Watching Todd Haynes documentary The Velvet Underground made me think about cultural innovation, since the band made no money, and didn’t stay together that long, but were vastly influential.
In fact, there’s a clip of Lou Reed early on in the film (from archive, obviously) in which he talks about his earlier doowop band having a track played on a New York radio station:
We were paid two dollars and 79 cents, which is more than we ever made in the Velvet Underground.
This note is more impressionistic—in the keeping of the style of the film—but if you want a more traditional review Richard Williams has an excellent one on his Blue Moment blog.
So here’s some impressions.
Cheap places matter. It was possible to live very cheaply in New York in the right (or perhaps wrong) parts of town, and that attracted artists of all kinds with no money. In the Velvets story, 56 Ludlow was significant, with multiple apartments housing artists. That’s how Cale and Reed met, but you get the feeling that if it hadn’t been them it might have been another edgy combination.
Listening to the edge matters. Cale in particular was involved in the classical avant garde, training and living with the avant-garde composer Le Monte Young and his wife Marian Zazeela. ‘Training with’ involved multiple hours of daily playing of drones, which they tuned to the 60 cycles of the fridge, which I think Cale describes as the sound of Western civilisation, but I could be misremembering. That drone sound carries over into the band’s music, as does the sense of improvisation. The reason that White Light / White Heat sounds the way it does is because the band was bored with playing the songs the way they had on their recent tours.
Living at the edges might matter. Lou Reed’s lyrics about heroin were unlike anything else being written at the time, but were drawn from his life. The band’s drummer Mo Tucker—with Cale, the surviving member of the first line-up—recalls that radio stations wouldn’t play their songs because of the lyrics. When Cale first saw the lyrics and heard their early tunes, before the Velvets were a thing, he told Reed that they needed a different sound to match the lyrics.
Attitude matters. Cale says in one of his clips that it’s important to be antagonistic, because you define what you’re against as well as what you’re for. One of the funniest sections in the film is about their tour of the West Coast at the height of flower power. Sterling Morrison (I think) recalls that the first thing they heard on the radio when they arrived was the bubbly sound of the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Monday Monday’. Tucker says: “We hated hippies.”
Patrons help. The band would probably not be known at all had it not been that they came to the attention of Andy Warhol. You forget now—now that he’s basically just remembered as the soup cans guy—what a vast cultural influence he had in New York in the 1960s, connecting a wealthy art buying elite with the avant garde. It was also Warhol’s influence that got them the record deal for their first record, because Warhol agreed to do the cover.
And obviously, because there were always film camera’s running at Warhol’s Factory, it gives Todd Haynes a lot of footage to play with.
Work matters. Cale says that what he liked about The Factory was that everyone was working. The band also worked a lot—Reed was writing constantly, for example.
Work with what you get. The reason that Nico sings on the first record is that Warhol felt they needed more stage presence; Nico was a German actor who had already appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The band wasn’t impressed at first—she had problems holding a line—but she and they persisted. Listening back to the songs now you realise that her German-accented lyrics add to the strangeness of the sound.
Don’t expect it to last. Being out there on the edge is hard work. The band ended up hating each other. Enjoy it while it lasts.
In some ways, Haynes is lucky that Cale and Tucker are the surviving members of the original Velvets. Although Cale was fired by Reed—he sent Sterling Morrison to do it—he is generous and reflective (he’s had 50 years to think about it, which helps). And Tucker often gets eclipsed by people writing about the Velvets, probably for the obvious reasons. So it’s good to hear her voice here, and her edge—and be reminded, in the clips, how important her drum sound was to the band.
As Richard Williams notes in his review, one of the strengths of Haynes’ film is that he’s only interviewed people who were there at the time. There aren’t interviews with fans who discovered the band later, or music journalists assessing their importance in retrospect.
One of the effects of this is the extreme contrast between the age of the interviewees, in their late 70s and beyond, and their youth in the 1960s footage. Because one of the other lessons of radical creativity is that it sometimes helps to be young.
The trailer is here:
A version of this article was also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.