meeting Andy Warhol, the Velvets acquired what few fledgling bands have
been lucky enough to achieve: a wealthy patron. In addition, Warhol’s
Factory, populated by an enormous range of people of varying talents,
provided a fertile cross-pollination of ideas and personalities, whilst
also constituting a powerful PR machine.
John Cale, Andy Warhol’s Factory was like entering a fountain of ideas,
with “new things happening every day”; for Lou Reed it was “like
landing in heaven”. Everywhere they turned there were odd characters and
odd situations, and Reed would write down in a notebook fragments of
what he heard and overheard. Many of these fragments would end up in
song; others would suggest a title or a story situation. The Factory
crowd also noticed Reed as well. “Everyone was certainly in love with
him — me, Edie, Andy, everyone,” confessed Factory regular Danny
Fields. “He was so sexy. Everyone just had this raging crush… he was
the sexiest thing going”.
Warhol and Morrissey had recently been
approached to get involved with setting up a new discotheque in Long
Island; the plans would come to nothing (after seeing the Velvets, the
club owner hired The Young Rascals instead), but at this point Warhol
was actively looking for a rock band to play there. Bizarrely (according
to Victor Bockris), Warhol had actually contemplated forming his own
rock band three years earlier, with LaMonte Young and Walter De Maria.
The Velvet Underground at Café Bizarre, Warhol liked the fact that Lou
Reed looked “pubescent”, and that the audience left the gig looking
“dazed and damaged” — according to Reed, Warhol saw them the night they
were fired. Paul Morrissey claims that it was his idea to marry
underground films to rock’n’roll, but that it was a purely commercial
decision to work with the Velvets, rather than an artistic one. At the
time, Morrissey also thought that Reed and Cale lacked presence, and
that what the Velvets needed was a singer with “a bit of charisma”. He
suggested someone who was already a part of the Warhol camp: Nico.
The suggestion that Nico should join the band
didn’t go down too well with the Velvets, to put it mildly. Morrissey
played them her single on the Immediate label, and according to him Reed
was “hostile to Nico from the start”. What changed Reed’s mind was the
fact that Warhol was offering them an enticing management and recording
deal. There was of course the recognition that his patronage would
bring. In the end, it was too good a deal for the Velvets to turn down.
According to Nico, Reed agreed simply because he lacked the confidence
to refuse — or perhaps, lacked enough confidence in himself as a
vocalist. Still, at his insistence the billing would distance Nico from
the group, making it crystal clear that she was not a band member. They
would be The Velvet Underground and Nico. So Aronowitz was ousted (he’d
only had a “handshake deal” — something he subsequently regretted) and
Morrissey and Warhol officially became joint managers of The Velvet
Underground. In return for 25%, Warhol would invest in new equipment,
get them gigs and a recording contract. In fact, after buying two
instruments from Vox, Warhol got them to supply further equipment for
free, having arranged an endorsement deal (the band would later endorse
Acoustic, and then Sunn).
But a problem remained: Nico wanted to
sing all the songs, which Reed refused point blank to allow. But since
her presence meant that some gentler songs were now needed, Reed wrote
three ballads for her, which suited her unique, breathy singing style
(“like an IBM computer with a German accent”, as Warhol put it): “Femme
Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. The gentler
songs contrasted interestingly with John Cale’s experiments in
According to Cale, Nico was deaf in one ear
(from a perforated eardrum), which caused her to go off-pitch from time
to time, much to the band’s amusement. “Lou never really liked me” Nico
later complained — though that’s hard to believe when you listen to
‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. She and Reed were lovers early on, and even lived
together for a while. Recalling this period, Nico described Reed as
“very soft and lovely. Not aggressive at all”, and even that “you could
just cuddle him like a sweet person”. Sterling Morrison was more
cynical: “You could say Lou was in love with her, but Lou Reed in love
is a kind of abstract concept”. The relationship lasted eight weeks, and
was supposedly ended by Nico. Cale, meanwhile, had been seduced by Edie
Sedgwick within 48 hours of arriving at the Factory, and moved in with
her for the duration (six weeks) of their relationship. Edie had also
had a brief affair with Nico. John Cale has described the material Reed
wrote for Nico as “psychological love songs”, and even Reed acknowledged
her strengths as a performer. Yet after Nico left the Velvets, Reed
would write no more songs for her — despite being asked to by both Cale
and Nico herself.
Nico had little to do on stage when she wasn’t
singing except stand stock-still and play tambourine (usually out of
time), and at times things could get a little tense between her and the
band. Even so, she was a striking vision: dressed all in white in
contrast to the Velvets’ black attire. Her modeling days had certainly
taught her how to strike a dramatic pose. She was also taller than all
the men surrounding her and, inevitably, she captured most of the media
attention. As Maureen Tucker said: “She was this gorgeous apparition,
you know. I mean, she really was beautiful”. Critic Richard Goldstein
described Nico’s stage presence as “half goddess, half icicle”.
Singing For ’Drella
little Andy Warhol knew about music (and he never expressed any noted
preferences), even he must have sensed that in TheVelvet Underground
he’d found more than just another rock band. “Andy told me that what we
were doing with music was the same thing he was doing with painting and
movies i.e. not kidding around” Lou Reed recalled. He was bowled over by
Andy’s way of looking at the world and once remarked that sometimes he
would spend days thinking about something Andy said. Reed was also
impressed by Warhol’s work ethic: “I’d ask him why he was working so
hard and he’d say, ‘Somebody’s got to bring home the bacon’”. Warhol
would ask Reed how many songs he’d written that day; Reed would lie and
say two. Lou also remarked on Andy’s generosity, pointing out that
though Andy was the first to arrive for work at the Factory and the last
to leave he’d still take them all to dinner: “He gave everyone a
But the exact nature of the group’s relationship to their
new manager remains vague. As Sterling Morrison pondered: “Was The
Velvet Underground some happy accident for him, something that he could
work into his grandiose schemes for the show? Would another band have
done just as well? I don’t think another band would have done just as
well. At that time we seemed uniquely suited for each other”.
John Cale described Warhol as “a catalyst” for the Velvets, that he understood exactly what they were about, how best to bring that out. “I doubt that Lou would have continued investigating song subjects like he did without having some kind of outside support for that approach other than myself” he elaborated. “I think it was just basically Andy and I who really encouraged that side of a literary endeavour”. Morrison echoes the fact that Warhol gave them “the confidence to keep doing what were doing”.
It’s probable that Reed and Warhol each saw
echoes of themselves in the other. But Warhol had earned the nickname of
’Drella (a combination of Dracula and Cinderella) that Ondine, another
of the Factory crowd, had given him. Warhol had an acid wit that Reed
could seldom match, and his jibes were less malevolent than Reed’s —
they could be bitchy and funny at the same time, whereas Lou was often
just bitchy. But as Malanga states, Warhol also had his dark side: “he
could slice a person with a glance”. In fact, Lou actually came in a
poor third to Nico when it came to put-downs. Meeting again shortly
after their break-up, there was a moment of frosty awkwardness between
the two, followed by a long pause after which Nico came out with the
charmless “I cannot make love to Jews any more.”
In the end, the
Velvets’ relationship with Warhol is best summed up by Mary Woronov,
artist and collaborator: “They were with Andy and Andy was with them and
they backed him absolutely. They would have walked to the end of the
earth for him”. All of the Velvets spoke highly of Warhol ever after,
Cale perhaps most succinctly of all: “He was magic”.
At this point the Velvets had been ordered by
police to stop rehearsing in their West 3rd Street apartment (above a
firehouse), and told to rehearse in the country if they were going to
make that kind of noise. Cale was experimenting with an electronic
“thunder machine” at the time. The same cop had also accused them of
throwing human excreta out of their window. So they began to rehearse at
the Factory every day, accompanying Warhol in the evenings to art
openings, cocktail parties, dinners and nightclubs, as part of his
permanent 10–20-strong retinue. It’s doubtful whether the drug-free
Tucker tagged along, and she must have been somewhat bemused by the
Factory’s denizens. (They in turn liked the fact that she looked boyish,
which fitted right in with all the blurring of gender going on there.)
Later on, Moe worked at the Factory briefly, transcribing tapes of
Ondine’s rantings for Warhol’s book A: A Novel. However, she
refused to type any of the swear words, substituting asterisks instead.
Meanwhile, Ondine had turned Lou Reed on to methedrine, which became
became his main indulgences for years to come.
poet and photographer in his own right, Gerard Malanga (b.1943) met
Andy Warhol while still a student at Wagner College on Staten Island. He
soon became Warhol’s assistant in silk-screening (where he probably did
most of the actual physical work, and originated at least some of the
ideas), also introducing him to New York’s literary, theatrical and
movie crowds. Malanga also eventually assisted Warhol in his own
movie-making. His habit of carrying a leather bullwhip everywhere led to
his “whipdance” routine on stage with the Velvets during ‘Venus in
Furs’ (Malanga had earlier been a dancer on DJ Alan Freed’s Big Beat TV show). He went on to found Interview magazine with Warhol. in 1983, Malanga co-wrote (with Victor Bockris) Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story, the first book to appear on the Velvets.
photographer and lighting designer who subsidized his artistic work
with hairdressing, Billy name (real name Billy linich) once decorated
his entire apartment with silver foil. Warhol liked the look so much
(“Silvermakes everything disappear”) that he asked Linich to decorate
his new studio — the original Factory — in the same way. Billy also
worked with Gerard Malanga as an assistant on Warhol’s silk screens,
designed the cover for White Light/White Heat, and claims to have
been one of Reed’s lovers. Also a musician, Linich was in LaMonte
Young’s group for a year, leaving them just before the arrival of John
Cale. A genuinely eccentric character, Name was effectively the
Factory’s caretaker, living in one of its black-painted toilets (which
he used as a photographic darkroom) for years, studying astrological
charts and books on the occult given him by Reed; when the Factory moved
home, Billy simply moved into the equivalent space in the new one. In
1968, he sealed himself into this room, and was seldom seen at all
between then and the time he finally left the Factory (in the middle of
the night) at some point in Spring 1970, leaving a note behind telling
Warhol not to worry. Linich subsequently gave up amphetamines, moved
back home to Poughkeepsie and pursued his own individualistic
spirituality. Today, his photographs of the Factory era are much in
Californian debutante from a rich but troubled Bostonian socialite
background, Edith Minturn Sedgwick (b.1943) had spent her late teens in a
mental institution (as had several of her brothers, two of whom
committed suicide). In 1964, at the age of 21, she moved to New York and
met Andy Warhol in early ‘65; for the following year, they were
virtually inseparable. She dyed her hair silver to match Warhol’s wig
and became a kind of mirror image of him, escorting him to society
parties and appearing in a dozen of his movies. “She had more problems
than anybody I’d ever met”, Warhol later said. Perhaps that was the
appeal of their relationship, which was certainly not sexual (Truman
Capote thought that Andy wanted to be Edie).
She became the face of young Manhattan; Vogue
magazine dubbed her a “youthquaker”, and she seemed the archetypal poor
little rich go-go girl. Reed wrote “Femme Fatale” about her (at
Warhol’s request) and, according to some, Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A
Woman” and “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” are both about her. But though
undeniably beautiful and pursued by innumerable suitors (including John
Cale), Edie was not so much a femme fatale as a femme catastrophique.
She might have been a mainstay of Warhol’s movies and danced on stage
with the Velvets during their first couple of gigs, but most of the time
she was out of her head on a cocktail of drugs of every description,
many prescribed by the legendary “speed-doctor” Dr Roberts (immortalized
by the Beatles as “Dr Robert”). She later blamed Warhol for her
condition. “Warhol really fucked up a great many people’s — young
people’s — lives”, she once complained. “My introduction to heavy drugs
came through the Factory. I liked the introduction to drugs I received.
I was a good target for the scene. I bloomed into a healthy young drug
addict”. “Edie never grew up”, Warhol responded, probably accurately.
However, comments of his such as “a girl always looks more beautiful and
fragile when she’s about to have a nervous breakdown” don’t show him in
too sympathetic a light. When Edie left him in 1966, Warhol joked
bleakly to playwright Robert Heide: “When do you think Edie will commit
suicide? I hope she lets us know so we can film it”. After Warhol, Edie
attempted to carve a career as an actress (but didn’t really have the
talent) and a model (but her reputation as an unreliable druggie
preceded her), without much success. She died in 1971 of an overdose of
barbiturates, at the age of 28.
filmmaker Morrissey (b.1938) had made his own movies ever since his
teenage years. As well as managing Warhol’s business affairs for many
years, from 1966 Morrissey worked closely on numerous movies with him,
eventually making several of his own movies under the Warhol banner. The
best known of these are the trilogy of Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat
(1972), all of which starred hustler Joe Dallesandro. Morrissey parted
company with Warhol in the mid-1970s, after two final exploitation
films, Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) and Blood For Dracula (1974), made with Warhol’s backing. he continued to make movies into the late 1980s.
name Bob Olivo (b.1939) he was also nicknamed “the Pope”. Ondine was a
manic and charismatic actor and writer, the hub of the
amphetamine-driven “Mole People” gay crowd at the Factory. he had
nothing to do with the fashionable new York nightclub Ondine’s — Olivo
had adopted the name of the lead character in Jean giraudoux’s 1939 play
Ondine, which had been played on Broadway by the iconic Audrey Hepburn. He appeared in numerous Warhol movies, beginning with Batman Dracula (1964), and Warhol’s A: A Novel
was simply a transcription of tape-recordings of Ondine’s speed-fuelled
rantings over a 24-hour period. he toured the college lecture circuit
during the 1970s, talking about Warhol and screening his performances in
Warhol’s S&M movie Vinyl (1965) and Chelsea Girls
(1966). In the 1980s, he appeared in numerous off off-Broadway plays,
until ill health forced him to retire. After Ondine’s death from liver
failure in April 1989, his mother burnt all his writings.
Brigid Polk (Berlin)
Berlin (b.1939) and her sister Richie, who also hung out at the
Factory, were heirs to the Hearst publishing empire. Brigid created
montage “trip books” — scrapbooks of anything that took her fancy, the
most extraordinary containing the impressions of the scars, genitalia,
breasts or navels of anyone willing to contribute. She appeared in Chelsea Girls (1966), and also with Edie Sedgwick in the film based on the Factory crowd Ciao! Manhattan
(1972). She tape-recorded pretty much everything she encountered, from
phone calls to orgies. This led to her taping Lou Reed’s last concert
with The Velvet Underground in 1970 — eventually released commercially
as Live At Max’s Kansas City in 1972. Her “Polk” nickname evolved
from Factory slang — “taking a poke” meant shooting up with a needle.
Berlin gave up amphetamines and alcohol in the 1980s.
Woronov (b.1943) was an art student at Cornell University when she met
Andy Warhol and became involved with the Factory. She was one of the
principal dancers with The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, accompanying
Gerard Malanga’s whipdance to ‘Venus In Furs’. Having appeared in
Warhol’s movies Hedy The Shoplifter and Chelsea Girls, Woronov moved to Los Angeles and acted in a zillion B-movies, of which the most notable is probably Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 (1975). She revealed herself as a talented comedy actress in Rock And Roll High School (1979), and Paul Bartel’s black comedies Eating Raoul (1982) and Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverley Hills
(1989), as well as making cameos in mainstream Hollywood movies. Liver
damage caused her to give up all drugs and alcohol in the 1980s. She has
been a writer-director for the TV show The Women’s Series and is the author of four volumes of fiction: Snake, Niagara, Blind Love and Wake For Angels, which also contains some of her paintings, and Swimming Underground (a memoir of her time with the Factory).
from The Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground, publishing 1 September
2007 by Rough Guides, a division of Penguin Group International.
Copyright 2007 by Rough Guides. All rights reserved.velvet undergroundrough guidesnicoandy warhol
The Velvet Underground and Nico embodies a seldom realised idea: that music really can change the world. A financial failure in its time, the loose collection of these New York artists’ self-titled debut took a decade to sell 100,000 copies.
However, despite its commercial failings, The Velvets’humble flop was a primitively bright conceptual spark. While simultaneously hitting the bargain bins, greater forces were at play. Ripples of inspiration were subtlety mutating the face of popular culture. A powerful influence, the group’s deep-seated creative forces unified into something truly iconic.
Over a prolonged period of gestation word of mouth built in the musical underground. The innovative album passed hands while outspoken critics like Lester Bangs lionised the group’s achievement. To cite Brian Eno’sfamous 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.
“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?”
The Velvet Underground as they were on the eve of White Light/White Heat’s release. Clockwise from top left: Maureen “Moe” Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale.
“WE WERE ALL PULLING IN THE SAME DIRECTION. WE MAY HAVE BEEN DRAGGING EACH OTHER OFF A CLIFF…”– Sterling Morrison
The Velvets were also a rock band, with roots in that ferment but ambitions charged by the other modern action around them. “There was close competition with Bob Dylan,” Cale admits. “He was getting into people’s heads. We thought we could do that.”“Maybe our frustrations led the way,” Morrison said of White Light/White Heat. “But we were already pretty much into it. We had good amps, good distortion devices. We were the first American band to have an endorsement deal with Vox.” The album, he contended, “was just us using the Vox amps and playing them emphatically.”“They say rock is life-affirming music,” Reed says. “You feel bad, you put on two minutes of this – boom. There’s something implicit in it. And we were the best, the real thing. You listen to the Gymnasium tape [the live set included with December’s Deluxe reissue], this album – there is the real stuff. It’s aggressive, yes. But it’s not aggressive-bad. This is aggressive, going to God.”
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
I had a lovely time visiting London this week. Like New York it is a place that makes me feel good just by being there, walking around! This time I went to The National Gallery to see the Richard Hamilton exhibition before it closed.
Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Notice the word Pop on the lollipop.
Here is his potential manifesto for Pop Art written in January 1957:
“16th January 1957
Dear Peter and Alison,
I have been thinking about our conversation of the other evening and thought that it might be a good idea to get something on paper, as much to sort it out for myself as to put a point of view to you.
There have been a number of manifestations in the post-war years in London which I would select as important and which have a bearing on what I take to be an objective:
Parallel of Life and Art (investigation into an imagery of general value)
Man, Machine and Motion (investigation into a particular technological imagery)
Reyner Banham’s research on automobile styling
Ad image research (Paolozzi, Smithson, McHale)
Independent Group discussion on Pop Art – Fine Art relationship
House of the Future
(conversion of Pop Art attitudes in industrial design to scale of domestic architecture)
This is Tomorrow
Group 2 presentation of Pop Art and perception material attempted impersonal treatment. Group 6 presentation of human needs in terms of a strong personal idiom.
Looking at this list is is clear that the Pop Art/Technology background emerges as the important feature.
The disadvantage (as well as the great virtue) of the TIT show was its incoherence and obscurity of language.
My view is that another show should be as highly disciplined and unified in conception as this one was chaotic. Is it possible that the participants could relinquish their existing personal solutions and try to bring about some new formal conception complying with a strict, mutually agreed programme?
Suppose we were to start with the objective of providing a unique solution to the specific requirement of a domestic environment e.g. some kind of shelter, some kind of equipment, some kind of art. This solution could then be formulated and rated on the basis of compliance with a table of characteristics of Pop Art.
Pop Art is:
Popular (designed for a mass audience)
Transient (short-term solution)
Young (aimed at youth)
This is just a beginning. Perhaps the first part of our task is the analysis of Pop Art and the production of a table. I find I am not yet sure about the “sincerity” of Pop Art. It is not a characteristic of all but it is of some – at least, a pseudo-sincerity is. Maybe we have to subdivide Pop Art into its various categories and decide into which category each of the subdivisions of our project fits. What do you think?
(The letter was unanswered but I used the suggestion made in it as the theoretical basis for a painting called Hommage á Chrylsler Corp., the first product of a slowly contrived programme. R.H.)”(Collected Words 1953-1982)
The exhibition for the Late Works was in preparation before Hamilton died on 13th September 2011. It seems odd to have such contemporary images in the conservative National Gallery but it is based on his studies of works that are in there. There is a particular interest in Renaissance perspective. There are also allusions to work by his hero Marcel Duchamp.
I found the exhibition very interesting although I know some others were disappointed. I am most impressed that right into old age Hamilton was still experimenting and using computers and Photoshop to create his images. I was particularly impressed by the culmination of the exhibition Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu in which three great painters contemplate a reclining nude. This is very evocative and emotional.
Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu
Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu
An evocation of Marcel Duchamp
The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin, 2007
Yes, I am very impressed by these pictures and would recommend this exhibition if it moves somewhere else although I think it was particularly curated for the National Gallery with it’s many references to pictures in it’s collection and the building itself.
Am sorting out the details for my trip. Feeling kind of nervous and excited. Not sure what is going to happen or even if I’m going to get there, but I’m sure I will! Have practiced being a lone visitor in Berlin and it was weird but worthwhile. It’s not just about going somewhere far away to see what’s there but also about finding things out about myself which you can only do when you’re far from your comfort zone.
Why New York? Well, it’s the home I never knew apart from blasts of beat poetry, jazz and the folk scene. It was the sounds of the Velvet Underground in my suburban home in Leicester. It was the skyscrapers and Superman. It was the abstract expressionists and the weird goings on in the Andy Warhol factory. It was the complete fantasy. It was Positively 4th Street, where I am staying just round the corner in the Jane Hotel. It’s the Statue of Liberty and countless black and white movies from the 50s. In short, it was a dream of an alternative reality that I had always been part of but had never been to. I am going to pursue a dream. Is this wise? No, but I am driven to it like a moth to a flame.