Velvet Goldmine

New York

Editor David Fricke with musicians Lou Reed, Moe Tucker, and Doug Yule at the New York Public Library. (All photos: Peter Foley)

WELL, THIS WAS A SURPRISE. As soon as I heard that the Velvet Underground (actually, a subset—there’s no true VU without deceased rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison) would be closing the 2009 season of “Live from the NYPL,” I immediately (and excitedly) assumed they’d be playing. So, apparently, did the rest of the SRO house. As program director Paul Holdengraber noted in his introductory remarks last Tuesday, the event sold out in three minutes and twenty seconds. Keyed to the recent Rizzoli coffee-table book The Velvet Underground: New York Art, edited by Johan Kugelberg, which collects a trove of unseen photographs, posters, ads, and other ephemera from the band’s 1965–70 run, the evening instead turned out to be all talk. Engaging talk, to be sure, but those expecting the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (or even MTV Storytellers) would come away disappointed. Personally, I’d just hoped to hear the only musician who could ever keep Lou Reed focused and honest—neo-primitive drummer Moe Tucker—play with him after all these years.

Another surprise: Lou and Moe were accompanied by Doug Yule, the callow but talented bassist/vocalist who replaced John Cale after the second VU LP, White Light/White Heat. While Reed and Cale’s ego clashes are legendary (and probably the reason Cale was not at this event), it was Yule who continued performing under the VU name long after all original members had departed. Hard to imagine the prickly Reed sharing a stage with him again. But there they were: Lou, Moe, and Doug, led to their chairs by the evening’s moderator, longtime Rolling Stone editor David Fricke, whose lanky physique and Prince Valiant hairdo persist, agelessly, from the past millennium. As if to bury their early image as black-clad art trash, the three Velvets appeared in neat sweaters and collars, resembling aging preppies.

Fricke started at the very beginning, VU’s first paying gig at New Jersey’s Summit Senior High School in 1965. Reed had no memory of this, though he later offered that original VU drummer Angus MacLise quit before the gig because the band would be told when to start and finish playing. This was unacceptable to MacLise, a staunch avant-gardist, who considered it a sellout. “Angus was hardcore,” Reed said. They then recalled their nonpaying residency at the Café Bizarre, a Village tourist trap where the band members were given a burger a night for their efforts. They were ultimately fired for playing “Black Angel’s Death Song” to an audience of drunken sailors, who started a small riot when the band refused to stop playing the tune.

By then, they’d been discovered by Andy Warhol, who wanted them to be the Factory’s house band. As usual, Reed exhibited much affection for Andy. “He was the great protector,” Reed said. “We wouldn’t have gotten a record deal without him—they thought he was the lead guitarist or something. He ‘produced’ our first record [The Velvet Underground & Nico] by not letting the recording engineer change anything.” The bigwigs at the band’s label, MGM/Verve, were “just stupid,” according to Reed.

Tucker chimed in, “Lou had a more scholastic relationship with him, but I loved Andy. I did some typing for him.” These secretarial duties were transcribing the tapes of Factory banter that would eventually become a: A Novel, whose title she unintentionally helped determine. While transcribing, Tucker would leave out the “icky words,” as she called them. Noticing this, Warhol asked her, “Maybe you can just put in the first letters?”

In the middle of a warm reminiscence about Morrison, Reed tourettically interjected, “To this day, I don’t think there’s been anything that’s close to us in the whole universe. We weren’t kidding around!” Reed continued that it was doo-wop songs like “Coney Island Baby” that made him want to be a songwriter. In the Velvets, however, he banished the Chicago blues influence that underscored so many rock bands of the ’60s. “In VU, you were fined ten dollars for playing a blues lick. It wasn’t legit—all these white boys playing blues.” Fricke brought up Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” whose bass-and-drums intro eerily presaged the VU sound. Reed recalled hanging outside jazz clubs, listening to Ornette through the grates. When Wim Wenders had asked him what his favorite song was, Reed said “Lonely Woman.”

Fricke then focused on Yule, who’d been silent up to this point. Soon after Yule started to talk, Reed got up without excusing himself and walked offstage, presumably to go to the bathroom. It was hard not to see this as a passive-aggressive swipe at his former protégé. “The first time I saw VU was at a Harvard party,” Yule recalled. “Cale was absent—sick—but the gig changed my life.” Asked whether he caught the transgressive nature of the Reed lyrics (like “Candy Says”) he ended up singing, he said, “I was very naive. I didn’t understand the songs at the time.”

Asked what she heard onstage at a VU show, Tucker answered, “Mostly Lou. He’s a noisy little guy.” As if on cue, Reed returned and, in the middle of a discussion of the wildly distorted scuzz epic “Sister Ray,” interrupted, “Do you remember what the engineer said during that session? ‘I don’t have to listen to this shit. When you guys are finished fucking around, let me know.’ We weren’t outcasts. They were stupid.”

Fricke mentioned the band’s poor reception in psychedelic San Francisco. “We were OK,” Reed countered, accusingly. “The press wasn’t OK. Rolling Stone wasn’t OK.” Defensively, Fricke said, “I was in high school at the time!” When Fricke started reading a quote from Reed, Lou stopped him. “I don’t buy secondhand quotes of myself.” “But it’s reprinted in the book,” Fricke said. “What does that mean?” Reed shot back. “I love Johan, but there are two mistakes on page 2.”

While in debunking mode, Reed also noted that the black clothes and perennial sunglasses of their early days were functional. At the time, they were often playing behind movie screens showing avant-garde films by Jack Smith and others. The clothes and shades kept them invisible and prevented them from being blinded by the projector. He added that not too much thought was put into the iconic banana image on the cover of their debut record. Imitating Andy, Reed remembered the artist saying, “Ooh, we have to do a cover. What do we do?” “Andy got excited about it because you could peel it and it was pink underneath,” Reed explained, drolly. “Nobody had ever seen a pink banana before.” He then got a dig in at the Rolling Stones, saying they copied the cover concept “years later” for Sticky Fingers.

Finally, Holdengraber ascended to the podium on stage right to read some questions from the audience. Pretty conventional stuff. Asked whether the band could have predicted that one day they’d be interviewed in the New York Public Library, Tucker flatly said “No,” while Reed replied, “I couldn’t think forty years into the future back then.”

Andrew Hultkrans