The Velvet Underground - Biography
By Chris Morris
“Not for the kiddies,” pioneering rock encyclopedist Lillian Roxon wrote in her entry on The Velvet Underground. She hit the nail on the head: The Velvets can be considered the first adult rock ‘n’ roll band. With their arrival in 1966-67, they expanded the expressive possibilities of the music for all time.
The Velvets, Roxon noted perceptively, “were as far away as a group could possibly be from the world of incense and peppermints and lollipops and even earnest teenage protest. Theirs was the dim underworld of drugs and sexual perversion, of heroin addiction and the desperate loss of hope that goes with it. Their concern was with death and violence. They were singing about a world that exists and that they knew.”
Beyond their outré and unflinchingly realistic subject matter, the New York band pushed other boundaries. Their confrontational, minimal music, ripe with atonality, unusual tunings, distortion, and overloaded volume, marked the first collision between the sensibilities of rock and modern classicism. Their first shows, performed under the aegis of pop art maestro Andy Warhol, their first manager, were extravagant multimedia presentations that fused music, film, light projections, and dance. And their image – dark, remote, chilly, somewhat threatening – flew in the face of pop models of the day like the boyishly ingratiating Beatles. In nearly every imaginable way, The Velvet Underground were without precedent, and during their brief five-year existence they schooled generations of rock musicians about what was available to them beyond the furthest fringes of song.
The group was founded by two men from opposite musical poles. Lou Reed was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. Reared on doo-wop and rockabilly, he began recording as a teenager; his first single “So Blue,” with the combo The Shades, was released in 1958. As a student at Syracuse University, he DJed at the college station, studied with the brilliant, famously dissolute poet Delmore Schwartz, absorbed the work of such literary renegades as Hubert Selby, Jr. and William Burroughs, and jammed and performed in a succession of bands with a part-time student, guitarist Sterling Morrison. By 1965, Reed was laboring as a staff songwriter for the Long Island budget label Pickwick Records. In that capacity, he penned a dance tune called “The Ostrich”; Pickwick wanted a live band to support the single under the handle the Primitives. Scouting prospective bandmates, Reed somehow was introduced to three members of avant-garde composer La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, including viola player and budding bassist John Cale.
Welshman Cale had formidable classical credentials. He penned symphonies under composer Cornelius Cardew at London’s Goldsmith College of Arts. After an interview with Aaron Copland, he won a Leonard Bernstein scholarship at Eastman Conservatory at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, where he studied with composer Iannis Xenakis. He played piano at an 18-hour 1963 serial performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” organized by the influential composer-theoretician John Cage. As a member of the Theatre of Eternal Music’s group The Dream Syndicate, he played highly amplified viola on Young’s static, drone-oriented compositions alongside violinist Tony Conrad.
Reed, Cale, and Conrad played together briefly as the Primitives, and Cale, impressed by embryonic lyrics for songs like “Heroin,” decided to form a new band with Reed. After a chance meeting with former Syracuse classmate Morrison on the subway, the guitarist was enlisted; another Young familiar, drummer Angus MacLise, also signed on. The group woodshedded at Cale’s Ludlow Street loft during 1965, mulling such tentative band names as The Warlocks and (in a dry reference to Reed and Cale’s shared propensity for heroin use at the time) The Falling Spikes; they settled on The Velvet Underground after Conrad found Michael Leigh’s book by that title about suburban sadomasochistic sex in a Bowery gutter. When New York pop journalist Al Aronowitz secured a gig for the fledgling band, MacLise bridled and quit; to fill the drum chair, Reed and Morrison brought in the sister of a Syracuse classmate, Maureen “Mo” Tucker. Her unadorned, punishing timekeeping and androgynous look was a perfect fit.
Following The Velvet Underground’s debut on a three-band bill at a Summit, New Jersey, high school on Dec. 11, 1965 – where they performed just three songs, “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs,” and “I’m Waiting For the Man,” in front of what must have been a nonplussed crowd – Aronowitz set up the group with a steady gig at a seedy Greenwich Village club, Café Bizarre. Filmmaker Barbara Rubin, part of the circle at Andy Warhol’s studio the Factory, passed along word of the band’s wall-rattling performances there, and The Velvets were soon enjoying the artist’s management patronage.
The band’s first performances in 1966 marked the intersection of New York’s music and art spheres. The Velvets became an integral part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a sense-overloading fusion that combined screenings of Warhol’s films (which were projected on the band), a light show, and frenetic dancing by the Factory’s Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick (and, later and more permanently, Mary Woronov) with the group’s gale-force playing. At the insistence of Warhol and his majordomo Paul Morrissey, another vocalist was added. Born Christa Päffgen in Hungary, Nico had modeled in Europe, taken a bit role in Federico Fellini’s landmark film La Dolce Vita, and recorded a single for Immediate Records, the London label run by the Rolling Stones’ manager-producer Andrew Loog Oldham. The Velvets refused to give her all the lead vocals, but Reed wrote several songs that highlighted her impassive, heavily-accented delivery. The frosty Teutonic beauty became the cool focal point at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable’s manic shows.
Warhol’s extravaganzas baffled and often enraged early spectators. The New York Times quoted an attendee at one early performance at the January 1966 dinner of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry: “Why are they exposing us to these nuts?” The Velvets soon undertook a series of shows at a run-down former Polish social hall, the Dom, on St. Mark’s Place in the Village. Now a buzz band in the city’s artistic underground, The Velvets took their show on the road to the West Coast, where they were greeted with curiosity, and with great resistance and hostility in some quarters. In Los Angeles, they were mocked onstage by Frank Zappa, leader of the Mothers of Invention, who shared a bill with the group at the Trip, and in San Francisco they tangled with the powerful local promoter Bill Graham. But the tour was not entirely in vain: While in L.A., the band began low-budget self-financed sessions, produced by Warhol, for their debut album.
Ultimately, the band was signed to MGM Records by Tom Wilson, the hip black producer-executive who had cut key albums by Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel at Columbia Records. Wilson re-recorded some of the songs originally tracked, and the band’s debut release was scheduled for late 1966. However, a series of delays – including the threat of legal action by Factory cohort Eric Emerson, who claimed his image was used on the album jacket without permission, forcing a postponement and an altered sleeve – The Velvet Underground & Nico was released on the Verve imprint in March 1967.
Bearing famous Warhol artwork of a peel-off banana, the collection was as dramatic and unexpected as its cover. Its somberly tender ballads “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale” (a homage to Edie Sedgwick), and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” sung by Nico, stood in stark contrast to the lacerating drug songs “I’m Waiting For My Man” and “Heroin,” the insistent hymn to the demimonde “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the squirming S&M exploration “Venus in Furs” (titled after a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian writer whose work gave masochism its name), and the concluding noise blowout “European Son” (parenthetically subtitled “to Delmore Schwartz” in memory of Reed’s collegiate mentor, who died in 1966). Filigreed by rip-roaring blasts of guitar feedback and Cale’s scraping, detuned viola, the album was in its season a dark eclipse of the impending Summer of Love’s orange sunshine. It rose no higher than No. 170 on Billboard’s album chart, but its impact would be felt for decades.
In the wake of the album, some significant changes occurred. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable had run its course, and Warhol was moving on to other artistic agendas; the band split with him and acquired a rock-world manager, Boston-bred Steve Sesnick. They also parted company with Nico, whose solo aspirations couldn’t be fulfilled in the context of The Velvets; her shattered romantic relationship with Reed had also upped tensions in the group. (Nonetheless, Reed, Cale, and Morrison would all appear on Nico’s late-‘67 solo bow Chelsea Girl.) Broke, angry, and stigmatized, The Velvets even stopped performing in their hometown: They would not appear in New York again for three years.
The quartet pushed its sound to the limits of the sonic frontier on its second, Wilson-produced album, White Light/White Heat (1968). At the time, the six-song collection had no peer in terms of sheer aggression, volume, and raw force. Speaker-shattering opuses like the title track, “I Heard Her Call My Name,” and the recitation-with-noise workout “The Gift” topped anything attempted on the debut, but even those chunks of challenging rock were topped by the album-concluding 17-minute in-the-red monolith “Sister Ray,” a hammering, orgiastic story of transvestitism, sexual delirium, and violence captured in a single devastating take (during which the engineer abandoned the control room). This sonic exclamation point moved no higher than No. 199 on the pop albums chart, but it pinned the meter artistically. Critic Lester Bangs later called it “one of the milestones on the road to tonal and rhythmic liberation.”
Personal and professional discord within the Velvets came to a head in late 1968, when Reed met with Morrison and Tucker in a Manhattan bar and told them he couldn’t work with Cale anymore. The Velvets’ expelled co-founder was replaced by Doug Yule, a young performer from Boston (where, thanks to Sesnick’s connections, the group had virtually become the house band at the rock venue the Boston Tea Party). Without missing a beat, The Velvets swiftly embarked on recording their third, self-titled album, which was released in March 1969.
The Velvet Underground was as subdued as White Light/White Heat was superpowered. Save for the hard-hitting “What Goes On” and “The Murder Mystery,” in which Reed and Yule rattled off parallel narratives in separate stereo channels, the album comprised hushed, introspective songs (mixed by Reed to emphasize the vocals) that mainly focused on a longing for love and transcendence. Some of Reed’s most tender and affecting compositions are here: “Candy Says” (about transvestite and Factory fixture Candy Darling), “I’m Set Free,” “Beginning to See the Light,” “Jesus,” and the timeless ballad about adulterous romance, “Pale Blue Eyes.” The album failed to even graze the top 200.
The Velvets soon set about recording material for a new MGM album, but the sessions – unearthed belatedly on the ‘80s compilations VU and Another View -- were rendered moot after a decision by new label president Mike Curb (later the lieutenant governor of California) to drop acts that supposedly espoused drug use from the roster. The offenders included The Velvet Underground and, ironically enough, their longtime nemeses The Mothers of Invention. Freed from their contract, the band secured a deal with Atlantic Records.
Loaded (1970), the group’s Cotillion/Atlantic debut, revealed a band in flux, but it has nonetheless proved enduring. Much of it has to do with the inspired level of Reed’s back-to-basics songwriting, which reflected his love of classic rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop and even country. The album includes the anthemic standards “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” plus the potent rockers “Head Held High” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and the ambitious “New Age” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.” Even the absence of the pregnant Mo Tucker (whose role was filled by Yule’s brother Billy and studio drummer Tommy Castanaro) and the affectless singing of Yule (who was being nudged into a more prominent position in the band by manager Sesnick) couldn’t sink the proceedings. Loaded remains The Velvet Underground’s most accessible creation.
Sadly, the album was issued posthumously. Worn down by a summer-long engagement at the New York club Max’s Kansas City, feeling increasingly marginalized in his own band, and longing to escape, Reed quit the band in late August 1970, a month prior to the release of Loaded, and moved into his parents’ Long Island home. (Live at Max’s Kansas City, a cassette recording by scenester Brigid Polk released by Atlantic in 1972, reputedly captures Reed’s final night with The Velvets). Squeeze, a 1973 album issued in England under The Velvet Underground’s name, is the work of Yule and English players; David Fricke, annotator of the 1995 VU boxed set Peel Slowly and See, called it “an embarrassment to the VU discography.”
Ars longa, vita brevis, the saying goes, but The Velvet Underground’s afterlife has been a long one. The band’s members regrouped sporadically: Reed, Cale, and Nico performed together in a Paris club in 1972; Reed and Cale issued Songs For Drella, a musical eulogy for Warhol, in 1990; and, finally, the original quartet of Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker performed a short series of 1993 reunion dates in Europe. Reed, whose first three post-Velvets albums appropriated songs originally written for the band, and Cale have both enjoyed long solo careers. Nico also went the solo route (with a healthy assist from Cale, who produced three of her albums); she died in 1988 on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza after suffering a brain hemorrhage following a bicycling accident. Morrison exited music for academia and a stint as a Houston tugboat captain; he recorded with Tucker, who made several indie-label rock records from the ‘70s forward, not long before his death from lymphoma in 1995.
The list of musicians inspired by The Velvet Underground’s intransigent example is nearly endless; David Bowie, Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, Can, Joy Division, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth are only a few of the better-known names.
Why have the Velvets proved so enduring? Patti Smith – whose debut album was produced by John Cale – may have summarized it best in her poetic speech inducting the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996:
They were a band of opposites, shooting from pole to pole,
without apology, with dissonant beauty,
trampling the flowers of peacemakers,
treading the blond depths,
black in a white world, white in a black world.
They opened wounds worth opening,
with brutal innocence, without apology,
cutting across the grain, gritty, urbanic.
And in their search for the kingdom, for laughter, for salvation,
they explored the darkest areas of the psyche.