They were the most important band of the 80s — even if they broke up a decade before
When I think of the 1980s, I think of The Velvet Underground.
Sure, the band itself had ceased to exist in any meaningful way back in August 1970, when Lou Reed walked out and went home to Long Island following a legendary stand at Max’s Kansas City. And sure, there was little to no evidence of the VU’s sound and aesthetic anywhere to be found on the U.S. pop charts during the Reagan Years. But on the indie and college radio charts, the ones that really mattered to me and my friends, the influence of the Velvets was everywhere.
Brian Eno half-jokingly suggested in a 1982 interview that, despite its relatively poor commercial showing, every person who bought the first Velvet Underground album (1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico”) must have gone on to form a band, and the copious VU echoes ringing across the college radio airwaves during the 1980s seemed to bear him out.
Echo & The Bunnymen, Sonic Youth, Love and Rockets, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Feelies, The Violent Femmes, The Dream Syndicate, The Jazz Butcher, The Go-Betweens, Yo La Tengo, Camper Van Beethoven, Galaxie 500, Spacemen 3, The Flaming Lips, The Verlaines, Opal, My Bloody Valentine and a little-known band called R.E.M. — these were just some of the era’s artists who openly expressed a debt to the Velvets in their music, whether via hypnotic drones, explosive displays of improvisatory dissonance, extended two-chord jams harnessed to propulsive rhythms, plainly-sung lyrics that walked the line between poetic (or dryly humorous) and aggressively confrontational, hushed moments of heartbreaking beauty laced with traces of druggy decadence, or just casually affecting an aura of impenetrable mystery.
There was simply nothing cooler than The Velvet Underground, and to be into them — either as a musician or just as a fan — was to be a member of an extremely select club, in part because it was so damned difficult in the first half of the 80s to even hear their music. You could find a couple of tracks included here and there on various Lou Reed collections, and Uncle Lou was always good for a rendition of “Sweet Jane” in concert. But if you wanted to go deeper than that, you pretty much had to be lucky enough to know someone who was a) hip enough to have bought their albums years earlier when they were still in print, and b) willing to play them for you, and maybe even let you tape them. (The first time I ever heard The Velvet Underground & Nico in its entirety was while apartment-sitting for my high school history teacher, who owned a “peeled” original copy.)
This scarcity was thankfully ameliorated in early 1985, when Verve Records reissued their first three albums (the debut, 1968’s “White Light/White Heat” and 1969’s “The Velvet Underground”) along with a new compilation of previously unreleased tracks titled “V.U.,” all of which were gratefully scooped up by longtime fans and budding obsessives alike.
My college roommate Don and I were two of those budding obsessives. We spent untold (and often very stoned) hours soaking up the Velvets’ music, especially the urban lullabies and arty drone experiments of their Andy Warhol-“produced” debut. We dug the matter-of-fact harshness of drug songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin,” but were equally entranced by the deceptively gentle “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (the latter two sung by German chanteuse Nico, whose flat Teutonic accent we made endless fun of), and most of all by the vivid S&M fantasy “Venus in Furs” and the Nico-sung “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” whose throbbing music managed to be deeply psychedelic without having anything to do with flower power.
In fact, very little of their music contained any of the sonic or lyrical signifiers that identified what we’d come to understand as “60s music”; I had a show on our college radio station that was completely devoted to the sounds of the 1960s, and every time I’d play a Velvets track — say, “What Goes On” from their self-titled third LP — it would sound almost completely out of place amid the sunshine pop, garage punk and paisley-patterned freakouts that made up the bulk of my playlists.
We loved The Velvet Underground’s fearless willingness to test the boundaries of taste, and their ability to push rock and roll into avant-garde territory (or was it the other way around?), but our sense of connection ran even deeper than that. Their songs were like aural home movies of a New York City that no longer really existed — specifically, the 1960s Lower Manhattan of crumbling buildings, empty avenues and endless possibilities — but still seemed tantalizingly tangible (not to mention incredibly romantic) from where we sat, two hours up the Hudson geographically and two decades removed temporally.
Andy Warhol was still alive at that point (though sadly not for much longer), and longtime Warhol collaborator Billy Name, whose photographs graced the first three VU albums, would regularly call my radio show to request the Four Seasons. (Apparently, the Factory gang loved Frankie Valli — who knew?) And with so many of our favorite current recording artists drawing liberally from their uncompromising legacy, it felt like we were still surfing the shockwaves of the Velvets’ original eruption.
And yet, the Velvets also seemed impossibly remote and cloaked in mystery. We knew plenty about Lou Reed, of course, and we certainly knew of John Cale (though admittedly more as a producer than a solo artist), but our understanding of the band itself — its formation, its internal dynamics, and why their four original studio albums (1970s “Loaded” being the last) sounded so different from each other — was limited compared to our understanding of, say, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or even The Ramones. “This was Andy Warhol’s favorite song,” Don or I would invariably say to the other whenever we heard “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” ritualistically re-sharing a bit of trivia we’d picked up somewhere.
Such Velvets-related factoids were almost as precious to us as the records themselves, since at that time there had been very little published about the band or its history; we each re-read Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga’s gossipy 1983 tome “Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story” several times over, since that was pretty much all we had to go on outside of the reissued albums’ liner notes. But that book still failed to fully answer our questions: Who were these people with their black sunglasses, black leather coats and black hollow-bodied guitars? What primordial ooze did they somehow emerge from, seemingly fully formed? And how (and why) did they create such dark and unapologetically adult music at a time when the record business was busy selling teen dreams and hippie fantasies?
I wish we’d had Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” back then, because for all the reams that have been written about the band in recent decades, nothing has so succinctly dissected the Velvets’ dark magic as Haynes’ new documentary. At the heart of the film is the combustible creative partnership between Reed and Cale, an unlikely meeting of minds that perhaps could have only happened in the NYC of the mid-1960s.
Reed is a rock and roller inspired by both doo-wop and Delmore Schwartz, whose rebellion against repressiveness of a middle class Jewish upbringing in 1950s Freeport, Long Island — he often claimed that his parents put him through shock treatments to nullify his gay urges, a claim his sister angrily refutes in the film — results in a compulsion to perpetually push the envelope, both in his music and his personal relationships.
Cale is a classically-trained musician who is equally desperate to escape his own upbringing in Wales, and a childhood marked by poverty and sexual abuse; he comes to New York to work with avant-garde composers like John Cage and La Monte Young, but finds himself fascinated by the possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll. The two outsiders meet via a gig at the low-budget Pickwick label, and their process of pushing rock ‘n’ roll into avant-garde territory — and vice versa — begins, a process accelerated when Cale suggests that Reed’s gritty street-inspired poetry should be harnessed to music as intense and powerful as his words.
Reed and Cale’s backgrounds and the buildup to their partnership take up the bulk of the film’s first hour. Of fellow Velvets members Maureen “Mo” Tucker and Sterling Morrison, we learn less — Tucker is a Bo Diddley-obsessed drummer, whose unorthodox approach to her instrument (she plays standing, using mallets instead of sticks) sadly goes unexplored, and Morrison is a guitarist Reed knew from Syracuse University, whose skillful, soulful leads make him an invaluable addition to the band.
When the newly-minted Velvets manage to scrape up a regular gig at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse, their unusual music and negative charisma deeply impress underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin, who then drags Andy Warhol and his Factory family to see them. Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey insists that the band needs a pretty face to make them salable, and so Nico (whom we also learn little about) is shoehorned into the Velvets; between her luminous presence and Warhol’s patronage, the band manages to score a deal with Verve Records, and the Velvets’ fractious five-year battle with the music industry, the self-appointed gatekeepers of American counter-culture and each other kicks off in earnest.
Along with the Reed-Cale relationship, it’s the connection between Warhol and the Velvets that really drives the documentary, both in terms of content and aesthetics; not only does Haynes utilize Warhol’s films of the band (including footage of rehearsals and live performances, as well as them just hanging around the Factory or staring unblinking into the camera) and other Factory denizens and doings, but he also draws heavily on Warhol’s split-screen aesthetic, often contrasting images of the band (and selections of their music) with sumptuous footage of 1960s New York, which gives us a wonderfully evocative feel for the city — and the art/music/film axis — that birthed the Velvets.
Another major strength of Haynes’ documentary is that nearly everyone interviewed for it was actually there, and actually knew and interacted with the band members; Jonathan Richman, another musician who took the Velvets template and ran with it, provides some of the film’s most memorable moments when he joyfully recounts being let into the band’s inner circle as a nerdy young Boston kid. As a viewer, this approach made me feel like I was being admitted into that inner circle, as well.
The downside of Haynes’ film is that, after devoting so much time to the Reed-Cale and Warhol-Velvets relationships, it loses both steam and focus once Reed fires Warhol as their manager and pushes Cale out of the band. The Velvets’ post-Cale studio albums — their self-titled 1969 masterpiece (which some nights is my favorite thing they ever recorded) and their 1970 swansong “Loaded” (which features the deathless VU anthems “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll”) — gets less screen time than their two predecessors, and the band’s sad demise is subjected to some unseemly rock-doc fact-fudging. (The film makes it seem like Morrison left before Reed did, and no mention is made of the band’s unfortunate attempts to soldier on without Reed.) There’s also a brief “what they all did after the band broke up” montage that feels tacked on and completely unnecessary, in part because it further detracts from the intimacy and evocative mood of the film’s strongest segments.
Still, Haynes wraps up “The Velvet Underground” beautifully, using both circa-1972 footage of Reed and Warhol (having now obviously made up) sweetly enthusing over Guy Peelaert’s “Rock Dreams” portrait of the Velvets, and a clip of Reed, Cale and Nico performing “Heroin” during the three musicians’ legendary 1972 reunion show at Le Bataclan in Paris. Both of these closing segments testify to the unique and wonderful chemistry that existed between the main characters, and remind us how lucky we were that those personalities all happened to collide in the right place and the right time. Nearly 40 years after I heard their original version of “Sweet Jane” for the first time, I’m still a Velvets fan — and Haynes’ documentary may have just made me even more of one.
Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music critic.