A new documentary airing on AppleTV+, titled, The Velvet Underground, explores the highs and lows of the influential and irreverent rock band that defined New York’s avant-garde scene during the 1960s and 70s.
The film tells the story of how Lou Reed, the band’s mercurial and self-destructive front man came together with John Cale, a classically trained viola player from Wales to create the band’s unique, nervy and gleefully uncouth, sound.
Before the Velvet Underground became Andy Warhol’s pet project, they were misfits who alienated audiences at local dive bars in the West Village for being too caustic.
‘They had this off-putting aura, you know? Yikes, they were scary,’ says Martha Morrison, guitarist Sterling Morrison’s wife, as she remembers one of their early concerts at Cafe Bizarre.
Sonically dissonant music unpinned their menacing lyrics about existential despair, sex, drugs and hedonism, and the ‘shiny shiny shiny boots’ of a dominatrix.
Directed by Todd Haynes, the documentary also tells the story of how early struggle to gain traction gave way to small commercial success before the band broke apart in a drug induced battle of egos. The collaboration between Reed and Cale ended as quickly as it began.
A new documentary directed by Todd Haynes on AppleTV+, titled The Velvet Underground, explores the rise and fall of the polarizing band that defined New York’s avant-garde scene in the late 1960s. The film details the tortured early lives of founding members, Lou Reed and John Cale, and tells the story of how their disparate musical backgrounds came together to produce something that sounded radically different
The Velvet Underground was an unlikely collaboration that formed in 1964 by Lou Reed, a Jewish middle-class college dropout from Long Island and John Cale, a classically trained viola player from Wales. They wrote songs about hard drugs and hedonism, and called themselves ‘the Velvet Underground,’ taken from the title a 1963 paperback about deviant sexual subcultures
Andy Warhol started managing the band in 1966 after an ad-hoc audition for his art collective, at The Factory. ‘They were all dressed in black, they started playing ‘Heroin,’ we were just completely bowled over,’ recalled Factory-girl Mary Woronov. Warhol managed their publicity, produced their first album, and added Nico to the lineup, a glacial Teutonic blonde with a distinctly low voice (above)
The embattled decision to add ‘this blond iceberg next to us all dressed in black’ ended up being a good idea, recalled John Cale in the doc. Guitarist Sterling Morrison agreed: ‘I don’t think we would have gotten a contract if Andy didn’t do the cover, or if Nico wasn’t so beautiful’
They happened almost by magical accident. The band’s lineup, which consisted of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker, were as seemingly different as they were similar. Three of them had grown up on Long Island, and spoke with heavy Long Island accents. All of them shared a disdain for just about everything except a love for doo-wop, Bo Diddley, Booker T. and the M.G.’s.
Lou Reed was raised in a typical 1950s middle-class Jewish household. His longtime childhood friend, Allan Hyman, described them in the documentary as ‘central casting for Father Knows Best.’
From a young age, Reed felt disaffected in the small-town suburb and music became his salvation. His early training was in piano before he picked up a guitar around age 10. ‘I think I brought in Blue Suede Shoes and said teach me this.’
Directed by Todd Haynes, the documentary features in-depth interviews with John Cale and other key players from the band’s heyday; combined with gritty never-before-scene archival footage of New York City and The Factory
By the time he was 14, Lou had made his first record – and much to the chagrin of his conservative parents – began travelling into the city to perform gigs at a popular gay bar known as the Hayloft.
Lou’s parents were mystified by his defiant nature and sent him to receive electroshock treatments when he was 17 years old. In Reed’s words, they were ‘trying to shock the gayness out of him,’ but the punishment only further solidified Lou’s ‘unflappable spirit of rebellion.’
By 1964, he was a college dropout and working as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records; churning out 99 cent pop albums that were sold at Woolworths and other supermarkets.
Meanwhile, John Cale, a classically trained violist from Wales, had arrived in the US on a scholarship sponsored by Leonard Bernstein. ‘It was my first time in New York and I was appalled,’ he said in the doc. ‘Holy sh** this place is filthy.’ He moved into 56 Ludlow Street, a Lower East Side haven for the burgeoning counterculture scene, and started experimenting with insufferable trace-state like music.
Similar to Reed’s discontented childhood, Cale’s was marred by loneliness and misery. His mother ‘disappeared’ at a young age and he hardly knew his father. His Welsh grandmother, whom he described as ‘thoroughly nationalistic,’ disapproved of his mother’s marriage to an Englishman and banned the use of English in their household. As a result, Cale was unable to communicate with his father until he was 7 years old when he learned the language in school. Things got worse, when his mother effectively ‘vanished’ after she was sent to an isolation hospital for a medical procedure.
‘I felt very isolated,’ he said. ‘Things started going off the rails, I was on my own.’ Music was his only joy, ‘The life of the imagination was the life of the radio,’ he told the documentary.
‘I was dazzled by rock and roll by that point, I was dazzled by what The Beatles were doing and the lyrics they were singing,’ he said.
The obstinate rockers met by chance when Pickwick Records hired Cale to play backup on a dance song that Reed wrote called, ‘The Ostrich.’ Cale instantly knew they were attune with each other’s experimental music taste when he noticed Reed tune all six guitar strings to the same note.
They started collaborating and were soon joined by ‘the chick drummer’ Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker and Reed’s college classmate Sterling Morrison on rhythm guitar. They called themselves the Velvet Underground, taken from the title a 1963 paperback about sexual subcultures.
The Velvets were introduced to Andy Warhol in 1966 through the experimental teenage filmmaker, Barbara Rubin (left). She was a muse to Allen Ginsburg, Jonas Mekas and Bob Dylan, before she disappeared abruptly to join an Orthodox Jewish community in France. Rubin died in 1980 during childbirth at age 35
The Velvet Underground was all but over by 1970. John Cale tells the doc: ‘Lou suddenly went crazy and then fired Andy, and Andy called him a rat.’ He added: ‘The whole thing was done behind closed doors, I mean I had no idea Lou fired Andy.’ Months later, Reed pushed Cale out of the band too
Lou Reed was notoriously temperamental and reveled in being contrarian. He described himself as a ‘f—ing f****t junkie,’ but was married thrice to different women and famously preferred amphetamines to heroin. ‘He was not comfortable in most places,’ said his former girlfriend in the film. ‘And if he wasn’t comfortable to begin with, he really took advantage of it and made everyone else uncomfortable’
Reed’s transgressive lyrics underpinned the hypnotic drone of Cale’s bass, which, he said, was purposely ‘detuned’ and modeled on ‘the 60-cycle hum of the refrigerator.’ They’d later learn that their rhythm matches the same frequency of the brain in a trance-like state.
Inspired by the likes of Rimbaud and his favorite beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs – Lou Reed wrote laconic and nihilistic lines about the deviant world of sex, opiates and hedonism. ‘I thought that’s what I want to do expect with a drum and guitar,’ he said in old footage featured on the doc.
As their manager, Andy Warhol gave his trademark stamp of approval by designing the Velvet Underground’s now-iconic, debut album cover in 1967
‘If it’s not dark and is not degrading, it’s not hot and it’s not sex,’ he told his old pal from childhood. ‘You couldn’t possibly understand it. You’re becoming a Republican.’
The songs were a marriage of their strengths: Cale’s high-brow musical education and avant-garde taste with Reed’s preference for mainstream pop. They were trying to do something radically different during a time when The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys dominated music charts.
‘The way we could give Bob Dylan a run for his money was to go out on stage and improvise different songs every night,’ said Cale. ‘And Lou was an expert at this, he could improvise songs at the drop of a hat.’
The Velvets grabbed the attention of Barbara Rubin, a druggy scenester and downtown darling, who had her finger on the pulse of New York’s avant-garde scene. In 1966, she introduced Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground and invited them for an ad-hoc audition at his art studio – the world-famous ‘Factory.’
‘Barbara Rubin brings them in, they’re all dressed in black and they started playing ‘Heroin,’ recalled Warhol superstar, Mary Woronov. ‘We were like, just completely bowled over.’
The Velvet Underground became the Factory’s house band and Warhol was their de-facto manager. He ran their publicity, produced their first album and got them a recording deal with MGM. With Warhol’s endorsement, they had enough credibility to start booking gigs around town.
Tension brewed between Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, who described himself as ‘producer’ of their debut album with MGM. Lou Reed sneeringly clarified: ‘Andy produced our first record in the sense that he was there breathing in the studio’
Leveraging his own fame, Andy Warhol added the Velvet Underground to his multi-media art ‘happening’ known as, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable –which garnered audience members like Jackie Kennedy, Walter Cronkite and Rudolph Nureyev. After a doomed performance in Los Angeles, Cher, claimed their music ‘will replace nothing, except maybe suicide.’ By 1968, Lou Reed was tired of being a performing monkey in Warhol’s circus and fired him as their manager
The Velvet Underground pictured during the recording of Venus in Furs. Cale tells the doc: ‘As soon as Venus in Furs hit, I knew that we had a way of doing something in rock and roll that nobody else could. He adds, ‘All that was done with detuned guitars that I was really proud of because I said ‘Hey Lou, nobody’s gonna figure out how the h**l to do this’
But tension was brewing between Warhol and the band’s volatile front man: ‘Andy produced our first record in the sense that he was there breathing in the studio,’ said Reed (who died in 2013) in an old audio recording featured in the doc. Though he conceded, ‘But…he made it possible for us to make a record without anybody changing it because Andy Warhol was there.’
The pop-artist put his trademark stamp of approval by designing their now iconic, 1967 album cover which featured a yellow banana print that provocatively peeled off to reveal the pink fruit.
Leveraging his own fame, Warhol gave the Velvet Underground top billing in the ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable,‘ a live multimedia ‘happening’ that drew audience members like Jackie Kennedy, Walter Cronkite and Rudolph Nureyev.
Warhol brought the lights, ‘curious movies’ and leather-clad dancers, but most importantly he brought Nico, the enigmatic and impossibly beautiful German chanteuse who made her debut acting in Fellini’s, ‘La Dolce Vita.‘
‘Paul (Morrissey, a filmmaker in Warhol’s Factory) started convincing Andy that Lou was not that much of a good-looking guy. You had to have a beautiful girl in there,’ said photographer, Billy Name in the film. ‘Lou had to be just about begged by Andy to do it.’
They became known as, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
‘I know it irritated them to death in the beginning that she simply could just not hold a pitch,’ recalled the film critic, Amy Toubin.
Nico was a huge hit. ‘You realized,’ said Cale, ‘Warhol’s eye for publicity and the idea of this blond iceberg next to us all dressed in black.’
Doug Yule (left) replaced John Cale after Reed unceremoniously kicked him out of the band in 1968. Guitarist Sterling Morrison (right), suspects it had to do with ‘jealousy’
Andy Warhol, pictured with Nico, booked the Velvet Underground oddball gigs around New York City including the 1966 psychiatrists’ society dinner (above) where the band ‘acoustically tortured the guests.’ The following day the New York Times reported the events as , ‘Shock treatment for psychiatrists’
Though popular in New York, their experimental oeuvre didn’t translate to commercial success. Album sales in the first two years topped off in the tens of thousands.
Warhol took the Exploding Plastic Inevitable on the road, performing oddball gigs for audiences with lukewarm responses. ‘They’d leave in in droves,’ recalls Moe Tucker. ‘We used to joke around and say, ‘Well how many people left tonight? Oh about half, okay it must have been a good night.”
Their eccentricities were most apparent in Los Angeles when the Velvets played a doomed show with Frank Zappa and The Mother’s of Invention. ‘We’d never been to the West Coast,’ explains guitarist, Sterling Morrison. ‘And it was odd the way it struck us that everyone was very healthy and their idea of a light show was they had a buddha on the wall.’
‘They were hippies, we hated hippies!’ said Mary Woronov, who’d been a dancer with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. She recalled comically, how their outsider status among flower power set was on full display when they sat poolside skulking in head-to-toe black at the Tropicana Motel.
Woronov was more exacting in another interview with the New Yorker: ‘We were on amphetamine and they were on acid. They were so slow to speak with these wide-open eyes—’Oh, wow!’—so into their ‘vibrations’; we spoke in rapid machine-gun fire about books and paintings and movies. They were homophobic; we were homosexual. Their women, they were these big round-t****d girls, you would say hello to them and they would just flop down on the bed and f**k you; we liked sexual tension, S & M, not f*****g. They were barefoot; we had platform boots. They were eating bread they had baked themselves—and we never ate at all!’
The contempt was mutual: ‘It will replace nothing, except maybe suicide,’ said Cher about the Velvet Underground. Record sales were dismal.
The Velvets are pictured playing at the psychiatry convention in 1966 at The Delmonico Hotel. Barbara Rubin took part in the performance by taunting the physiatrists with vile questions alongside Edie Sedgewick who performed a BDSM-inspired ‘whip dance’
‘They had this off-putting aura, you know? Yikes, they were scary,’ says Sterling Morrison’s wife in the film. ‘The thing that we understood…was how much disdain we had for everything else, ‘ explained Cale. ‘In the end, unfortunately, it became each of us’
The Velvet Underground tried to do something radically different during a time when The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys dominated music charts. Though popular in New York, their experimental oeuvre didn’t translate to commercial success, and after five years, their first album only sold 30,000 copies
Reed fired John Cale in 1967. ‘I really didn’t know how to please him,’ recalled Cale. ‘There was nothing I could do. You try to be nice and he’d hate you more’
By the second album, tension was running high between the bandmembers and things were on the fritz. The songs were more off-the-cuff and aggressive, ‘straight amphetamine,’ says Cale.
Then, ‘Lou suddenly went crazy and fired Andy and Andy called him a rat,’ recalls Cale. ‘The whole thing was done behind closed doors, I mean I had no idea.’
Shortly after Warhol’s departure, Reed unceremoniously kicked Cale out of the band too. Sterling Morrison, suspects it had to do with ‘jealousy.’
‘I really didn’t know how to please him,’ said Cale, ‘There was nothing I could do. You try to be nice and he’d hate you more.’
‘The thing that we understood…was how much disdain we had for everything else, in the end, unfortunately, it became each of us.’
Later in the film, Cale laments: ‘Maybe if all those drugs hadn’t been around, we would have all been pushing for something, but it was the time to really back off for a minute because the trust was gone.’
Reed took the band in a more mainstream direction, creating radio-friendly songs like Sweet Jane and Rock & Roll. After all, his goal from the very beginning was simple: ‘I want to be rich and I want to be a rockstar.’
It was all over by August 1970 when Reed – infamously self-destructive and capricious – decided to quit the band one hour before they were set to play at Max’s Kansas City. Their last album, Loaded, was released later that year.
Reed recalled being completely surprised when he saw the record in stores, ‘I left them to their album full of hits that I made.’
After the Velvet Underground, Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker became a mother of five children and pursued a short-lived solo career in music. Sterling Morrison received a Ph.D in medieval literature and worked as a tugboat captain. Lou Reed embarked on what Rolling Stone called, ‘one of the most self-indulgent and self-defeating solo careers in the annals of rock.’
John Cale became a writer and producer in his own right with seminal albums for The Stooges, Patti Smith and The Modern Lovers.
He and Lou Reed mended their friendship during the 1970s, but never worked together again until 1990, with a joint album titled, Songs For Drella – a combination of Cinderella and Dracula – a name they both agreed was a fitting moniker for Warhol.
The brief life of the Velvet Underground was regarded as a massive commercial failure at the time. (Their first album only sold 30,000 copies in five years). But their short-lived existence would eventually give way to a towering legacy for future generations of musicians. As Brian Eno once said: ‘I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!’