it in exchange for some kind of finder’s fee, but I asked for some artwork, [and] he was agreeable to that.”
Dolph was tasked with booking a studio, covering a portion of the costs himself, producing and leaning on colleagues at Columbia to ultimately release the product. For his trouble he was given one of Warhol’s silver “Death and Disaster Series” canvases. “A beautiful painting, really. Regrettably, I sold it around ’75, when I was going through a divorce, for $17,000. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Geez, I bet Lou Reed hasn’t made $17,000 from this album yet.’ If I had it today, it would be worth around $2 million.”
4. It was recorded in the same building that later housed Studio 54. Dolph’s day job at Columbia’s custom labels division saw him working with smaller imprints that lacked their own pressing plants. One of his clients was Scepter Records, best known for releasing singles by the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. Their modest offices on 254 West 54th Street in midtown Manhattan were noteworthy for having their own self-contained recording facility.
Though the Velvet Underground were studio novices, it didn’t take an engineer to know that the room had seen better days. Reed, in the liner notes to the Peel Slowly and See boxed set, describes it as “somewhere between reconstruction and demolition … the walls were falling over, there were gaping holes in the floor, and carpentry equipment littered the place.” Cale recalls being similarly underwhelmed in his 1999 autobiography. “The building was on the verge of being condemned. We went in there and found that the floorboards were torn up, the walls were out, there was only four mics working.”
It wasn’t glamorous, and at times it was barely functional, but for four days in mid-April 1966 (the exact dates remain disputed), the Specter Records studios would play host to the bulk of the Velvet Underground and Nico recording sessions. Though Warhol played only a distant role in proceedings, he would return to 254 West 54th Street a great deal in the following decade, when the ground floor housed the infamous Studio 54 nightclub.
5. Warhol wanted to put a built-in crack in all copies of the record to disrupt “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Andy Warhol is nominally the producer of The Velvet Underground and Nico, but in reality his role was more akin to producer of a film; one who finds the project, raises the capital and hires a crew to bring it to life. On the rare occasions he did attend the sessions, Reed recalls him “sitting behind the board gazing with rapt fascination at all the blinking lights …Of course he didn’t know anything about record production. He just sat there and said, ‘Oooh that’s fantastic.'”
Warhol’s lack of involvement was arguably his greatest gift to the Velvet Underground. “The advantage of having Andy Warhol as a producer was that, because it was Andy Warhol, [engineers] would leave everything in its pure state,” Reed reflected in a 1986 episode of TheSouth Bank Show. “They’d say, ‘Is that alright, Mr. Warhol?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh … yeah!’ So right at the very beginning we experienced what it was like to be in the studio and record things our way and have essentially total freedom.”
Although he didn’t try to specifically shape the band in his own image, Warhol did make some suggestions. One of his more eccentric ideas for the track “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” Reed’s delicate ballad inspired by his simmering romantic feelings towards Nico, never came to fruition. “We would have the record fixed with a built-in crack so it would go, ‘I’ll be your mirror, I’ll be your mirror, I’ll be your mirror,’ so that it would never reject,” Reed explained in Victor Bockris’ Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. “It would just play and play until you came over and took the arm off.”
6. “There She Goes Again” borrows a riff from a Marvin Gaye song.
Reed’s time at Pickwick instilled in him a fundamental fluency in the language of pop music. Often overshadowed by his innovative instrumental arrangements and taboo lyrical subjects, his ear for an instantly hummable tune is apparent with catchy confections like “Sunday Morning,” the album’s opening track. Bright and breezy, with Reed’s androgynous tone replacing Nico’s planned lead, the song’s introductory bass slide is an intentional nod to the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday, Monday,” which topped the charts when it was first recorded in April 1966.
“There She Goes Again” also draws from the Top 40 well, borrowing a guitar part from one of Motown’s finest. “The riff is a soul thing, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitch Hike,’ with a nod to the Impressions,” Cale admitted to Uncut in 2012. “That was the easiest song of all, which came from Lou’s days writing pop at Pickwick.”
It would earn the distinction of becoming one of the first Velvet Underground tracks to ever be covered – half a world away in Vietnam. A group of U.S. servicemen, performing under the name the Electrical Banana during their off hours, were sent a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico by a friend who thought they would appreciate the fruit on the cover. They appreciated the music as well, and resolved to record a version of “There She Goes Again.” Unwilling to wait until they returned to the States, they built a makeshift studio in the middle of the jungle by tossing down wooden pallets, pitching a tent, fashioning mic stands from bamboo branches and plugging their amps into a gas generator.
7. The drums break down during the climax of “Heroin.” The most infamous track on the album is also one of the oldest, dating back to Reed’s days as a student at Syracuse University, where he performed with early folk and rock groups and sampled illicit substances. Drawing from skills honed through his journalism studies, not to mention a healthy affinity for William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Reed penned a verse that depicted the experience of shooting up with stunning clarity and eerie detachment.
Amazingly, Reed had attempted to record the song during his days on the pop assembly line at Pickwick Records. “They’d lock me in a room and they’d say, ‘Write 10 surfing songs,'” Reed told WLIR in 1972. “And I wrote ‘Heroin,’ and I said, ‘Hey I got something for ya!’ They said, ‘Never gonna happen, never gonna happen.'” But the band had no such constraints while being bankrolled by Andy Warhol.
Working in the still-unfamiliar setting of a studio proved to be a challenge for the band at some points, particularly during the breakneck outro of “Heroin.” Maureen Tucker eventually became lost in the cacophony and simply put down her sticks. “No one ever even notices this, but right in the middle the drums stop,” she says in the 2006 documentary The Velvet Underground: Under Review. “No one ever thinks about the drummer, they’re all worried about the guitar sound and stuff, and nobody’s thinking about the drummer. Well, as soon as it got loud and fast I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear anybody. So I stopped, assuming, ‘Oh, they’ll stop too and say, ‘What’s the matter, Moe?’ And nobody stopped! So I came back in.”
8. Lou Reed dedicated “European Son” to his college mentor who loathed rock music. One of Reed’s formative influences was Delmore Schwartz, a poet and author who served as his professor and friend while a student at Syracuse University. With a cynical and often bitter wit, he instilled in Reed an innate sense of belief in his own writing. “Delmore Schwartz was the unhappiest man I ever met in my life, and the smartest … until I met Andy Warhol,” Reed told writer Bruce Pollock in 1973. “Once, drunk in a Syracuse bar, he said, ‘If you sell out, Lou, I’m gonna get ya.’ I hadn’t thought about doing anything, let alone selling out.”
Rock & roll counted as selling out in Schwartz’s mind. He apparently loathed the music – particularly the lyrics – but Reed couldn’t pass up a chance to salute his mentor on his first major artistic statement. He chose to dedicate the song “European Son” to Schwartz, simply because it’s the track that least resembled anything in the rock canon. After just 10 lines of lyrics, it descends into a chaotic avant-garde soundscape.
Schwartz almost certainly never heard the piece. Crippled by alcoholism and mental illness, he spent his final days as a recluse in a low-rent midtown Manhattan hotel. He died there of a heart attack on July 11, 1966, three months after the Velvet Underground recorded “European Son.” Isolated even in death, it took two days for his body to be identified at the morgue.
9. The back cover resulted in a lawsuit that delayed the album’s release. Being managed by Andy Warhol came with certain perks, and one was the guarantee of a killer album cover. While the artist’s involvement in the music was spotty, the visual art was to be his purview. Bored by mere static images, he devised a peel-away sticker of a pop art banana illustration, under which would be a peeled pink (and slightly phallic) banana. Aside from fine print above the sticker helpfully urging buyers to “peel slowly and see,” the only text on the stark white cover was Warhol’s own name, gracing the lower right corner in stately Coronet Bold – adding his official signature to the Velvet Underground project.
The promise of what was essentially an original Warhol print on the front of each album was a major selling point to Verve, the MGM subsidiary that had purchased the distribution rights to the tapes, and they shelled out big bucks to obtain a special machine capable of manufacturing the artist’s vision. Ironically, it was the comparatively traditional back cover, a photo of the band in the midst of an Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance at Norfolk, Virginia’s Chrysler Art Museum, that would cause the most headaches. A slide montage was projected onto the stage and the upside-down image of actor and Factory associate Eric Emerson from Warhol’s Chelsea Girls film could be seen. Emerson, who had recently been busted for drug possession and was badly in need of money, threatened to sue the label for the unauthorized use of his image.
Rather than pay Emerson his claim – reportedly $500,000 – MGM halted production that spring while they grappled with how to remove the offending image. Copies of the album were recalled in June, all but dooming its commercial prospects. “The whole Eric business was a tragic fiasco for us, and proves what idiots they were at MGM,” Morrison told Bockris. “They responded by pulling the album off the shelves immediately and kept it off for a couple of months while they fooled around with stickers over Eric’s picture, and then finally the airbrush. The album thus vanished form the charts almost immediately in June, just when it was about to enter the Top 100. It never returned to the charts.”
10. The release delay sparked Sterling Morrison’s intense, and often hilarious, hatred of Frank Zappa. The tracks for the album were largely complete by May 1966, but a combination of production logistics – including the tricky stickers on the cover – and promotional concerns delayed the release for nearly a year. The exact circumstances remain hazy, but instead of holding the record execs responsible, or Warhol in his capacity as their manager, the Velvet Underground blamed an unlikely target: their MGM/Verve labelmate Frank Zappa.
The band believed that Zappa used his clout to hold back their release in favor of his own album with the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out. “The problem [was] Frank Zappa and his manager, Herb Cohen,” said Morrison. “They sabotaged us in a number of ways, because they wanted to be the first with a freak release. And we were totally naive. We didn’t have a manager who would go to the record company every day and just drag the whole thing through production.” Cale claimed that the band’s wealthy patron affected the label’s judgment. “Verve’s promotional department [took] the attitude, ‘Zero bucks for VU, because they’ve got Andy Warhol; let’s give all the bucks to Zappa,'” he wrote in his memoir.
Whatever the truth may be, Sterling Morrison held a serious grudge against Zappa for the rest of his life, making no effort to hide his contempt in interviews. “Zappa is incapable of writing lyrics. He is shielding his musical deficiencies by proselytizing all these sundry groups that he appeals to,” he told Fusion in 1970. “He just throws enough dribble into those songs. I don’t know, I don’t like their music. … I think that album Freak Out was such a shuck.” He was even more blunt a decade later when speaking to Sluggo! magazine. “Oh, I hate Frank Zappa. He’s really horrible, but he’s a good guitar player. … If you told Frank Zappa to eat shit in public, he’d do it if it sold records.”
Reed also had some choice words for Zappa over the years. In Nigel Trevena’s 1973 biography booklet of the band, he refers to Zappa as “probably the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life. He’s two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything. He can’t play rock & roll, because he’s a loser. … He’s not happy with himself and I think he’s right.” The pair must have buried the hatchet in later years – after Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, Reed posthumously inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I came across Adam Ritchie when I was researching into the Velvet Underground. Most of the early pictures of the band were taken by him and Lisa Law. It seems strange that there are not more pictures of the band from this time when you consider the number of photos taken at Andy Warhol’s Factory by Billy Name and various others. The quality of Richie’s pictures are brilliant, especially as he had no training as a photographer (mind you, neither did Billy Name who also produced some outstanding prints).
His pictures of the Velvet’s first gigs at Cafe Bizarre in New York are fascinating as are the only pictures I have seen of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry annual dinner at the Delmonico Hotel, New York, 13 January 1966. This still seems like one of the oddest events ever staged. What did the guests think whilst Gerard Malanga wielded his whip and the band churned out distortion and feedback at maximum volume? I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall! The fact that it was a psychiatrist’s convention makes it even more surreal.
His photographs of Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett at the UFO club in London in 1966 also give a real insight into the period. Both the Floyd and Andy Warhol were experimenting with light shows at the time.
I went from London to New York in 1962. Found a loft on Bond Street just off the Bowery and got work doing international economic research. I moved to 277 East 10th Street in the East Village. In 1964 I bought a 35mm camera and became a photographer instead. I worked for Conde Nast’s Mademoiselle and Glamour, Esquire, Look, ESP Disk, etc. I was always interested in alternative culture and jazz. Working at night at the Bleeker Street Cinema, I got to know Jonas Mekas, Barbara Rubin, Betsey Johnson Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray and some of the Fugs.
I disliked Andy Warhol’s celebration of tinsel and superficial glamour until I found myself on the 27th floor of an advertising agency showing my pictures to an art director. One of Andy’s helium filled silver pillows floated very slowly in a straight, even line across the huge window behind him. I was spellbound with amazement. It seemed impossible for steady movement and a lack of gusting outside the window at the 27th floor level. I didn’t say anything about it to the art director but it was clear that Andy’s understanding of the time was profound. Barbara Rubin introduced me to the Velvet Underground before she introduced them to Andy Warhol. I was mad about them because of their music and how they felt serious about what they were doing.
I came back to London in 1966 and immediately went to John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and Joe Boyd’s new UFO Club. I took photos of Pink Floyd’s earliest performances at the club and at the Round House. I taught photography at Central School of Art as well until 1973 when I started building houses for people in Wales and later in London until 1995.
While I was building houses, my photo lab closed down suddenly. All my photos and negatives were destroyed without my knowledge. Later I just happened to discover a battered old paper carrier bag with the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd photos in it. That, apart from a few prints, was all that was left of 10 years professional photography.
I had always kept in touch with Rudy Franchi from the Bleeker Street Cinema. In 1997 he offered me my first exhibition, called “The Lost Photographs” at his gallery in Boston. Since then they have appeared in 40 or more books and hundreds of magazines and newspapers. They have been in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and Boo-Hooray Gallery in New York, Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Liverpool, Idea Gallery and Artisan Gallery in London, in Paris, Bologna, Vienna, Tokyo and in Sweden and Australia. There will be many of my photos in a new Velvet Underground show at the Cité de la Musique opening between March and August 2016.
Some of the Velvet Underground photos are also in the Andy Warhol Museum collection.
Since then it has been cabinet making, teaching furniture design, local community organising, then running a furniture company for 8 years and now I’m retired, singing in two choirs, growing delicious fruit and vegetables in allotments, Irish set dancing every week and going to classes.
What follows is an interview with Adam Ritchie from ‘Wombat’ photography and arts blog. He seems to have been equally blessed and ill-fated!
Are you a self-taught photographer?
In 1962/63 I was working doing international economic research for a New York company called Business International and living on the Lower East Side. One day I saw a rat walking calmly along my street, East 10th St, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. I wanted to photograph what I saw. A friend, Larry Fink, was a professional photographer and he helped me buy a 35mm camera one friday, after work. I took my first photographs on Saturday, developed the film in Larry’s darkroom that evening, spent Sunday printing with his help. I went to work early on monday and covered the wall of my office with 20 prints. Everyone came in and looked at the pictures, pretty amazed that it had all happened since the office closed on friday.
The boss suggested that there was such feeling in the photos, that that is what I should really be doing. I said it was just a new hobby I had taken up that weekend for the first time and underneath it all, I was a serious economist. He kept on at me about it until finally, he fired me with three months salary in advance to force me to try and earn a living from photography. I already had a holiday back to England booked and paid for. I planned a series of photographs of people in London. Mademoiselle Magazine bought and published six pages of them. Following that I got published by Glamour Magazine (also Conde Nast), Esquire, Look and others.So yes, I was self taught.
What is your educational background?
Normal, except that I did my last two years of school at the Lycee Français de Londres and then two years of a degree in Economics at Amherst College in Massachusetts on a scholarship.
Why do I take pictures?
I’ve always being interested in seeing things and how you organize what you see. I was involved in the Underground Avant-garde in London and New York, so I wanted to show people what I saw. I saw John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Cecil Taylor and Velvet Underground and others in New York and when I went back to London in summer 1966, I photographed Pink Floyd earliest performances.
I taught photography at Central School of Art in London from 1966 to 1973 and took lots of other photographs, but in 1973 I resigned from teaching, went to Wales and built houses for other people. I learned from books and experience. I built houses there for 4 years and then moved back to London still building for another 8 years. I discovered about then that all my photographs and negatives had been destroyed (except for Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd pictures and a few prints. I spent a couple of years at a furniture college learning cabinet making and furniture design and launched my own studio and also taught furniture design.
Were you friends with the Velvet Underground?
I talked a bit with John Cale while I was photographing the making of the Venus in Furs film but mainly I photographed them because I loved their music. My friend, Barbara Rubin, was playing a nun in the Venus in Furs film and phoned me to say I had to come and listen to this amazing new band. Obviously I took cameras. Piero Heliczer, whose film it was, was very informal, sometimes with a film camera, sometimes blowing an alto sax. There was a CBS News film crew doing a story about The Making of an Underground Film as well so the whole thing was like a happening with everything going on at the same time.
What were your influences?
In the early 1960s, I lived in an apartment in London together with 6-7 men and women. We all read William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). He visited our apartment. We read Genet, Kerouac, Flan O’Brian, Dostoievski, Samuel Becket, etc. We listened to Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Miles Davis Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell every night.
I worked in Better Books, the most avant-garde bookshop in London with all the artists and intellectuals constant visitors. We organized happenings and spontaneous demonstrations.
The truth is I was young, intelligent, very interested in culture and alternative underground culture.
I had lived for three years in New York as a child and had later got a scholarship to attend university in Massachusetts1958-60. I had not enjoyed the university in the States but wanted to try again, so I got a work permit and went to New York in 1962 for four years. Although being an economist for work in the day, the rest of the time I listened to and saw Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Monk. I went to many art galleries. I also worked as assistant Night Manager at the Bleeker Street Cinema and met Barbara Rubin and Jonas Mekas. I went to happenings and jazz and movies every week. I became a photographer in order to photograph what I saw. Back in London in 1966, I started a campaign in my very poor neighborhood for playgrounds and community facilities. I spent three or four years working for that in my free time and it became the largest community scheme of its sort in Europe. It is 115 000 m2 in west London built underneath an elevated motorway called Westway. Later I built houses for ten years and afterwards became a furniture maker/designer.
I have recently got into making videos of the photos of some of my trips accompanied by music that has been important to me over the years. This includes tracks by the likes of the Velvet Underground, Country Joe and the Fish and Bix Beiderbecke. Quite a variety really. It is amazing how the music changes the way I look at the photos, and they seem to take on a different meaning. It’s quite an eye opener really.
The first one is of Essex and Suffolk when I went on a tour playing with my old friends, folk group Bodger’s Mate. It is accompanied by “I’m Coming Virginia”, one of my favourite tracks by Bix Beiderbecke from 1927. I’m amazed how well the music stands up. It could almost be contemporary. The guitar playing by Eddie Lang is incredibly subtle, considering it is the main rhythm part.
The next one is of the Old Town of Marbella with “Grace” by Country Joe and the Fish. “Electric Music for the Mind and Body” was one of my favourite albums when I was young, along with the even better “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die”. I first went to Marbella in 1971 and didn’t go back there until last year. It was virtually unrecognisable until I found the Old Town, which was actually the only bit that existed when I went there before, and it was just the same and the memories came flooding back.
The last one is of my photos of New York when I visited there in 2012. This was the first time I had ever been to America and I had a brilliant time. I went to all the places I had heard of when I first started playing the guitar and it felt like I had gone home. I think New York is the only place I have been where people seem to know what I’m talking about. Fantastic! Greenwich Village may have changed but it resonated with meaning for me. This is accompanied by “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground who were one of my favourite bands in 1968. It’s worth watching this just to hear “Sister Ray” all the way through although it is very long.
Have been back a week now and have decided to write about my feelings about visiting New York.
The reason I went was to fulfil a long ambition to visit a place that figured large in my imagination and was a place where many things happened that were an influence on me. In my mind at times it was a place I should have been. But I never went and, in fact, never visited America until now. Why was that? Well, chiefly it was financial. I simply couldn’t afford it. But I am sure I could have found a way if I had really wanted to. Money never stopped me from doing other things I wanted to do. I think the main reason was fear of disillusionment. That it would not live up to my idea of what it was. That all the things that I found attractive were not there any more or that I would not find it or fit in to it. And also fear of leaving my comfort zone and what I was familiar with. In many ways all these fears applied to me on my recent trip, it was just money that was no longer a problem!
I spoke to a friend last week who was enthusiatic, perhaps too enthusiastic, about my recent trip. He said I was living the dream. He’s the second person who has said that. He was raving about how I had done what Bob Dylan did and how I was an inspiration to him. I know this is quite a compliment but it is not really true. When Bob Dylan went to New York he was young, poor and ambitious. I was old and relatively well off and not ambitious in the same way. I wasn’t seeking fame and fortune, it was more an act of redemption! At the same time I think I probably felt some of the things that Bob felt. It is a scary thing to go to a big city where you don’t know anyone and you have no idea what is going to happen. On the other hand, we were both driven, in our own way, to do this. I’m very glad I did. The experience has been better than my most optimistic scenario. I met lots of nice, interesting people and felt I achieved something special doing the rounds of open mics and jam sessions. In fact, I felt accepted in a way I never expected to.
Another more recent influence was reading Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids”. I thoroughly recommend this book. In it she chronicles how she went to New York in a similar spirit to Bob Dylan. She slept rough and on subway trains and eventually had great success as a poet and singer. Inspirational. I can particularly relate to her description of visiting Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. I’ve done the same thing. You’ve got to step out of yourself to find yourself.
The New York scene is not the same as it was in the 60s or 70s. The same focus is not there. But, I think, that is the same everywhere (as far as I know). Music has become far more diverse and there is not the same audience for live music as there was. On the other hand, interest and desire to play and write music is possibly even higher than it was. New York is full of great musicians and song writers and other acts. There is a vibrant poetry and spoken word community. In fact, you can find more than one place to perform any day of the week. On top of that busking is accepted in parks and subway stations. The general standard is pretty high! There is also a strong community feel amongst performers, they are supportive and interested in each other. From my first open mic spot onwards I was invited to many events and was even offered a job in a band as a lead guitarist! I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
There are many places to play. Bars and cafes offer one hour slots through the night. There tends to be no official pay but a bucket is passed round at the end of the set. Where there’s a decent crowd people tend to be generous and it is possible to make a reasonable amount of money. People are also more inclined to buy CDs than here. I took thirty and came back with none. Should have taken more!
My favourite place was Penny’s Open Mic on St. Mark’s Place. There was an amazing variety of acts and they were all incredibly good (well, nearly all). I’d go back to New York just to go there! But there are lots of others. Path Cafe is good and that is where I made most of my contacts. It was also, conveniently, just round the corner from where I was staying. The spoken word event on 116 MacDougal Street is worth going to. I was the only musician but they liked my song so much they videoed me and put it on their web site. They were very encouraging and the poetry was brilliant. Paddy Reilly’s and National Underground were good for jam sessions and I also made lots of contacts there. By the end of my time in New York I felt like a part of the local scene which like everywhere, considering the size of the city, is really quite small.
One of the good things about New York is the public transport. For $29 you can buy an unlimited ticket that you can use on any bus or subway train. This can take you to any part of the city including Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, and they run all night. The Staten Island ferry is free! No excuses not to go anywhere. There are many places and things I didn’t see but I had such a good time I’m sure I’ll be back.
It’s going very well. Played at what was the Gaslight last night. It’s now called 116 (that’s the number of the building). Had a job finding it as there is no big sign and MacDougal Street is the ultimate BAR STREET. Every night is like Saturday night in Leicester! The Gaslight is the place where Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso et al read their poems in the 50s. Then it became a centre of the burgeoning folk scene of the 60s. According to the organiser it has hardly changed although the stage is in a different place. I was the only musician in a night of poetry. Did OK though and was invited to a night next Monday when I am being filmed. Whoo hoo! There were some really good poets and rappers. Very enjoyable!
Spent today in Central Park and looking round the Upper West Side, including the Dakota building where John Lennon lived. Strawberry Fields was a bit disappointing with crowds of tourists queuing up to be photographed sitting on the Imagine mosaic. Not very peaceful! The park itself though is heavenly especially by the lake. It really is quite magical. Was asked how to get to 5th Avenue by someone who thought I was a local. Told her but she thought I was wrong and walked off in a huff. But actually, I was right!
Spent tonight playing at the Path Cafe. Went very well and will get more gigs from it and am being interviewed by local radio on Sunday. Will be playing at the Cornelia Cafe tomorrow.