PRINT May 1996


Velvet Underground

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND made their first public appearance with Andy Warhol and others at the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry’s annual banquet for 1966. Warhol, David Bourdon has written, had been invited to lecture, but decided instead “to entertain the group with two of his movies, Harlot and Henry Geldzahler, and the Velvets’ music. . . . Soon after the main course was served, . . . fiercely amplified rock music . . . drowned out conversations. Nico . . . groaned incoherently into the microphone. On stage, [Gerard] Malanga threw himself into his strenuous whip dance, while Edie Sedgwick launched into leggy gyrations.” What Warhol himself did Bourdon does not record. A fascinating, perplexing brilliance around whom many things spun centrifugally, sometimes hitting—thwack—walls of their own devising, he was not so much taking the temperature (bend over) of the zeitgeist as giving it the psycho- and narcoanalysis it needed but never asked for. The musical accompaniment of that analysis (the Velvet Underground), taking some of its cues from Warhol himself, was, among other things (aphasic, liberatory, amazed, cruel, speed-driven, highly conscious), antipsychedelic and nonutopian, forecasting the end of ’60s culture. It should come as no surprise how few wanted to hear it.

The Velvet Years is scattered with important anecdotes (Billy Name: “The Factory was probably the first place where homosexuality was treated naturally in the arts scene”), and Stephen Shore’s careful, intimate photographs help situate the empty silver-foil chic of the Factory and life-about-town with Andy, but Lynne Tillman removes her intimations entirely (despite having been involved with former Velvet John Cale), obscuring the ferocious intelligence so apparent in her novels and Madame Realism essays by composing, except for her brief introduction, a text of interviews. Since the book ends in 1967, the year of the first VU release, it isn’t filled with revelations about the VU, and for whatever reason there is no interview with Lou Reed (though Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker speak interestingly). For a more obsessed, adorable (if maddeningly organized), and, despite the editor’s anonymity, quirkily personal accumulation of song lyrics, obscure interviews, and journalistic profiles that chart how critics and fans have tried to understand the VU, there is The Velvet Underground File, a Xerox mix of archival material, of which I Shot Andy Warhol director Mary Harron’s 1981 article “The Lost History of the Velvet Underground” and Dave Hickey’s “All That Glitters Is Not Lou Reed” will be of particular interest. Whatever the strengths of both these books, the recently released new edition of Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story, by Victor Bockris/Gerard Malanga, remains the most thorough exposé of the group.

The Velvets continue to be crucial today because they were interested not only in song but in all kinds of noise—feedback, silence, fuzz; sinister acoustic assault as well as pure lyricism—which is to say, in all forms of life making such noise. The magnificent Polydor box set Peel Slowly and See allows anyone to hear the history of their sound’s extreme beauty—from its inception (demo tapes from 1965) through the band’s four studio albums to live sessions, outtakes, and previously unreleased bijoux. The box reproduces Warhol’s droll, sexy cover for The Velvet Underground and Nico, a sunshine-yellow banana skin that peeled off to reveal a hot, cock-pink banana. Credited as producer of this first album, Warhol actually had the genius to do nothing, giving the Velvets free reign to do what they did—smooth and raucous never-ending doses of nocturnal hits.

A ’60s clip in Susanne Ofteringer’s brilliant film Nico Icon shows Warhol saying, “We’re sponsoring a new band, it’s called the Velvet Underground, and, uh . . . since I don’t believe in painting anymore I thought it would be a nice way to combine music and art and films all together. . . . It might be very glamorous.” Much of the glamour was provided by the austere reflective blondeness of Nico. Besides documenting who Nico was before she got to the Factory, Nico Icon reveals the life and aftermath of a woman who had a vital capacity for detachment (“She couldn’t bear being touched”). Nico’s talent was to illuminate the maelstrom within stillness and absence. She confirmed the aristocracy of being bad: nearing a customs check, “Nico would be putting heroin up her ass.” Her flat, sonorous, haunting voice sounds like Peggy Lee hung over and contemplating a sex change. If many remain deaf to her chill tonalities, it is often because they are unable or unwilling to heed her “frozen warnings,” as one of her most beautiful songs is entitled; they forget the addiction inherent in any musical score. Nico sang that flesh is flesh, that keepsakes keep nothing, that knowledge of life means a keen awareness of what is mistaken as life’s opposite. Clean for the last two years of her life, she died in 1988 in Ibiza. Her son, Ari, says it was the sun that killed her.

Bruce Hainley contributes regularly to Artforum.


The Velvet Underground: Peel Slowly and See (Polydor, 1995). The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory 1965-67, photographs by Stephen Shore, text by Lynne Tillman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1995). The Velvet Underground File (Aes-Nihil Books, 1995). Nico Icon, a film by Susanne Ofteringer.