It was just one of those exhausting weeks. After another arduous day I needed a distraction. Much to the Rock Chick’s consternation, I filled a tumbler with bourbon, flopped down on the couch and pulled up Apple TV. As I’d been threatening to do for a few weeks now, I pulled up the new documentary by Todd Haynes about the Velvet Underground. The Rock Chick was on her feet and across the floor to the stairs faster than an Olympic sprinter. I hadn’t seen her clear a room that quickly since the days I was really into watching Kojak reruns. Say what you want but there hasn’t been a decent cop show on TV since they cancelled Kojak. I had hoped the Rock Chick would hang around and watch the documentary with me but I can fully understand her reaction. I think a lot of people have the urge to flee when they hear the Velvet Underground is coming up.
I know in the early days of my rock n roll obsession I was afraid of the Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground was Lou Reed, vocals/guitar; John Cale bass/keyboards; Moe Tucker, drums; and Sterling Morrison, lead guitar. When I was in college I used to love to get those Rolling Stone magazines counting down the top 500 LPs. The Velvet Underground’s iconic first LP, produced by Andy Warhol no less and featuring German-born singer Nico, The Velvet Underground & Nico was not only always on the list but it was usually near the top. I had always been under the same mistaken impression I had about punk rock back then, that it was all just avant-garde noise. There were a few bands I was “afraid” of in those days. I figured if you put the Velvets on the stereo the needle would break, your ears would bleed, neighborhood dogs would howl, you might grow hair on your palms, all sorts of bad things would result. I’m still not sure how I garnered that impression from merely reading about the Velvet Underground. I’d never heard any of their music. It wasn’t played on the radio. No one I knew owned any of their LPs. It was Brian Eno who famously said, “The Velvet Underground’s first LP only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” That might actually be true. So many musicians cite the VU as an influence from David Bowie to Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers (who was pals with the band and is featured in the film).
In the mid-80s I started getting into Lou Reed. You typically get into a band in a few different ways. Either a friend turns you on to an iconic older recording or you would hear something on the radio that was then current and it would catch your ear. I know it’s a risk to my credibility when I tell you my first Lou Reed LP was the then-current album, New Sensations. That album might be the most accessible album Reed ever put out. Even then I was just dabbling in Lou’s catalog. I picked up Transformer, the David Bowie produced LP that is probably Reed’s best known work. That’s the album with “Walk On The Wild Side” on it. Right out of college when I went into my exile in Arkansas I heard “Dirty Boulevard” on MTV… there was really no radio in Ft. Smith. I loved that dark track. “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs,” is a quote I still use today when referring to my job. I immediately went to the record store and purchased New York which had just come out and I loved that record. I was spending so much time in my car in those days I bought it on cassette which I now regret. I wore that thing out driving from Ft. Smith to Shreveport or Dallas or back to KC… anywhere but Arkansas. That led me to dive deeper into Reed’s catalog. Although admittedly, I still shied away from the Velvet Underground.
It wasn’t until the late 90s that I decided to stick my toe in the Velvet Underground pond. I had dug out that Rolling Stone magazine from the 80s with the top 500 albums ranked and had decided I was going to buy all of them. Crazy, yes I know. It was a great time of musical expansion for me. My friends had all settled down and were having children. I was just hanging out listening to music… which if I think about it is what I’m still doing. Thank God I married the Rock Chick. Anyway, as part of my push to buy all 500 of these records, I went out and bought the Velvet’s debut LP with Nico and I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t all just noise. Yes, John Cale brought a kind of drone thing to the band but Lou Reed was a fabulous songwriter. Nico’s vocals were interesting on the few tracks she sang. The thing that grabbed me about them was the lyrics. Their debut came out in 1967, “the Summer of Love.” While everyone was in tie-dye and bright colors singing about love being all you need, the Velvets were wearing black and singing about heroin and S&M. They were nihilistic and dark. What’s not to love there. They were a real counterpoint to the hippy thing.
The day I bought The Velvet Underground & Nico I had listened to it once when a buddy of mine called to go out and get a beer. He and I went bar hopping. This guy was really into smoking pot, something I’ve never enjoyed. He had some hashish. He kept telling me I’d enjoy it as “it’s a different kind of high.” That is always the pitch with the pot guys. I don’t like it, it makes me anxious and I haven’t done it in years. But there’s always a pot guy telling me to try edibles or hash or something because it’s a different high. On the night in question, I must have been drunk, because I believed my friend’s claims about the magic hash. I vaguely remember taking a hit just as we pulled up in front of this bar, O’Dowds. It was a block from my apartment. I stepped out of the car and felt “the fear” wash over me with the hash, smiled at my friend and promptly walked home without him, leaving him standing on the curb. There is no such thing as a different high… it’s all one anxious, paranoid, miserable experience for me. But hey, I don’t judge, smoke ’em if you got ’em.
I got home and to calm myself, I decided to put on my new LP purchase, the Velvet Underground. I was thinking, yes, music, that’s the ticket… that’ll bring me back to reality. I’ll drink some water and lay down. I put the album on and was wandering around my apartment in the dark. Suddenly I hear Lou Reed in the darkness, he’s waiting for the man… his voice terrified me. Rather than take the album off I just sort of, hid under the bed until it was over. In retrospect, maybe I should have put on some Hendrix. While the VU terrified me that night, I can assure you, I haven’t been afraid of their music since. I quickly bought the rest of their catalog. Their second album, White Light/White Heat is actually the avant-garde noise I had feared but I understood them and it didn’t scare me anymore. Their third LP, The Velvet Underground which features the great songs “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus” is probably the most pop-oriented thing they’ve ever done. If you’re a novice fan that might be the place to start. That’s the album where John Cale, who was the most aggressively experimental quit and Doug Yule joined. Yule could sing but he was also a more traditional bass player. Their final LP, Loaded is also a masterwork, despite Reed quitting during the process. Don’t be afraid!
I was hoping for some in-depth look at the Velvet Underground. There’s a lot of mythology around the band. Todd Haynes documentary is a very stylized look at the band. He does go in depth into the background of the band but it does get a little lost in the split-screen, chaotic manner it’s presented. He starts by profiling Lou Reed and then John Cale. He has a number of friends and family of the band (Sterling and Lou are gone) who talk about their experience with the band. It was great to see Moe Tucker interviewed. John Cale is prominently featured, as he should be. Jackson Browne pops up, and while he’s the last guy you’d associate with the VUs, he was friends with Nico and possibly her lover. That Jackson… he got around. It’s a thorough look at the VU but Haynes way of presenting it in this faux Warholian way gets in the way of the story for me. The film starts with, yes, a split screen and on one side is a close up of Lou Reed’s young face… that was all it took to send the Rock Chick running from the room.
I was also a little disappointed there wasn’t more, well, music in this thing. You’d get snippets of songs but nothing substantive. There seems to always be music playing but its not in the forefront as much as I’d have liked. I would have liked Haynes to let us see the Velvets on stage a bit more. Let us hear them playing live. Again, there are snippets of that in the film but it jumps around quite a bit. I do like the retelling of the story of when Reed fired Warhol as the band’s manager. Warhol had discovered them and put them in his multi-media Plastic Explosion Inevitable show. They’d play and he’d project a film onto the band. He produced their first album and pushed Nico into the band. The first LP was a commercial dud and Reed got pissy and fired Andy without consulting the band. Warhol was so angry, and he apparently rarely got angry, he called Lou “a rat.” It was the worst thing he could think of.
The documentary goes on to chronicle Cale’s departure and Yule’s entry into the band. Eventually the lack of commercial success killed the VU. Reed left, everybody else quit but Yule. The moment Reed left, for me, is the end of the Velvet Underground. I get why Cale quit. He wanted to push the band further into it’s experimental sound and Reed wanted the band to be more accessible and well, sell a few more albums. Those conflicting views on the direction of the band caused that split. Those two did reunite for a tribute LP to their mentor Andy Warhol upon his passing, Songs For Drella which I also highly recommend.
I enjoyed this documentary but it’s really only for fans. Clearly I’m ambivalent about this doc. I liked it but I don’t feel strongly enough to recommend it to everybody. This is a great place to perhaps start your journey into the VUs. It’s a very stylistic, pretty movie to watch. I’m not sure this will turn anybody onto their music though. If you’re interested and you want to watch this doc, I will warn you… beware of family members sprinting from the room. It’s too bad… this is a band that deserves a wider audience. I know their fame has grown over the years but this is a truly under appreciated band.