Why the Velvet Underground could only have come from New York

Salon talks to the co-curator of an exhibit honoring the Velvet Underground's sound, identity and legacy

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 23, 2018 11:00AM (EST)

The Velvet Underground and Nico (Cornell University - Division of Rare Manuscript Collections)
The Velvet Underground and Nico (Cornell University - Division of Rare Manuscript Collections)

Like many Velvet Underground fans, the music seemed almost like an extraordinary secret when I first encountered it. Lead singer Lou Reed had some radio hits during his solo career that one could occasionally hear on classic rock radio, but the VU — with their songs about sadomasochism, drug use, and accidental murder — still seemed like edgy, outsider music in the mid-'90s, even though the albums were already three decades old.

It’s an odd but ultimately uplifting experience, then, to go to the Velvet Underground Experience, a historical exhibit about the band’s history that sits mere blocks away from the club where the band first made its name. (The location is now a Chinese food restaurant.) The VU is no longer a secret, but a legend, and this exhibit fully displays the decades of impact the band had on fashion, music, and art. The exhibit runs in New York through Dec. 30.

I spoke with co-curator Fevret for a recent episode of "Salon Talks" about the exhibit and the legacy of the band.

What do you think it is about this band that makes them so relevant and important, half a century after they formed?

I think they were so groundbreaking at that time. They were too much in advance. The lyrics of Lou Reed. The avant-garde music that John Cale brought to the pop song format.

All this was so new and it gave the occasion for the musicians from the next decades to have a point to refer at, in a sense, of freedom. Freedom to experience. Freedom to express your music without any censorship. So that makes them very relevant today.

It's interesting, because I think when you think of 1964 and 1965, most pop music was, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles, that kind of thing. This band's name is from a sex novel called The Velvet Underground.

Their first album had songs about sadomasochism, sex slavery, heroin use, buying drugs on Lexington and 125th. How did those out-there lyrics get received in the 1960s?

At that time, in the first place, quite badly. I mean, of course the underground and avant-garde scene in New York were very excited by that and that's also why Andy Warhol loved the band so much. The idea was absolutely not a marketing idea or absolutely not a provocative idea.

It was just Lou, that Lou said, "Well, why are all these subjects possible in literature, in movies, and why not in pop songs, and why are pop songs reserved for teenagers? Maybe we could also write pop songs for people who are a little bit older, who are 20, 25, 30 and that was also something new." The basic idea of Lou Reed and John Cale was just to say, OK, let's take Dostoevsky, Hubert Selby Junior, and put them in a pop song.

Speaking of New York, a lot of the exhibit that you put together is really about the underground culture of New York in the 1960s, which was more than just music. It was art and photography and film. Why was New York such an integral part of The Velvet Underground sound and image?

I think New York was the only place on earth where people so different, with such different backgrounds as Lou Reed and John Cale, could meet. Because John was from a working class family in Wales, but from a very young age they discovered he was gifted as a musician. I think he could have been a famous music conductor or viola player. Lou Reed was just a kid from Brooklyn. He didn't know anything about classical music. He didn't know where Wales was, so I think that New York made this encounter possible.

This is the first thing, because John came to New York to meet his avant-garde musician heroes. It means John Cage, La Monte Young, so he went to Tanglewood for a semester and then came to New York and stayed in New York and very soon, he met Lou.

The duo was absolutely perfect because John said to Lou, "Your lyrics are just the best thing I ever read, in terms of musical lyrics." John on the other hand could bring to Lou a kind of edge to the music, that was really groundbreaking and absolutely new.

Of course around Warhol there was interest and there was excitement, but no commercial success at that time. The other things about New York is it's the gateway and the entrance to America, but it's really the link between Europe and America, so they needed this link.

At that time, the midst of the '60s, New York was bankrupt in a very bad situation, so it was very hard for a lot of people. One of the positive aspects of this was that people like John or Lou or all their friends — filmmakers, poets — they didn't have a dime but they could find a place to sleep and to create without having any money.

Of course, that's something you can't find anymore in Manhattan. In Brooklyn also, which is very difficult now, in New York. In Manhattan, it's impossible. The creativity at that time was especially intense. The last fact was also that all around them were other artists, filmmakers, writers, poets, and so they were really in an environment that helped very much their own art to develop and to exist without any barrier.

There's one display in the exhibit of them going to Los Angeles on their first tour. It's so interesting to me because California was also a hot bed of a lot of creative energy and yet, they seemed really alienated in Los Angeles. What do you think that was about?

There was another underground. We won't call it an avant-garde scene, but with a new vision of life, but that was the West Coast. It was in the midst of the flower power period. I think they didn't want to hear about dark things and dark subjects.

For them, it was a good thing. They thought that the future might be bright and that the dream was possible. The problem was that The Velvets and especially Lou Reed's lyrics said, "Forget about the dream. It will be quite hard."

He was right. He was right because a few years later the dream was over.

That's an interesting observation. It does feel like they were ahead of their time by just five or six years.

Exactly. They were ahead of their time musically. This is also because the both of them together, they knew everything about music. You had John Cale, who knew about classical, jazz, avant-garde, and you had Lou, who was a big music fan since his young age and he loved doo-wop, folk music.

He was really a fan of rhythm and blues. He knew every, every, everything, so they have both together had a very strong knowledge of the music and so, they were at the same time very spontaneous. All this was not a big plan. It was not a master plan at all. All of this happened in a very short period of time, a few months. The encounter with Andy Warhol is just a few weeks after they play for the first time together, so all of this happened very soon.

There was so much energy, so much creativity and so many ideas that yes, they were ahead of their time. It's funny but, because when young music fans listened to The Velvet Underground records now, they find things that, samples, for example when A Tribe Called Quest sampled, it was not a Velvets song, but a Lou Reed song, "Walk on the Wild Side," for "Can I Kick It." Now, from LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy was two days ago at the opening of the exhibition because for somebody like James Murphy, The Velvets is really not a band you had to copy, but it's an inspiration.

Different people can take very different things from the Velvets. There are dark sides. There are shiny sides. The melodic side. The more avant-garde side. This is why also, the legacy is lasting until now, and decade after decade.

First it was David Bowie. Then the punk movement. Then all the New Wave movement in the '80s. In the '90s it was Kurt Cobain and Nirvana who were covering The Velvets. Beginning of the 21st century in New York, all the new New York rock scene with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the Strokes were directly inspired or influenced, but all of them say, we owe a lot to The Velvet Underground not only musically, but in the state of mind and the search for freedom. Freedom of creation.

One of the things that's interesting about this exhibit is you have a lot of interesting historical artifacts, especially photographs. In particular, when we were walking through, you flagged the fact that you had a bunch of photographs of Lou Reed as a kid that have never been seen before.

Tell us all the story about how you got those pictures.

It was, in fact, we really worked on, to prepare the exhibition. We did like I did when I was a press journalist. Real inquiry. It took me a long time to go and meet people from that period. The few ones who are still there.

Jonas Mekas, who is 96 years old. He's still there, alive and kicking, but John Cale, of course, some of the photographers are still alive. If they were not with us anymore, we worked with their estate. With their family.

It took us two or three years, really to go very deep because, the big difference with Bowie, Bowie he had a big storage where everything he did or he touched was. For The Velvets, you had nothing of that, so it means for you have to search for a single thing. You have to go and search.

At one point, I just got in contact with Lou's sister Merrill, because it seemed obvious for me that we couldn't do this exhibition without letting know her what we wanted to do, how we wanted to do it and if it was OK with her.

I mean, we didn't ask for permission and nobody interfered. She didn't interfere in our choices. John didn't interfere at all, but little by little, they got more and more involved and with Merrill, a friendship really was beginning.

She wrote a very interesting piece four years ago about the childhood of her brother, of Lou.Very difficult childhood, because he was socially avoidant. He was difficult. He had difficulties to find his own, so he was . . . music was a kind of refuge for him, but when he was a teenager, his parents were very, very anxious and they didn't know what to do.

They went to see a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist told them, "Well, he has to go to electric shocks. Electric shock therapy." This was the big trauma in Lou Reed's teenage years. We talked a lot about that with Merrill. I think it was the third time I went to her place, she just came with three boxes of pictures, just to show me the pictures because she wanted to tell me more things about Lou and the family.

At the end I told her, "Well, Merrill, it would be good . . ." Because the important thing to know is that you can take all the biographies on Lou Reed, you don't find any picture of him as a young child because he was so focused about his image, the legend, everything, that he made sure that there was absolutely no pictures.

When Merrill showed me those pictures, which are very casual family pictures, you can see Lou at six playing baseball. You can see him with a tennis racket. You can see him with his dog. And it seemed that it would be very interesting for the visitors to see these images, not in a fetish way, but just to see where Lou was coming from and he had on certain points a very usual childhood.

I told her it would be great to show a few pictures. She said, "OK. You can take five." I looked at the pictures and chose a few ones and she said, "But Christian, that's twelve. Okay. Take the twelve."

They're very cute and yeah, not much like you imagine Lou Reed, so dark.

Absolutely not.

I want to talk a little bit more about the impact of this band. You end this exhibit with just a wall of all the various things that the band has impacted. How on earth can you even start to narrow it down? Their influence is just so wide.

What is fantastic with The Velvets is that there are so many aspects when they were playing, but now also. From photographers like [Robert] Mapplethorpe to Nan Goldin. Nan Goldin, when she did an exhibition 15 years ago, she called it "I'll Be Your Mirror."

I mean, it was a direct link, and Nan Goldin's work is on the same subject as Lou Reed's lyrics but ten years later. The link is obvious. When you speak with movie directors, like Todd Haynes or Jim Jarmusch, I mean, Jim Jarmusch when he was 19, 20, he was hanging out at CBGBs where John was playing his solo records and so, the link with cinema, with literature . . . There is this book by Ellen Willis that is called "Beginning To See The Light." A pure direct reference to a Velvet Underground song.

On this wall, we tried to sum up all of this and also to show that this influence goes all over the world. It's not only America and England and Europe, but also Japan and I think that the exhibition will travel to China. This is what I heard yesterday, so it means that even in China people are interested by the Velvet Underground.

We can say that the legacy and that's the most, after all, that's the most fascinating thing, how this band, that almost no financial, commercial success at that time, half a century later is such an influence. And when you see people at the exhibition, like yesterday, I went to see a little bit, and there were a lot of young visitors, 20, 25 years old.

It means that they don't know everything about the Velvets, but they're very, very curious and they want to know more. When they go out of the exhibition, a lot to them are very surprised by the sense of freedom. I hope it gives the visitors the power to fight for more freedom.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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