The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol story

Reed was the boss and main figure in The Velvet Underground. He had written legendary songs as (Venus in Furs, Heroin and Waiting for the man) already before The Velvet Underground was formed as a band. Lou Reed was born in 1942 and he grew up with his strict conservative jewish parents in Brooklyn during the Forties and Fifties. When he was seventeen in 1959 his parents sent him to a psychiatrist, to cure him for homosexual feelings and alarming mood swings. The psychiatrist recommended electroshock treatment at the Creedmore State Psychiatric Hospital three times a week for eight weeks. In 1959 you did not question your doctor. His parents only wanted him to be healthy and learn to behave proper. The treatment caused a lot of problems for Reed, because in the Fifties they didn`t adjust the voltage for size or mental condition as they do today. The voltage given to him was too much for a small vulnerable seventeen year old. He thought he had become a vegetable. He says himself
You can`t read a book because you get to page seventeen and you have to go right back to page one again. If you walked around the block, you forgot where you were.

For a man with ambitions to become, amongst other things, a writer, this was a terrible threat. Lou felt betrayed by his parents, and after this he really hated them. Friends of Lou who visited their family house got another impression of his parents. They thought they were nice, but just overprotective to their son.

Lou`s dedicated his life to poetry and black rock`n`roll. He wrote poems and played guitar all the time since 1954, when he was twelve. The year of his electroshock treatments, 1959, through the summer of 1960 was a lost time for Lou. From then on, the central theme of his life became a struggle to express himself and get what he wanted. The first step was to remove himself from the control of his family. His parents had other plans for their eldest son, but Lou couldn't fulfill their dreams. A homosexual rock`n`roll musician was probably almost the worst nightmare come true for suburban parent`s of the 1950`s.

In 1960 he went into the Syracuse University, where he developed his interest for music. While colleges in New York and Boston produced folk singers in the style of Bob Dylan, Syracuse created a bunch of proto-punk rockers. It was Syracuse where he met his fellow guitarist Sterling Morrison who had a similar background. But Lou quickly defined himself as an oddball loner. Eschewing all organizations, he was creating an image that would in time become widely acknowledged as the essence of the hip New York underground man. He wore loafers, jeans, T-shirts and he grew his hair a trifle longer than his other school mates. Reed also started with drugs at Syracuse, and using drugs at that time was very uncommon. He had big influence on his fellow school mates, so after a while he started to sell drugs to the clean-cut products of the 1950`s, who prepared to take jobs as accountants and lawyers. He used and sold Marihuana, LSD, pills and Heroin. Shelley, a girlfriend of Lou says

He got more and more into drugs, and he took it to numb himself or get relief, to take a break from his brain.

Lou`s homosexual affairs were mostly an attempt to associate with the the offbeat gay world. He wanted to create an an evil and mysterious image of himself.

Bob Dylan made a big influence in Lou`s life during the Syracuse years, because it was poetry and music together. Lou even started to play harmonica, but he stopped later because he started to sound too similar to Bob Dylan. Dylan showed that being a singer\songwriter could get you intellectual credit. In June 1964, Reed graduated with a bachelor of arts degree for the Syracuse College of Arts and Sciences.

Lou moved home to his parents, instead of moving to New York as many other students did after graduating. When he moved back home he got struck by serious hepatitis, after sharing a needle with a friend. He managed to put a band together, that started playing in the summer of 1964. He also took a job writing made-to-order pop song for a cheap recording company called Pickwick International. This company didn`t teach him too much about serious music, but it was here that he met John Cale. With him he would start The Velvet Underground later on. It also taught him the discipline of showing up, and it put him into the music industry. He spent five months at Pickwick, from September 1964 to February 1965, and this period provided the best on-the-job training possible for a career in rock and roll.

Terry Phillips, who worked for Pickwick International, brought Lou Reed and John Cale together. He had heard Lou Reeds's song The Ostrich and saw it as a potential hit. He went looking for a backing band for Lou, and he found John Cale, Tony Conrad, and Walter De Maria practicing together in New York. They formed the band «The Primitives».

Cale and Reed were skeptic of each other at the beginning, but went along in the band because Reed also liked the idea of tuning all the strings in the same tone. Reed and Cale had totally different backgrounds. Cale had a classical background on piano and he had graduated from London`s Goldsmith College. After graduation he was sent on a scholarship to study Modern Composition in Lenox, Massachusetts, but after he had failed to establish a rapport with Aaron Copland he went to New York instead. There he started to do some piano work with John Cage. He also became a member of the midsixties most avant-garde music groups in the world, La Monte Young`s Theatre of Eternal Music, were he started to play electric violin.
La Monte was an excentric man who had an apartment in New York who had daily rehearsals that lasted for around eight hours a day, where everybody was sitting and droned on one single tone. Lou Reed never joined the La Monte`s band, because he was only interested in setting up a rock band that could play his songs. He also became insecure when he had to put up with other strong personalities, who threatened his position, a problem Lou also had later in his career.

Cale and Reed started to play Reed`s songs for fun, and suddenly these created a strong bond between them. Cale convinced Reed that they would be better of without Pickwick International. They found themselves bonded not only by a musical vision and youthful anarchy, but also within the secret society of heroin users.

Reed moved into Tony Conrad`s apartment at the Lower East Side. The environment at the Lower East Side was a community full of artists, cinematographers, painters, sculptors and musicians. Conrad did not have the ambition to make it big in rock`n`roll and withdrew from the band. Cale and Reed had already started rehearsing together at Tony Conrad`s Ludlow street apartment when they ran into Sterling Morrison on a subway train.

He had left Syracuse for New York City College and had not seen Reed for over a year and was more than willing to return with Reed and Cale to the Ludlow Street apartment and indulge in some spontaneous jamming. Morrison was soon recruited into the fledging outfit. His musical influences were considerably more mainstream than Cale`s and his guitar-playing brought a desired hardness to the duo`s sound. Cale, Reed and Morrison started to rehearse together with a drummer--Angus MacLise-- who played together with Cale in La Monte Youngs band. When the Velvets were offered a gig at a high school in New Jersey - for the modest payment of 75 dollars- MacLise quit, apparently on grounds that he did not want anyone telling him when they could and could not start and finish their set. Reed and Morrison recalled that their good friend Jim Tucker had a sister Maureen, who played the drums. Maureen Tucker was a big fan of African drum sounds and used to turn the bass-drum on the its side, and then sit on its side to play it. The first concert The Velvet Underground played with these members was on December 11, 1965, at Summit High School.

Al Aronowitz arranged them their first jobs. They stole his wallet-size tape recorder at their first job. He says

They were just junkies, crooks, hustlers. Most of the musicians at that time came with all these high-minded ideals, but the Velvets were all full of shit. They were just hustlers.
Aronowitz got them into a club--Cafe Bizarre-- where they should play every night for a fortnight in December 1965. Cafe Bizarre was a place where only tourists went to because you could buy all kinds of exotic drinks there, like five scoops of ice cream and coconut fizz. Here Andy Warhol met the band for the first time.

Andy Warhol was an optimist who believed whole heartedly in the American ideal that every hard working citizen, given an equal opportunity, earned the right to become rich and famous. Throughout the 1950`s, Warhol was an extremely successful commercial artist, winning many awards and earning a great deal of money for his stylish illustrations for magazine articles and newspaper adds. He was very committed to the fact that his products should «sell» to the audience. At some point in 1960, Warhol`s art underwent a dramatic change, based on his intuition that banal, commonplace subjects would permit him to enter the realm of «high» art. Warhol had great success in the business branch. He was a specialist in the tabloid world, and he worked with a lot of celebrities like Elvis Presley. After Marilyn Monroe and President Kennedy had died, he soon started to publish paintings and photo`s of them. The fame and notoriety that played such crucial a role in Warhol`s art soon spilled into his own studio, a large fourthfloor loft on East 47th Street, called The Factory. This became the epicenter of New York pop culture.

The place functioned as a combination of a clubhouse, community center, lounge, and cruising area for some of New York more outlandish types - preening fashion models, ranting amphetamine heads, sulky poets and underground moviemakers and occasionally some movie personalities and rock stars. Warhol`s own growing celebrity became an addiction for him. He invested tremendous energy in remaining a topic in the news. His art increasingly became an intentional provocation, calculated to create controversy and elicit press coverage. His unflagging desire to generate shock waves often led him to impure sensationalism.

But it is Paul Morrisey who should get the credit for bringing Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground togehter. Morrisey:

Andy didn`t want to get into rock and roll; I wanted to get into rock and roll to make money. Andy didn`t want to do it, he never would have thought of it. Even after I thought of it, I had to bludgeon him into doing it. My idea was that there could be a lot of money managing a rock and roll group that got it`s name in the papers, and that was the one thing Andy was good for - getting his name in the papers.

Morrisey had seen the Velvets first gig at Cafe Bizarre and knew he had found the right group. He talked to the band and he told them that Andy Warhol should be named as their manager nominally. He suggested to Warhol to put his underground movies in a rock`n`roll context. When Andy Warhol came into the Cafe for the first time he was hypnotized at once. Image was all, and the Velvets certainly had it. Tourists were sitting around tables with their exotic drinks and the Velvets were on stage singing about Heroin and S&M. Andy Warhol said to Lou Reed that they did the same thing with the music as he did with his work. Lou Reed:

To my mind nobody in music was doing anything that even approximated the real thing, with the exception of us. We were doing a specific thing that was very, very real. It wasn`t slick or a lie in any conceivable way, which was the only way we could work with him. Because the very first thing I liked about Andy was that he was very real.

The Velvets were as close to art-rock as New York could provide in 1965. When Warhol offered them the opportunity to revert to a Factory regime they were happy to sign up.

The first thing Morrisey noticed was that the Velvet needed a different lead singer, because Lou Reed was such an uncomfortable performer. Morrisey suggested Nico to Andy Warhol. She had visited Warhol in the Factory one week earlier and she had already recorded an album in London. Nico was now staying in Paris. Morrisey and Gerard Malanga went over to France and persuaded Nico to come to New York to front the band.
She was brought up in Germany by her mother. At seventeen she was the best model in Germany, and to seek new challenges she moved to Paris where she soon became a star model in Europe. She got involved with drugs and met a lot of celebrities through her career. She had started taking amphetamine to stay thin.She had always kept a big interest in music, and in 1965 she was hanging out with Brian Jones and Bob Dylan before she started with the Velvet Underground.

Andy Warhol convinced the Velvets that Nico should be the bands figurehead, which particularly Reed and Cale found very repugnant. Still they acceded to their patron`s demands, because they were offered new instruments, free rehearsal space, food, drink, drugs, instant chic, in exchange for letting Nico do a couple of numbers. At the first rehearsals the band gave her a hard time. Pulling out her microphone, blast her voice away in guitar noise etc. Anything to make her feel paranoid. Nico once said that Lou Reed never liked her because of what her people had done to his people. Paranoia was the dominant theme of the Factory floor.
But Reed was persuaded by Warhol to write some songs that Nico could sing with the band. «I`ll be your mirror» and «Femme Fatale» are some of these songs from their debut album. Sterling Morrison

There were problems from the very beginning because there were only so many songs that were appropriate for Nico and she wanted to sing them all... And she would try and do little sexual politics things in the band. Whoever seemed to be having undue influence on the course of events, you`d find Nico close by. So she went from Lou to Cale, but neither of those affairs lasted very long.
Yet Nico`s importance in the early Velvets should not be underestimated. Her winter-day voice and icy beauty did add an extra dimension. Cale was certainly impressed by her singing, going on to produce a couple of her solo albums.

When The Velvet Underground joined Andy Warhol, he was thirty-six, wealthy, and the successful driving force behind a devout cult of artistic collaborators. Reed was twenty-three, strong as stainless steel, confident, and as ambitious as his mentor. In Warhol, Reed found the all-permissive father-mother-protector-catalyst-collaborator he had always craved for. In turn, Warhol saw his younger self in Reed and wanted to recapture that vitality. They were both isolated people who kept their innermost thoughts to themselves, and each could empathize with the other`s masked vulnerability. Each had had nervous breakdowns. For Reed a whole new world of possibilities opened up.

«The Exploding Plastic Inevitable» was a multi-media presentation, which opened at the Cinemateque in February 1966. The Velvets accompanied a 70-minute silent black and white film entitled The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound. The idea quickly evolved into something more ambitious, utilizing dancers, lights, strobes and slides, as well as film, presenting a truly multi-media performance. The Velvets had always delighted in improvisation, but the EPI gave them an unprecedented opportunity to extemporize while kaleidoscopic images were projected around them, dancers acted out conceptions, and people were encouraged to participate actively in the whole sensory experience. The band`s time in the EPI illustrated an important aspect of Velvet psychology. They had so many strings they could manifest themselves on. They could could be a straight r&b band; an avant-garde ensemble on the outer peripheries of music; a light melodic pop combo; a haunting wave of noise designed to complement Nico`s occasionally over-strident vocals; or any combination of the above. They liked doing this kind of happenings, but they were never truly satisfied doing the show, because after all they had their songs that they would record.

Andy Warhol says about the EPI

We all knew something revolutionary was happening. We just felt it. Things couldn't look this strange and new without some barrier being broken.

The Velvet Underground and Nico is an album even the band members never thought they would be allowed to record. Andy Warhol made the decision to record the album and then try to sell it to a record label, rather than the more convential route of securing a contract first. The advantage was obvious: nobody could interfere with the result. The disadvantage was also clear - no funds. The result reflects both the sense of freedom and economic limitations. It was recorded in a cheap studio, with only four microphones available. Prior to the sessions the Velvets rehearsed constantly, working on new arrangements, determined to transfer as much of their unique sound to vinyl as possible. The quality of the results says a lot for the Velvets` determination to the primitive facilities and the short time they spent in the studio.

There has been a lot of speculation over the years about Warhol`s role in the making of this historic album. He dit the artwork for the album, which is one of the most famous covers of all times. The banana on the cover is typical for Warhol`s work. This banana you could peel off and a pink banana would show up inside. The album also credits him as producer, but in a conventional sense there was no producer. What Warhol did qualified more as an executive input. Nevertheless, his role was essential for the completion of the album. Lou Reed put it this way:

Andy was the producer and Andy was in fact sitting behind the board gazing with rapt fascination.. at all the blinking lights. He just made it possible for us to be ourselves and go right ahead with it because he was Andy Warhol. In a sense he really produced it, because he was this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when we weren`t large enough to be attacked... As a consequence of him being the producer, we`d just walk in and set up and did what we always did and no one would stop it because Andy was the producer. Of course he didn`t know anything about record production...He just sat there and said, Oooh that`s fantastic, and the engineer would say, Oh yeah! Right! It is fantastic, isn`t it?

Paul Morrisey sold the album to Verve/MGM, who did not know what to do with it. The album was to peculiar for them, and they had just released Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention`s album «Freak out». Two weird albums in the same year was too much for Verve/MGM, so the Velvet Underground and Nico album was not released until a year later, in March 1967. Morrisey claims that the company signed them only because of Nico and Warhol appeared on it: they saw no talent in Lou Reed.

While they were waiting for the album to come out they continued to play in the EPI. They had big success in New York, and now they were invited to play in California. All the thirteen members of the show packed their bags and took the plane to California. Brimming with enthusiasm, they were confident that the rock gods were on their side and that in Lala land they would find an environment freaky enough to embrace their far-out sounds. What could be more plastic, more California, more Hollywood than Nico, Andy Warhol and songs about sex, drugs and paranoia?
They were wrong. The Velvets hated the West Coast sound, and when they arrived The Castle closed down after their opening night. But the EPI stayed in LA for three weeks because The Castle had to pay their bills to them anyway. Lou Reed started to argue with Andy Warhol about payment and that he was not the most focused rock manager that existed. Even though they all still believed that the record was going to be a big moneymaker, the hassle over the contract stripped the veneer off Warhol`s artistic affair with Reed. Warhol distanced himself from Reed. He would be gracious to Lou in his precence, but never really involved him in anything after that. They played two more shows the Fillmore Ball Room in San Francisco, that did not become a success.

When they returned back to New York, Lou was struck by a serious case of hepatitis. He had to go through a six-week treatment at the hospital. The Velvets played some very successful concerts in Chicago without Reed, and he got paranoid that he was losing control over the band. He was very frustrated over the thought that he was not the star in the band, since Andy Warhol and Nico got all the credits. He stopped writing songs for Nico. When he heard that Paul Morrisey encouraged Andy Warhol to support Nico`s solo career, Reed stated that the corporation between Nico, Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground was over.

By the spring of 67 the Velvets were outgrowing their association with Warhol. The EPI had become a means to avoid working on new songs and, despite the Warhol connection, the album was selling poorly. The art connection also meant that the Velvets were failing to reach a rock & roll audience. After the album was released the Velvets played some shows on the west coast, but the reviews were not good. The Velvet were called an amphetamine band, which had no good reputation outside New York. The flower children in San Francisco saw the Velvets as the destroyers of the innocence in the music that was going on there. They were the urban and corrupt evil from New York that would destroy the beauty in the Californian music. The Velvet Underground got tired of working with Nico on stage and Reed felt that Warhol had now made his grand rock`n`roll gesture. The Velvet Underground decided to stop working with both Nico and Andy Warhol. Nico started a solo career. Andy Warhol got shot right after the Velvets split with him, but survived. This episode changed his life so much, and he started to get even more paranoid than before. The Velvet Underground went on tour and planned their second album which they would call White Light/Big City.