Reflecting What They Were?

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

If you can remember the 1960s, goes that quote with many authors, you really weren’t there. I was about six when the Sixties properly got going and living somewhere where the last person to truly swing had botched a rebellion against a Tudor. So sadly, I remember those Sixties pretty well, a distant party glimpsed mainly on the telly, colorful, whimsical, and saturated with bright, shiny music — coffee-flavored kisses at Clarksville station, love is all you need, gentle people with flowers in their hair.

What I never heard was this:

Cut mouth bleeding razor’s

Forgetting the pain

Antiseptic remains cool goodbye

So you fly

To the cozy brown snow of the east

That was the Velvet Underground doing their best worst in The Black Angel’s Death Song, a torrent of words, melody, and screeching electric viola that, played once too often before puzzled audiences in Greenwich Village’s Café Bizarre, brought an abrupt end to their stint there in December of 1965. The Velvets had started taking shape the year before, but after the departure of their first drummer, an eccentric who later came to an unsatisfactory end in Nepal, assumed the form (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker) in which, with one brief, spectacular addition, they ultimately entered rock legend. The band’s name was stolen from the title of an, uh, investigative paperback (“a documentary on the sexual corruption of our age”) found on the sidewalk or — pick your myth — the gutter. Another early song, inspired by a book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (yes, that Masoch), was a further sign that the Velvets were not headed for Main Street, Pleasant Valley, or Penny Lane.

Given the time, the place — New York City — and the Velvets’ direction, it is not so surprising they spun into Andy Warhol’s orbit. He became their ringmaster, handing them a chanteuse — the German-born Nico, who had trouble holding a tune — and the role as the band in a series of multi-media events known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It was a chance, said Warhol, “to combine music and art and films,” a Gesamtkunstwerk of a kind, if not one that Wagner would have appreciated.

The collaboration lasted longer than Warhol’s “15 minutes” (about 18 months), and — despite some entertaining reviews (Cher grumbled that their gigs would “replace nothing, except maybe suicide”); The Velvet Underground & Nico, their astonishing debut LP; some media attention; and even the approval of Marshall McLuhan — it didn’t leave the Velvets particularly famous, at least then. The album flopped.

But more than anything else, those 18 months explain why, after more than half a century, The Velvet Underground Experience, a sprawling, “immersive” exhibition, opened, after a run in Paris, in New York City this fall (it closed in December) not so far from the location of the long-vanished Café Bizarre. There are reportedly plans for it to reappear in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Most exhibitions dedicated to a band struggle to offer a new perspective on what is, primarily, an aural experience. Ancient guitars and fading posters will please only the saddest of fanboys. But when the music was part of a broader cultural moment, there are possibilities for something better, an opportunity that the curators of this show (backed by Citi, among others, a sponsor that Warhol, no foe of the dollar, would have relished) grabbed and then fumbled.

The first hint of trouble was lurking on the placard — “Welcome to America” — by the entrance to the main hall, a dreary proclamation enlivened only by a three-way fight between banality, cliché, and groupthink:

In the aftermath of World War II, America’s consumerism spread more than ever, often carrying with itself conformist and family-centered values as broadcast in the image of the Good American in the newly-booming media.

This gave rise to a provocative counter-culture of artists and thinkers, who rejected the era’s fake smiles and condemned the rigidity of a supposedly liberal society in which non-conformity was thought to be deviant and dangerous. These individuals . . . defended radically different ways of life, took alternative paths and questioned prevailing rules and taboos. All of this was embodied in the life and work of the indefatigable figurehead of the Beat Generation poets, Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg. Not again. On one side, the sound of the sage of the East Village reading America, and on the other, a selection of film footage designed to contrast vintage blandness with uncomfortable truth and vintage woke. That the consumer society was infinitely more revolutionary than some bearded “prophet” bemoaning materialism (a commonplace nuisance for thousands of years) went unnoticed, an error Warhol never made.

But that “provocative counter-culture” was indeed flourishing — and self-aware. One reason the Velvets took their name was the “underground” in the book’s title. They also defined themselves by reference to where they were — downtown Manhattan. Rifling through a pile of words that someone had left on a laptop, the writers of the “about” section on the exhibition’s website expanded on the latter:

This was where experimental musicians, underground filmmakers, taboo-busting poets and young people challenging the diktats of the heterosexual norm all converged. In this unique context, the verses of the Beat poets the audacious harmonics of La Monte Young and the experimentation of underground cinema would rub off on Lou Reed and John Cale before they brought the Velvet Underground to life. At the intersection of pop culture and the avant-garde, conceptual art and tribal beats, juvenile shenanigans and the most sophisticated of theories.

Juvenile shenanigans! The most sophisticated of theories!

The convergence was real enough. Classically trained John Cale, the band’s viola player (and much, much more), was involved with New York’s avant-garde music scene. It was an experimental filmmaker, Barbara Rubin, who introduced the Velvets to Warhol. The exhibition managed to convey an impression of this world with photographs of a grubby East Village, the band, their associates, and long-forgotten happenings — among them an 18-hour piano recital and a performance featuring wet paint, sausages, raw fish, and writhing. For all the typos, overwriting (“music that was both schizophrenic and fluid”), hyperbole, malapropisms, chaotic grammar, and, on at least one occasion, chaotic chronology, the various displays gave a useful sense of who was doing what. Some films from that milieu were on continuous loop. Watching Peyote Queen with only Anacin to hand is, I now know, a mistake. Behind a closed door promising X-rated material was Rubin’s Christmas on Earth, a movie (filmed in Cale’s apartment) that used to bear a less misleading title. Step away from Google, people.

The Velvet Underground Experience, both conceptually and literally, revolved around the band’s Warhol connection. Visitors could lie back on silvery cushions, a nod to the décor of Warhol’s studio, the Factory, in a wood-framed central space and stare at multi-screen projections — another mid-Sixties fad — of mini-documentaries made for the exhibition as well as of original footage of the Velvets and other Factory denizens. The band was shown performing or (filmed with the paradoxically passive voyeurism the Factory had made its own) just doing not so very much. Other spots elsewhere were dedicated to the band and its individual members. But gazing up at those images was the best way to understand the magic — often a dark magic — of Warhol’s universe and the role that the Velvets filled within it.

In another room, more footage, this time dedicated to Nico (Christa Päffgen), tall and blonde with a Warholian remoteness. Nico had been an actress, a model, and a Marianne Faithfull in more ways than one, and had previously recorded a bouncy pop song on which a friendly Rolling Stone had played. Warhol calculated that she would add glamor to a foursome that rarely looked better than down at heel. He was right. Her contributions — including three deceptively dulcet counterpoints to some of the more obviously harsher moments on an album where her apartness was underlined in its title — The Velvet Underground & Nico — were some of the most memorable in the band’s history. But clashing egos and Nico’s uncertain relationship with the clock ensured that her history with the Velvets didn’t last long.

The other members of the band received their due too, and so did the albums that followed the break with Warhol and their breaks with each other. There were fewer artifacts than might have been expected, although this sad boy enjoyed seeing two copies of the first album’s original cover — one signed by the band and another where some wicked soul had peeled the notorious banana. This shortfall was in line with this exhibition’s somewhat slapdash quality, which extended beyond carelessly written materials to encompass a gift shop that combined a scarcity of anything that anyone might want to buy (Edie Sedgwick iPhone covers, anyone?) with prices ensuring that they would not even be tempted. Maybe the organizers thought that the Velvets’ brand was enough of a lure, and maybe they were right.

That said, there was just enough, other than nostalgia, to merit a visit by more dedicated fans, notably those films from the Factory. And there was one marvel: a short, animated documentary in which Tony Jannelli (one of the two directors) recalled the bewildered and appalled reaction when the Velvets played at his New Jersey high school. Any visitors unfamiliar with the Velvets’ music (not many, I reckon: Most attendees I saw were north of forty) might have wondered what all the fuss was about. But not only newbies would have been taken aback by the claim, made in a section dedicated to the band’s ‘legacy’, that the “spirit and range of their New York City rock” eventually “won over the entire planet”. They talk of nothing else in Pyongyang.

How much the Velvets influenced the way things were going and how much they merely anticipated what was already on the way is impossible to know. Where they were, perhaps, at their most innovative was lyrically. This was not so much for their matter-of-act descriptions of drug use. There had been popular songs on that topic (sometimes camouflaged) decades back. So, in I’m Waiting for The Man the Velvets sang of a junkie (“sick and dirty, more dead than alive”) traveling “up to Lexington, one, two, five” to meet a (heroin) dealer, but thirty years before there was this about a weed, er, retailer from Stuff Smith And His Onyx Club Boys:

Where’s the man with the jive?

There is a man from way up town

Who will take away your blues

And any time the man comes round we like to spread the news

What was new was the Velvet Underground’s treatment of characters from subcultures that had been largely invisible in pop music, such as the transvestites whose orgy goes so wrong in Sister Ray (sailors, a murder, heroin, the police at the door, could happen to anyone), subcultures they simultaneously mythologized and helped usher into some sort of mainstream.

Musically, the Velvet Underground may have been at the cutting edge, but other bands were also beginning to blend pop, rock, and avant-garde. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was not the first light show. What distinguished the Velvets was not their sales (lamentable at the time) but that they were, if only briefly, very, very good. People in the next city this exhibition is destined to visit who don’t know much about the band but are curious about their work should give The Velvet Underground Experience a miss. They should immerse themselves instead in the first three albums (forget the fourth, Loaded, whatever critics may say): The Velvet Underground & Nico, its successor, White Light/White Heat, with its madcap amphetamine rush, and finally the quieter and strangely unsettling The Velvet Underground. Then they should scour YouTube for footage of the Factory at its peak. If they do all that, they will learn more and spend less.

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