In a rare public appearance, Lou Reed and other members of the iconic band gathered to talk about Andy Warhol and why they never got respect. Taylor Antrim on their reunion. Plus, a gallery of rare photos of the band.
Lou Reed is one of rock ’n’ roll’s prickliest characters, and he didn’t disappoint Tuesday night at the New York Public Library’s sold-out conversation with the Velvet Underground. On stage were Reed, drummer Maureen Tucker, and bassist Doug Yule; the event was in honor of The Velvet Underground: New York Art, a sumptuous new coffee table book published by Rizzoli, full of never-before-seen photos, memorabilia, interviews, and reminiscences.
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of the Velvet Undergound
The moderator, Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke, had set Reed off, asking him to reminisce about the cool reception the Velvets—black-clad New York art rockers—met with when they first played in front of hippies at San Francisco’s Fillmore in 1966. “You didn’t do so well,” Fricke said.
Reed took umbrage: “We were OK. The press wasn’t OK. Rolling Stone wasn’t OK.” This led to a tirade against misquoting reporters, wrong-headed accounts of the Velvet Underground, even Wikipedia, which Reed claims has his birth name wrong. Reed has cause: Part of the legend of the Velvet Underground is that it was critically dismissed in its day. “The Sizzle That Fizzled” ran the headline of the San Francisco Chronicle column that reviewed that 1966 Fillmore performance (reprinted in the Rizzoli book).
These days, of course, the Velvet Underground more than gets its due. The announcement of the library event produced breathless anticipation in the indie-rock blogosphere, and the $25 tickets sold out, according to NYPL Live director Paul Holdengräber, “in 3 minutes and 20 seconds.”
The program began in dramatic fashion, with a spotlight trained on a turntable and the classic Velvet song “Heroin” played at top volume start to finish. Then Reed, Tucker, and Yule came on stage, and Fricke’s opening question, about the Velvets’ very first gig, at Summit High School in New Jersey (for which they were paid $80), went unanswered for several long seconds. Finally Tucker, whose relentless rhythms gives even long jams like “Sister Ray” their spine, said she remembered being shocked when her drum kit fell apart. Finally, Reed picked up his microphone and said, “It’s not the kind of thing you remember—Summit, New Jersey.”
Reed’s memories were fresh, however, of Andy Warhol, the Velvets’ first patron and the producer of the band’s debut, 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico. “He was the big protector,” Reed said affectionately. Warhol’s producing style was to keep the MGM Records engineers from manipulating the Velvets’ sound. “Don’t let them near it,” Reed remembered him saying. “He’s the reason that record sounds the way it sounds.”
More memories: Tucker typing up Warhol’s experimental “novel” and squeamishly leaving out the bad words, also having to chase him around the Factory to get $5 for a taxi home. Warhol introducing the band to Nico, who sang lead vocals on three songs from that first record: “Andy said we needed a chanteuse because none of us were good-looking enough,” Reed said.
“To this day I don’t think there’s much that can come close to what the Velvet Underground did. Not in the world. Not in the universe,” Reed said.
Yule, who joined after founding member John Cale left the band in 1968, was affable but contributed little: a nice recollection of rooming with the Velvets’ late guitarist Sterling Morrison; his first memory of seeing the band on stage in Boston. (Cale, absent from this reunion, has had an on-again off-again feud with Reed and was barely mentioned.)
The night was most entertaining when Reed went on a tear—as when he reminisced about the recording the band’s second album, White Light/White Heat. According to Reed, while they were playing “Sister Ray,” the engineer told the band he “didn’t have to listen to this shit” and to let him know when they were “done fucking around.”
“You genuinely felt like you were outcasts,” Fricke said.
“Not outcasts,” Reed responded. “ They were stupid. They were idiots. We were creating our own legit, pure thing.”
Reed is prickly, sure, but also fiercely and justly proud of what the Velvets accomplished in the face of hostile press and lackluster sales. “To this day I don’t think there’s much that can come close to what the Velvet Underground did. Not in the world. Not in the universe,” Reed said.
No argument here.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.