For me, the Velvet Underground has always been the quintessence of Downtown, that shadowland between the financial district and 14th Street in lower Manhattan. Arty, oblique, druggy, self-destructive, dirty and deviant in every available way, the band helped create a new and lasting idea of Downtown, which before the band arrived had been largely defined by Greenwich Village’s unspeakable beatniks and folkies who grew into hippies with appalling beads and worse ideals.
As we learn in Todd Haynes’s enthralling documentary The Velvet Underground, which just debuted at the New York Film Festival ahead of an October 15 release in theaters and on Apple TV+, the one thing that bandmates Lou Reed, John Cale, et al. had in common with their parents’ generation was intense loathing for hippies. One observer summarizes the band’s views toward the denim-loving revolutionaries as, “What the f*** is wrong with you?” Unlike the hippies, the VU and their friend/promoter/art director Andy Warhol posed no particular threat to society, which they didn’t wish to reform but merely to depart. All they required was to be left alone to make eight-hour documentaries consisting of a single shot of the Empire State Building, to get strung out on heroin, and to make disquieting tonal music that sounded like coordinated insect attacks or perhaps mechanical malfunction.
Some of that music was pretty good, although VU (which took its name from a 1963 book documenting kinky sex) remains an acquired taste. It took me more than 30 years to acquire it. Heavy, droning, and intense (except for the pastel-colored opening number “Sunday Morning”), the band’s 1967 debut The Velvet Underground & Nico was ignored at the time, reaching an anthill peak of number 129 on the album chart. With its offbeat Warhol cover image of a banana, “Venus in Furs” (about masochism), “I’m Waiting for the Man” (buying drugs in Harlem), and “Heroin” (not the kind with an e on the end), the album leaned closer to avant-garde and experimental music than to radio rock.
That was largely due to the co-leadership of Cale, a Welsh viola player who disdained melody and beat and once gave an 18-hour solo concert that drove away every member of the audience bar one. (Haynes includes a typically surreal clip from the corny old black-and-white TV game show I’ve Got a Secret in which the deadpan, clean-cut Cale appeared as a deceptively weird guest.) Today the album is a lodestar for every messy, moody, mascara-wearing social-outcast garage band that fancies itself a bit Downtown. AllMusic, perhaps the most comprehensive rock database, notes that by frequency of citation the VU Is the fifth-most-influential act, trailing only the Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and David Bowie. The record was listed at number 13 on a 2003 Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest rock albums.
Haynes, who directed the surprisingly fascinating Bob Dylan fantasia I’m Not There (2007) as well as Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), seeks to provide a cinematic cognate for the jarring but entrancing VU sound. Jumpy, kaleidoscopic, nervy, trippy, the film succeeds brilliantly at capturing the band’s shamanic appeal. Running two hours, it probably could have gone on for twice as long with no loss of effect. As it is, it makes no attempt to be exhaustive and leaves many questions unanswered, notably framing Reed as gay (as he said he was in those early years) but overlooking his heterosexual life. Cale, who is now 79, contributes thoughts in an interview, as do the band’s drummer, Moe Tucker, 77, and other surviving members of the scene, many of whom are still clinging a bit sadly to a Sixties look.
Combining talking heads with period footage, all overlaid with samples of the band’s music, is the basic template for this type of documentary, and yet Haynes makes it beguilingly fresh with his cutting and juxtapositions, attacking the screen with hallucinatory collages and making excellent use of his celebrated eye for campy stock footage. Warhol’s anti-cinema cinema also appears, notably a clip from Empire, his prolonged shot of the Manhattan skyscraper, and the long close-up “screen tests” he made of Reed and Cale, which Haynes plays on one side of the screen as he fills up the other side with a carnival whirl of Sixties bedlam.
Haynes explores how first the band had to divorce Warhol (“People thought [he] was [our] lead guitarist,” Reed explained), then lost their entrancing Warhol-sent vocalist Nico when she wandered in just as she had wandered out. The band started to come apart in 1968 when Reed ejected Cale, who didn’t share his interest in making music that might be playable on the radio. In 1970, Reed went solo, and the VU was effectively finished.
But what a journey it was from Reed’s doo-wop career at Syracuse University, which he hated but where he discovered the poetry of his mentor Delmore Schwartz, to the center of the Warhol circus. The funniest interlude is a trip to Laurel Canyon — cue strumming guitars and Flower Power — during which the VU sat nihilistically around the swimming pool in their black leather, as out of place as Jean-Paul Sartre at a NASCAR tailgate. Given half a tweak, the whole story of posing and pouting could be as funny as This Is Spinal Tap. “He couldn’t play. He couldn’t sing,” someone says of the young Reed. Details, details. Reed sensed there was a place where his drawbacks might be virtues, and its name was Downtown.
Something to Consider
If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content on the site including the digital magazine and archives, no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (through conference calls, social media groups, and more). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going.