NOTE: This article was originally published at In Mala Fide on December 22, 2011. I’m re-posting it here as the site is now defunct.
The two most important things you need to know about the Velvet Underground are:
- Almost all the music you listen to was either inspired by the Velvets or inspired by someone who was inspired by the Velvets.
- Like most geniuses, they didn’t get their due until they were dead (in this case, after the band had broken up).
Now the hipsters and other idiots have glommed onto the legacy of the Velvets, obscuring their message with reams of bullshit. Just read the comments on any VU song on YouTube. Of course, this isn’t helped by Lou Reed, the heart and soul of the Velvets, doing his best to claim the title of the World’s Saddest Aging Rock Star. Had he done the right thing and OD’ed on heroin in 1979, he’d be remembered as America’s greatest poet. Now he’s going to be remembered as the doddering old imbecile who can’t even keep in time to his own song.
Still, the legacy of the Velvet Underground lives on in just about every decent piece of music recorded from the seventies to the present day. Despite being around for only nine years and living in obscurity the whole time, the Velvets spawned whole new genres of music with the four studio albums they released. Punk rock, indie rock, even heavy metal either wouldn’t exist or would be radically different were it not for the Velvet Underground.
All prophets begin as pariahs, and the Velvets never caught on during their brief existence because they weren’t just counterculture, they were counter-counterculture, against the hippies and the other faux-rebels of the era. I’ve come to the realization that hippiedom was never a rebellion at all, but simply stealth Christianity, its codes and rules stripped away, retaining its noxious core. The conflict between hippies and the “silent majority” was the conflict of two siblings living in the same house arguing over who got to ride shotgun in mommy’s car, not the total cultural alignment that the Boomers claimed it was. Ever wonder why so many of those “free love” hippies found it so easy to become Jesus freaks? Or why those same Boomers who did it in the road became Reagan Republicans in the eighties with nary a peep of protest? The sum total of hippiedom is revealed in an elderly Ringo Starr performing on David Letterman’s show, weakly urging his geriatric fans to “choose love.” Love, the debased commandment of a debased religion.
Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker would have none of it. Their discography was a vicious jab in the eyes of both the bourgeoisie and their pretend opponents. Where the hippies were pious and preachy, the Velvets were forlorn and frank. Where the hippies proclaimed drug use as a gateway to enlightenment, the Velvets spoke of it as a world of pleasure-fueled despair. Where the hippies were saccharine and sweet-sounding, the Velvets used guitar feedback, viola droning and distortion to drown their listeners in noise. Where the Beatles played at being wise Indian gurus, the Velvets drew from fascist and underground aesthetics, narrating a nihilistic world of bleakness, existential nausea and black humor. Despite this, they also pre-mocked the self-pitying bathos of their prep school imitators (I’m looking at you, Strokes) with songs like “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “What Goes On” and “Ride Into the Sun.” Even the more tender VU songs (“Here She Comes Now,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “After Hours“) have a mischievous or morbid twist to them. Hell, their name itself was taken from a bit of lurid morality porn of the time, a book on the supposed sexual degeneracy of the mid-sixties.
Before he got married and went senile, Lou Reed was not a man given to cheap sentimentality or pretty lies. An immensely talented autodidact who taught himself to play the guitar, his parents had his brain melted with electroshock therapy when he was a teenager to “cure” his homosexuality. He went to college at Syracuse University, where he was nearly expelled for his crummy grades, spending all his time spinning rock ‘n roll records on the campus radio station and rocking out on the weekends with his buddy Sterling Morrison. Following college, Reed stumbled into a job writing knockoff pop songs for a record label in New York; it was there that he met John Cale, a classically-trained musician who studied and performed with avant-garde composers like La Monte Young and Aaron Copland. Moe Tucker joined after the Velvets’ original drummer, Angus MacLise, quit because he couldn’t stand the thought of actually getting paid to perform. But it wasn’t until after Andy Warhol and his crew saw them performing in a crummy dive bar in Greenwich Village that the Velvets got their big break.
Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story is considered the definitive VU biography not only because it was co-written by Gerard Malanga, a close associate of the Velvets who performed with them during Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, but because it largely consists of interviews with the band members and their friends and colleagues, like this:
REED: “We had vast objections to the whole San Francisco scene. It’s just tedious, a lie and untalented. They can’t play and they certainly can’t write. I keep telling everybody and nobody cares. We used to be quiet, but I don’t even care anymore about not wanting to say negative things,’cos things have gone so far that somebody really should say something. You know, people like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead are just the most untalented bores that ever came up. Just look at them physically, I mean, can you take Grace Slick seriously? It’s a joke! It’s a joke! The kids are being hyped.”
Given Malanga’s co-authorship, the book’s focus is on the Velvets’ time with Warhol’s crowd, their EPI performances, and their short-lived partnership with Nico. The title is both figurative and literal, alluding to the original name of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Andy Warhol’s Up-Tight, and the supposedly “uptight” nature of the Factory scene:
The Velvet Underground were intrinsically related to Andy Warhol. Between them they reflected both the concept of rock’n’roll and the time in which it was happening more accurately than any other performers that we know of. Picking up on the current temperament, expressing uptightness and making the audience uptight is remarkably accurate. We may think of the Sixties as a “groovy” time of peace and love, but the international rock scene out of which the EPI grew was an extremely uptight scene. Just consider how uptight the stars in this constellation were: Bob Dylan and Brian Jones, who should be credited for their preparation and introduction of Nico and their catalytic presences on the scene, were both extremely uptight about their positions in the rock hierarchy. Nico was uptight because she wanted to sing all the songs and sound like Bob Dylan and because Bob had given ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ to Judy Collins to record. The Velvets were uptight because they saw that Nico could easily upstage them and they didn’t want to sound like Bob Dylan at all.
Up-Tight is an amusing and interesting bit of rock history, full of primary sources and snide, catty asides (like the authors’ description of Warhol having been “murdered in a NY hospital”). I read this one years ago and I highly recommend it as an introduction to rock ‘n roll’s most influential and least understood band. Over a decade since I first picked up a VU album, their songs retain a freshness that other music from the same time period doesn’t have.
Click here to buy Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story. (Note: There is a Kindle version of Up-Tight available, but Amazon won’t sell it to customers in the U.S. for some reason.)