Talking ‘Velvet Underground Experience’ and Tales of Lou Reed
The Velvet Underground’s first ever gig was at a high school in Summit, New Jersey, opening for 1960s garage band, The Myddle Class. Soon after the Velvets started their three-song set (and, yes, that included the song “Heroin”), most of the students walked out.
Within one year, they had Andy Warhol as manager and were performing in his multimedia show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable at The Dom on St. Mark’s Place in front of Salvador Dali, Robert Rauschenberg and Allen Ginsburg.
“The Velvet Underground Experience,” an exhibit curated by Christian Fevret (founder of the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles) and Carole Mirabello, tells the story of the incredibly influential band formed in 1964 by Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise (replaced by drummer Moe Tucker in 1965). Some consider the group to be the greatest band in rock and roll history.
Brian Eno famously claimed that the first Velvet Underground album only sold 30,000 copies, but “everyone who bought one of [those albums] started a band.”
Penny Arcade, performance artist, writer:
The summer of 1969 The Velvet Underground was in residency at Max’s Kansas City, the famed watering hole/living room of NY’s Underground. There were probably 75 people a night there. Brigid Berlin taped one of the nights on her tape recorder and that recording became The Velvet Underground at Max’s.
The Velvet Underground represent the quintessential element of NY’s Underground art scene – lineage. They started at 62 Ludlow Street, influenced largely by [the drone music of] La Monte Young, the great avant-gardist.
They had next to no commercial success during their life of 1964-73 but are now one of the most cited influences in the history of rock and roll. That tells you the truth about art — do what you do and let history speak for itself.
The exhibit immerses the viewer in a very different downtown New York, paying tribute to the many creative artists, filmmakers, performers and musicians of the 1960s and 1970s who inspired, and were inspired, by the band.
When I went to CBGB in the early days and saw Television for the first time, I looked around the room, looked at the crowd, and thought to myself, “Every single person here, has a Velvet Underground album.”
The exhibit starts with a narration by Allen Ginsberg, and quickly takes us through a series of photos by Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah, giving us a timeline of the downtown underground art and music scene New York in the late-1950s to mid-1960s. From there, animated videos, old films, narrations, vintage posters, memorabilia and documentaries tell the history of the individual members of the band, along with the band as a whole.
Much attention is paid to both Lou Reed and John Cale, who could not have grown up more differently. (Welsh-born Cale studied music at Goldsmiths, University of London, and was on a path to become a conductor, while Brooklyn-born Reed was a panicked and troubled teenager, who was trying to escape the suburbs of Freeport, Long Island.)
A listening booth is devoted to each member of the band, where you can hear narrated stories, including a very emotional reading by Reed’s sister, Merrill, who goes into personal detail about her brother’s nervous breakdown, and the heartbreaking decision by his parents to subject him to electroshock treatments.
Reed could be notoriously difficult, but he could break character, too.
Michael Alex, producer:
I produced [MTV News’] Kurt Loder’s Velvet Underground Reunion interview in 1993 [and] I’ve interviewed Lou a couple of times.
[At the] 1995 Rock Hall of Fame induction Ceremony I was producing Kurt Loder, as we interviewed inductees, honored guests etc. We had just finished interviewing Lou. He was hanging out with us making small talk when Al Green walked by. Lou went fanboy: “I LOVE Al Green, I’ve never met him.” And he walked over to Green, going immediately into a gush of how great Green was.
Al Green (a wonderful presence) looked at him and sheepishly said “Thank you. I’m sorry, I know who you are but I’ve forgotten your name.” Lou says, “Doesn’t matter who I am. You are so amazing. I saw you play a show at…” and he went on.
Lou didn’t care that Al didn’t know his name. (Green remembered a few seconds later.) It was a beautiful scene. Reed was SO HAPPY, Al seemed humbled, and afterwards Lou was a grinning fool. Not the usual look you got from Lou Reed.
The exhibit includes old footage of both Reed and Cale, who were born one month apart. Home movies of a baby-faced Lou contrast heavily with a film of a young John Cale performing, along with several others, in an 18-hour piano-playing marathon of the first full-length performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations.”
Reed infamously kicked Cale out of the band they co-founded, although the the duo got back together to create an album in 1990 called Songs for Drella, about Andy Warhol. The Velvet Underground reunited and went on tour from 1992 – 1993. Tensions between Reed and Cale continued while touring, and Cale later said that he hated playing “greatest hits,” and would rather have played something brand new on the tour. After leaving the band the first time around, Cale found success with a solo career writing and producing music which continues to this day. He went through a period in the 1970s in which his music had a darkly aggressive character.
John Goodwin, curator:
A gang of us went to NYC to see the Picasso show at MoMA around ’79 or ’80 in the summer. So, we figured out that John Cale was playing at a club around 14 Street.
I was so excited, I couldn’t believe I would see him, so we went early to get a good seat. We got in, had the best seats, more like a bench, and there was no stage, just his amp and a tv monitor. It seemed like everything was painted black.
After what seemed like HOURS, he came out and sat down on a stool with a guitar (acoustic, I think) and played a song, very black, somber. Then I think he played another. He was seemingly bugged that he had to PERFORM. Then, he thought for a few seconds, and turned on the tv monitor, and played a video which he accompanied with the guitar/singing. Not a long song. Then, someone yelled out, “Play XXX!” You know, some Velvet Underground song, like a greatest hit. He stared into the audience, then got up and walked out.
We thought he was going on a break, so we hung out for another 45 minutes or so before giving up.
Then, we were walking on 14th Street talking about how we hate Cale, hate the bars, and hate paying to get into places, too. Then, I look ahead, and John Cale is walking towards us, arm in arm with a girl. So, I say to him, “Hey John, we’ve been waiting for you to return, where the fuck have you been? We paid for that? What the fuck?” And, he looked right at me, stared me right in the eye, and sort of smiled/grinned and said, “Oh, I’m too drunk!” And, he continued walking with his arm around his girlfriend, like he was the king of the fucking universe.
John Cale owes me. I still want my money back.”