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The Velvet Underground Experience: Not the Show the Music Deserved

The Velvet Underground Experience: Not the Show the Music Deserved

Velvet Underground co-founder Lou Reed on stage in Athens, Greece, in 1996. (Reuters)
The Velvet Underground Expertise: A miss.

For those who can keep in mind the 1960s, goes that quote with many authors, you actually weren’t there. I used to be about six when the Sixties correctly received going and dwelling someplace the place the final individual to really swing had botched a rebel towards a Tudor. So sadly, I keep in mind these Sixties fairly nicely, a distant get together glimpsed primarily on the telly, colourful, whimsical, and saturated with brilliant, shiny music — coffee-flavored kisses at Clarksville station, love is all you want, mild individuals with flowers of their hair.

What I by no means heard was this:

Minimize mouth bleeding razor’s

Forgetting the ache

Antiseptic stays cool goodbye

So that you fly

To the comfortable brown snow of the east

That was the Velvet Underground doing their greatest worst in The Black Angel’s Demise Track, a torrent of phrases, melody, and screeching electrical viola that, performed as soon as too typically earlier than puzzled audiences in Greenwich Village’s Café Weird, introduced an abrupt finish to their stint there in December of 1965. The Velvets had began taking form the yr earlier than, however after the departure of their first drummer, an eccentric who later got here to an unsatisfactory finish in Tibet, assumed the shape (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker) by which, with one temporary, spectacular addition, they finally entered rock legend. The band’s identify was stolen from the title of an, uh, investigative paperback (“a documentary on the sexual corruption of our age”) discovered on the sidewalk or — decide your fable — the gutter. One other early track, impressed by a ebook by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (sure, that Masoch), was an extra signal that the Velvets weren’t headed for Principal Road, Nice Valley, or Penny Lane.

Given the time, the place — New York Metropolis — and the Velvets’ path, it isn’t so shocking they spun into Andy Warhol’s orbit. He turned their ringmaster, handing them a chanteuse — the German-born Nico, who had hassle holding a tune — and the position because the band in a collection of multi-media occasions generally known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It was an opportunity, stated Warhol, “to mix music and artwork and movies,” a Gesamtkunstwerk of a sort, if not one which Wagner would have appreciated.

The collaboration lasted longer than Warhol’s “15 minutes” (about 18 months), and — regardless of some entertaining evaluations (Cher grumbled that their gigs would “substitute nothing, besides perhaps suicide”); The Velvet Underground & Nico, their astonishing debut LP; some media consideration; and even the approval of Marshall McLuhan — it didn’t depart the Velvets notably well-known, no less than then. The album flopped.

However greater than anything, these 18 months clarify why, after greater than half a century, The Velvet Underground Expertise, a sprawling, “immersive” exhibition, opened, after a run in Paris, in New York Metropolis this fall (it closed in December) not so removed from the situation of the long-vanished Café Weird. There are reportedly plans for it to reappear in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Most exhibitions devoted to a band wrestle to supply a brand new perspective on what’s, primarily, an aural expertise. Historic guitars and fading posters will please solely the saddest of fanboys. However when the music was a part of a broader cultural second, there are prospects for one thing higher, a chance that the curators of this present (backed by Citi, amongst others, a sponsor that Warhol, no foe of the greenback, would have relished) grabbed after which fumbled.

The primary trace of hassle was lurking on the placard — “Welcome to America” — by the doorway to the primary corridor, a dreary proclamation enlivened solely by a three-way struggle between banality, cliché, and groupthink:

Within the aftermath of World Conflict II, America’s consumerism unfold greater than ever, typically carrying with itself conformist and family-centered values as broadcast within the picture of the Good American within the newly-booming media.

This gave rise to a provocative counter-culture of artists and thinkers, who rejected the period’s pretend smiles and condemned the rigidity of a supposedly liberal society through which non-conformity was considered deviant and harmful. These people . . . defended radically alternative ways of life, took various paths and questioned prevailing guidelines and taboos. All of this was embodied within the life and work of the indefatigable figurehead of the Beat Era poets, Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg. Not once more. On one aspect, the sound of the sage of the East Village studying America, and on the opposite, a choice of movie footage designed to distinction classic blandness with uncomfortable fact and classic woke. That the buyer society was infinitely extra revolutionary than some bearded “prophet” bemoaning materialism (a commonplace nuisance for hundreds of years) went unnoticed, an error Warhol by no means made.

However that “provocative counter-culture” was certainly flourishing — and self-aware. One cause the Velvets took their identify was the “underground” within the ebook’s title. Additionally they outlined themselves by reference to the place they have been — downtown Manhattan. Rifling by means of a pile of phrases that somebody had left on a laptop computer, the writers of the “about” part on the exhibition’s web site expanded on the latter:

This was the place experimental musicians, underground filmmakers, taboo-busting poets and younger individuals difficult the diktats of the heterosexual norm all converged. On this distinctive context, the verses of the Beat poets the audacious harmonics of La Monte Younger and the experimentation of underground cinema would rub off on Lou Reed and John Cale earlier than they introduced the Velvet Underground to life. On the intersection of popular culture and the avant-garde, conceptual artwork and tribal beats, juvenile shenanigans and probably the most refined of theories.

Juvenile shenanigans! Probably the most refined of theories!

The convergence was actual sufficient. Classically educated John Cale, the band’s viola participant (and far, far more), was concerned with New York’s avant-garde music scene. It was an experimental filmmaker, Barbara Rubin, who launched the Velvets to Warhol. The exhibition managed to convey an impression of this world with pictures of a grubby East Village, the band, their associates, and long-forgotten happenings — amongst them an 18-hour piano recital and a efficiency that includes moist paint, sausages, uncooked fish, and writhing. For all of the typos, overwriting (“music that was each schizophrenic and fluid”), hyperbole, malapropisms, chaotic grammar, and, on a minimum of one event, chaotic chronology, the varied shows gave a helpful sense of who was doing what. Some movies from that milieu have been on steady loop. Watching Peyote Queen with solely Anacin handy is, I now know, a mistake. Behind a closed door promising X-rated materials was Rubin’s Christmas on Earth, a film (filmed in Cale’s condo) that used to bear a much less deceptive title. Step away from Google, individuals.

The Velvet Underground Expertise, each conceptually and actually, revolved across the band’s Warhol connection. Guests might lie again on silvery cushions, a nod to the décor of Warhol’s studio, the Manufacturing unit, in a wood-framed central area and stare at multi-screen projections — one other mid-Sixties fad — of mini-documentaries made for the exhibition in addition to of unique footage of the Velvets and different Manufacturing unit denizens. The band was proven performing or (filmed with the paradoxically passive voyeurism the Manufacturing unit had made its personal) simply doing not so very a lot. Different spots elsewhere have been devoted to the band and its particular person members. However gazing up at these photographs was the easiest way to know the magic — typically a darkish magic — of Warhol’s universe and the position that the Velvets crammed inside it.

In one other room, extra footage, this time devoted to Nico (Christa Päffgen), tall and blonde with a Warholian remoteness. Nico had been an actress, a mannequin, and a Marianne Faithfull in additional methods than one, and had beforehand recorded a bouncy pop music on which a pleasant Rolling Stone had performed. Warhol calculated that she would add glamor to a foursome that not often appeared higher than down at heel. He was proper. Her contributions — together with three deceptively dulcet counterpoints to a number of the extra clearly harsher moments on an album the place her apartness was underlined in its title — The Velvet Underground & Nico — have been a number of the most memorable within the band’s historical past. However clashing egos and Nico’s unsure relationship with the clock ensured that her historical past with the Velvets didn’t final lengthy.

The opposite members of the band acquired their due too, and so did the albums that adopted the break with Warhol and their breaks with one another. There have been fewer artifacts than may need been anticipated, though this unhappy boy loved seeing two copies of the primary album’s unique cowl — one signed by the band and one other the place some depraved soul had peeled the infamous banana. This shortfall was in keeping with this exhibition’s considerably slapdash high quality, which prolonged past carelessly written supplies to embody a present store that mixed a shortage of something that anybody may need to purchase (Edie Sedgwick iPhone covers, anybody?) with costs making certain that they might not even be tempted. Perhaps the organizers thought that the Velvets’ model was sufficient of a lure, and perhaps they have been proper.

That stated, there was simply sufficient, aside from nostalgia, to benefit a go to by extra devoted followers, notably these movies from the Manufacturing unit. And there was one marvel: a brief, animated documentary through which Tony Jannelli (one of many two administrators) recalled the bewildered and appalled response when the Velvets performed at his New Jersey highschool. Any guests unfamiliar with the Velvets’ music (not many, I reckon: Most attendees I noticed have been north of forty) may need questioned what all of the fuss was about. However not solely newbies would have been shocked by the declare, made in a piece devoted to the band’s ‘legacy’, that the “spirit and vary of their New York Metropolis rock” ultimately “gained over the complete planet”. They speak of nothing else in Pyongyang.

How a lot the Velvets influenced the best way issues have been going and the way a lot they merely anticipated what was already on the best way is inconceivable to know. The place they have been, maybe, at their most revolutionary was lyrically. This was not a lot for his or her matter-of-act descriptions of drug use. There had been well-liked songs on that matter (typically camouflaged) many years again. So, in I’m Ready for The Man the Velvets sang of a junkie (“sick and soiled, extra lifeless than alive”) touring “as much as Lexington, one, two, 5” to satisfy a (heroin) vendor, however thirty years earlier than there was this a few weed, er, retailer from Stuff Smith And His Onyx Membership Boys:

The place’s the person with the jive?

There’s a man from approach up city

Who will take away your blues

And any time the person comes spherical we wish to unfold the information

What was new was the Velvet Underground’s remedy of characters from subcultures that had been largely invisible in pop music, such because the transvestites whose orgy goes so mistaken in Sister Ray (sailors, a homicide, heroin, the police on the door, might occur to anybody), subcultures they concurrently mythologized and helped usher into some type of mainstream.

Musically, the Velvet Underground might have been on the leading edge, however different bands have been additionally starting to mix pop, rock, and avant-garde. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was not the primary mild present. What distinguished the Velvets was not their gross sales (lamentable on the time) however that they have been, if solely briefly, very, excellent. Individuals within the subsequent metropolis this exhibition is destined to go to who don’t know a lot concerning the band however are interested by their work ought to give The Velvet Underground Expertise a miss. They need to immerse themselves as an alternative within the first three albums (overlook the fourth, Loaded, no matter critics might say): The Velvet Underground & Nico, its successor, White Mild/White Warmth, with its madcap amphetamine rush, and eventually the quieter and unusually unsettling The Velvet Underground. Then they need to scour YouTube for footage of the Manufacturing unit at its peak. In the event that they do all that, they may study extra and spend much less.

Andrew Stuttaford

Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of Nationwide Evaluate. 

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