Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground and Nico, page 1
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, thought-provoking arguments for the song collections at hand—The Philadelphia Inquirer
Praise for individual books in the series:
Dusty in Memphis
Warren Zanes … is so in love with Dusty 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 Magazine
Hultkrans obsesses brilliantly on the rock legends’ seminal disc—Vanity Fair
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society
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 Magazine
Miller makes a convincing case for the Kinks’ 1968 operetta of English village life as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius—Ray Davies’ greatest 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
John Cavanagh combines interviews with early associates of Pink Floyd and recording-studio nitty-gritty 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 Society,
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
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
The Velvet Underground and Nico/Joe Harvard.
p. cm. — (33 1/3)
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Nico, 1938- 2. Velvet Underground (Musical group) 3. Rock musicians—United States—Biography. I. Title. II. Series.
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.
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 always are). Editorial license should not be tantamount to a license to kill, so I’ve done my best to avoid character assassination, and sought confirming sources for any information I present herein.
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
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
The first time I heard the Velvet Underground and Nico record … I just hated the sound. You know “HOW COULD ANYBODY MAKE A RECORD THAT SOUNDS LIKE SUCH A PIECE OF SHIT? THIS IS DISGUSTING! ALL THESE PEOPLE MAKE ME FUCKING SICK! FUCKING DISGUSTING HIPPIE VERMIN! FUCKING BEATNIKS, I WANNA KILL THEM ALL! THIS JUST SOUNDS LIKE TRASH!”
Then about six months later it hit me, “Oh my God! WOW! This is just a fucking great record!”2
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 the group, or object to their preference for “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 three. 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 countdowns that Classic Hits radio stations frequently conduct, the Velvet Underground are 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 labels who controlled the crucial distribution 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.
GUMSHOES & GUITARS
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 rock music.”4 And when he formed the Velvet 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, the author of hard-boiled detective classics 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 said: “the average critic never recognizes an 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 band’s superb interpretation of Reed’s songs accomplished the writer’s mission of bringing literary sensitivity to rock and roll—just as Chandler had successfully struggled to raise the bar in pulp fiction—yet the achievement would go unrecognized in its time, while years later critics would fall over themselves to dissect and discuss it.
Reflecting on the revolutionary album he co-produced in 1966, Norman Dolph found an analogy in the 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
THE LEGACY OF THE “BANANA” LP
As I write this book, I can sometimes hear the television in the next room. A commercial for a show called 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 work.
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
MANY HANDS MAKE DARK WORK
Rock historians habitually reduce the Velvet 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 Reed-penned 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 critical balance between the disparate, often 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 result is water—but change the ratio even fractionally and the mixture fails.
Lou Reed’s vision for the band was unquestionably successful—just as Nico’s purposeful balance between earthy and ethereal, Sterling’s need to play 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.