Hi there, tumblr. I’m Paula Mejia, an unabashed noise nerd from Texas, and I’m psyched to be covering the strange and sultry Velvet Underground for One Week // One Band. Hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have in store for you this week — a combination of ramblings and varied angles to re-imagine The Velvets both conceptually and sonically.
Any mention of The Velvet Underground is typically uttered with either a reverent or fearful tone. Or both. And it’s not undeserving. Before writing “Heroin” and taking up residence at Warhol’s Factory, Lou Reed had been raised on a lifetime of shock treatments. John Cale was squandering at dealers’ apartments holding down the same viola note for three hours straight.
Although only active for less than ten years, and only about five years with core members Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, The Velvet Underground had one of the most short-lived but heavy resonances in the canon of rock history. What would be re-shaped and re-throttled as punk rock has velvet roots. The Velvets contorted white noise into a textured, hypnotic form. You can even call it desirable.
The funny thing is, the band credited with “changing everything” was never supposed to be famous. The Velvets rubbed with fame by pure mistake.
The Velvets (sans Nico) had a two-week residency at New York’s Cafe Bizarre, a place for tourists which, in the words of The Fugs’ Ed Sanders: “Nobody wanted to go to Cafe Bizarre because you had to buy these weird drinks — five scoops of ice cream and coconut fizz.” The troupe of weirdos had to have begun somewhere strange, sure, yet it’s hard to believe a tourist audience would have been happily sipping on prosecco during “The Black Angel’s Death Song”. But Andy Warhol was in the audience one of those days.
I have friends who believe that anyone crediting Andy Warhol with The Velvets’ success is a hack. While The Velvets’ story is so rich, it’s impossible to recount without touching on Andy Warhol for at least a second. After all, the silver-haired scenester was complicit in giving The Velvets material, financial support, and most importantly, opportunity. Warhol sculpted them into a living, gasping piece of what we would later call performance art: ironic, in your face, and commanding all the same.
Still, it amazes me how The Velvet Underground acquired such a status of cult fame that only intensifies as time passes. Lou Reed’s squeal ranges from uncomfortable to insecure at best. John Cale’s electric viola wheezes melodies like a hospital patient without relief. While accompanying scenesters posed with whips and chains onstage, The Velvets had their backs turned to audiences, unable to look people in the face. Albeit they were donning black shades before donning black shades was cool, so you couldn’t see the manic nerves in their eyes anyway.
We were never supposed to love The Velvets, a band both capitalizing and cursing their own depravity. For them it was all about the excess in the extremities. You gave them a choice, and they’d pick both. Not the poison nor the antidote, but rather the pharmakon — the sickness and the healer. The band placed the blackened death angel on a pedestal, and subtly championed sadomasochism as a lifestyle.
So what about this wayward group of vagabonds that still continues to swoon, petrify and mystify us nearly fifty years later? That’s what I’m here to discover with you.
This week, I’ll be tracing the shadows left by The Velvets and discussing what’s captivated me about them (thematically and otherwise) through the dissection of songs like “Sister Ray”, selected interviews, a cast of characters and more to piece together the enigmatic rise and fall of rock’s most peculiar success story.