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Yesterday’s All Tomorrow’s Party: From left, The Velvet Underground’s Mo Tucker, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed.
There may never be a cooler rock band on the planet than the cultural touchstone supernova that was the Velvet Underground (1964-70). With, and likely despite, pop culture Svengali Andy Warhol turning them into a multimedia pop art sensation and experiment, they still managed to create a treasure trove of a catalog. This was, in large measure, due to the mercurial Lou Reed’s brilliant songwriting, with help from the classically trained avant-garde musician, producer and viola player John Cale, drummer Mo Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison, which cut through so much spectacular artifice. More help came in the form of the quixotic German model and musician Nico, whom Warhol foisted upon the band, and then Doug Yule, who in 1968 replaced Cale after he and Reed stopped speaking.
It’s a wild and unlikely story pieced together by generations of music heads and Todd Haynes’ excellent new Apple+ documentary
, “The Velvet Underground,” which does an impressive job framing it, especially the band’s early years. From Cale and Reed’s random meeting (when the former was on New York’s Lower East Side jamming with refrigerator frequencies and La Monte Young and the latter worked as a songwriter at Pickwick Records) to Warhol and his wild Factory of cutting-edge artistes embracing and boosting the Velvets to the group’s grinding dissolution, a common thread throughout was their commitment to live performances.
“The unanimous opinion was that we were ten times better live than we were on records,” Morrison said in April 1981. And considering the Velvets played roughly 200 shows and events across the country and Canada, in galleries, auditoriums, colleges, movie theaters, psychiatric conventions, benefits and, often, just straight-up club shows, according to the meticulous Velvet Underground website (olivier.landemaine.free.fr/vu/
), they were also, apparently, road warriors.
“They fell into really interesting sort of phases,” Haynes told Pollstar. “And certainly, the launching pad had very much to do with performance, to a degree we had never really seen before, which was their time with Warhol and what would ultimately become the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, most famously at the Dom in the East Village. That’s something that was latched onto by people who know and loved the Velvets.”
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The Art Star & The Femme Fatale: Andy Warhol and Nico at the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry annual dinner at The Delmonico Hotel where the Velvet Underground performed on Jan. 13, 1966.
The famed Exploding Plastic Inevitable “launching pad” was a series of multimedia events in 1966 held on St. Marks Place (and which later became the Electric Circus) and which featured performances by the Velvets, Warhol’s avant-garde films by the likes of Jonas Mekas, light shows pioneered by Danny Williams, sometimes interpretive dances by Factory habitues Mary Woronov and poet Gerard Malanga with a bullwhip and very likely enhanced for some with various chemical substances. But those shows, which also went on the road, are really only the V.U.’s most well-known gigs.
The Velvets continued touring, playing a number of clubs multiple times long after Reed fired Warhol in 1967 and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable had imploded. This included such clubs as Le Cave in Cleveland, the Electric Factory and Second Fret in Philly, the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh and one club they played far more than any other: The Tea Party in Boston, which was the band’s home away from home.
“I didn’t realize until we got into making the film how much they performed at the Boston Tea Party and how present Jonathan Richman was for those shows and how close he was to the band,” Haynes says.
Indeed, Richman, he of proto-punk band The Modern Lovers, was an uber fan and says in the film he saw the band play some “60 or 70 times.” Morrison actually taught Richman how to play guitar and let him warm up for the Velvets when still a teenager.
The band, who surely spent more time just traveling to shows than they ever did in Warhol’s Factory, playing on an array of bills with major acts who, it’s oft forgotten, were their peers at the time, including: The MC5, Sly & Family Stone, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, The Yardbirds (who did a cover of “Waiting For My Man”), Tim Buckley, Taj Mahal, Canned Heat, the Flaming Groovies, Spirit, Blue Cheer, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the Chambers Brothers, Iron Butterfly and even a Dick Clark “Caravan of Stars Tour” in Highland Park, Mich.
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Velvet Goldmine: Director Todd Haynes at the 59th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on Sept. 30, 2021.
Haynes surprisingly found little footage of the Velvet Underground’s live performances, despite Warhol and the Factory’s constant film making. The most extensive live footage, Haynes says, came from The Tea Party.
“The footage from the Velvet Underground in Boston is a Warhol film,” he says. “It’s a color film and not very well known. But you get a sense of what it was like to be at a live show of the Velvet Underground that wasn’t all about Warhol and how much of a dance experience it was for those there.”
The video from that show, however, didn’t have synchronized sound. “We play it with ‘Sister Ray’ and it feels like they’re really playing, but they’re not. We used a live version intercut with the studio version. We do use those beautiful, long, improvisational live cuts that are not filmed but they’re recorded during the Nico years live. Some of them are half-an-hour long cuts, like ‘Melody Laughter’ and ‘The Nothing Song.’ We feature both in the film. They’re beautiful, mesmerizing live stage performances where they’re just improvising. It’s the way they found their footing as a live band.”
The Velvet Underground logged thousands of road miles and the film devotes a segment to an early West Coast swing. But the quintessential New York band dressed in black poolside at the Tropicana didn’t go over well. They hated hippies and The Mamas & The Papas, were furious to share a bill with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and incurred the wrath of the late, great Bill Graham when they played the Fillmore.
Though the film has little on the V.U.’s touring career, Haynes fittingly closes out his film with a post-facto Velvet performance. “There’s something poignant about ending the film with the acoustic version of ‘Heroin.’ It’s a live performance from the Bataclan in Paris after the band broke up. They’d been broken up for three years, Cale had been out of the band for almost five. Cale’s playing viola and Lou Reed’s on guitar and Nico’s standing in the wings. It’s a concert with about eight songs they all performed and some of their solo work. It’s beautifully shot in 16mm color and well recorded. It was shown on French television. It’s really poignant because you don’t see live performance anywhere in the movie, and we see very little of Lou Reed at all in the movie and then we end with that performance.”