Document 166766

Praise for the series:
All six books revel in the distinct shapes and
benefits of an album, its ability to go places film,
prose or sculpture can’t reach, while capable of
being as awe-inspiring as the best of those mediums
—Philadelphia City Paper
Each volume has a distinct, almost militantly
personal take on a beloved long-player… the books
that have resulted are like the albums themselves—
filled with moments of shimmering beauty, forgivable
flaws, and stubborn eccentricity— Tracks Magazine
At their best, these books make rich, thoughtprovoking arguments for the song collections at hand
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
Praise for individual books in the series:
Dusty in Memphis
Springfield’s great 1969 adventure in tortured Dixie
soul that he’s willing to jump off the deep end in
writing about it— Rolling Stone
Zanes uses Dusty in Memphis as a springboard to
ruminate eloquently on the history of Atlantic
Records and the myth of the American South—Tracks
Forever Changes
legends’ seminal disc—Vanity Fair
The Kinks
This is the sort of focus that may make you want
to buy a copy, or dig out your old one—The Guardian
This detailed tome leads the reader through the
often fraught construction of what is now regarded as
Davies’s masterpiece—and, like the best books of its
ilk, it makes the reader want to either reinvestigate
the album or hear it for the first time—Blender
Miller makes a convincing case for the Kinks’ 1968
operetta of English village life as a heartbreaking
songwriting triumph and an unjust commercial dud—with
deep research and song-by-song analysis—Rolling Stone
Meat is Murder
Full of mordant wit and real heartache. A dead-on
depiction of what it feels like when pop music
articulates your pain with an elegance you could
never hope to muster. ‘Meat is Murder’ does a
brilliant job of capturing how, in a world that
doesn’t care, listening to your favorite album can
save your life—The Philadelphia Inquirer
Pernice hits his mark. The well-developed sense of
character, plot and pacing shows that he has serious
promise as a novelist. His emotionally precise
imagery can be bluntly, chillingly personal—The
Boston Weekly Dig
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
associates of Pink Floyd and recording-studio nittygritty to vividly capture the first and last flush of
Syd Barrett’s psychedelic genius on the Floyd’s ’67
debut—Rolling Stone
Packed with interviews and great stories … will
certainly give you a new perspective on Pink Floyd—
Erasing Clouds
The Velvet Underground and Nico
Also available in this series
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation
by Andy Miller
Dusty in Memphis, by Warren Zanes
Meat is Murder, by Joe Pernice
Harvest, by Sam Inglis
Forever Changes, by Andrew Hultkrans
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, by John Cavanagh
Sign ‘O’ the Times, by Michaelangelo Matos
Electric Ladyland, by John Perry
Unknown Pleasures, by Chris Ott
Abba Gold, by Elisabeth Vincentelli
Loveless, by David Keenan
Grace, by Daphne Brooks
Live at the Apollo, by Douglas Wolk
OK Computer, by Dai Griffiths
Aqualung, by Allan Moore
Let It Be, by Colin Meloy
Let It Be, by Steve Matteo
The Velvet Underground and Nico
Joe Harvard
The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc
80 Maiden Lane, New York, NY 10038
The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX
Copyright © 2004 by Joe Harvard
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the written permission of the publishers.
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Harvard, Joe.
The Velvet Underground and Nico/Joe Harvard.
p. cm. — (33 1/3)
Includes bibliographical references.
eISBN-13: 978-1-4411-3615-2
1. Nico, 1938- 2. Velvet Underground (Musical
group) 3. Rock musicians—United States—Biography. I.
Title. II. Series.
ML421.V44H37 2004
Part One: The Setting
Part Two: The Songs
Part Three: Aftermath
For Mae Mae … and for the
Angels over East Boston:
Bobby Trainor, Joe “Shoemaker,” and the twins.
Author’s Note
I’m not a critic. I’m a musician, and this is not
an attempt to “explain” the Velvet Underground, or
their first and definitive album. My aspiration in
this book is to share some of what I find interesting
about the group’s debut record, their music and their
method of creating it. Sometimes the sources are
confusing, even on basic issues like when and where
the record was made and how long it took; when they
are, I attempt to sift through the puzzle for a
probable resolution. Otherwise, I’ve tried to avoid
the speculation and gossip-column crap found in so
many books on the Velvets. There’s a lot of material
out there, and lots of fans, and if I sometimes come
up short on picking through the facts of the former,
I sincerely apologize to the latter.
The interviews used extensively in this book—
besides the transcripts of those I conducted myself—
come from a number of sources, including magazines,
books and websites. Many of these quotes are found
throughout the literature on the Velvet Underground,
but since most books on rock music avoid footnotes
and even bibliographies, it’s difficult to trace many
quotes back to their original source. When in doubt,
I generally cite the earliest published source I
could find. It might seem out of place for a book on
rock, but I’ve tried to salute the accountability
standard by footnoting sources.
In our conversations, Jonathan Richman encouraged
healthy skepticism in order to combat the lack of
accuracy and accountability in rock journalism, and
warned me, in particular, to look out for rampant
misquoting. While I haven’t lost faith in the
integrity of music journalists, there’s an undeniable
trend toward rumors being canonized as accepted facts
once they’re repeated enough (and the juicy ones
tantamount to a license to kill, so I’ve done my best
confirming sources for any information I present
This book could not have been written without the
editing assistance of the amazing Cathy Mars. Mae Mae
“Shoemaker” deserves her own book—without you, mom, I
wouldn’t be able to read, much less write … I love
you both. I am grateful to: Maureen and Enio;
Rosemary and Barbara; Carla and Marisa; Catherine
Boone, Dave ‘Bone’ Pedersen, Richie ‘Cunningham’
Maddalo, Bob Salvi, and John Rosato.
Thanks to those whose work guided this book,
especially Victor Bockris, David Fricke, M.C. Kostek,
Sal Mercuri, Olivier Landemaine, Phil Milstein, Legs
McNeil, and Gillian McCain. Buy their books, surf
their sites. Two of the finest songwriters and best
friends I know helped out: Jonathan Richman shared
advice and memories, while Joe Pernice compensated
for not hiring strippers for my bachelor party by
turning me onto this series. This book was already
producer Norman Dolph made himself
available, and I had no second thoughts about
returning to the computer; for his unique and
thoughtful insights I owe him many thanks and a good
cigar. Finally, many thanks to series editor David
“dB” Barker, for having a pisser idea, and trusting
an old dog with a new trick.
In the beginning Lou and I had an almost
religious fervor about what we were doing … but
after the first record we lost our patience and
diligence. We couldn’t even remember what our
precepts were. 1
—John Cale
The first time I heard the Velvet Underground
and Nico record … I just hated the sound. You know
Then about six months later it hit me, “Oh my
God! WOW! This is just a fucking great record!” 2
—Iggy Pop
These are times in which critics cite the Velvet
Underground as one of the most influential rock
groups of all time. Even those who admittedly dislike
“parental advisory” content (the high visibility of
drugs and so-called sexual deviance, for instance),
are forced to concede their enormous effect on modern
rock. Any survey that concerns itself with rock as it
is now played tends to place them in the top two or
t h r e e . Spin magazine’s April 2003 list of the
“Fifteen Most Influential Albums of All Time (… not
recorded by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis or the
Rolling Stones)” is typical in placing The Velvet
Underground and Nico first. 3 Yet on the Top 100 Album
f r e q u e n t l y conduct,
usually conspicuous by their absence or low position.
A reflection of the almost total radio (and press)
blackout the group faced for most of its life, the
mainstream airwaves today remain nearly Velvet-free.
It’s a contradiction so glaring it approaches
paradox: a band that left its mark on rock music and
musicians in a profound way, but whose music was
purposefully snubbed by the major outlets. Industry
inertia was nearly comprehensive: record stores,
radio stations, the music press, promoters, the
marketing personnel and bean counters of the record
networks. Put simply, these people could not deal
with this music in 1967, the year of the Summer of
Love. Coupled with critical indifference and public
hostility, it all spelled an absence of commercial
reward for the struggling Velvets. Pick your cliché:
They Couldn’t Catch a Break; They Couldn’t Get
Arrested; If It Wasn’t for Bad Luck, They Wouldn’t
Have No Luck at All. One thing is certain: few, if
any, bands have ever left such an enduring legacy
with less help from the industry they were part of.
Bad timing, shitbum luck, mountainous egos—even
facing such conditions, the band produced work so
powerful that, acting over time through the musicians
they had influenced, they eventually transformed a
music industry that only began to understand and
appreciate them when it was too late.
Velvet Underground co-founder Lou Reed once said
“if you’re going to talk about greats, there is no
one greater than Raymond Chandler. I mean, after
reading Raymond Chandler and going on to someone
else, it’s like eating caviar and then turning to
some real inferior dish.” Lou had a simple plan: to
“take the sensibility of Raymond Chandler or Hubert
Shelby (sic) or Delmore Schwartz or Poe and put it to
music.” 4
Underground that was exactly what he did. Taking a
cue from film noir and pulp fiction, Reed and company
would pull back the curtain that separated pop music
from the world beyond “moon and June” love songs,
creating in the process a new music vérité— a rock
noir, if you will.
As Raymond Chandler died in 1959, we’ll never know
whether the man Reed called “the greatest” would have
approved of having his “sensibility” applied to rock
music—or if he’d have reciprocated the songwriter’s
admiration. I strongly suspect, though, that Raymond
and Lou would have been muy simpatico. Had he lived,
including The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, may
well have seen something in Reed that resembled his
own archetypal detective character, as described in
his article “The Simple Art of Murder”: “a modern
knight … in search of a hidden truth … down these
mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean …
he must be the complete man, and a common man and yet
an unusual man … he is a lonely man.” This last
quality, Cale ascribes to Reed: “he has this thing in
his persona about having to struggle alone, not as
part of a group.” 5 The other characteristics of
Chandler’s modern knight aren’t traits typically
ascribed to Reed, and the resemblance may not be so
obvious as regards the Lou Reed who walked by day,
who ate and drank and shat like everybody else and
who seems to have pissed off almost everyone who ever
got close to him. But it’s clearly discernible in the
tough-but-compassionate, curious-yet-knowing voice of
Lou Reed the songwriter.
Facing similar challenges, Reed and Chandler sought
to mold the raw material of the lowlife, the
perverse, the brutal and the beautiful into art.
Neither would accept the creative status quo. Rather
than conform, both would go on to redefine the style
of their chosen field. They did so using a reporter’s
eye for detail and nuance—a skill Reed gained by
education, and Chandler on the job. From Chandler,
and through the likes of Selby and Schwartz, Reed
acquired a fascination with the power of words and
phrases; he studied their economic yet bold use of
language, a technique he applied and quickly mastered
in his lyrics. The result would be songs just as
visually—even cinematically—evocative as the books
written by Nelson Algren, Hubert Selby, Jr. and
Raymond Chandler.
With so much in common despite the separation of
decades, and the fact that they operated within
immeasurably dissimilar social milieus, perhaps it
should be no surprise that Chandler could forecast
his admirer’s future with bitter accuracy when he
achievement when it happens. He explains it after it
has become respectable.” 6 The critical reception—or
lack thereof—that the Velvets faced was abysmal. The
Chandler had successfully struggled to raise the bar
unrecognized in its time, while years later critics
would fall over themselves to dissect and discuss it.
coproduced in 1966, Norman Dolph found an analogy in
t h e world of art: “90% of all the pictures that are
viewed today as just awesome, the first time they
were seen the reaction was ‘this isn’t art!’ … Well,
there were people who thought the VU were a waste of
oxide on the back of a piece of recording tape.” 7
As I write this book, I can sometimes hear the
television in the next room. A commercial for a show
c a l l e d Walk on the Wild Side catches my ear, and
there’s little doubt that the title assumes audience
recognition of the Lou Reed song, not the original
Nelson Algren novel. Just the fact that reality shows
have become so popular hearkens back to Lou Reed’s
use of life’s pageant as source material for his
The miniscule tattoo I got in 1979 caused a family
furor, with dark rumblings about bikers and convicts;
when my niece recently acquired skin art that would
impress most Yakuza and bring a smile to the lips of
a Maori headhunter, nary a peep was uttered. American
culture moves so fast it’s more a verb than a noun.
It’s absorptive; like the ever-encroaching desert,
this year’s fringe will be well within the arid
borders of the main body before too long. Today, the
kind of lives deemed permissible for art to reflect
upon seem more and more to resemble those that the
Velvets explored in their songs. As Rolling Stone’s
Robert Palmer states succinctly: “Activities that
then belonged to a marginalized subculture are now
mass-culture concerns.” 8 To which I might add, the
ones who get there first have to take a boatload of
shit for their trouble. Enter the VU.
Underground to an entity whose brilliance came from
cooperation and competition between a pair of gifted
pioneers: John Cale and Lou Reed. Enormous roles were
played by these mavericks, but it’s a mistake to
reduce the VU to the Reed-Cale Show. More than Cale’s
avant-classicism versus Reed’s literary lyricism and
passion for rock and roll, greater than the simple
sum of five musicians playing the revolutionary Reedpenned songs they unleashed upon an unsuspecting
world, the Velvets were a band in the truest sense.
The Velvet Underground and Nico was the product of a
conflicting individuals who created it.
Holmes Sterling Morrison, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, Lou
Reed, John Cale and Christa Paffgen (better known as
Nico), together with producers Norman Dolph and Tom
Wilson, engineers John Licata and Omi Haden—and a
catalytic element in Andy Warhol—sparked an alchemy
that was unique and stunningly effective. There were
other great Velvets records made after the band’s
personnel changed, but none offers the magical
combination found in this—which many regard as their
best record. Chemistry is by nature volatile: add the
proper percentage of oxygen to hydrogen and the
fractionally and the mixture fails.
Lou Reed’s vision for the band was unquestionably
successful—just as Nico’s purposeful balance between
tear-’em-up rock, and Moe’s goal to provide a
hypnotically undeniable pulse (surrounding chaos be
damned!) were desires made manifest, materializing as
songs that always rock, and rock steady. All of this,
while John Cale’s visionary contributions assailed
the boundaries confining rock’s instrumentation, his
arrangements and textural palate so accomplished that
afterward all maps had to be thrown out and all
borders redrawn. The Velvets would never have a
chance to refine the approach taken on this first
album, as the departure of Nico and the band’s break
with Warhol meant the absence of ingredients critical
to the formula. But the sounds they made on The
Velvet Underground and Nico remain. Clear and cool at
times, in some passages dark and murky; ebbing in
certain places, then suddenly rushing forward as
bubbling, boiling rapids in others, it always flows
like water. Each and every amazing song.
Musically, the Velvets are the daddies of us all—
and by “us” I mean anyone who has played in a rock
band since 1977 or thereabouts, the year that Punk
crested the hill and changed the music industry
forever. Their albums were like alchemical tracts
that held secret formulas, passed from one musician
to the next, until “Punk Happened,” as the button
says, completing the job that the Velvet Underground
started. Long before his group Talking Heads carried
the post-Punk torch into the 80s, Jerry Harrison was
a member of the Modern Lovers. He recalled his
induction into the Mysteries of the Underground:
“Jonathan (Richman) really got me into the Velvet
Underground … and the Stooges,” Jerry remembers, “and
with Jonathan, like with all new bands, much of our
focus was on rejecting things, saying, ‘This is what
we’re about and these are the only influences we
allow and everything else is garbage.’ And a large
what Jonathan was about was rejecting
anything that was blues-based.” Blotting out the
blues, Jerry believes, made the Modern Lovers one of
the principal progenitors of punk… 9
Harrison is right; the Lovers laid the foundation
for punk—but they did it using a blueprint supplied
by the VU. They were hardly alone. The list of
important artists who have been influenced by the
Velvets in a fundamental and important way reads like
a Who’s Who of rugged individualists, iconoclasts,
scene-makers and standard bearers for the rock
rebellion. That list includes, by admission or
observation and besides the other groups discussed
below: Tom Verlaine, Peter Ivers, R.E.M., the dBs,
Alejandro Escovedo, the Pretenders, the Cars, the
Jesus and Mary Chain, the Pixies, Yo La Tengo,
Galaxie 500, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Morphine, Luna
and the Strokes. Then there’s also Roxy Music, U2,
Mazzy Star, Joy Division/New Order—the list could go
on. An entire German sub-scene including Neu, Can and
Faust was spawned. Add to that the Czech Revolution,
where Velvets’ lyrics were said to have been passed
around the underground, and all of the other bands
influenced by ex-Velvets, particularly Lou Reed and
John Cale. These are some of the reasons—besides the
music itself—that people are still writing books
about the VU.
Researching this book, I was surprised to find a
Eichenberger of the Columbus Dispatch “the sound I
want—kind of like if the Velvet Underground’s and
Merle Haggard’s buses collided and the band members
got mixed up. That’s the sound in my head!” 10 I say I
was surprised, because unlike some of the authors in
this series, I’m not writing about a record that
instantly and fundamentally changed my life, but one
directions before I ever heard it. Why was I eating
up valuable column inches in 1989 lauding a group
that hadn’t been remotely close to one of my first
musical loves? Then I remembered: it wasn’t long
before that interview that I bought my first Velvets
album. I’d heard the stuff, sure, even covered tunes
in other folks’ bands over the years, but it wasn’t
until I owned the 1986 post-mortem compilation VU
that I really fell in love with the band, mainly
through the raw slab of Stax-meets-surf from another
dimension called “I Can’t Stand It.”
I did not grow up a fan of the Velvet Underground.
I belong to the generation that graduated high school
around the time of America’s Bicentennial (my mother
painted the entire house, red, white and blue; while
painting bocce balls in the yard, she discovered I
had accidentally beheaded our Lawn Madonna when the
chain from my nunchaku broke). In East Boston all we
knew about Lou Reed were his two hits: “Sweet Jane”
and “Walk on the Wild Side.” The latter lived on the
jukebox at Jean’s Coffee Shoppe, our local hamburgercum-bookie joint. There, one after another of my
shoe-shine dimes hovered at the edge of the Seeburg
coin slot for a moment, before disappearing over the
rim, sacrificial victims exchanged for the volcanic
pleasure of hearing that intro with its super-cool
bass slides (that’s Herbie Flowers, playing two bass
parts—an acoustic and a Fender electric harmonizing a
tenth above). Eating burgers in East Boston, watching
brazenly crooked cops emptying bags of swag from
their trunks to be stored in Jean’s kitchen, waiting
for the colored girls to “go doo, doo-doo, doo-doo”
again, Lou surfaced in my world for the first time on
Jean’s Jukebox. (A brief aside: the other song I
played a lot at Jean’s was “Lola,” which I now
realize makes two chicks-with-dicks tunes on the same
box; this unquestionably earns the place the title of
Epicenter of Transvestite Culture in East Boston …
but I digress.)
By high school I had discovered the electric
guitar, and my spare change was used less for juke
fuel than for the subway fare to and from band
rehearsal. Eno and Iggy popped up on my radar and
turntable. The basement groups I was in covered
“Queen Bitch” and Bowie’s version of “I’m Waiting for
the Man,” but failed to notice that the former was
dedicated to the Velvet Underground, while Lou Reed’s
name—not Bowie’s—fell under the writing credit of the
Transformer was an album we played a lot, “we”
being my best friend/first drummer Anthony Rauseo, my
dangerously sexually advanced girlfriend Kathy, and a
number of brilliant and insane gay high schoolers who
constituted an alternate universe to my usual one in
Eastie. Transformer was the record playing when Mick
Abbott’s sixteenth-birthday costume party turned into
an omnisexual orgy that was interrupted by a surprise
visit from his dad, bringing pizza out to the garage
(sur-PRISE!). The (costume) party line was that Bowie
was generously helping out his less successful friend
when he produced Transformer. Who knew that Bowie was
simply repaying the enormous debt he owed to Reed,
having stitched together the flamboyantly bisexual
Ziggy character that made him famous almost entirely
from the detached, decadent cloth he’d borrowed from
the Velvet Underground? Bowie praised the Velvets to
anyone who’d listen (we didn’t), freely admitting his
debt to them and resuscitating Reed’s flagging
career, but by then it was too late for the Velvets.
Before long, I fell under the spell of Boston’s
underground music scene, discovering amazing bands
like Reddy Teddy and the Real Kids, and records like
Live at the Rat and Live at CBGB’s. There were close
ties between the Boston and New York scenes (Alpo
from the Real Kids caught crabs after stealing a pair
of pants from Dolls’ drummer Arthur “Killer” Kane …
I’m talking strong ties here). Velvets-influenced New
York bands Television, Blondie, Patti Smith and the
Ramones joined my local favorites; and by late ‘77 I
was standing with one foot in the underground/punk
scene, the other foot still rooted in the quasi-metal
cover band circuit, playing “Sweet Jane” off Rock and
Roll Animal while fellow East Bostonian Amadeo
“Ricky” Risti heroically rendered both sides of the
schizophrenia couldn’t go on forever. The Stones and
Who covers in our set squirmed uncomfortably next to
the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” Patti Smith’s
“Pumpin’ (My Heart),” and “Personality Crisis” by the
New York Dolls.
There are certain records that changed my way of
looking at music forever: Willie Loco’s “Hit Her Wid
De Axe” and “Mass Ave” singles, The Modern Lovers,
The Real Kids,
Smith’s Horses. These
records were like neon road signs for me, pointing
the way to rock and roll bliss via a new and unknown
path. And they all shared one important, unifying
element that I was then unaware of (in case you
haven’t been paying attention) and that was the
Velvet Underground. I had no idea that Willie “Loco”
had toured as a member of the last-gasp, Doug Yuleled Velvets, but the four chord sleigh ride to rock
Valhalla called “Mass Ave” leveled me. In those days,
back before I became aware of the role or importance
of a producer, I failed to notice that the same name
appeared in the production credits for both Horses
a n d The Modern Lovers—not to mention the first
Stooges album we’d scavenged songs from. That name
was John Cale. I had no idea that John Felice of the
Real Kids had originally been in the Modern Lovers,
nor where the primary influence for the inspirational
of The Modern Lovers sprang from. In an
interview with Richman in 1998 he was unequivocal:
Joe Harvard: I heard the Modern Lovers long
before I heard the Velvets … had they influenced
you a lot as far as the sound you were going for
on the black record? Or did you sound like that
Jonathan Richman: If there was no Velvet
Underground there would have been no such record.
Does that tell you what you need to know?” 11
My musical life had, in fact, been thoroughly
infused with, surrounded by and enriched because of
the Velvet Underground. I just never knew it. Bowie,
Iggy, the New York Dolls, most key Boston and New
York underground bands—all had been so strongly
influenced that discovering the Velvet Underground’s
records was like meeting someone’s parents. Suddenly,
a whole lot of things started to make sense. Little
idiosyncrasies, unique mannerisms you find attractive
in little Junior—here, their source is laid bare,
revealed as hereditary after just a few minutes with
Mom and Pop. Listening to the Velvet Underground I
could hear bits and pieces of the aural landscape of
my favorite records, elements of much-beloved bands
who inhabited my world. Willie Alexander’s relentless
EMI electric piano drone, the monotone vocal-meetsdistortion-over-a-jungle-drum-beat
Picasso,” the remorselessly unyielding metallic piano
of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” screeching seagull squalls
from Patti’s “Birdland” and the two chord trip around
the world in Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner.” It was
all there, and a whole hell of a lot more, on The
Velvet Underground and Nico.
In a recent conversation I had with Jonathan
Richman he commented on the fact that “folks like to
imbibe simulated darkness and decadence, when a guy
like John Cale can give them the real thing—using
only chords, tones and textures.” Therein lies the
true force of great music. Yet Cale, despite his
classical training, rejected the classicist’s use of
music alone in creating atmosphere and narrative, in
augmented and expanded such musical themes. The
success of the Velvets’ “medium is the message”
approach is so complete, in fact, that there is a
danger of mistaking their songs as being synonymous
with the subjects they explore—hence, those who don’t
approve of drugs or homosexuality conclude that the
band’s material is just sensationalist trash. While I
generally believe that pop and rock music is closer
to a craft than an art, and that even most of the
good stuff is merely artful craft, there’s that tenth
of a percent which transcends craft and becomes not
just artfulness but art itself. This is where the
Velvets’ music has to be placed, and (as much as I
hate to say this about anybody’s rock music) any
accordingly: as an exploration of art. Persons far
more eloquent than myself have already provided
ample, compelling arguments against the idea that
exploring unpopular or immoral themes diminishes the
work of talented writers and artists. What applies to
the peaks of high culture should also do for the busy
thruways of popular, “low” art forms like rock music.
Yes, the Velvet Underground wrote songs about
violence, transgenders, transvestites, transsexuals,
and street-wise deviants involved with any or all of
the above ingredients. Why? Because no one had done
so before, and because these things are interesting.
If they weren’t, a lot of film directors wouldn’t be
famous, True Crime authors wouldn’t be selling
millions of books, and TV shows like Law and Order
wouldn’t be so popular. But that’s now. In 1966, when
no one was talking (much less singing) about such
forbidden subjects, they were by extension even more
interesting, and including them in songs aimed at
public consumption wasn’t just another cheap thrill,
it was a courageous and risky thing to do. It’s easy
to climb the mountain after the real pioneers have
been tramping a trail up to the peak for 35 years. In
1966, it took balls.
Likewise, the musicians who created these songs, as
surrounding the band and/or orbited like speed-fueled
satellites around Warhol’s Factory, were a pretty
entertaining bunch. Their personas and personalities
matched those of the denizens of the Velvets’ songs.
How could it be otherwise, when many of those songs
were exercises in reportorial observation on Lou
Reed’s part? Characters like the Warhol “Superstars,”
Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn and the regulars at
Max’s Kansas City—even the band members themselves—
made ideal fictional characters for observation, even
if they happened to be real. Ambition, addiction,
jealousy, passion, betrayal, fame, sex in 32 flavors—
environment, they do provide great stories. But it’s
important to recognize that the controversial subject
matter contained in Reed’s lyrics was only one
component in a complex, meticulously crafted whole.
The Velvets’ music wasn’t merely about shocking staid
listeners (though the group admittedly reveled in
that), it was about expanding the lyrical choice and
voice permissible for rock writers, beyond the limits
of “comfortable” topics.
Discussing his feelings about this record some 35
years after he helped make it, producer Norman Dolph
remembered a quote: “All great art looks like it was
made this morning,” and added, “whatever it is that
survives that’s great was modern at the time it was
made, and the modernity of it still sits there on the
wall of the museum 100 or 200 years later. As you
listen to the record today it still sounds modern in
that sense of the word.” Try, when you listen to this
record, to ignore the group’s infamous reputation, to
leave your preconceptions behind, and to let the
music do the talking. Sit in a candlelit room, unplug
the telephone, and listen to the entire album without
interruption. An hour is not much time to give to a
great record, considering what it will give back.
[NOTE: if you can get the record on vinyl, do, it
always sounds better—and check out the “Peel Slowly
and See” article by Sal Mercuri of the Velvet
Underground Fanzine, located on the indomitable
recommend the ultimate VU starter kit, the 75 song, 5
C D Peel Slowly and See box set, which includes all
the Velvets albums (plus the Ludlow Demos discussed
For those who would like to play these songs,
tunings, chords and guitar tablature for these and
most other Lou Reed compositions at the way-cool Lou
Part One:
The Setting
Moe Tucker:
shit. 12
John Cale: By 1965 Lou Reed had already written
“Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man” … At the time I
was playing with LaMonte Young in the Dream
Syndicate and the concept of the group was to
sustain notes for two hours at a time. 13
Sterling Morrison: I was a very unsensitive
young person and played very unsensitive, uncaring
music. Which is Wham, Bam, Pow! Let’s Rock Out!
What I expected my audience to do was tear the
house down, beat me up, whatever. Lou and I came
from the identical environment of Long Island rock
‘n’ roll bars, where you can drink anything at 18,
everybody had phony proof at 16; I was a night
crawler in high school and played some of the
sleaziest bars. 14
David Fricke, author of the excellent little book
that passes as liner notes for Peel Slowly and See
writes: “In 1965 rock and roll was a very young,
carefree and essentially teenage music—everything
Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker had outgrown by the
time they became the Velvet Underground.” 15 A year
after the Beatles released A Hard Day’s Night, and
recorded Rubber
Schwartz (for his literary skills), and under the
songwriting). Reed got a hack songwriting job at
Pickwick Records—a sort of poor man’s Brill Building
gig, writing songs for nonexistent bands made up of
Pickwick personnel so the label could cash in on the
latest musical fads. Loaded to the gills one night,
Reed wrote a dance song called “The Ostrich,”
credited upon release to the fictitious Primitives.
When sales of the record started taking off, the
label scrambled to form a band that could support it
playing live dates; because he looked like a rock
musician, John Cale was approached at a party and
asked to “audition.” For laughs—and because someone
mentioned a salary—John attended.
Cale was a classical composer and prodigy from
Wales, whose first composition was reportedly written
on a piece of plywood. A graduate of London’s
prestigious Goldsmith College, a Leonard Bernstein
Scholarship had brought him to the US. Plainly
speaking, he was One Badass Classical Dude. He
studied at the Tanglewood Music Center under Iannis
architectural group whose 1954 Metastasis, a work
based on architectural design, had been enormously
influential. Cale disliked the stuffy atmosphere at
Tanglewood, however, and soon moved to Manhattan to
explore the avant-garde. There he played with LaMonte
Young, proponent of the held notes called drones
found in Indian and Arabic music.
At the Pickwick audition, Cale was flabbergasted to
discover that “The Ostrich” was based on an opentuned guitar part played by Lou Reed; with all the
strings tuned to the same note (A#), the effect
associates had been working with! Having instantly
formed a very low opinion of the Pickwick operation,
and having come to expect such technique only within
his rarefied avant-garde circle, this was a shock
akin to finding a monkey tuning his viola. His
attention thus captured, Cale joined the Primitives.
They played just a few shows, but the experience of
standing on a stage with a bunch of teenage girls
screaming at him had its effect on the young
Welshman: he was hooked. Infected with the rock bug,
chumming around with Lou Reed, Cale finally listened
to some of the “real” songs Reed had been pestering
him about. Once again, he was more than pleasantly
surprised. The Primitives’ demise notwithstanding,
the two musicians drew closer.
When fellow ex-Primitive Tony Conrad moved out of
Cale’s Lower East Side apartment, Reed moved in.
Typical high-spirited lads, they shared their love
principally opiates. Sensing the need for a band, and
an opportunity to do something truly different and
important, they recruited Angus MacLise, a neighbor
who provided percussion along with electricity for
their amps. A true bohemian, he would die of
malnutrition in Katmandu in 1979.
Soon, Reed ran into an old Syracuse acquaintance,
Sterling Morrison. Sterling was a former trumpet
player, a brilliant guitarist, and he shared Lou’s
tastes in rock and roll. He believed rock music
should make folks want to tear shit up, God Bless
Him, and Reed immediately enlisted him. Together the
four worked on songs throughout the summer of 1965,
calling themselves the Warlocks, and then the Falling
contacted the sister of an old friend, Jim Tucker,
and Maureen “Moe” Tucker entered the picture. A
keypunch operator who played to Bo Diddley and Stones
records after work, Moe had developed a unique style,
playing a bass drum on its side with mallets and a
tom-tom, eschewing cymbals and busy parts for a
super-simple, relentlessly pulsing beat. Tucker was
on her way to becoming one of the few completely
original drummers in rock. Over the next year she
played a tambourine (and nothing else), then a set of
well-used garbage cans turned upside down, before
reverting back to her own weird-ass setup. The Velvet
Underground was born.
The group agreed to a handshake management deal
with pioneer rock journalist Al Aronowitz, whose
middle name was “the man who introduced the Beatles
to Dylan.” Aronowitz booked them as house band at a
tourist trap, Café Bizarre, where they got to play
six sets a night for five bucks a member. Success!
People hated them. Just as another pain-fest loomed,
in the form of six New Year’s Eve sets, in through
the door walked Gerard Melanga, future whip dancer,
Warhol’s Factory.
In the 1960s, an intriguing “art groupie” and
critic, Barbara Rubin, began introducing talented
people to one another with missionary zeal. It was on
her advice that Paul Morrissey went to see the
Velvets. Morrissey had just been given an opportunity
to book a club—under the aegis of the Warhol name—and
was seeking a house band for the venture. After
seeing the Velvets he believed he had found one. The
die was cast, and the next night Warhol himself
returned to catch the band’s set. After some cat-andmouse between Reed and Morrissey—the Velvets, after
all, had already accepted Aronowitz as their manager—
a deal was struck, and Warhol and Morrissey became
forming a corporation called Warvel under which to
The band soon became part of the multi-media
“happenings” that Warhol had been planning, but which
had yet to materialize. The concept of showing films,
adding live music and bathing it all in psychedelic
light did not originate with Andy. Jonas Mekas had
already featured the band playing behind a movie
screen during shows at Cinemateque—but it was left to
Warhol to develop the idea fully, incorporating
confrontational theatre techniques as well. His
concept evolved from a film-plus-band appearance at a
psychiatrist convention, into the successful Andy
Warhol, Uptight show at Cinemateque (including an
Edie Sedgwick film retrospective). It was then
further refined into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable
(EPI), a format without precedent, which eventually
included a dozen-plus members. Norman Dolph recalls:
The final decision on a name came during a
meeting in my living room. I believe it was Paul
[Morrissey] who ultimately chose “Exploding” as
more suitable than the name that nearly stuck—the
Erupting Plastic Inevitable. 16
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable owed its existence
to the public’s interest in Warhol. Andy was expected
to appear at the shows, and with the level of
interest in the pop artist at its peak, high fees
could be sought and got. But with art and film
projects putting constant demands on his time, Andy
eventually (and inevitably) began to lose interest in
the extravaganzas. The EPI strobe lights dimmed, and
relationship with the Warhol/Morrissey team, leading
to their break-up the next year.
Much might be said regarding Warhol and Paul
Morrissey’s performance as managers, but we’ll stick
to aspects that affected this particular album. Their
most significant capital outlay to the band—i.e. as a
group and not as part of the EPI—went toward the
recording process. The outlay was probably around
$3,000, though John Cale has named the sum of $1,500
more than once. 17
Warvel’s ability to put the group into the studio
early on, capturing their still-fresh sound intact,
was no doubt their most important and successful
managerial act. Ironically, they paid their share of
the studio bill with money from a triumph that ended
as their managerial nadir: the Dom. The EPI shows at
the Dom, a former Polish social club on St. Mark’s
Place, were the hottest ticket in New York in the
spring of ’66. In just a month the EPI brought in
$18,000, and a permanent club was planned. However,
before they secured the lease on the Dom space, the
team decided to accept a month-long gig in Los
The West Coast tour was a bust. The logistics of
traveling with the troupe’s dozen-plus members was
formidable enough, but then the anticipated monthl o n g booking evaporated when the club closed after
only three days. The trip simply magnified the
Velvets’ already healthy disdain for the West Coast.
The only highlight was that the band was able to
record for two days with Tom Wilson. After a
demoralizing month, the group returned to New York,
itching to regain the invigorating momentum of the
Dom shows. On their arrival they discovered that the
lease had been finessed out from under them by Bob
Dylan’s manager—an associate of the very person who
booked them on the LA trip. The decision to go west,
which Warhol was sure was a perfect place for the
Velvets, had been an unmitigated disaster. “Their”
club, renamed the Balloon Farm (later the Electric
Circus), rapidly provided their rivals with industry
clout which the Velvets would never possess. It also
made scads of dough for the new owners, and the lease
was later sold for a small fortune.
While the failure to book a European tour or
capitalize on tentative overtures from Brian Epstein
stand out as other lost management opportunities, the
loss of the Dom was a body blow, in hindsight, to the
first album. The lost income could have funded
marketing and promotional activities independent of
MGM/Verve’s lackluster efforts: efforts so halfhearted that they all but guaranteed the commercial
failure of the album. Without a reasonable budget,
getting the record into stores and publicizing it was
beyond the group’s abilities.
adventure, there were two significant consequences of
their involvement in the venue. First, it was there
that the band’s role grew from being just one element
among many within the EPI’s chaotic framework, to
becoming a central feature recognized as a viable
entity in and of itself. Second, it was through the
Dom that soon-to-be producer Norman Dolph was drawn
into the band’s orbit … and along with him came the
connection to the studio that the album would be
recorded in.
How do Warhol and Morrissey, as managers, come out
on the balance sheet, particularly with regard to The
Velvet Underground and Nico? David Fricke evaluates
their association this way:
In the early years the band had the perfect
manager and fan in Andy Warhol, someone who kept
the biz wolves at bay through the sheer force of
his own celebrity and who vigorously encouraged
the band’s high-minded purism at the expense of
his own investment. 18
To his credit, Warhol created a bubble the band
could grow in, and he never saw a dime from sales of
The Velvet Underground and Nico. However, being
utterly inexperienced at navigating record label
politics, Warvel made rookie mistakes and proved
unable to prevent delays or resolve problems that
produced disastrous results. Many of the hold-ups in
the release of the record were caused by fairly small
issues—all of which could have been solved speedily
if the arm that held the checkbook had been twisted
sufficiently. But Warhol and Morrissey were either
too green to realize this, or simply unwilling to do
the twisting.
Warhol recognized that he could only offer the band
limited aid in the specialized world of record
companies, lawyers and publishers. He asked Reed if
the band was really satisfied playing nothing but the
art museums and school auditoriums Warvel could
offer. Having long sensed Warhol’s waning interest,
and painfully aware of the dismal treatment the album
was receiving from MGM/Verve, Reed saw no future with
Warvel, and responded by firing Warhol. He then hired
a genuine rock manager named Steve Sesnick who’d been
courting the group—with Reed’s approval—for some
Overall, any evaluation of Warhol’s managerial
tenure has to acknowledge the dual role he played.
counterbalanced by the creative stimulus he provided
It was in that role that he was of
inestimable value to them, and to their first album.
In “Andy Warhol” David Bowie sang, “Andy Warhol,
Silver Screen, can’t tell them apart at all.” Bowie,
a dedicated fan of all things Velvet and Warhol,
describes a man whose desire was to surround himself
with the interesting, the vibrant, and the talented,
projecting them through his art and his films back on
to the world:
Like to take a cement fix / Be a standing cinema
Dress my friends up just for show / See them as
they really are…
Put a peephole in my brain / Two New Pence to have
a go
I’d like to be a gallery / Put you all inside my
Warhol was immersed in—and becoming known for—his
underground filmmaking when he met the Velvets, and
his personal and professional attraction to the
subjects of his films (largely Factory regulars) was
apparent in his work. He did “see them as they really
are,” distilling on film the essence of the Superstar
persona, revealing the face they most desired to show
the public. He would help the Velvets do the same
with their music. After their first meeting, Reed
himself became a regular feature in the psychological
theater of Warhol’s Factory, part of the scene yet
detached from it. Like the journalist he studied to
be, he could always step back and watch, becoming
more an observer than a participant, and around Andy
there was always much to see—and wonder at. Reed’s
admiration for Warhol would be lifelong, and justly
so. Warhol had a strong influence on the Velvets’
music. But he was no Svengali.
One hot day in June, as we raked leaves in my
backyard, I asked Jonathan Richman about Andy Warhol.
He answered: “You know that Doors movie, the one by
Oliver Stone? Well, Andy was nothing like that
whatsoever”—his tone clearly indicating how offensive
he found that caricature of Warhol as an effeminate
fop. “For one thing, he was … if there’s one word
you’d use to describe him it would be ‘dignified’;”
adding, “he didn’t talk a lot… he used very few
words, very Zen.” Jonathan described a man who was
generous with his time and his ideas. Upon first
meeting him at the Boston Tea Party rock club,
Richman—then an aspiring artist himself—confessed
that he did not really understand Andy’s artwork.
Warhol replied: “Yes you do.” The world famous artist
then engaged in an unhurried conversation with the
sixteen-year-old from the suburbs, discussing his
work and art in general. “He was the perfect person
for a sixteen-year-old to talk to,” Jonathan told me.
Warhol really did listen, even to an unknown kid.
Some time later, Jonathan visited the Factory, making
the climb up to the loft space via the stairs instead
of the elevator. Remembering the kid from their
Boston meeting, Warhol asked him “Why did you take
the stairs?” Richman replied: “I like to exercise.”
At each subsequent meeting—three months, then three
years later—Andy would eventually get around to
asking him “So, did you take the stairs again?” The
picture that forms certainly isn’t of a cynical,
catty creep, but of a considerate, compassionate,
understated individual who genuinely liked people and
had a healthy sense of humor: Bodhidharma with a
twinkle in his eye.
Norman Dolph also describes Warhol in similar
terms. “He wasn’t what I’d call a mover and a shaker,
he was never loud or in your face. He’d be sitting
quietly in the back of the room, observing, making
the occasional wry comment … he was more of a
presence, really.” 19
As for Warhol’s reputation as a manipulator (for
which former rivals, disgruntled Factory Superstars
w i t h tarnished auras, and the media are mainly
responsible), it should be said that he almost
certainly lost money on most—if not all—of his film
work with the Superstars, and definitely when it came
to the Velvets. When the band was about to be signed
to MGM/Verve, Lou Reed suddenly announced that he
wouldn’t sign the contract unless all monies went
straight to the band, who would then distribute the
Morrissey. Preoccupied perhaps with this coup d’état,
Reed, neglected to have the rewritten contract
stipulate what the band’s share of royalties would
be, and consequently it was many years before anyone
received anything from the sales of the first album.
Andy himself never saw a cent from the record, and
the degree of good will he felt for the group can be
gauged by the fact that—despite Reed’s machinations—
he immediately released them from their contract when
they asked.
What does a producer do on an album? A producer
can be anything from a hand-holder who baby-sits a
band in the studio to an overseer who micro-manages
every aspect of an album including the choice of
songs, the final arrangements of those songs, the
studio to use, even who gets to play what (if at all)
on the project. An open-ended job description, it
spans those who mix records, and those who mainly sit
around mixing drinks. There are certain general
types. My personal favorite is the transparent
variety: the producer who adds little personal
coloration, letting the band’s sound take precedence.
Some producers are transformers, taking every song
apart, bar by bar; then there are the fashionable
star producers, the Phil Spectors and Trevor Horns,
who mark their work with their own immediately
discernible brand. My least favorite variety I call
“dog-ballers”: producers who can’t resist tinkering
with a song, simply because they have the record
company’s authority to do so. (The name comes from an
old joke: “Why do dogs lick their balls?” “Because
they can!”) The best producers select the approach
most suited to emphasizing the unique strengths of a
profession: making the best possible record. In that
production experience, but buoyed by a solid team who
did have experience—would prove to be a great
In terms of a traditional production role (i.e.
sitting at the mixing board, getting good sounds and
for The Velvet
Underground and Nico the Velvets worked with both a
transparent pro, Tom Wilson. The original LP credits
read “edited and remixed under the supervision of Tom
Wilson by Gene Radice and David Greene. Recording
engineers: Omi Haden—T.T.G. Hollywood.” Neither Dolph
nor John Licata, the engineer he worked with, is
mentioned—a travesty considering that they recorded
the bulk of the record.
In 1966 Norman Dolph was 27, four years out of Yale
with a degree in electrical engineering. Although
he’d given his notice he was still a Columbia Records
sales executive (the job lasted 6 years) at the time
of the sessions. Dolph worked in the Customs Labels
Division, which handled the plastic moulding for
scores of small record labels that had no pressing
plant of their own. One of Dolph’s accounts was the
independent Scepter Records. Scepter had moved into a
new building the year before, and on one of his
visits Dolph noticed that it included a new feature:
its own recording studio.
engineering knowledge to a side venture:
I operated a mobile discothèque, if not the
first then at least the second one in New York. I
was an art buff, and my thing was I’d provide the
music at art galleries, for shows and openings,
but I’d ask for a piece of art as payment, instead
of cash. That’s how I met Andy Warhol. Then one
day I got a call, saying he was opening a new club
—this was the Dom—and how would I like to provide
the sound for it? We met at my apartment a few
times to discuss it, but the main thing was going
to be the records, we never even discussed the
band. At the Dom—at first—the band were regarded
as just one more thing happening in the room, but
then there was so much going on. They’d show
Andy’s films, and they actually had a 16mm
around, flashing the movies on the audience, the
band, all over … and this was no lightweight
machine, either! 20
With the amount of speed being taken by Warhol’s
retinue at that time they could probably have juggled
a couple of 16mm projectors, but drugging was
decidedly not Norman’s scene: “My life was as far
removed from heroin in the veins as it was possible
to be.” 21 Fortunately for the Velvets, his musical
habits were more akin to theirs, and when Warhol
mentioned that they were planning on making a record,
Dolph signed on (“I was moonlighting, really”). The
plan was that he would book the studio, help cover
costs, produce, and when the project was done he’d
use his connections at Columbia to help get the band
signed. He accomplished three of those four tasks,
and began by getting in touch with John Licata at
Licata may have been one of the few engineers at
that time who could have done the job for the album—a
time of which Lou Reed says, “engineers would walk
out on us … ‘I didn’t become an engineer so I could
listen to you guys jerk off! This is noise and
garbage.’ We ran into a lot of that.” 22 By contrast,
Dolph says Licata was a seasoned pro:
He was Scepter’s full time studio engineer. As
a perk, he did custom jobs when the studio wasn’t
booked. He could engineer material he couldn’t
stand, but he would give it his all. He’d give the
client what the client wanted. John would be over
there doing soul-R&B acts one day and Dionne
Warwick-Burt Bacharach orchestral stuff the next …
“It’s two o’clock so it must be a gospel session”
… he was a journeyman engineer, with no “star
attitude” that I imagine some engineers have now,
but he gave it his all. He was a pro. He would not
treat the material with any disdain or “what the
fuck!?” 23
Fair is fair; with Warhol in and out of the studio,
only Dolph and Licata were present in the control
room for the entire time the album was being made.
This record wouldn’t have happened without them.
Dolph tips his hat to Licata and Cale though, saying:
“Great credit for the sound of the recording itself
has to go to John Licata … I was more what you would
today call a line producer. The job of creative
producer I would have to say was Cale’s; anything to
do with music or arrangements, Cale was in charge.” 24
(Author’s note: I once did a session with the late
Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller, a beautiful and
brilliant cat, and he brought along a line producer …
the guy just kept producing lines.)
Dolph remained in music, as a lyricist and music
publisher, “mostly during the disco era,” placing
songs with Isaac Hayes and KC and the Sunshine Band.
He wrote the lyrics for Joey Levine’s 1974 hit “Life
is A Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me),” a swank bit of
bubblegum rapping, in which he managed the impressive
feat of mentioning Dr. John the Night Tripper, Doris
Day and Jack the Ripper in one line; he also worked
in Johnny Thunders, Bowie, and J.J.—but not John—
Little is known about the role of the recording
engineer credited in LA, Omi Haden, also listed in
credits as Ami Hadani. Haden engineered on the
Mothers of Invention LPs Freak Out and Absolutely
Free, and the Animals’ Animalism, all done at TTG
Studios. He also worked on Lowell George’s Factory
auditions for Zappa, at Original Sound in LA, in the
fall of 1966. All but the last are Tom Wilson
productions, and every one of these projects has a
Zappa connection, so he may have been either TTG’s
house engineer, or the LA go-to guy for Zappa or Tom
Wilson in ‘66 and ‘67.
Tom Wilson had been primarily a jazz producer,
working with late ‘50s and early ‘60s progressive
artists Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and
others until a 1963 management power play forced
Columbia Records to hire him as Bob Dylan’s producer,
replacing the more staid John Hammond. Wilson, who
held an economics degree from Harvard, was neither
folkie nor rocker, but he was impressed enough by
for The
Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Wilson’s experiments with
placing electric guitar on some tracks Dylan had laid
down in ‘62, and his production on Bringing it All
Back Home and “Like A Rolling Stone” make him a
pioneer of the new folk-rock sound, a style he helped
further define through his work with Simon and
Garfunkel (who were on the verge of disbanding when
Wilson’s drum and guitar treatment propelled “Sound
of Silence” into a reborn No. 1 hit). Richie
Unterberger has written:
Overall, Wilson’s stay at Columbia had turned
into one of those “only in America, and only in
rock and roll” scenarios: an African-American jazz
producer, who professed not even to like folk
music when he began recording it, turned out to be
a main agent of folk’s transition into folkrock. 25
Wilson would later work with the Soft Machine and
the Blues Project, but it was his move to MGM/Verve
that paved the way for his involvement in avant-garde
rock. In 1966 he produced the Animals, the Mothers of
Invention, and Burt Ward—all at TTG Studios in Los
Angeles, where he worked with the Velvets in May, and
where he edited, remixed and remastered the “Banana”
album using engineers David Greene and Gene Radice.
He later produced “Sunday Morning” in New York.
But it’s Andy Warhol whose name appears on the
record’s spine, and he resembles neither Dolph nor
Wilson. In hands-on terms Cale has said, “Andy Warhol
didn’t do anything.” 26 Warhol’s unique style might
disqualify him from the title of “producer” at all,
making him effectively an executive producer. But
Warhol’s role, and his effect as producer cannot be
denied. You could say he produced the producers as
well as the band.
Longtime friend of the band, rock manager and A&R
legend Danny Fields spoke eloquently on the subject
in Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story:
Andy doesn’t know how to translate ideas into
musical terms … Andy … was making them sound like
he knew they sounded at the Factory. That’s what I
would do if I were an amateur at production … What
Andy did was very generously reproduce … the way
it sounded to him when he first fell in love with
it. 27
The group had their sound together before meeting
Warhol. They had Lou Reed’s experience at Pickwick to
prepare them for the studio’s technical challenges,
and the good fortune to luck into Dolph and Licata at
the right moment. In Los Angeles fortune smiled
again, and they added Tom Wilson’s expertise as well.
So there was no need at all for Warhol to be a knob
twiddler—which he clearly wasn’t.
Reed: Andy was the producer and Andy was in
fact behind the board gazing with rapt fascination
Cale: …at all the blinking lights.
Reed: …At all the blinking lights. He just made
it possible for us to be ourselves and go right
ahead with it because he was Andy Warhol. In a
sense he really did produce it, because he was
this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when
we weren’t large enough to be attacked … as a
consequence of him being the producer, we’d just
walk in and set up and do what we always did and
it because Andy was the
producer. Of course he didn’t know anything about
record production—but he didn’t have to. He just
sat there and said “Oooh, that’s fantastic,” and
the engineer would say,
fantastic, isn’t it?” 28
This alone made Warhol indispensable to the album.
But, of course, he did more than that. Fricke calls
Warhol “a specialist in subtly engineered collisions
of people and ideas,” 29 and in that role Warhol (with
help from Paul Morrissey) coaxed the group into
chemistry that makes the album so amazing. He was
also the umbrella under which Dolph in New York and
Wilson in LA (and later New York) worked, unfettered
by label interference. And he got the album heard,
for even if Dolph and Wilson had done brilliant work,
the carte blanche Warhol provided it’s
doubtful the recording would have made it onto vinyl.
Thus, Warhol did precisely what a great producer
should: he achieved an effective translation of the
sound that the band heard in their heads on to tape,
and then he got it out into the world in tact.
A trade-off of Warhol’s inexperience in the studio
could have been a disastrous loss in sonic clarity.
C a l e also
understand the first fucking thing about recording …
he didn’t know what the hell he had on his hands,” 30
and while Dolph didn’t dispute the charges (he
responds “nobody knew what they were doing”), I think
Cale’s criticism is way off the mark. First of all,
with Cale filling the role of creative producer
without portfolio, Dolph says:
I never felt I had the authority to pick takes,
or veto them—that, to me, was clearly up to Cale,
Reed and Morrison … Lou Reed was more the one
who’d say “this needs to be a little hotter,” he
made decisions about technical things … and the
mixing was really between Cale, Sterling and John
Licata, ’cause that was all, again, done in real
As for sound quality, over-saturated tapes caused
some audible distortion, and noise from less-thanperfect overdubs is also in evidence. But considering
“European Son” and “Black Angel’s Death Song,” which
few engineers would have been comfortable capturing
(or tolerating) in 1966, you have to agree that the
Dolph-Licata team performed brilliantly. Any doubts
on that score can be dispelled with a few “this is
have been”
recordings, which aren’t even in the same ballpark as
Licata’s engineering work. And any noise/distortion
issues on the LP detract little from the overall
listening experience. Moreover, the band happily
accepted these slight technical shortfalls at the
time, and—whether by their own design or Warhol’s—
band and producer shared an aesthetic that made
errors part of the modus operandi. Reed noted:
No one wants it to sound professional. It’s so
much nicer to play into one very cheap mike.
That’s the way it sounds when you hear it live and
that’s the way it should sound on the record. 31
Warhol elaborated:
I was worried that it would all come out
sounding too professional … one of the things that
was so great about them was they always sounded so
raw and crude. Raw and crude was the way I liked
our movies to look, and there’s a similarity
between sound in that album and the texture of
Chelsea Girls, which came out at the same time. 32
The studio approach they took, as recalled by
Dolph, left little threat of things sounding too
From a take-wise point of view you weren’t
presented with many options. They either got it
right, or broke down, or did a couple of takes;
but it wasn’t as though you got 17 takes … either
you chose this one or you chose that one and then
you went on and did the next one. Usually they’d
do a piece of one and then come in and listen to
it. If one got largely through and it broke down,
they’d come in and listen to it and say “yeah that
sounds like we got it right”; or, if one got all
the way through, they’d come in and either buy it,
or adjust the mix or do it again. But there were
not a whole lot of complete takes. 33
To a man or a Moe, the Velvets themselves have
never wavered in their appreciation of Warhol’s key
role in their careers and on the first album. When
personalities as disparate and intelligent (not to
mention picky) as the Velvets all agree that they owe
a huge debt of gratitude to Warhol, you have to take
it at face value: after all, they were there. Cale
and Reed would bury their oft-sharpened hatchet to
w r i t e Songs For Drella together in 1989, an homage
full of love and respect. (It’s also a strong LP,
which gets better with each listening, and among the
more vital works by either writer since the Velvets
influence on his own life, saying, “It sounds crazy,
but on reflection I’ve decided that he was never
wrong. He gave us the confidence to keep doing what
we were doing.” 34
Confidence was precisely what the band needed most
in 1966. They were about to go into the recording
studio—in those days, still a place with a rarified
atmosphere. It would be another 20 years before
musician-run, independent studios such as Athens,
Georgia’s Drive-In and Boston’s Fort Apache (my place
—our credo was “the nuts should run the nuthouse”)
became common. Some studios, like Abbey Road, had
technicians in white lab coats, and even the less
graduates behind the consoles. Studios were still
more about science than art. Clients who dared make
technical suggestions were treated with bemusement,
derision, or hostility. The Velvets were a young band
under constant critical attack, and the pressure to
conform in order to gain acceptance must have been
tremendous. Most bands of that era compromised with
their record companies, through wholesale revamping
of their image from wardrobe to musical style,
changing or omitting lyrics, creating drastically
edited versions for radio airplay, or eliminating
songs entirely from their sets and records. With Andy
Warhol in the band’s corner, such threats were
The group often cites Andy’s advice just before the
first sessions that “everything’s really great, just
make sure you keep the dirty words in.” 35 The phrase,
in Songs
understood by the band to mean “keep it rough … don’t
anyone.” 36 Thus bolstered, they had the courage to
stick to the way they knew it should go: “Don’t make
it slick. Don’t make it smooth and ruin it.” 37 Lou
Reed has recounted how, before they entered the
recording studio:
Andy made a point of trying to make sure that
intact…“don’t change the words just because it’s a
record.” I think Andy was interested in shocking,
in giving people a jolt, and not letting them talk
us into us into taking that stuff out in the
interest of popularity or easy airplay. The best
things never get on record … he was adamant about
that. He didn’t want it to be cleaned up, and
because he was there it wasn’t. 38
The band had everyone in their corner on this, the
point where their goals dovetailed with those of
Warhol and Dolph. When we spoke, Norman downplayed
his role in the sessions in all but one respect, and
that was his effort to keep the sessions moving at a
pace that would allow the group to achieve a goal so
simple it was nearly impossible in 1966:
They knew what they wanted, and nobody got off
the path of that. They wanted it to sound like it
had the night before, at the Dom, and … the money
supply was finite and predetermined … I kept it on
the rails, doing what had to be done under the
constraints of time and money… beyond that I don’t
want to try and take any more credit. 39
For once, Danny Fields may have got it wrong when
he says, “Andy had no influence on the sound of the
band whatsoever.” 40 It’s true that the band had their
sound together before they met Warhol, but Warhol’s
creative input was felt outside of the recording
studio, conceptually and creatively. It was Warhol’s
comment that the band should just rehearse onstage
that helped push them toward their flights of
improvised daring. He suggested that Reed write or
make (sometimes small but significant) changes to
Tomorrow’s Parties,” and “Sunday Morning.” Sometimes
it was just a simple statement to Lou that triggered
the change, or inspired a part. At other times it was
a more direct involvement, as with “Femme Fatale.”
Were it not for Warhol, of course, Nico would never
have joined the group, and that in and of itself
gives him a colossal role in the sound on the first
album, and by extension the band.
Joe Harvard: Cale said after she died that Nico
was the only one who’d carried on the Velvets’
tradition—I believe he said “she was the one
carrying the flag for the VU all those years …”
Norman Dolph: I think that’s a fair statement …
the one Cale produced, Desertsbore … sounds like
right where “I’ll Be You’re Mirror” left off. 41
Christa Paffgen was born in 1938 in Cologne; her
earliest memories were of the war in Germany, and her
father’s death in battle when she was six. She
learned early to fend for herself and developed an
independent streak that she would keep for life. As a
teenager she capitalized on her wholesome Nordic
beauty by modeling, and followed that calling on an
odyssey with stops in Berlin, Paris and New York,
culminating in her arrival as an international model
for the Ford Modeling Agency. Christa became Nico,
and soon added “actress” to her resume when she
landed herself a walk-on role in Fellini’s La Dolce
Modeling and acting would turn out to be mere
preambles to the musical career that Nico would turn
to next, and stick with for the rest of her life. Her
bohemian lifestyle turned out to be incompatible with
pesky little details like early morning set calls,
and Rome’s loss was soon New York’s gain. But first
she was off to London, where she recorded a single,
“The Last Mile” b/w “I’m Not Saying,” produced by
traveling at high speed then, and for Nico’s benefit
Page put together a single that made a convincing
attempt to jump on it. Rolling Stones manager and
producer Andrew Loog Oldham released the Nico single
on his Immediate label, so she had a very hip calling
card to bring along to New York. There she met and
was briefly involved with Bob Dylan.
It was in Paris that she first encountered Andy
Warhol—which guaranteed that her path would soon
cross that of the Velvets. Gerard Malanga, one of the
EPI’s main dancers in ‘66, nicely sums up Nico’s
Nico latched onto Andy and myself when we went
to Paris. I just put two and two together that
Nico had slept with Dylan … she got a song out of
Bob, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” so he probably got
something in return, quid pro quo. But Nico was of
an independent mind. She had her own personal
history going for her—Brian Jones, Bob Dylan, she
had been in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and she was
the mother of Ari, Alain Delon’s illegitimate son.
Yeah, Nico already had a lifestyle when we met up
with her. 42
Nico accepted Warhol’s invitation to visit him in
New York; when she got there she also met and
impressed Paul Morrissey, by then co-manager of the
Velvets. Morrissey had developed strong doubts as to
Lou Reed’s ability as a front man. Not exactly a fan
Reed’s capabilities or personality (onstage or
off), Morrissey made a fateful suggestion to Warhol:
“She’s wonderful and she’s looking for work,” I
“She’s wonderful and she’s looking for work,” I
said. “We’ll put her in the band because the
Velvets need someone who can sing or who can
command attention … she can be the lead singer” …
of course Lou Reed almost gagged when I said we
need a girl singing with the group … I didn’t want
to say that they needed somebody who had some sort
of talent, but that’s what I meant. Lou was very
reluctant to go with Nico … he gave her two or
three little songs and didn’t let her do anything
else. 43
working and reworking their songs, the Velvets were
eager to get out and play, and the last thing they
were looking for was a new lead singer—especially a
female one. When percussionist Angus MacLise had
departed just before their first show, and Sterling
suggested Moe Tucker as his replacement, Cale had
balked, railing against “chicks” in the band. It may
be assumed that this argument applied as much to
singers as drummers. Two facts may have helped change
suggested Moe, and Lou had approved her enlistment
after conducting a mini-audition at her Long Island
home. But the probable truth is he abandoned his
objection because they needed a drummer immediately
for upcoming shows. No such urgency existed regarding
a new vocalist, so it was left to Warhol to persuade
a reluctant band to take Nico on board. That he was
able to do so is an indication of how deep his
influence ran within the band.
Aside from a few free-form vocals performed live,
such as her atmospheric droning on “It Was a Pleasure
Then” (later recorded for her debut LP Chelsea
Girls), Nico was only given the three songs she sings
o n The Velvet Underground and Nico, plus “Sunday
Morning,” to sing live. The rest of the time she
either played tambourine, or merely stood stock-still
on stage, prompting Morrison to comment, “we’ve got a
statue in the band.” Not surprisingly, Nico soon
lobbied for more songs to sing, but the idea of her
interpreting material like “Heroin” or “I’m Waiting
for the Man” was almost enough to give Lou Reed
hives; luckily for his complexion, Nico’s campaign to
sing everything was collectively rejected by the
Perhaps this earlier rejection explains why Nico
kept a low profile in the studio. According to Norman
Dolph, she stood somewhat apart: “When she was there
Nico would be singing; when she wasn’t singing she
sat quietly in the background, by herself usually …
but generally if she wasn’t singing she wouldn’t be
there …” 44
Nico was forced out of the group soon after the
album’s release in 1967; it had probably been
inevitable since the previous year, when the Velvets
received their first major press and it turned out to
be a feature on Nico (on the Women’s page of the New
York Times). She enjoyed a brief period when her
career eclipsed that of her former band, after Warhol
gave her a plumb role in the film Chelsea Girls. John
Cale maintained a collaborative relationship with
with Chelsea
companion album, and they teamed up for four records
with Cale as her producer (Tom Wilson also produced
one Nico album). Both Cale and Reed had had brief
affairs with Nico during her tenure with the group
and, after Nico’s career flagged, Cale often berated
Reed for not writing her a few songs to help revive
it, but Reed never seems to have stopped begrudging
her the few songs he’d already let her sing on the
first album.
A long time heroin addict, Nico died in 1988 when
she was only 49. Riding her bicycle on the island of
Ibiza, overdressed in the long, flowing robes she
favored later in life, she was found by the road,
unconscious, the victim of a brain hemorrhage. It was
as if a circle was closing, for it was on this same
island, which she adored and made her home, that she
had taken the name Nico three decades earlier.
But in 1966, the year she was chosen as Factory
Girl of the Year, the ravages of heroin and time
seemed a world away. She had intrigued Warhol, she
seemed the perfect front person Paul Morrissey felt
the Velvets needed, and her star was rising with such
momentum that, despite their objections, even the
band members themselves could not refuse her.
John Cale: What we were doing (was) trying to
figure ways to integrate some of LaMonte Young’s
or Andy Warhol’s concepts into rock and roll. 45
Lou Reed: If I hadn’t heard rock ‘n’ roll on
the radio, I would have had no idea there was life
on this planet. 46
Sterling Morrison: Lou and I had some of the
shit-tiest bands that ever were. They were shitty
because we were playing authentic rock ‘n’ roll. 47
Andy Warhol: The whole time the album was being
made, nobody seemed happy with it, especially
Nico. “I want to sound like Bawwwhhhb Deeelahhhn!”
didn’t. 48
Discussing the two enormously important rock albums
released within months of one another in 1967, Robert
Palmer had this to say:
… the two albums sound like products of
different eras as well as different sensibilities.
Sgt. Pepper remains tied to its time, as quaint
and dated as a pair of granny glasses; the era The
Velvet Underground and Nico calls up is our
present one. This is partly a function of its
unflinching song lyrics … mostly it is a tribute
to music so radical it scarcely seems to have aged
at all. 49
Many years after he rode a bus from Boston to show
up at the Velvets’ doorsteps in New York City,
Jonathan Richman posed the musical question “How in
Underground?” The band drew astounding complexity out
of three or four chords, to begin with, through a
commitment to playing interlocking parts, juxtaposed
with an aversion to playing any song the same way
twice. These elements combined made the whole band an
organic machine, like a Rube Goldberg device where a
change in one component has a rippling effect on all
the others.
Who influenced this band that would go on to
influence so many others? One answer is Booker T. and
particular. His work with Booker, and as session
player behind such soul greats as William Bell, Otis
Redding and Sam and Dave, is definitive of the soul
guitar. A clear influence on both the tone and style
of the Velvets guitar team, Cropper was absolutely
rhythmic, a Telecaster master who defined the player
willing to sacrifice showboating in favor of a
supporting role. Cropper’s enormous legacy includes
providing the Velvets with a template of how guitars
should work with a rhythm section. The band even had
a song called “The Booker T.”—later used as the
instrumental backing for “The Gift.”
Besides Cropper, Morrison and Reed were both fans
of Mickey and Sylvia, whose hit “Love is Strange” is
aptly titled considering the romantic excesses the
Velvets explored. Guitarist/heavyweight session man
Mickey Baker offered the model of the liquid,
sensuous guitar tone later heard on Velvets tracks.
Reed and Morrison also admired Jimmy Reed, covering
his “Bright Lights, Big City” during their early club
gigs. Jimmy Reed’s earthier tunes showcased a guitar
s t y l e and tone that was both sweetly polished yet
combination of primal rawness with pristine tones.
Early VU shows also featured Chuck Berry covers
like “Little Queenie.” Berry’s witty and often slyly
subversive wordplay provided early rock and roll’s
most literary and poetic lyricism, so it’s no
surprise that Morrison has said their interest in
Berry was more as a lyricist than as a guitar player.
Still, Berry’s use of repeating guitar figures
surfaces in the band’s work. Even more so, Reed in
particular shared Berry’s ability to draw endless
parts from one chord through picking patterns and
vibrato. His addition of grace notes to simple chord
patterns evokes Chuck Berry’s use of a strong righthand technique, drawing maximum melodic output from
minimal left-hand movement. From the Stones, Reed and
Morrison absorbed the Jones-Richards lesson of how
two guitars should work as one, and from Cale’s
LaMonte Young experience they applied the repetitive
rules that upped the ante on the Berry/Cropper
returning guitar figures, transforming them into a
churning cycle where parts became any number of
burning batons handed off in a relay race run by
Jonathan Richman notes that Diddley was the key
instrumentalists. An inventive, original guitarist
with a custom-made square Gretsch (as well as another
contributed his trademark beat and guitar chug to
provided a key ingredient in the basic recipe for
rock and roll. Three to four decades after “Bo
Diddley” hit the charts, the song’s riff and beat
would still feature prominently in hits for the likes
of the Hoodoo Gurus, George Thorogood, and U2
(“Desire” is a Grade-A Bo lift).
Before she joined the group, Moe Tucker would play
along with her Rolling Stones and Bo Diddley records
most nights after getting home from work, but it’s
the latter that figures so prominently in her Velvets
with Drums of
Passion, an African LP that influenced her choice of
drums and her highly unorthodox way of setting them
Part of the band’s approach was styled by the
dozens of times Lou Reed had been to see one of his
favorite musicians, the jazz genius Ornette Coleman,
whose im-provisational techniques Reed felt had a
place in rock as well as jazz. Improvisation, yes,
but without the ego-driven selfishness of the San
Francisco bands, whose “every man for himself” model
Francisco “free jam” style eventually infected many
bands of the era, including one of the greatest
English studio bands ever: Cream. Doug Yule, who
later joined the Velvets after Reed forced Cale out,
points out that the group’s live improvisation was no
rudderless affair: Reed stood firmly at the helm. But
it was in many ways Moe Tucker whose solidity allowed
their explorations to take place:
There was a lot of on stage improvisation—which
you can do if your rhythm section is continuous.
Maureen didn’t play a lot of breaks. She started
the song, she played through, and then when it
ended she stopped like a drum machine, and you can
fool around with that, Lou could slow her down or
speed her up. Maureen didn’t improvise much … Lou
… guided the improvisation, it speeded up when he
wanted to speed it up and we went with him. 50
Tucker was certainly improvising right along with
the rest of the band, and Yule’s comment may be taken
as meaning she didn’t use the typical form for
extemporizing drummers. Asked by Jeff Clark in 1998
if she’d ever played a drum solo in her life, Moe
Tucker laughed out loud: “A drum solo? No, ha ha ha!
I couldn’t if I wanted to. Which is the key to
learning to play like Moe. Don’t learn how to play
right … This isn’t good advice, is it? Just have
fun!” 51
During the same interview, Tucker also noted:
I always hated drummers like Ginger Baker, oh
my God, every possible moment smashing something.
I just hated that, even before I started playing
drums. So, when I started to play, Charlie Watts
was a big influence on me, and I don’t think I
even realized at the time why I liked him so much.
He plays so simply. He never does anything that is
effective. 52
Moe was a workman in the studio, too. Dolph told
me, “I don’t remember Moe saying anything, the entire
time. The others would say ‘we need to do such and
such’ and she’d go climb onto her drum throne and do
it.” 53
Yule also noted that the division of guitar labor
was relatively fixed and—as far as solos—somewhat
improvised, or at least the criteria for assigning
the latter escaped him:
Sterl and Lou had no set roles. Lou always
played basic rhythm when he was singing and Sterl
alternated between rhythm and parts. When it was
solo time, they divided the songs up by some
method known only to themselves. Sterling always
wound up with the more organized breaks while Lou
favored the longer, louder, raunchier ones. 54
Velvets’ sound was influenced by African music and
American blues, yet their songs seem empty of these
styles, and their music remained overwhelmingly
white, like that of a band they themselves would
influence: the Stooges. In contrast to so many other
bands of the 1960s, there were no dominant Afro or
Afro-Cuban rhythms. Yet in a fundamental way the
Velvet Underground were among the most successful
integrators of the essence of African music into
their sound: repetitive, interdependent parts built
around a central, constant rhythm. Most importantly,
there was an almost totally successful effort to
avoid overtly incorporating the dominant influences
of the time—a refreshing absence of hoary “blooz”
riffs prevails. While everyone else was lionizing and
cannibalizing the blues to build a foundation for
their sound, the Velvets were imposing fines at their
rehearsals for anyone caught using a blues lick.
Jonathan Richman remains dubious of the Lou Reed
statement in Transformer that “We actually had a rule
in band. If anybody played a blues lick they would be
fined.” 55 He suspects misquoting, and says, “I heard
Sterling play blues licks all the time.” Since
standard lead guitar lines are based on blues scales,
most rock solos are, in fact, “blues” solos. And
undoubtedly well-versed guitarists like Reed and
Morrison were listening to old blues masters—the
latter has said as much—but these weren’t the people
whose work resonates in the sound of the Velvets
catalogue. The band fastidiously avoided the sort of
mix and match, direct quoting of signature riffs by
bluesmen like Elmore James, Albert King and Muddy
Waters that are all over the work of bands like Led
Brothers. We may be talking semantics here.
The rest of that Lou Reed quote makes it clear he’s
trying to point out that the Velvets were more
“Everyone was going crazy over the old blues people,
but they forgot about all those groups like the
Spaniels … the Chesters … the Solitaires … all those
really ferocious records that no one seemed to listen
playing.” 56 Reed, at any rate, repeats the “no blues”
statement in the 1989 Guitar World interview cited
The creative process of the Velvet Underground was
team-oriented, highly competitive, and perhaps at the
peak of its operational perfection during the making
of The Velvet Underground and Nico. The tensions and
methodology were present, but had yet to become more
harmful than helpful. Also, in contrast to their
later work, Reed seemed far more comfortable working
within a group compositional format—even if he was
loathe to admit that such a format was in use at all.
Morrison had no such hesitation:
Q: What do you think of how he is now? I think,
musically, there’s no comparison between then and
A: How could there be? How could Lou,
seriously, be better off without John Cale, and
without me, than he was with us … with Cale and I,
we were a real creative band. Lou really did want
to have a whole lot of credit for the songs. So on
nearly all the albums we gave it to him … so now
he’s credited with being the absolute and singular
genius of the Underground, which is not true. 57
The idea of Lou Reed bringing in completely
arranged songs, realized precisely as they would be
heard on the Velvets’ records, is easily dismissed by
one listen to the Ludlow Street demos, where the
early versions of the songs are vastly different from
In Transformer,
collectively. Lou would walk in with some sort of
scratchy verse and we would all develop the music. It
almost always worked like that. We’d all thrash it
out into something very strong.” 58
Working on the album in the studio was no different
from the rehearsal methodology, according to Cale,
though the feeling of participating in an important
event was palpable:
We were really excited. We had this opportunity
to do something revolutionary—to combine avantgarde
symphonic. No matter how borderline destructive
everything was, there was real excitement there
for all of us. We just started playing and held it
to the wall. I mean, we had a good time. 59
And it truly sounds like they were enjoying
themselves. Anyone listening without bias to the
Velvets of 1966 would have noticed that they were
having a blast: onstage as well as on record. Having
way too much fun, really, to be the dark and moody
outfit they were hyped as. But most written material
still categorized them as such, and interviewers
usually needed someone to set them straight—in this
case Sterling Morrison:
Q: Everything I’ve heard about the Velvet
Underground made them seem very gloomy …
A: We used to play the Whisky A Go Go all the
time, so how gloomy could we have been? 60
In a 1970 exchange with Morrison, writer Greg
Barrios proved himself an exception to the rule:
I think there is much humor in your music.
Oh, there is.
Many people, however, tend to emphasize the
darker S&M qualities.
A: Yes, but this is not reflected in fact.
We’ve made no attempt to dispel them but if anyone
asks us, we say, no, don’t be ridiculous. 61
Enjoying themselves didn’t keep the band from
running on the same competitive fuel that propelled
rehearsals, though, and Cale said of the “Banana”
sessions that “Lou was paranoid, and he eventually
made everyone else paranoid, too.” When I asked
Norman Dolph if the sessions were fun despite that
tension, he recalled: “Not fun in the sense of ‘let’s
sit around and order a pizza’, there was none of that
… but paranoia, I didn’t sense.” The most notable
tension that Dolph remembers came from the other
inhabitants of 254 W. 54th Street: “We were working
during normal business hours, and the people in the
offices around us, even in Scepter’s label offices,
were used to hearing the Shirelles coming through
their walls … this was definitely not the Shirelles,
and there were some very strange looks!”
If it wasn’t tense, and it wasn’t quite pizza party
fun, what was it like in the studio while this record
was being made? Aside from working really quickly,
Dolph remembers:
There were three separate ambiences. One was
when Lou sang “Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man,”
and he was deeply concerned that it not break down
—that he got it all down in one shot… and in those
there was a great deal of intensity in the room.
In the songs that Nico sang, there was a very
delicate, deferential “let’s see what we have to
do to get this done” ambience … and the third was
a workman-like attempt to recreate just what they
had done the night before in the live gig. 62
What of the listener’s perspective? What would it
be like to hear the Velvet Underground as their
contemporaries heard them, in a club (or through the
office walls)? For future producer Dolph, the effect
of seeing the band perform for the first time was
immediate and visceral. He recalls the words of
another groundbreaking artist:
There’s a quote from Baudelaire I can only
paraphrase … “If you wish to create true, great
art, first you must discover a new shudder.” And
the Velvets had! That’s how I felt. This was like
absolutely intense. 63
When you listen to The Velvet Underground and Nico
it’s hard to picture the stunned reactions audiences
were said to have had upon hearing those songs live,
as for example this description of the band’s first
ever gig at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey:
“Nothing could have prepared the kids and
parents assembled in the auditorium for what they
were about to experience that night,” wrote Rob
Norris, a Summit student, “… a performance that
would have shocked anyone outside of the most
avant-garde audiences of the Lower East Side …” As
they charged into the opening chords of the
cacophonous “Venus in Furs” louder than anyone in
the room had ever heard music played, they rounded
out an image aptly described as bizarre and
terrifying. “Everyone was hit by the screeching
urge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than
anything we’d ever heard,” Norris continued.
“About a minute into the second song, which the
singer had introduced as ‘Heroin’, the music began
to get even more intense.” According to Sterling
Morrison, “The murmur of surprise that greeted our
appearance as the curtain went up increased to a
roar of disbelief once we started to play ‘Venus’
and swelled to a mighty howl of outrage and
bewilderment by the end of ‘Heroin’.” 64
I’d pay good money to see any band these days that
bewilderment” just by playing their two best songs
(they also did a third at the Summit gig—“There She
Goes Again”). Not everybody found the group so
jarring or alien, though, especially in Boston, where
they actually got radio airplay for the first album.
Two teenagers there would, in their own opposite way,
react unusually to the album.
Having heard the songs with Nico singing on them
(probably the single) on local radio shows, Jonathan
Richman was only too pleased when his pal Jay Bovis
held up a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico and
asked him if he wanted to trade something for it. Jay
had put the record on his turntable, and before he’d
heard more than a few bars of “Heroin,” Jonathan knew
that this was “his” music: “I knew right away that
these people would understand me.” A deal was quickly
struck, and Jay became the proud owner of Jonathan’s
copy of the Fugs’ first record. Thrilled by the
discovery of his lost tribe, Richman was curious as
to why his friend would part with such a treasure.
Jay answered, “Ah, it sounds just like everything
else!” What they were putting in the water out in
Natick, Massachusetts that bred teenagers with such
interesting to note that the transaction which helped
guide Richman on his way toward his inheritance of a
rendering of the Underground’s style that is the
f i r s t Modern Lovers record—involved the only two
genuine Lower East Side bands of the period, the
Velvets and the Fugs.
As for the opinion that the Velvets were some
definitively in one 1980 interview:
Look at a recent Rolling Stone—it’s happening
to Elvis Costello: “You’re rocking to Elvis
Costello, but did you ever sit down, Jack, and
listen to the lyrics?” Well no, Jack, I never sit
down and listen to lyrics, because rock ‘n’ roll
is not sit-down-and-listen-to-lyrics music! Why is
it that the Velvet Underground’s celebrated lyricsmiths never published a lyrics sheet? Was that to
make you strain to hear the lyrics that you could
never hear? No. It’s because they were saying,
“Fuck you. If you wanna listen to lyrics, then
read the New York Times.” 65
Yowsa! Not exactly an opinion you might expect from
the bandmate of that “celebrated lyric-smith” Lou
Reed! Even at the height of their art rock chic, the
band walked a wire between dignifying the songs via
lyrical content, and rocking the fuck out. Sterling
Morrison clearly shows which side of the debate he’s
Q: Well, “Sister Ray” still seems to me like a
really perverse song …
A: It’s a good dance song! I presume that
nobody can hear the lyrics—I did my best to drown
them out! 66
This whole issue of lyrics versus rock power is
important with regard to the Velvets; so important
that it makes me want to have a brief argument with
myself over it.
Joe Harvard: Well, Sterling might think the
lyrics weren’t supposed to be central to the
songs, but on the other hand, it’s good to keep in
mind that the final fallout between Lou and
Sterling was over precisely this issue.
Me: You mean the now famous “closet mix” as
it’s known …
Joe Harvard: Right! Lou went in and remixed the
third Velvets album, explicitly to make the lyrics
more intelligible.
Me: Sure, he boosted the lyrics and HIS OWN
guitar parts. No wonder Sterling said “later fer
you.” Remember the Sex Execs’ home studio … before
you guys started Fort Apache? They used to call it
“Mix Me Up—Mix You Down Studios”! Maybe there was
a wee bit of ego at work there, hmmm Joe?
Joe Harvard: That’s very cynical …
Me: Or realistic. I seem to recall Reed would
precipitate yet another irreparable break with a
collaborating guitarist when he pulled the same
re-mix trip on Robert Quine, mixing his parts to
obliteration on Legendary Hearts. Quine saw it as
a transparent ploy, a negative reaction to the
attention he’d been getting since the previous
r e c o r d , The Blue Mask. Reed just hates to share
the credit.
Joe Harvard: But that doesn’t mean he isn’t
committed to the central importance of the lyric!
Look, if you accept the songwriter’s theory that a
good song can stand with just an acoustic guitar
and a vocal, you could argue that Reed was just
trying to emphasize the core of the songs.
Me: Right. But the whole singer-songwriter
thing, isn’t that cozying up dangerously close to
the folk singer stance that the Velvets were
always against, right from the start? And why
bother having a terrific band play great parts if
you’re just gonna nuke ’em in the mix?
Joe Harvard:
You may have a point.
Whether I’m right or I’m right, and whatever Reed
or Sterling’s motives, songs like “Sunday Morning,”
“All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Femme Fatale,” and “I’ll
Be Your Mirror” are lush, beautiful, and calming to
post-millenium ears, even taking into account the
lyrical darkness lurking behind their jangle. Now
that some of the more scandalous aspects of their
consciousness, “Heroin,” “There She Goes Again,” and
“Waiting for the Man” rock more than shock. The same
process also makes “Venus in Furs” easier to hear for
the majestically powerful song it always was. The
fact that these songs have lost much of their ability
to shock is a tribute to the influence the Velvets
have exerted on mainstream music, and in no way means
they have lost their power to surprise. To the
uninitiated, the Velvets’ songwriting is always a
surprise, and for those rediscovering the songs it’s
a particular treat that material over three decades
old sounds utterly contemporary. “Run, Run, Run”
rocks like a classic Chuck Berry road tune, but it
could have been written this morning. Of the entire
set, as we listen today, only “The Black Angel’s
Death Song” and “European Son” provide a clue as to
how hard the Velvets stunned the music world during
their ‘65–’70 performances.
In 1965 the Velvets recorded a demo at John Cale’s
Ludlow Street apartment, to give John some ammunition
for the trips he was making to England to promote the
band. Angus MacLise was still in the group, but was
absent on the day of recording. Cale supervised the
recording process on a Wollensack recorder. Totaling
80 minutes, these Ludlow Demos show some of the debut
album’s songs in early stages of their development,
Included as the first disc in the Peel Slowly and See
box set, the six songs represented include four from
The Velvet Underground and Nico and provide a
compelling insight into the band’s intentions and
evolution. That process was simple: work the songs,
then re-work the songs until the arrangements and
textures were the most powerful ones possible for
that lyrical story. If, as Cale came to believe in
the first weeks of their friendship, Reed’s writing
was akin to Method acting in song, 67 then the Ludlow
Street demos are the narrative back-story integral to
creating a believable character. The differences
between the demo and release versions of these songs
underscore the degree to which the arrangements were
mystifying recording ever,” Velvets authority Sal
Mercuri comments:
They offer a stupefying glimpse into the VU
before their exposure to Andy Warhol and his
electricity. The performances are unpolished, a
bit tentative though not at all self-conscious,
and quiet. It’s as if being drawn into the Warhol
world liberated them and allowed them to play
harder, nastier, louder. 68
John Cale: I remember that first album with so
much hilarity. That the thing actually got done
Based on the agreement of all concerned parties,
there are some general aspects of the album’s
creation that we can confidently site as fact.
However, exact details do change with each individual
—and at each telling—to the point where “exact” isn’t
a term you can apply when discussing the genesis of
The Velvet Underground and Nico. Interviews looking
for answers to simple questions like who paid for the
album and how much it cost—even the studios used and
how much time was spent—are contradictory. Many years
elapsed before anyone became sufficiently interested
in the Velvets’ history to start seeking precise
details about that chaotic period, and naturally
recollections got fuzzier as the years passed.
One typically inaccurate statement in Please Kill
Me quotes (or misquotes) Paul Morrissey as claiming
t h e entire record was done in LA in two days for
$3,000. 70 Biographer Victor Bockris cites no source
but writes that in New York “the recording studio was
rented for $2,500 for three nights, enough time to
cut the whole album.” One Cale-attributed version has
Warhol paying for the LA sessions at Cameo Parkway
businessman who came up with $1,500,” 71 while another
Cale attribution places them at Cameo-Parkway in New
York! 72 The businessman in question is undoubtedly
Norman Dolph, who told me he thought his investment
was closer to $600, but may have been a bit more.
Maybe Cale just wasn’t wracking his brain to get the
details right. Examining the conflicting dates,
lengths and locations for the recording of the album
turns up many such discrepancies.
average out to the same story: management paid for
ten songs recorded at Scepter in New York, and the
re-recording of three of those in Los Angeles—
everything except the third and final session, which
added “Sunday Morning” to the LP. David Fricke (a
trusted source if ever there was one) writes that
$700 of Warhol’s money (the remains of the EPI’s Dom
earnings) was augmented by $800 from Norman Dolph to
pay for the Scepter sessions. 73 That makes $1,500 for
the original NY sessions, leaving another $1,500 for
the Tom Wilson/LA sessions, if Morrissey’s $3,000
total is correct. Even if it’s not exact, the number
sounds convincingly close. Paul Morrissey notes that
MGM paid for the final “Sunday Morning” session back
in New York.
The Velvets were a cheap date for Morrissey’s
$3,000. At that time the average cost of a studio LP
was $5,000, and their despised label mates the
Mothers of Invention had just spent $21,000 of
MGM/Verve’s money on their first LP, the double-album
Freak Out! 74 Consider that in that same year Brian
Wilson spent $16,000 and took six months just to
complete one song 75 , and you start to get a sense of
the true scale of the Velvets’ achievement on. their
first record.
One last interesting money fact: I asked Norman
Dolph if he ever made anything off of his investment:
My sole payment was the picture I got from
Warhol, a beautiful painting really. Regrettably,
I sold it around ‘75 when I was going through a
divorce, for $17,000. I remember thinking at the
time, “Geez, I bet Lou Reed hasn’t made $17,000
from this album yet.” If I had it today, it would
be worth around $2 million.
The first sessions for the record were done at the
Scepter Records studios in Manhattan. An independent
label founded by New Jersey housewife Florence
Greenberg because she was bored at home when the kids
were in school, Scepter’s catalogue included the
Shirelles, Dionne Warwick (with a young arranger
named Burt Bacharach), the Isley Brothers, and the
Kingsmen’s single “Louie Louie.” In 1965 Scepter had
parlayed their label success into new offices,
warehouse space and their own studio, at 254 W. 54th
Street—a building that would one day house Studio 54.
As Scepter was one of his accounts, Norman Dolph made
frequent visits there, describing it to me as
“everything you’d expect an indie studio to be in
1966: song pluggers and musicians and DJs popping in
and out … an unsophisticated place, with basic
equipment, up around the tenth floor, with a fairsized studio and the small control room typical of
that time.”
The room’s history of turning out great old rock
and roll records must have appealed to Reed in
particular, whose collection of rare and obscure doo-
wop and rock and roll 45s was one of his most prized
p o s s e s s i o n s . The
unfortunately, and when the group arrived they found
it “somewhere between reconstruction and demolition …
the walls were falling over, there were gaping holes
in the floor, and carpentry equipment littered the
place.” 76 These first New York sessions produced an
acetate that Dolph sent to Columbia, but he got it
Department. The record was then shopped around, until
the band made an agreement with Columbia’s Tom
Wilson: once he left the label and went to MGM, he
would sign the Velvets onto the subsidiary label
MGM/Verve. (Whether this Columbia connection had
anything to do with Dolph’s overture is uncertain.)
The second sessions for The Velvet Underground and
Nico were done in LA, supposedly during a lull in the
band’s disastrous May ‘66 visit. The problem I have
with this scenario is the timeline.
In the fall of 2003, Norman Dolph was contacted
about a record that had been purchased at a Lower
East Side flea market. Using the margin etchings
Dolph identified it as one—perhaps the only—copy of
the Scepter mixes, a mono acetate that he’d had cut
to send to Columbia. The acetate is dated April 25th,
a Monday. Dolph reckons that this puts the Scepter
sessions in the week of April 18th-23rd, as he would
have cut the acetate directly after the tracks were
mixed. He is also confident that Columbia’s A&R
wheels would not grind faster than a business week
before a reply was sent, along with the returned
acetate (he still has the rejection letter somewhere
in his basement). Dolph thinks he gave the acetate to
Andy or a band member—maybe it was stolen along with
Lou Reed’s record collection in the burglary of Lou’s
apartment around that time 77 , then bounced around for
35 years unnoticed until it reappeared beneath the
nose of a remarkably lucky Canadian record buff
visiting New York in 2003.
However the recently surfaced acetate survived, it
provides the date above. How could there be time to
get the acetate to Columbia, await their refusal,
shop the record to other labels, find Tom Wilson and
get signed to MGM/Verve—all in less than a week,
between April 25th and the beginning of May, when the
Velvets left for California? Wilson was with Columbia
just prior to Verve, though Richie Unterberger writes
that he left in late ‘65. Perhaps he somehow got an
insider tip that they were passing on the band; or,
if Unterberger has his dates wrong, maybe Wilson—
knowing he was headed to Verve soon—scooped the group
immediately. Perhaps. But I think the accepted
version of the Wilson sessions being done during the
band’s first LA excursion smells funny, and I wonder
if perhaps there was a second LA trip later that has
been confused with the first. At the time of this
publication, Dolph was trying to reconstruct the
“chain of custody” of the tapes and acetates cut in
‘66; with luck, he might clear up the confusion once
and for all … and possibly find out if the original
4-track masters exist in the process.
Once signed to MGM, according to David Fricke, Tom
Wilson booked the band into TTG Studios for two days,
to re-do three songs: “Venus in Furs,” “Heroin” and
“I’m Waiting for the Man.” (John Cale alone adds “All
Tomorrow’s Parties” to the list.) 78 After hearing the
combined tapes, Wilson decided the LP needed one
more, strong, commercial tune, so he brought the
group back to New York to cut the potential single,
“Sunday Morning.”
Paul Morrissey’s Please Kill Me recollection of a
two-night completion is contradicted by his own
s t a t e m e n t i n Uptight where he puts it at three or
four nights. The New York sessions alone are put by
Reed and Tucker at one day, by Cale at two, and
Morrissey (in a third interview) remembers eight
hours being paid for. Reed has said “the first album
… was cut in three hours,” but when I asked Jonathan
Richman he definitely remembered Lou Reed telling him
the album was done in one 9 to 5 workday. 79
It was an enigma inside of a puzzle wrapped
suitably in black leather. I was grateful to have the
chance to ask Norman Dolph, who booked the time, to
clear up the confusion:
Licata arranged for us to get four days’ worth
of time. The actual recording took place on the
first two days, the third day was for listening
back to what we had, and on the fourth we mixed.
These were not full days by any means, these were
business days or parts of them. I don’t believe we
used 16 hours, total, and probably more like ten
actually recording.
This jibes with Morrissey’s “eight hours paid for”
in New York, and indicates that neither Reed nor
Morrissey was counting the LA dates, or the following
“Sunday Morning” session in New York.
In these days of multitracking, it’s rare for
anything but jazz or classical music to be played
live in the studio. Most rock sessions begin with a
live ensemble performance, but then it’s common for
vocals, guitars, keyboards and even bass—everything
but drums—to be rerecorded, often one at a time,
while the artist and the producer seek the ideal
sound and performance. In other words, most pop/rock
records made in the past 25 years are a live drum
instruments. No longer the norm, as they were up
until the late 1950s, records made from live studio
performances seem extremely impressive. Lou Reed has
said the album was recorded live, and it has become a
part of rock lore and legend that it’s a “live in the
studio” LP. But is it?
Did the Velvets’ New York tunes benefit from overdubs, and how many tracks were used to record them?
The answer to the first question may be found on the
box holding the album’s master mix tapes, reproduced
as the CD cover of the Peel Slowly and See box set—a
instructions written by the engineers and mastering
technicians who worked with the tapes over the years
includes the comment (on both LP sides): “Noise and
Distortion—Too Many Overdubs.”
Les Paul’s invention of multitrack recording was a
boon to musicians. It meant one track could be
recorded, the tape rewound, and the first part played
back while another part was added onto the same tape;
the parts were in sync with one another, and to a
listener they would sound identical to parts that had
been played together simultaneously. The number of
parts you could add in this manner depended on how
many discreet divisions—known as “tracks”—the tape
recorder could handle. Any addition of parts after
the first pass (which usually involved the entire
band playing together) is known as an “overdub.”
“bouncing,” called for a part to be recorded on one
machine, then, as it was played back, routed to a
second machine together with a new part being played
live. Unlike multitracking, each successive “bounce”
engineers refer to as “noise.” Too many parts stacked
this way can also oversaturate the tape, causing
distortion. This is one reason why engineers still
hold George Martin in awe, considering the number of
tracks he built up on Sgt. Pepper’s (at times twelve
or more) while miraculously avoiding discernible
noise, even though he was using this older, bouncing
Dolph recalls an Ampex 4-track being used in New
York, but not using many overdubs or any bounces;
they “probably either put stuff down on three tracks
and left one open … with drums on one, guitars on
another, sort of smearing the stuff around on three
tracks, and then the fourth track was used on
occasion.” Nat Finkelstein’s photos in the booklet
f o r Peel Slowly and See also clearly show a 4-track
machine in the background at TTG Studios in LA. 80 The
relatively leisurely pace of those sessions—two days
to record three songs—would have left ample time for
adding extra parts, but Tom Wilson’s experience (plus
overdubs) should have produced unsullied tracks. So
where did the “noise” and “distortion” from excessive
overdubbing come from? It implies the noisy sonic
footprints not of multitracking (which could be done
live), but of bounced tracks to achieve overdubs; so
at least one song was bounced as well as multitracked
somewhere. We may never know, but Reed’s claim of the
album being cut live in three (or eight) hours is
contradicted by the technical evidence. No big deal,
and I’m not trying to make it out to be some shocking
conspiracy—but it would seem that this is not quite a
“live in the studio” album.
Other, less technical evidence contradicts a live
recording. On several songs the same member appears
a t least twice. Nico’s doubled vocal on the single
version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” shows the band
had no aversion to overdubbing. And in Sterling
Morrison’s story regarding Nico’s serial attempts at
singing “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (see below), she is
clearly overdubbing her part to the backing track.
Norman Dolph recalls: “Overdubbing was minimal,
though as you jog my memory I have an image of myself
on one side of the glass, and on the other side of
the glass is Nico, alone, cutting a vocal.” 81
On “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” besides the doubletracked vocal, there’s a piano track and a bass
track, and bass and celeste on “Sunday Morning,” and
on other songs viola. Live, Sterling Morrison (like
Cale) also doubled on bass, and he is credited for
bass on the album, so he could be playing bass on
those. Dolph believes they used the same line-up as
they did live:
I think Sterling did play bass on occasion, at
least once. I don’t know why that sticks in my
mind. I remember the one that leads off on viola …
“Venus in Furs” … my impression, as I close my
eyes and remember… what I’m seeing through the
glass, and hearing through the speakers, is the
same thing that I’d heard the night before [at the
Dom], that it was all there. And Cale is playing
viola, so someone else was playing bass in the
studio at that point in time.
But how, other than overdubbing, can we explain
John Cale’s ability to play both viola and organ on
“Heroin”? On “I’m Waiting for The Man,” moreover,
there are two guitars, bass and piano—so, either Lou,
John or Sterling had to have taken a second pass at
the tune.
When considering the caliber of either the album or
the players, the fact that the band added a few
overdubbed sweetening parts or dubbed vocals later
really doesn’t matter. Their technique wasn’t as
transparent as George Martin’s Abbey Road wizardry,
true. But consider that Martin’s result was Sgt.
Pepper’s —a record whose finished product owes more
to production genius after the fact than to live
performance. The Beatles played practically nothing
o n Sgt. Pepper’s as an ensemble, using probably the
most technically advanced producer of their day,
while the Velvets performed the majority of their
record together in single passes while amateur
producers Dolph and Warhol managed effectively to
Spontaneity and a great performance are preferable to
flawless recording technique—though it’s wonderful
when you can get both—and The Velvet Underground and
Nico certainly holds up in those respects. Neither
Reed nor anyone else needs to use exaggeration to
highlight the brilliance of their achievement.
Part Two:
The Songs
“Sunday Morning” may be the root of the family
tree of songs like “Every Breath You Take” and
melodies mask their true thematic darkness. Sting
and Lou Reed have admitted that their gently
soothing aural textures mask the ugly expression
of an emotion—obsessive jealousy—so powerful it
evokes the desire for full-time surveillance of a
lover. As for “Sunday Morning,” the music calls to
mind a sleepy, quiet Sunday so perfectly that you
registering what it’s really about: paranoia and
The song came together not long after dawn, as Cale
apartment. Actually written on a Sunday morning, the
tune took form around 6 a.m., following a Manhattan
all-niter. But that relaxed atmosphere doesn’t change
the fact that “Sunday Morning” was written to order:
the band needed the song in order to complete The
Velvet Underground and Nico. Producer Tom Wilson had
decided after listening to the tapes from the first
two sessions that the album lacked a strong potential
single. Wilson asked Reed to write one specifically
for Nico’s voice, which he found more marketable than
Lou’s. In this he was not alone: it was Paul
Morrissey’s misgivings about Lou Reed’s ability to
front a band that had led to Nico joining the group.
It’s amusing that today, right off the top of my
head, I can think of half a dozen prominent singers
who clearly drew their style from Reed’s, but none
that seem as heavily influenced by Nico. Be that as
it may, Reed agreed to provide a Nico-sung song
suitable for release as a single, and a session was
booked to cut it.
When Andy Warhol heard an early version of the
song, he suggested Reed make it a song about
paranoia, at which time Reed added the “Watch out,
the world’s behind you” section. Reed has called this
sense that someone is always watching you “the
ultimate paranoid statement in that the world even
cares enough to watch you.” 82
Reed, true to his Machiavellian stealth, waited
until the band arrived at the recording studio before
announcing that he, not Nico, was going to sing the
new song. He was adamant, explaining, “I wanna sing
it cause it’s gonna be the single.” Management, as
represented by Paul Morrissey, was not happy: “I had
a fight with him. I’d say ‘But Nico sings it
onstage,’ and he’d reply, ‘Well, it’s my song,’ like
it was his family. He was so petty … the little creep
… Tom Wilson couldn’t deal with Lou, he just took
what came. Victor Bockris adds, “Lou then proceeded
to sing the song in a voice so full of womanly
qualities that on first hearing it you paused,
wondering just who the hell was singing.” 83
Enhancing the vocal performance is the song’s
gently lulling cadence, the lullaby-like tone and the
tinkle of the celeste. A miniature xylophone often
used by marching bands happened to be in the studio.
The soothing bell timbre fit the song so perfectly
you might think it was fundamental to the song’s
original conception: but Cale, ever the musical
innovator, added the instrument to the recording on
the spur of the moment after noticing it leaning in a
Written around the same time as “Heroin,” “I’m
Waiting for The Man” is a masterpiece of reportorial
skill. The composition was finished by 1965, at the
peak of Reed’s experimentation with opiates (before
he had turned in earnest to a decade-plus of hardcore amphetamine use). This one was written from the
trenches. Reed is at the height of his powers, still
unfettered by the self-conscious decision he admits
to making after the first album to “give it a little
push that way, a little street theater.” You get a
sense that he isn’t trying to shock per se, but to
present as accurate a picture of events as possible—
whether it’s shocking or not. The events in question
being a trip “Up to Lexington, 1—2—5”, or the corner
of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem, in
the days when most heroin remained beyond the skincolor border uptown.
“I’m Waiting for The Man” was one Velvets song that
underwent drastic changes between the time Reed
brought it in to the band and the version recorded
for the first album. The Ludlow version, “I’m Waiting
arrangement with the final “I’m Waiting for The Man,”
but it plays like a different song altogether. David
Fricke describes it as “a rough chunk of city-fried
country blues—the combination of Reed’s acidic vocal
delivery and the guitars’ bluesy locomotion suggests
Hank Williams looking for a score up at 125th and
Lexington—until, on one of the later takes, Cale
explodes into a squealing burst of viola that sounds
like a subway train hitting the emergency brakes.” 84
That viola squeal is about the only clue to the
relentless piston-like drive that characterizes the
final treatment of the song.
Reed, like most of his generation who owned a
guitar, had been intrigued by Bob Dylan while in
college. Another Ludlow number, “Prominent Men,”
which never made the cut for the Velvets’ set list,
features a style and performance so Dylanesque it
could convincingly pass as one of Bob’s outtakes. The
Ludlow performance of “I’m Waiting for The Man” is
steeped not so much in Dylan’s influence as in
Dylan’s influences: Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy,
maybe a bit of Leadbelly. There’s even an acoustic
bottleneck slide guitar part, giving this rendition a
down-home vibe that would almost sound at home on
Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street, or perhaps a
J.J. Cale album. There’s also a flavor of rolling
honky-tonk to the chord changes that evokes John
Sebastian or Jonathan Edwards incongruously in search
of a fix: “Slouch Around the Shanty, Momma, and Get a
Good Nod On.”
This kind of observational objectivity, seeing
“with the eyes of a child,” may be what Reed began
after The
replacing it with the provocative vignettes of White
Light, White Heat—an album of such volcanic, high
volume spontaneity that the lyrics were nearly
indecipherable. With John Cale’s departure a good
professionalism of a brilliant, master craftsman), a
transformation that was complete by the time of the
Loaded LP. It was these earlier elements that critics
missed on Reed’s early solo albums. Reed regained his
initial reportorial clarity, coupled with decisive
wit, when he began writing the songs for 1988’s New
York album. In any case, “I’m Waiting for The Man”
shows Reed at an aesthetic high point, and the band
in an especially creative and committed period of its
One of the VU’s most fully realized ballads,
“Femme Fatale” was a product of Lou Reed’s role as a
sort of Factory anthropologist—it’s written about the
1 9 6 6 Factory Girl of the Year. “Andy said I should
write a song about Edie Sedgwick. I said ‘Like what?’
and he said ‘Oh, don’t you think she’s a femme
fatale, Lou?’ So I wrote ‘Femme Fatale’ and we gave
it to Nico.” 85
Letting Nico sing the song was a perfect move. Her
voice brought a Continental sophistication to the
song that matched its subject, while Reed’s use of
major seventh chords imparts a cosmopolitan flavor to
the song wholly appropriate to Edie and the other
ingenues, wealthy and otherwise, who orbited the
Factory. “Femme Fatale” plays like “The Girl From
Ipanema” set in hip Manhattan, except that in place
of the voyeurism of the latter, Reed’s masterpiece
tells a story of narcissism. It’s easy to picture the
femme in question discreetly glancing away to catch
her own reflection even as she goes about her
business of breaking hearts.
Sterling Morrison told an amusing story of Nico’s
displeasure with the mispronunciation of the title
when he and Lou sang the backing vocals during the
“Femme Fatale”—she always hated that. [nasal
voice] Nico, whose native language is minority
French, would say, “The name of this song is ‘Fahm
Fahtahl’.” Lou and I would sing it our way. Nico
hated that. I said, “Nico, hey, it’s my tide, I’ll
pronounce it my way.” 86
Despite her objections and corrections, Morrison
would always sing “fem fay-tal.” His “my title”
comment implies a more prominent role in creating the
song than is commonly known, but he has failed to
elaborate on this.
Edie Sedgwick’s story is a sad one. She came from
money, and seems to have inherited the tendency
toward ennui that comes with the territory. During
her time spent with Warhol, her modeling career
peaked, and she was a darling of the Downtown party
and art crowd. She had an impish sort of beauty,
slightly boyish with her hair cut short in the
androgynous style of the mid’60s. Photos of her
dressed in a silver miniskirt, with silver makeup and
hair, are emblematic of the era in which she shone.
The first of the multimedia shows for which Warhol
booked the Velvets (and the prototype for the
was Uptight,
retrospective of the short films he had been making
with Edie as his star. Andy and Edie were the ultrahip couple in New York for the year before that. She
was the undisputed queen among the other Factory
Superstars like Ultraviolet and Viva, but her days
association with Warhol, Edie was ticking through the
final seconds of her fifteen minutes. She danced
onstage with the Velvets at the Cinemateque, and
according to Nico even tried singing, but music
wasn’t her forte. She never appeared onstage with the
Velvet Underground again, and soon left the Factory
for good.
Edie was never really able to adjust to life out of
relocation across the country, she died of a drug
overdose: saddening some but surprising no one. A
spoiled “Femme Fatale,” or another unhappy rich kid
whose public persona masked her desire for genuine
love? Chances are, Edie was a little of both. But her
beauty and energy defined that time and place in a
way few other women managed.
Although not the first song Lou Reed wrote for the
group, “Venus in Furs” accounts for a number of
notable “firsts” in their career. It was one of three
tunes played at their first gig; filmed by CBS, it
provided their first media exposure as part of a
documentary on Piero Heliczer and underground film in
New York; and it was the first song that Gerard
Malanga danced to on the night Warhol initially
encountered the band at Café Bizarre. Additionally,
Victor Bockris argues that “Venus in Furs” was the
arrangement,” writing in Transformer.
When Cale initially added viola, grinding it
against Reed’s “Ostrich” guitar, illogically and
without trepidation, a tingle of anticipation shot
up his spine. They had, he knew, found their
sound, and it was strong … (Cale) recalled: “It
wasn’t until then that I thought we had discovered
a really original, nasty style.” 87
Producer Norman Dolph recalls: “It seems to me that
‘Venus in Furs’ is what they started with in the
sessions, and that they got the sounds they wanted,
then they came back in, and that the overall mix of
the thing was not tinkered with too much during the
recording sessions.” 88
An article written by Ignacio Julià recalls that
Sterling Morrison’s “favorite song was ‘Venus in
Furs’: He used to say they had achieved in it, like
in no other track, the sound they had in mind.” 89
“Venus in Furs” is a fairly literal distillation of
the 19th century romantic novel of the same name by
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Severin the slave and the
Mistress in furs are two of the three main characters
from the book. As far as I can tell, the song omits
Alexis Popadopolis, the Greek cavalry officer taken
by the Mistress as a lover, partly to stoke her
slave’s jealousy. Perhaps it was too hard to rhyme
much with Popadopolis besides Metropolis. Dangerous
territory, even for an English major with a rhyming
dictionary who takes so much speed he only needs to
sleep every third day.
Masoch himself based the novel in part on an
incident from his own life. In 1869 he signed a
contract with the writer Fanny Pistor in which he
pledged himself as her slave for six months, with a
stipulation that when she was dispensing discipline
she would, whenever possible, wear furs. Filmmaker
Joel Schlemowitz, who made a film based on the novel,
Sacher-Masoch’s imagination was very taken with
romanticizing life, not just in the characters in
his writing, but in his own life. Through reallife events he created as much fanciful invention
as in a novel, and in turn, in this novel, he
takes his life and turns it back again, into a
sublime example of creating a grand, romantic myth
out of one’s own life. 90
describing Lou Reed as much as Sacher-Masoch. “Venus
I n Furs” is thus a song composed by a writer who
bases most of his work on his life, based on a book
that is based on its own writer’s life. In other
words, “Venus in Furs” is art mimicking art mimicking
life (or life mimicking art mimicking life, depending
on whether you consider songwriting to be “life” or
“art”). Just be thankful that Reed didn’t see
Schlemowitz’s film and base the song on that, in
which case it would have been—well, you get the
“Venus in Furs” is one of the songs that helped to
shape the lasting public impression of the Velvets as
deviants, on a par with “Heroin” as far as negative
presented a powerful statement of intent on the
band’s part. Feedback, the squeal and drone of
electric viola, tempos that followed the narrative
story and not the other way around, the use of a
tonalities fully at the service of the lyrics: all
determined to go.
Unlike “Heroin,” however, “Venus in Furs” underwent
a significant transformation in the year between
recording the Ludlow demos and the version on the
debut album. The multiple Ludlow versions begin with
an oddly uptempo rendering, but settle into an even
stranger arrangement, one that David Fricke describes
as a “stark, Olde English-style folk lament.” He is
right on the mark: think “Greensleeves,” but with a
somewhat different story to tell: “A-las, my luh-ove,
you doooo me wrong, to beat my a—ass so merc’lessly.”
Although history has vindicated the abandonment of
this pastoral approach in favor of the droning,
mysterious atmosphere that the band used for the
developmental process that goes into a great song:
owners of Peel Slowly and See will get a kick out of
John Cale’s medieval troubador vocal.
“Run, Run, Run” was written on the way to a gig at
the Café Bizarre, when the band realized that even
with the addition of covers like “Carol,” “Bright
Lights, Big City” and “Little Queenie,” they were
still short of material. Lou Reed was scribbling down
words on the back of an envelope, and by the time the
car reached its destination the song was finished.
(This and a similar story about “Sister Ray” from
White Light, White Heat reinforce Sterling Morrison’s
recollections about Lou’s prodigious ability to
compose lyrics.) Perhaps it was playing those great
cover tunes every night that gives “Run, Run, Run”
the feel of a classic rocker, or maybe it’s the tight
harmonies. On this album, only “I’m Waiting for The
Man” rocks as hard.
The gist of the song is a trip down to Union
supermarkets of the 1960s. The protagonists are four
character gets one verse of just four lines, and each
one is a brief vignette: Teenage Mary, Margarita
Passion, Seasick Sarah (what goes up her “golden
nose” isn’t specified, but my guess is heroin, as
we’re told “she turned blue,” a reference to the dark
pallor that falls quickly over the victim of a heroin
overdose), and Beardless Harry. Harry’s in the worst
shape of the bunch in “Run, Run, Run,” as he
terminology for a tiny amount of dope (such as might
be passed off as a standard bag in a small town).
connotations in dope-speak. As a noun, “on a run”
indicates someone engaged in an unbroken run of
heroin use, enjoying the enviable position of having
the cash and supply source needed to get high
continually—with no down time, as it were. As a verb,
it alludes more to the frantic chase to find money
and/or dope to buy. Fiends who talk about “ripping
and running” mean being out stealing, conniving and
necessary to get yourself well.
The job of a guitarist is to support the song.
Here, Sterling Morrison’s musical importance to the
group is evident, something that’s hard to detect at
times because he did that job so frighteningly well.
As I researched this book I began to get a sense of
how cool Sterling was, as a player and a person. My
impression is that of a floating center, in the songs
and in the politics of the group, wherein he was able
to influence decisions without participating in the
arguments; standing apart, yet a part of the process,
guiding musical and political energies using guitar
riffs and words as aikido, affecting every aspect of
the music. His personality, it seems to me, must have
been a lot like his playing—at least as I hear it—an
indispensable glue for everything going on. Dolph
called him “the flywheel of the band.” In this song
you can really hear that.
“All Tomorrow’s Parties” was released by MGM in
two versions: a single, b/w “I’ll Be Your Mirror,”
with more prominent double-tracked vocals and a
hyped-up, made-for-radio mix, and the more sedate,
album version. It was an appropriate choice for the
‘A’ side of their first single, as it was and would
remain Andy Warhol’s favorite Velvets’ song. This
isn’t surprising considering that Lou Reed drew 100%
of the song’s substance from studying the regulars in
Warhol’s clique. Reed calls the tune “a very apt
description of certain people at the Factory at the
time.” 91 He got maximum mileage from his role as an
objective observer at the Factory, where he would
take longhand notes on overheard conversations,
behavioral quirks and the interaction of the habitués
of Warhol’s world. He may have been the only person
to turn the tables on Andy, whose own role was
similar: “I watched Andy. I watched Andy watching
astonishing things, the craziest things, the funniest
things, the saddest things.” 92
David Fricke cites “the immortal opening vision of
the go-go Cinderella,” 93 and there is greatness in
Reed’s conjuring of images in this song. Somehow he
manages to mock the triviality of the task the “poor
girl” faces—choosing her costume for yet another
party—while simultaneously dignifying and arousing
our sympathies for the character. This is also an
restrained strength of the soaring groove laid down
by Morrison and Tucker. Fricke calls attention to
pulse,” 94
approach to the vocal as a “slow burn Dietrich
performance with the Velvet Underground.
John Cale shines on this song. Finding a simple two
or three note chord that could be cycled repeatedly
despite changes in the underlying chord progression
would become a signature component of his style, and
a staple ingredient of rock thereafter; Cale himself
would apply it to the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
Here, the hammered piano bears an unmistakable aura
of novelty and excitement, and the song surges
majestically forward as Cale’s keyboard shatters the
restraint of the intro.
Long after the band broke away from Warhol, and
after disappointing him by firing Nico, Andy took a
interviewer, he responded, “My favorite Lou Reed song
is … aah… ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ by Nico. She wrote
it, I think.” 96
Reed uses the aforementioned Ostrich tuning here,
which first convinced John Cale that Lou was some
kind of natural musical genius. Had Cale known that
Reed had “seen this guy—I think his name was Jerry
Vance—tune the guitar where every string was the
same” 97 and “filed that one away” for later use, he
would presumably have been less impressed, and there
might have been no band in the first place. Not to be
confused with open D tuning, where strumming the open
strings voices a first position D chord, the Ostrich
tuning is all strings tuned to D (though I should
note that Jonathan Richman distinctly recalls Lou
showing him an all B version as well). The droning
intro melody is played on that guitar, and it
provides the full, rich rumble beneath the entire
song as well. Though he no doubt got lots of live
mileage out of this particular drone technique, it
should be noted that Reed has only ever cited “All
Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Rock and Roll” as songs that
benefited from the Ostrich tuning. Here, it fits
Cale has described how in 1968, just before Reed
forced him out of the band, their styles were
clashing: “I was trying to get something big and
grand and Lou was fighting against that, he wanted
pretty songs. I said ‘Let’s make them grand pretty
songs then.’” 98 Two years earlier, their differences
tension, and if there ever was a grand, pretty song,
“All Tomorrow’s Parties” is it.
“Heroin” is often cited as the outstanding cut on
The Velvet Underground and Nico, and as the band’s
single greatest achievement in song form. Sterling
Morrison has called it “possibly Reed’s greatest song
and a truthful one.” There are very few songs in the
rock canon that match its power to translate a
physical experience into a detailed aural landscape.
Not that there was much competition at the time
“Heroin” was written (in ’65), recorded (in ’66) and
released (in ’67). Even several later efforts, like
Dee Dee Ramone’s “Chinese Rocks” or Herman Brood’s
“Dope Sucks” are content to catalogue the results of
heroin use. “Heroin” stands unmatched as a real-time
description of the opiate-induced state. The song is
sometimes put forth as the first “drug song,” but
blues artists had long recognized the fertile fields
of coca, cannabis and poppy. Blues songs like
“Cocaine Blues” and “Spoonful” were joined by popular
music’s novelty drug tunes—even the original version
of “La Cucaracha” describes the Mexican cockroach as
unable to travel on “because she hasn’t Marihuana for
to smoke.” 99 “Heroin” is rock’s first (and probably
best) undisguised drug song; but that’s only the most
obvious of its strengths.
One reason for the song’s critical lionization is
the recognition that it created its own unique
category. The song trod upon the white picket fence
that separated rock and roll’s moon-June love songs
from the multiplicity of topics already available to
film and literature, and in doing so it gave
songwriters the freedom to write about real life. It
would be a mistake to think of “Heroin” and “I’m
Waiting for The Man” as mere precursors to other
songs about drugs and society’s dark underbelly; they
are that, yes, but they are so much more. By avoiding
the safe, accepted topics and writing instead about
life’s extreme situations, Reed made it permissible
for all rock music that followed to incorporate both
ends of the spectrum and everything in between.
Musically, David Fricke is perhaps most eloquent in
describing why “Heroin” is so important in the
Velvets’ songbook:
Ultimately, “Heroin” is the microcosmic essence
of everything that happens musically on The Velvet
Underground and Nico—the tumultuous crush of
guitar holocaust and viola screech, the see-saw
dynamics of outright noise and skeletal lullabye
programmatic genius, sucking you into the wake of
the addict’s rush with vicious acceleration,
suddenly breaking into a dead calm as the fuck-off
opiate state kicks in. 100
Underground used to batter down the walls hemming in
rock lyricists—and it did so using just two chords: D
and G. The economy with which the Velvets approached
their arrangements would one day make them a major
influence on the musical rebellion known as punk. At
the time, however, it meant that John Cale had an
ideal environment in which to explore the techniques
that would become his trademark, such as creating
complexity through the repetition of simple parts.
The amount of drama and movement that the Velvets
evoked using those two chords is amazing, and the
band was well on the way to fulfilling one of Cale’s
Spectorish with the limited resources of a rock and
roll band—four people.” 101 The structure also funnels
the arrangement’s elements toward an inexorable
buildup of energy:
David Fricke: Reed has often pointed out that
even performed solo on acoustic guitar, “Heroin”
has an irresistible locomotive tug.
Lou Reed: It’s just two chords. And when you
play it, at a certain point, there is a tendency
to lean in and play faster. It’s automatic. And
when I first played it for John [in ’64], he
picked up on that. Also, if you check out the
lyrics, there are more words as you go along. The
feeling naturally is to speed up.” 102
Prior to its release on The Velvet Underground and
Nico, two early versions of the song bear comment. On
the Ludlow demos, despite a low volume, acoustic
performance, the song sounds much the same as it
would on the album. Clearly “Heroin” is one song that
Lou wrote single-handedly, as distinct from later
Velvets’ numbers that either involved significant
input from other members or were outright group
The second noteworthy version of “Heroin” shows the
instrumental take without lyrics performed for the
closing credits of a WNET public television special.
Andy Warhol presents The Velvet Underground was part
of the “USA Artists” series, filmed February 7, 1966
in New York. Sterling Morrison recalled the session
was filmed on the eve of Warhol’s first Uptight show
at Film Makers’ Cinematheque in Manhattan, and “it
sounded very peaceful and what we were playing was
actually an in strumental version of Heroin. The
final thing as they were showing the credits and it
went droning on.” 103 That night Warhol introduced the
band, saying, “I’m sponsoring a new band. It’s called
The Velvet Underground.”
For Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Diary (1978), RCA sent
out a well-written press release, referring to
“Heroin” as a “saga of a man on his way to spiritual
death, fighting and embracing it at once,” and
calling the song “the most profoundly moving and
disturbing drug song ever written.” I would agree
with the spirit of the last statement, if not the
letter. I don’t think RCA needed to use the qualifier
“drug song”—that just diminishes the value of their
praise. “Heroin” is one of the most profoundly moving
and disturbing songs, period. It stands as a great
song not only because of its journalistic accuracy
regarding the drug experience, but also because of
the compassion it imparts and the clarity it brings
to the individual’s need for extraordinariness, be it
chemically or spiritually induced.
That same RCA press release described Reed’s work
on The Velvet Underground and Nico as a revelation of
addiction.” Their use of the word “false” sounds like
spin doctoring on RCA’s part to me. I’m not sure Reed
regarded dope as any less authentically transcendent
than the natural alternatives, especially circa 19645 when he was writing and refining the song. Why
would he? The disintegration of self that Reed
describes has its source in the same wellspring as
that which is felt in varying forms by sufi mystics,
yogis and junkies alike. The most enduring works of
mystical poetry—including those of Jalal ad-Din Rumi—
often feature the theme of alcohol or hashish
transcendence. Lou’s lyric “I feel just like Jesus’
son” would not sound out of place coming out of a
sufi’s mouth. In 11th century Baghdad it was alHallaj’s utterance “Ana Al Haqq” (”I am the Truth”)—
Al-Haqq being one of the “99 Names of God”—that got
him pilloried, burned and beheaded. Likewise, a sufi
strives for the penultimate mystical state of Fan’a,
or Annihilation of the Self; not too different from
Reed’s phrase: “I’m gonna try to nullify my life.”
The only difference is one makes room for God, the
other dope. So, as far as transcendence is concerned,
heroin holds its own, and “Heroin” conveys that
endorsement of heroin as a means of spiritual growth!
everything; if you think being a junkie is romantic,
just wait until heroin has you “transcending” the
ability to keep a job, maintain a relationship, or
control your bowels, among other wicked spiritual
As Jim Carroll observed in The Basketball Diaries,
junk is just another job, it’s just that the hours
tend toward twilight. Lou Reed’s objectivity in
“Heroin” is intact; he supplies all the information
that a listener needs to recognize the inherent
darkness of the dope gig. Sterling Morrison-has said
that “Heroin” is about spiritual death, and that in
it Reed does anything but advocate its use—he makes
it clear that only someone who wants to die should
turn to it. Despite this, the band was critically
pummeled as a pied piper for heroin use, a label it
description of the song is succinct, and makes it
clear that in describing the experience of getting
high he is also laying out the rules of heroin use,
with its inevitable conclusion—addiction:
“Heroin” is very close to the feeling you get
from smack. It starts on a certain level, it’s
deceptive. You think you’re enjoying it. But by
the time it hits you, it’s too late. You don’t
have any choice. It comes at you harder and faster
and keeps on coming. The song is everything that
the real thing is doing to you. 104
In that sense, “Heroin” manages to convey in a
handful of verses what Burroughs needed hundreds of
pages to accomplish. But if Reed thought that the
song would be understood in the same light as
literary works by Poe, Genet or Baudelaire, he was
wrong. Critics were not prepared to consider a song
that used heroin as its subject to be anything other
than an endorsement. Reed has alternately condemned
those who took this view and reversed himself
somewhat and admitted that he was aware of the
misperception and accommodated it. Clean and sober in
1989, reflecting on his work in the ’70s, Reed
expressed a combination of both views in Q magazine:
I was really fucked up. And that’s all there is
to it. It’s like I really encouraged it. I did a
lot of things that were really stupid and I don’t
know how they could sit and listen seriously to
that stuff. But I catered to it for a long time
because I thought it was funny.
It was such a big deal, a song called “Heroin”
being on an album and I thought that was really
stupid. I mean, they had it in the movies in the
’40s—The Man with the Golden Arm, for Chrissakes.
So what was the big deal? It was like talking to
pygmies. People were offended because we did a
song called “Heroin” but there’s plenty of stuff
about that in literature and no one gives a shit
but it’s rock and roll so we must be pushing drugs
or something. I thought after all that stuff about
“Heroin,” well … If you find that so shocking,
take a look at this. It was a stupid, childish
attitude I had but, you know, as long as they were
going that way I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll give it a
little push that way, a little street theater.”
Getting involved in all that was like going along
with it, pandering to it. I don’t think it brought
out the most attractive features in me. 105
Most groups eager for success might be expected to
reverse themselves, eliminating anything that their
critics and the public found objectionable, in order
to bolster their chances. Instead, the Velvets stood
behind their work and endorsed Reed’s decision to
focus ever more keenly on society’s decadent elements
in his lyrics. The typecasting of the band as “sexcrazed junkies,” as one interviewer put it, drew this
Moe Tucker response:
It started as a sort of theater which the
audience took to heart. Because we sang “Heroin”
people assumed that we were junkies; because we
played “Venus in Furs” they thought we beat each
other. There were no smack heads in the band. 106
Lou Reed would come to lament this pigeonholing of
the band’s members as druggies, saying in 1974:
“There are certain things I just can’t do, image or
n o image. I mean, I did go down to Lexington—I did
all the stuff then. But I don’t now, and I think it’s
kinda sad that people are still caught up in
that.” 107
Reed seems to recognize the difficulties inherent
in charging out of the gate so strong, so young, and
so uncompromising. Alluding in 1998 to his pioneering
work in bringing literary realism to rock lyrics, he
said: “In some ways it makes it a little hard for me
now. Because I’ve done that. I can’t write ‘Venus in
Furs, Pt. II’ or ‘Heroin, Pt. II’.” 108
One thing Reed clearly has not changed his mind
about is the pioneering lyrical approach that he
began with “Heroin”:
Q: Where did the notion first arise, for you,
that the subject matter of songs like “Heroin” …
was something that could be presented in a pop or
rock song format?
A: Well I’d been reading Burroughs and Ginsberg
and Selby. I was a big fan of certain kinds of
writing. I had a B.A. in English. So why wouldn’t
I? It seemed so obvious and it still does. There
was a huge uncharted world there. It seemed like
the most natural thing in the world to do. That’s
the kind of stuff that you might read. Why
wouldn’t you listen to it to? You have the fun of
reading that, and you get the fun of rock on top
of it.
It seems obvious now, but …
It seemed obvious then. Well, to me. 109
Of all the songs on this amazing album, this is
the one that has always amazed me the least. And very
little has been said about the song by the band.
Described by Victor Bockris as “a tough song about a
tough chick,” 110 it has its strong points, to be
sure. The backing vocals (the characteristic tight
harmonies the Velvets used to great effect) are nice
enough. And I have to admit that the band sounds
tight as hell on it; but I confess I never realized
just how tight until I read Sterling Morrison’s
description of the song:
Metronomically, we were a pretty accurate band.
If we were speeding up or slowing down, it was by
design. If you listen to the solo break on “There
She Goes Again,” it slows down—slower and slower
and slower. And then when it comes back into the
“bye-bye-byes” it’s double the original tempo, a
tremendous leap to twice the speed. We always
tinkered with that.
Listening back to the song, a little skeptical, I
heard what Morrison described. So although I still
think it’s the weakest composition on the record, I
recognize that it’s a brilliant piece of group
coordination. The tightness of this performance may
be due to the veteran status of the tune in the
band’s set—remember, it was one of the three songs
they played at their debut Summit High School show.
There’s a detachment to the events in the song that
I find unsettling, though, with Reed taking a neutral
position on the “she’s down on her knees” and “you
better hit her” lines. It makes it tough—for me at
least—to figure out what the hell is going on in this
song. Street prostitution? Domestic violence? Women’s
liberation versus male misogyny? Maybe Lou was being
purposely obscure, or maybe I’m just thick. But with
the thematic clarity sparkling through on the rest of
these songs, and with the avant-garde edginess of the
more obscure numbers (”Black Angel …,” “European
Son”), this one seems neither here nor there. And for
once I’m not digging Lou’s objectivity, which seems
too distant on this track for my tastes.
It’s worth recalling that Reed was a songwriter
educated as a journalist and trained in part by a
poet. The journalist in Reed encourages him to stick
to the facts. The poet in him insures that these
facts are presented in a collage of evocative images,
often beautiful yet at the same time harsh; this
quality seems absent, or diluted, in “There She Goes
Again.” I think Reed’s earlier songs are considered
reporting that he was offering at the time. While I
would never describe him as an innocent, there was
more innocence in his approach then than there would,
or could, ever be again after his entry into the
world of Lower East Side debauchery, and later into
the Upper West Side intrigue surrounding Andy Warhol
and the Factory. It isn’t so much that the reporting
differed, but the reporter certainly did. Here, he
sounds prematurely jaded.
As a writer and consummate observer, Lou Reed has
always made himself available to drama, soaking up
situations like a sponge to squeeze them back out,
one shot-glass at a time, into his songs. Reed the
songwriter is inextricable from Reed the reporter,
but to me he resembles the journalists of his
grandparents’ time more than those of his own. His
ability to describe what he sees (and does) with a
zealot’s enthusiasm make his early work reminiscent
of the Muckraking journalism popular at the turn of
the 20th century. Like Reed, writers Jacob Riis,
Lincoln Steffens and Ida M. Tarbell were young turks
who re-invented their profession, covering for the
first time those things previously considered taboo.
Reed’s ability to focus on the dark underbelly of
life with objectivity and compassion evokes the work
of Riis, the slum reporter whose photo-essay How the
Other Half Lives revealed the squalor of turn of the
century tenement life in Manhattan’s Lower East Side
so powerfully it helped launch the American reform
movement. What Riis brought to newspaper journalism,
and then mainstream book publishing, Reed brought in
his own way to rock and popular music. Another
proponent of social realism, and a close friend of
Lincoln Steffens and other Muckrakers, was Hutchins
Hapgood. Hapgood wrote what, sixty years later, could
pass for the motto on Lou Reed’s coat of arms: “When
a man seeks his stuff for writing from low life, he
is at least sure of one thing—namely, that what he
sees is genuine.” 111
But Reed has most in common, I think, with Lincoln
Steffens, who authored Shame of the Cities in 1902.
Like Reed, Steffens cut his father out of his life
for no comprehensible reason, a decision that seems
to have affected his attitude toward authority. Like
Reed, Steffens was a young man on the cusp of a
profession about to challenge (and reverse) the
parochial preoccupations which had long limited the
subject matter it dealt with; and like Reed he would
have an enormous role in affecting that change. Both
men found their primary subjects in—and did their
finest work under the influence of—New York City.
Each was a representative of the intellectual, sexual
underwent in their lifetime. And both have been
called vital, creative, striving, and magnetically
charming at times. Steffens wrote his finest work as
a challenge to the “hypocritical lies that save us
from the clear sight of ourselves.” 112
Later, when Reed decided to cater to those shocked
listeners who were vocally indignant over songs like
“Heroin,” “Venus in Furs” and “I’m Waiting for The
Man,” an element of tabloid excessiveness crept into
his work. While ensuring his post-Velvets success and
lionization by ’70s audiences hungry for cartoon
decadence, that sensationalist element corrupted the
purity of Reed’s earlier lyrics. It was not until the
late ’80s that Reed would return to work that offered
such clarity. Perhaps his newfound sobriety had him
seeing things from a fresh, unaffected perspective
once more. Many long-time drug users describe the
experience of sobriety as being like a rebirth, and I
can attest to the powerful sense which comes over you
—especially during the early stages—that everything
suddenly looks new and different.
At one point in the early days of her tenure with
the Velvets, Nico and Lou Reed became lovers in a
consummated and constipated.” 113 Not surprisingly,
with so many egos and so many drugs, the tense and
rarified atmosphere in and around Warhol’s retinue
was less than ideal for romance, and the bloom was
soon off the rose. The big chill that settled in
between Reed and Nico from that point on made it
clear that it was only a matter of time before she
would be forced out of the group. “I’ll Be Your
Mirror” was written during the early, happier time.
While it has been said that Lou wrote the song
especially for his one great love, Shelly Albin,
there’s no doubt that the lyrical impetus for the
song came from Nico. Reed recalls Nico approaching
him one night at the end of 1965 and saying, “Oh Lou,
I’ll be your mirror.” 114 Intrigued by the statement,
and channeling his infatuation, Lou wrote the song
especially for her to sing. Her performance defined
the song to the point that in 1971, after Nico, Cale
and Reed had all left the group, replacement bassist
Doug Yule still used her inflections:
Greg Barrios:
“I’ll Be
Last night as Doug was singing
Mirror” I detected the Germanic
Sterling: Oh yeah, we mimic the way she did it.
She never said, “I’ll be your mirror,” it was - “I
be your mirrah.” It’s amazing how those songs are
still so good. 115
Before Nico mastered the song, however, there were
some rocky moments. During the studio sessions for
the album, Nico insisted on using what Sterling
Morrison called her “gotterdammerung voice” instead
of the “wispy voice” he liked; the Velvets weren’t
having any:
Sterling: She kept singing “I’ll Be Your
Mirror” in her strident voice. Dissatisfied, we
kept making her do it over and over again until
she broke down and burst into tears. At that point
we said “Oh, try it just one more time and then
fuck it—if it doesn’t work this time we’re not
going to do the song.” Nico sat down and did it
exactly right. 116
Performance pains aside, Nico truly made the song
her own. One reason she was able to fit into an
already formed and highly insular band and stake her
claim to any song assigned to her was her combination
of intelligence and empathy for Lou Reed’s lyrics.
Reed said, “She has an amazing mind,” describing her
work as “… fantastic … when I gave Nico a song of
mine to sing, she would totally understand what was
being said and perform it from that standpoint.” 117
One of Andy Warhol’s ideas for “I’ll Be Your
Mirror” never saw the light of day, and indicates
that his conceptual ideas were far beyond his grasp
of the mechanics of what was possible in a recording
studio in 1966. Andy’s suggestion: that the record be
“fixed with a built-in crack so it would go ‘I’ll Be
Your Mirror,’ ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror,’ ‘I’ll Be Your
Mirror,’ so that it would never reject, it would just
play and play until you came over and took the arm
off.” 118 The song is still considered one of Lou’s
finest ballads—it’s Norman Dolph’s favorite song on
the record, and one that Reed himself clearly favors:
“‘Candy Says’ … ‘Pale Blue Eyes,’ those are my songs,
from my personal experience. And ‘I’ll Be Your
Mirror’ … when people think of the Velvet Underground
they think of ‘Heroin.’ I was always more fascinated
by ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror.’”
Further proof of Reed’s affection came in 1989,
when he was putting together an acoustic set for his
new band. Working with a pool of approximately 500
songs, he selected “I’ll Be Your Mirror” for the new
set list. 120
numbers on The Velvet Underground and Nico that has
lost none of its power to surprise over the past
thirty-five years. In 1965, Lou Reed and original
percussionist Angus MacLise described their band as
“the Western equivalent to the cosmic dance of Shiva.
Playing as Babylon goes up in flames,” 121 and it’s
easy to imagine this song as the soundtrack to a
Babylonian conflagration.
tunings. “Black Angel’s Death Song” is one of several
in which the guitars are downtuned a full step,
creating a heavier sound that Cale has described as
“sexy.” Unlike certain other things considered sexy
(say, thong underwear), downtuning was practical,
too. The band frequently dropped a half or whole step
to match the tuning range of Cale’s viola. Instead of
gut or nylon, John was using a combination of guitar
strings and mandolin strings on his instrument, and
to try tuning it to standard guitar pitch would bow—
if not eventually break—the viola’s neck. It was
worth the risk, as the first time Cale plugged in his
restrung and amplified viola he heard “a jet engine.”
the sound of the Velvet
Underground, to the entire direction they moved in,
was arguably greater than that of any other member,
and he was clear in his attribution of where it all
The sound of the Velvet Underground really
comes from the work that was done with La Monte
Young … We found out what a great orchestral noise
we could get out of bowing a guitar. We applied it
to viola and the violin, and then I filed the
bridge of the viola down and played on three
strings … it made a great noise; it sounded pretty
much like there was an aircraft in the room with
you. 122
Stylistically, this may be the one song that
contains the strongest elements of the Beat poetry
that influenced Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, as
well as John Cale’s involvement with the Fluxus
Cage. The
surrounding the song is how it got the Velvets fired
just two nights after Andy Warhol came to see them
for the first time.
The band had been managed for a brief time by Al
Aronowitz, who thought they would benefit from the
tightening up that came with a regular residency.
Besides a guaranteed gig and paycheck (five dollars
per member per night!), playing several sets a night,
every night, is the best workout a band can get. The
Beatles had clearly profited from their Hamburg
tenure, as had the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds
during their residencies at the Richmond Hotel in
London. The Velvets, however, were less than ecstatic
about their Café Bizarre engagement. They had added
some cover tunes to their set, and even agreed to
have Moe Tucker abandon her drums for a tambourine—a
concession to the unmanageable volume levels inherent
in such a small space. But after being forced to work
on Christmas, the band was less than enthusiastic
about carrying on. Sterling Morrison tells it this
We were fired from our first gig as the Velvet
Underground. We played “Black Angel’s Death Song”
and the owner came up to us on a break and said,
“You play that song one more time and you’re
fired.” So we opened with it next set. The best
version of it perhaps ever played. We just wanted
to do whatever we wanted to do. And some people
came up and said, “Hey, would you like to have a
record contract?” We said, “Might as well.” 123
John Cale adds:
“Black Angel’s Death Song” was a slap in the
face, confrontational: “We don’t care where you
are, we’re over here”—very defensive. It’s trying
to have as many levels as you want in a song, not
just those that pop songs seem to fall into. 124
“European Son” is dedicated to Lou Reed’s Syracuse
friend and literary mentor, Delmore Schwartz. The
once-renowned poet disdained rock lyrics, so much so
that right up until Schwartz’s death Reed kept secret
the fact of his involvement in rock music and the
Velvet Underground, fearing that knowledge of his
musical activities would gravely disappoint his
former teacher. The Velvets had wanted to dedicate a
song to Schwartz, and—given the latter’s aversion to
rock lyrics—they chose the cut with the least number
of words in it (just over fifty). That lyrical
sparseness gives the song plenty of space for John
Cale to apply some of the techniques of the avantgarde Fluxus movement which had originally drawn him
to New York, and Reed and Morrison rose to the
occasion with some inspired guitar chaos. The song
stands as a key influence on bands like Sonic Youth,
Yo La Tengo and the Violent Femmes (whose “Country
Death Song” evokes “European Son” whenever I hear
it). As Sterling Morrison has reflected:
“European Son” is very tame now. It happens to
be melodic and if anyone listens to it, it turns
out to be comprehensible in the light of all that
has come since, not just our work but everyone’s.
It’s just that for the time it was done it’s
amazing. We figured that on our first album it was
a novel idea just to have long tracks. People just
weren’t doing that—regardless of what the content
of the track was—everyone’s album cuts had to be
2:30 or 2:45. Then here’s “European Son” which ran
nearly eight minutes. All the songs on the first
album are longish compared to the standards of the
time. 125
With all due respect to Morrison (and I believe he
deserves limitless amounts of it), “very tame” is not
a quality I would ascribe to this song in any
context. For listeners today, as for listeners in
1966 or ’67, the song is a jarring trip that provides
authentic surprises. After Sterling Morrison’s death,
Lou Reed reflected on the man he called “the Warrior
Heart of the Velvet Underground.” “When he had played
his passionate solos, I had always seen him as a
nostrils,” 126 Reed said. Listening to “European Son,”
it’s easy to envision that description.
Though dedicated to Schwartz, the song would be
fitting as a tribute to Andy Warhol. Its progression
from a fairly danceable piece of pop music into a
dark, cacophonous explosion seems a perfect aural
the EPI,
discotheques into laboratories synthesizing frenzied,
psycho-social catharsis. Perhaps because of the
dearth of lyrics, the song encourages a listener to
close his or her eyes and allow the music to provide
a story in image form.
On their live gigs, according to Jonathan Richman,
the band’s set lists would read “Hooker” instead of
“European Son.” As in John Lee Hooker, the bluesman
with the guttural voice, due to the group’s belief
that the main riff sounded like a Hooker song. To me
it starts out sounding like the cheesy riff used in
every mid-’60s TV show when a character turns on a
transistor radio to hear “rock and roll.” Bewitched!
My Favorite Martian! The Munsters episode featuring
the Standells! Suddenly, assassin dervishes grab the
tinny radio and retune it to a station only they can
find, a mystical signal lying between the lines where
the song is the same but angels and djinn join in the
din. A jarring noise like someone flushing glass down
a metal toilet announces that they control the
horizontal, they control the vertical; this bus is
now making some unscheduled stops.
Behind Door Number One is an accomplished musician,
melding Arabic and Indian drone scales with crunching
rock double stops: rockabilly rhythms from the
foothills of Mars. Just back of Door Number Two,
however, is a very stoned 13-year old kid who has
never played guitar. A go-go dancer keeps closing one
door and opening the other; Alice in reverse, she
grows larger by the second. Hers are the boots that
can split the marble floors of libraries, hers are
the boots that can build a Fascist state. Her eyes
begin to glow with inhuman ferocity, her body shifts
from flesh to vinyl, now hard, shiny plastic and
beyond: aluminum, iron, steel, plutonium! This is
“These Boots Are Made for Walking” as a football
chant for warrior droids of the future.
Janus-like sits the European Son, with Warhol’s
face on the front of its head and Lou Reed’s on the
back. Bo Diddley rides in on horseback, but it’s too
late for him to save the old rock and roll, and he’s
chased from the high school gym by the go-go golem
tearing up the bleachers, wearing Seven League tank
crushers on her feet. The European Son cocks back a
metal head with white vinyl hair and opens a mouth
full of razor blades and number two pencils. What
comes out is … silence. As Lou Reed will also learn
one day as he stands among the ashes of the VU: to be
victorious is to be alone.
“European Son” features perhaps the most obvious
integration of the Fluxus tenets John Cale brought to
the group. Among these was the idea that spontaneous
noises, such as a passing car, were a natural
component of the listening experience, hence part of
the song. From there it’s only a short step to
writing those sounds into the arrangement. Here the
distinctly jarring noise was made by a metal chair
being scraped on the floor by Cale, who then plowed
it into a pile of aluminum dishes an instant later.
But I still think it sounds like a picture window
being flushed down a toilet.
Part Three:
Morrison: I was never more excited about
anything, and used to call up Cashbox to find out
our chart position before the magazine hit the
Moe Tucker: MGM fucked up … they really didn’t
distribute it at all. 127
The VU released four studio LPs in their five-year
history as a group (if, like most, you believe the
band’s true demise occurred upon the departure of Lou
Reed). Of those four official LPs, not one managed to
crack the Top 100, while two failed to make the
charts at all.
Timing is everything in the music business, and the
Velvets’ timing sucked. Recording in 1966, when shows
like Shindig, Hullabaloo and Where the Action Is were
already providing a diluted version of the rock club
scene for television viewers, the Velvets were
languished on the shelves at MGM, the Byrds released
“Eight Miles High” which sparked a nationwide, antidrug-song backlash. To no avail the Byrds insisted
transatlantic flight to London (they were two miles
off on the actual altitude, but what the hell, I’ll
bet David Crosby made up for it with a preflight
regimen that included everything but Dramamine). The
machine of self-censorship was now in place, a Venus
Fly Trap just waiting for an album to alight that had
the nerve to pile homosexuality and deviant sexuality
on top of several unrepentant drug songs.
When MGM finally got the album into stores, in
March of 1967, they mounted a distinctly lackluster
promotional campaign, and later cut the budget even
further in the face of industry hostility. With the
album’s content guaranteeing a tough sell, the
obvious hesitancy of the record company did nothing
to deter magazines from banning their ads, or stop
radio stations from refusing to playlist the LP. Most
reviewers even refused to give it column space.
Still, with the dice so heavily loaded against them,
the Velvet Underground almost pulled it off. Almost.
By May they were charting in Cashbox, threatening the
Top 100. And then disaster struck.
On the back of the album was an EPI photo of the
Superstar who’d recently been busted and found
himself in need of cash. Emerson promptly threatened
suit, refusing to sign a release until MGM paid him.
After delays in manufacturing due to the need for a
special machine to create the Warhol-designed cover
whose banana could be peeled, and the considerable
costs involved in creating one, it remains a mystery
why MGM didn’t just pay to shut Emerson up. Victor
Bockris speculates:
willingness, to handle the product, one has to
wonder why they released it in such an expensive
package. The only explanation would be an attempt
to emphasize the Warhol connection, which a rare
advertisement they used certainly does, in the
hope that it would sell more copies. 128
In Uptight, Bockris quotes Sterling Morrison, whose
frustration is evident at the muddleheaded way that
MGM approached the already-delayed release of The
Velvet Underground and Nico:
The whole Eric business was a tragic fiasco for
us, and proves what idiots they were at MGM … who
even knows who took the original photo of Eric,
but MGM was far removed from any liability. They
responded by pulling the album off the shelves
immediately, and kept it off the shelves for a
couple of months while they fooled around with
stickers over Eric’s picture, and then finally the
airbrush. The album thus vanished from the charts
almost immediately in June, just when it was about
to enter the Top 100. It never returned to the
charts. 129
Reed in particular was frustrated by the problems
surrounding the album. He had worked for his father’s
accounting firm, and more than the other Velvets he
kept his eye on the bottom line. The delay in release
management team, and the relationship with Warhol
(which had peaked during the April 1966 shows at the
Dom and the recording sessions that same month)
deteriorated. Had there been no year-long delay in
which Reed could mull over the deficiencies of
Morrissey and Warhol’s management skills, the Velvets
may well have continued working with them. But it was
not to be.
Paul Morrissey: Verve/MGM didn’t know what to
with The Velvet Underground and Nico album
because it was so peculiar. They didn’t release it
for almost a year … Tom Wilson at Verve/MGM only
bought the album from me because of Nico. He saw
no talent in Lou. 130
In 1967, after the delay of a year in getting it
released, the commercial climate was even worse than
it had been when the album was actually recorded.
From a competitive and marketing standpoint, the
B e a t l e s ’ Sgt. Pepper’s album was out, making its
attention away from anything and everything else
released that year. Lots of other shrewd managerial
types were sussing out the enormous new rock market,
and records (some worthwhile but most mere product)
began flooding the stores. Suddenly it was getting
hard to be noticed, in marked contrast to the fairly
wide-open sales market of the year before.
In terms of the moral climate for the Velvets’
album, ’67 was also worse than the previous year.
Twelve months of press coverage had centered around
San Francisco’s counter-cultural youth movement and
generation of parents discovered the devil’s hand
behind the music their kids were listening to. The
John Birch Society revealed the startling truth that
the Beatles were merely beards for an evil think tank
of brilliant behavioral scientists who actually wrote
their songs (ah-ha!). The purpose: brainwashing,
plain and simple. These “leading pied pipers creating
promiscuity, an epidemic of drugs, youth classconsciousness,
revolution” clearly weren’t working alone! 131
It wasn’t long before the hysteria reached such a
pitch that American Vice President Spiro Agnew would
attempt to ban “With a Little Help from My Friends,”
having decided it was clearly a drug anthem. As the
Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll points out:
“The issue that united radio programmers and record
companies—what amounted to a conspiracy—was drugs …
drugs were a middle-class bogeyman, and even the hint
that a song had ‘drug lyrics’ was enough to get it
banned from the AM airwaves …“ 132
The Velvets, of course, were doing a lot more than
hinting. And their other major subject, sex, was also
under intense attack from radio programmers around
the country, although this was not as intense or as
new a phenomenon as the anti-drug backlash. “Making
o u t ” and “going too far” were ’50s clichés, and if
scurrying to their playlists and songwriters back to
their typewriters—as with Lou Christie’s “Rhapsody in
the Rain” that year—what hope did “Venus in Furs”
ultraconservative stewardship soon, and the Velvets
and Mothers would become casualties when the rock
wing of the label was reduced to those wanton, milkbesodden rebels the Cowsills. I’m no conspiracy
theorist, but maybe the writing was on the wall, and
the lack of support for the record was part of a
tacit plan to let the label’s most “embarrassing”
signing die by slow, promotional starvation.
Perhaps the final cog in the machine grinding the
Velvets beneath its spiked wheel was the failure of
even their hometown New York radio stations to
support the group through airplay. After getting
screwed out of the Dom, this piece of local treachery
was too much. The Velvets returned the favor: At the
height of their powers, as Sterling Morrison has
quipped, the group instituted their own three-year
boycott of New York City. Hard-core New Yorkers by
birth or choice, they wouldn’t relocate, but they
became a touring band whose fan base and favorite
place was Boston. The band found succor in that city,
which was home to future bass player Doug Yule and
future manager Steve Sesnick.
“Boston was the whole thing as far as we were
concerned … it was the first time somebody just
collectively,” 133 Lou Reed has said, and Danny Fields
points out the band was “phenomenally popular in
Boston … they could really make a living,” 134 which
they couldn’t in New York.
The appreciation Bostonians had for the group’s
music may have forestalled the dissolution of the
band long enough for them to double their recorded
output. Unfortunately, with no record industry in
Boston, nor the Big Apple press machine that New York
developments, the Velvets’ self-chosen second home
couldn’t supply what the band had needed all along
back in Manhattan. Still, as a native East Bostonian,
it makes me proud that Boston was one place that
recognized how great the Velvets were—in their own
Any book on the Velvets contrasts the commercial
failure of the group with its role as musical
pioneers, and this one is no different. Numbers don’t
lie—or do they? Seeing this album still selling
briskly, and being far more influential than nearly
every one of its contemporaries, makes you wonder
what “commercial” really means. Clearly to a record
company, whose bean counters tend to think in terms
of dollars spent this year versus dollars made this
year, “commercial” means a record capable of making a
whole shitload of money in one big lump. Longevity,
it seems, does not enter into the equation. It’s an
odd standard for an industry that habitually earns
large chunks of its revenue from releasing material
from old catalogues. A successful house stands for
fifty, a hundred, two hundred years; a successful oil
well spits out a bit at a time for a quarter of a
standards—need only stand a year, as long as it’s one
obscenely fat, lucrative year. Could this be why so
many major label releases have become the aural
equivalent of the crappy, pre-fab housing you expect
to find around an army base, shoddy constructions
whose clapboard looks split after a handful of
seasons, decrepit within a decade?
They’ve had over 35 years to learn the lesson:
perhaps now it’s time record companies start to
differentiate between junk bond albums that pay off
big for a while and then become worthless, and albums
like the Velvets that are the medium yield notes of
the industry—solid long-term stayers that retain
their value for decades. A shift to a new standard
could have happened around the time of Punk; it could
still happen, and the industry would be vastly better
off for it. It’s interesting, when you look for
standard than the quick-buck labels, to note that the
last label to sign the Velvets (before Lou Reed’s
departure signaled the effective demise of the group)
was Atlantic Records. Throughout his career, and the
life of his Atlantic Records company, Ahmet Ertegun
had always been able to see the value in the long
haul—when the artist had talent that merited it.
unexplored universe behind them—the Velvets had been
successful in their early bid to get onto a major
label that truly supported them? In light of their
ultimate trailblazing accomplishments, Norman Dolph
seems happy that his own efforts to sell the group
failed: “If Columbia Records had bought the record, I
think it would have had a totally different outcome.
I think at best they would have been Moby Grape. The
fact that Columbia didn’t buy it was a great favor to
them.” 135
Maybe the mistake, given the highly experimental
style of music the Velvets played (particularly on
the first two albums), was marketing their music as
rock in the first place. In relation to jazz and
classical releases, the sales of the first VU record
may not have seemed so dismal. Nobody expects James
Blood Ulmer or Sun Ra to sell like Michael Jackson.
On the other hand, Sterling Morrison surely would
have disagreed with the idea that the Velvets should
be measured by any standard other than the accepted
benchmarks for rock. In an interview given shortly
before his death, discussing the group’s achievement
of a highly saleable pop sound on Loaded, Morrison
said: “It showed that we could have, all along, made
truly commercial sounding records. We usually opted
not to, because our material was incompatible with
wonder, ’Could they do it if they had to?’ The answer
was, ‘Yes, we could.’ And we did.” 136 But if what
you’re concerned with is whether or not a band was
capable of making a truly great record, one that
would remain vital and powerful, beautiful yet aweinspiring long beyond the life of the band itself,
the answer is “Yes, they could.” And with The Velvet
Underground and Nico, they did.
Ed. Psychotic
Reactions and Carburetor Dung. ©1988 Random House,
New York
Greg Barrios, “Velvet Underground: An interview
with Sterling Morrison.” Original printing in Fusion
March 6, 1970
John Baxter and Alan Reder, Listen to This. ©1999
Hyperion, New York
Victor Bockris, Transformer: The Lou Reed Story.
©1994 Simon and Schuster, New York
Bockris, Uptight: The Velvet Underground
Story. ©2002 Omnibus Press, London
David Bowie “Andy Warhol” from the LP Hunky Dory.
©1971 RCA Records
Paul Bresnick ed., Da Capo Best Music Writing
2002. ©2002 Da Capo Press Cambridge, MA
Raymond Chandler, introduction by Joan Hahn, The
Midnight Raymond Chandler. ©1971 Houghton Mifflin
Co., Boston, MA
Jeff Clark; “Wal Mart Of Sound … Moe Tucker”*
Henry Daniels, “The Velvet Underground.”* November
5, 1971 issue of British fanzine Frendz; Excerpted
…” Guitar
Magazine, Sept. 1998. Harris Publications, New York
Bill Eichenberger, “The Songs the Thing” Columbus
Dispatch, Nov. 1989. Columbus Dispatch, Columbus, OH
al, All Music Guide, 3rd
Edition. ©1997 Miller Freeman Books San Francisco, CA
Bill Flanagan, “White Light White Heat: Lou Reed
Warhol” Musician
Magazine, Issue No. 126, April 1989.
David Fricke, Liner Notes to Peel Slowly and See.
Polydor Records #;31452 7887–2 [5-CD VU Box Set].
©1995 PolyGram Records, Inc. New York
David Fricke, Liner Notes to Loaded (Fully Loaded
Edition). ©1997 Rhino Records
Joe Harvard, The Jonathan Richman Interview: On
the Phone with JH, July 30, 1998. Little Big Horn
Publishing. Excerpted from Boston Rock Storybook at
Joe Harvard, The Norman Dolph Interview: On the
Phone with JH, November 28, 2003. Little Big Horn
Hear Music Artist’s Choice: An Interview with John
Cale. ©1995 Biscuit Factory Publications, Inc.
Clinton Heylin ed., DaCapo Book of Rock & Roll
Writing. ©2002 Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA
V a r i a t i o n s ” Musician Magazine, Issue No. 126, April
Ignacio Julià, “Sterling Morrison: So What’s With
the Fourth Chord?” originally printed in the Ruta 66,
Kaplan, Lincoln Steffens. ©1974 Simon &
Schuster, New York
Nick Kent, The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on
Rock Music. ©2002 Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA
Chuck Klosterman, Greg Milner, Alex Pappademas,
“The Fifteen Most Influential Albums of All Time (…
not recorded by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis or the
Stones)” Spin: the Ultimate List Issue,
April, 2003. Simon & Schuster, New York
Bill Martin, Avant Rock: Experimental Music from
the Beatles to Bjork. ©2002 Carus Publishing
Sal Mercuri, ed. “Doug Yule: Sterling Memories”
Winter/Spring 1996, Fierce Pup Productions. Excerpted
Sal Mercuri “Peel Slowly and See: the Velvet
Underground Box Set.” The Velvet Underground fanzine,
Fall 1995. Fierce Pup Productions. Excerpted from
Sal Mercuri, ed. “Doug Yule: Head Held High” The
Velvet Underground fanzine, Volume 3, Fall/Winter
1994, Fierce Pup Productions. Excerpted from reprint
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me.
©1997 Penguin Books, New York
Reflections In A Lone Star Beer.” Originally in
SLUGGO magazine. Reprinted in NYROCKER July/August
Robert Palmer, Rock and Roll: An Unruly History.
©1995 Harmony Books, New York
Harold Potter, arr. “La Cucaracha” sheet music.
©1934 Morris Music, Philadelphia, PA
Underground.” Obituary in New York Times Magazine.
Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton, VH-1 Rock Star
Encyclopedia. ©1999 Dorling Kindersley, London
Jonathan Richman, “Velvet Underground” from the LP
I, Jonathan ©1992 Rounder Records, Cambridge MA
©1999 Joel Schlemowitz, New York. Excerpted from WWW
ARTISTdirect Inc. Excerpted from http://www.artist,,510719,00.html?artist=
Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, Ken Tucker Rolling Stone
History of Rock. ©1986 Rolling Stone Press, New York
Dan Whitworth, “Royalty in Repose.” ©1994 AXCESS
1 McNeil, p. 24
2 McNeil, p. 17
3 Klausterman et al., p. 84
4 Bockris, Transformer, p. 70
5 Bockris, Transformer, p. 124
6 Chandler, p. 2
7 Harvard, Dolph p. 1
8 Ward, p. 321-2
9 Baxter, p. 155
10 Eichenberger.
11 Harvard, interview with Jonathan Richman, 1998
12 McNeil, p. 17
13 McNeil, p. 4
14 Modern, p. 3
15 Fricke, Peel, p. 8
16 Harvard, Dolph p. 1
17 Flanagan, p. 3
18 Fricke, Peel, p. 7
19 Harvard, Dolph p. 1
20 Harvard, Dolph p. 1
21 Harvard, Dolph p. 2
22 Bockris, Transformer p. 129
23 Harvard, Dolph p. 8
24 Harvard, Dolph p. 2
25 Unterberger
26 Bockris, Uptight, p. 116
27 Bockris, Uptight, p. 50
28 Flanagan, p. 3
29 Fricke, Peel, 22
30 Bockris, Transformer, p. 129
31 Bockris, Uptight, p. 96
32 Bockris, Uptight, p. 120
33 Harvard, Dolph p. 9-10
34 Bockris, Uptight, p. 51
35 Palmer, p. 179
36 Palmer, p. 179
37 Fricke, Peel, p. 7
38 Bockris, Transformer p 129-30
39 Harvard, Dolph p. 12
40 Bockris, Uptight, p. 50
41 Harvard, Dolph p. 9
42 McNeil p. 7-8
43 McNeil p. 8-9
44 Harvard, Dolph, p. 3
45 McNeil p. 24
46 Fricke Loaded, p. 2
47 Modern, p. 1
48 Bockris, Uptight, p. 50
49 Palmer, p. 231-232
50 Mercuri, Head
51 Clark, p. 3
52 Clark, p. 3
53 Harvard, Dolphe p. 3
54 Mercuri, Head
55 Bockris, Transformer, p. 92
56 Bockris, Transformer, p. 92
57 Bockris, Transformer, p. 92
58 Modern, p. 1
59 Bockris, Transformer, p. 129
60 Modern, p. 2
61 Barrios, p. 8-9
62 Harvard, Dolphe p. 10
63 Harvard, Dolphe p. 2
64 Bockris, Transformer, p. 100-101
65 Modern, p. 1
66 Modern, p. 2
67 Bockris, Transformer p. 84
68 Mercuri Peel
69 Flanagan p. 3
70 McNeil p. 17
71 Fricke, Peel p. 27
72 Bockris, Transformer p. 127
73 Fricke, Peel p. 27
74 Ward p. 337
75 Ward p. 339
76 Fricke, Peel p. 27
77 Bockris, Transformer p. 124
78 Bockris, Uptight p. 115-16
79 Bockris, Transformer p. 129
80 Fricke, Peel p. 20
81 Harvard, Dolpb p. 3
82 Bockris, Transformer p. 135
83 Bockris, Transformer p. 135
84 Fricke, Peel p. 14
85 Bockris, Transformer p. 107
86 Modern p. 4
87 Bockris, Transformer p. 92
88 Harvard Dolpb p. 11
89 Julià
90 Schlemowitz
91 Fricke, Peel p. 22
92 Bockris, Transformer p. 113
93 Fricke, Peel p. 22
94 Fricke, Peel p. 27
95 Fricke, Peel p. 24
96 Bockris, Transformer p. 108
97 DiPerna p. 52
98 Bockris, Transformer p. 157
99 Potter p. 2
100 Fricke, Peel p. 34
101 Axcess
102 Fricke, Peel p. 34
103 Barrios
104 Bockris, Transformer p. 71
105 Kent p. 169-170
106 Daniels
107 Kent p. 177
108 DiPerna p. 94
109 DiPerna p. 94
110 Bockris, Uptight p. 118
111 Kaplan p. 132
112 Kaplan p. 132
113 McNeil p. 10
114 Bockris, Transformer p. 106
115 Daniels
116 Bockris, Uptight p. 51
117 Bockris, Transformer p. 106-7
118 Bockris, Uptight p. 95
119 Kent p. 174
120 DiPerna p. 98
121 Bockris, Transformer p. 92
122 Palmer p. 175
123 Modern et al
124 Isler p. 9
125 Bockris, Uptight p. 118
126 Reed
127 Bockris, Uptight p. 106
128 Bockris, Uptight p. 122
129 Bockris, Uptight p. 122
130 McNeil p. 18
131 Ward p. 371
132 Ward p. 322
133 Bockris, Uptight p. 136
134 Bockris, Uptight p. 136
135 Harvard, Dolph p. 12
136 Fricke, Loaded p. 3