The Velvet Underground’s Not-Quite-a-Reunion Reunion

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“They can’t make us wait in lines,” my friend said when we were told the doors weren’t open yet. “This is punk rock.”

Rock band reunions normally involve, at minimum, a little live music. But as The Velvet Underground are not your typical rock band, maybe none of us should have been surprised that the reunion of The Velvets at LIVE from the NYPL on Tuesday December 8th had none. Still, there was something of a rock show feeling to the event, which was in anticipation of the forthcoming publication The Velvet Underground: New York Art.

“They can’t make us wait in lines,” my friend said when we were told the doors weren’t open yet. “This is punk rock.”

Hundreds of people were pushing around waiting to get in. Across from us a few trench-coated and ear-pierced men, who could have been smackheads from the early 60s, loitered around—they told the security guard they were hoping for extra tickets.

When the doors were open, people poured in and scrambled for seats. The entire room, which was quite large, quickly filled. Tickets to the event had sold out in three minutes. I decided to sneak in a bathroom visit before the start, but when I opened the door I saw a mass of people being held back from entering.

“The building has hit fire code,” the security guard told me. “500 people.” Some of the people outside were holding tickets. I asked the guard if I could use the bathroom out in the hall. He sighed, shrugged and said, “I’ll remember you.”  I decided not to risk it.

Most of the audience, myself included, seemed confused about what the event would be. The New York Public Library’s website billed the reunion as “the words, music and rhythm of The Velvet Underground.” However, the only thing on stage that could produce music was an old record player.

Soon the lights were dimmed and a hand reached from behind the stage to lift the record player needle. After a few bumbled attempts, “Heroin” was played in its seven-minute entirety. The assortment of bearded hipsters, aging rockers and eyeglass-wearing college girls nodded along in a sort of communal nostalgia for a time that nearly all of us had missed.

Afterward, Rolling Stone writer David Fricke (sporting a graying Ramones hairdo and tan jacket) walked on stage to loud applause—I think most of us initially confused him for a Velvets member. Soon he was joined by Lou Reed, Maureen “Moe” Tucker and Doug Yule, who replaced John Cale in 1968.

Fricke began by announcing that the record that had just been played was one of the things that had made him want to be a music journalist. Indeed, Fricke—one of the last remaining members of the old Rolling Stone vanguard—seemed almost like a nervous and giddy teenagers interviewing his idols. His hands and notes shook and he frequently interrupted the members to toss out random trivia or even to correct minor errors.

Lou Reed seemed disinterested early on, blowing his nose and deferring to Moe Tucker. When he was informed by Fricke that it had been almost 44 years to the day that the VU had played their first paid gig (80 bucks at a high school gymnasium), Lou Reed said their first gig was actually the Cafe Bizarre. Reed was immediately corrected by both Fricke and Tucker, which caused him to lean back in exasperation. “It’s not the kind of thing you remember,” he said. A little later Reed put his microphone on the table, which amplified him cracking open and pouring a glass of Diet Coke.rick moody swinging modern sounds

However things soon picked up and Reed began lording over the proceedings with brilliant cantankerous charisma, while Tucker jumped in now and then with nice anecdotes. Soon Reed was going off on his own tangents and ignoring Fricke’s questions. At one point, after being asked about the late Sterling Morrison’s rhythm guitar playing, Reed declared, “To this day, I don’t think there is much going on that can come close to what The Velvet Underground did…Not even in the universe.”

I doubt anyone in the audience disagreed.

Although The Velvet Underground are famous for lyrics drenched in sex and drugs, the stories this night were noticeably absent of either. Still, there were plenty of entertaining moments and anecdotes:

Reed and Tucker recounted early shows at the Cafe Bizarre, where they played five sets per night and were paid in hamburgers. One time this Jersey diner was filled with sailors who stopped their set to shout, “Don’t play anything like that again!” They did anyway and “all hell broke loose with chairs flying and that kind of stuff.”

I felt a little bad for Doug Yule, who was addressed perhaps two times. Partly because the discussion centered on the early years before he joined, but also because Reed dominated the event with Fricke happily helping him along. Yule did have a nice anecdote about his start in music. He and his friends had been asked to go asked to go to a show by The Barbarians because they had long hair and the band wanted longhairs in the audience. However, The Barbarians didn’t show up and Yule and his friends picked up their instruments and started playing around themselves. (Side note: The Barbarians had a hit single titled “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl” about metrosexual 60s hipsters wearing too-tight jeans. Perhaps an appropriate reference given the audience at the NYPL that night.)

Reed had nothing but praise for his former band members and also for The Velvet’s former producer, Andy Warhol. And he had nothing but scorn for the record executives, studio men and journalists—“the stupid people” as he routinely called them—who failed to get what they were doing. Reed said Warhol’s sole role as a producer was to stand in the studio and keep the stupid people from interfering. “No, no…Don’t change anything.”

The German singer Nico joined the band at Andy Warhol’s urging because he said they needed a “chanteuse.” None of them were attractive enough otherwise.

The one fleeting bit of live music came when Reed and Tucker sang a few lines of The Primitives’ “The Ostrich,” a parody song written by Lou Reed before forming The Velvet Underground.

Reed did a humorous impression of Warhol proclaiming “All Tomorrow’s Parties” to be his favorite Velvets song.

Tucker recounted transcribing Warhol’s recordings, but even though she was a rock n roll drummer, Tucker was offended by Warhol’s curse words and refused to type them. “But leaving the proper number of spaces,” Tucker said. “So they could go back [and put them back in].”

The nerdiest moment of the night came with David Fricke said he wanted to go over the records that he had heard influenced Reed. Fricke rattled off a list of obscure doo-wop, rock and soul singles while Reed groaned in appreciation.

One time the band played a concert in an airport hangar and when Reed was stringing his guitar and an ungrounded wire touched a mic stand and melted it to the ground. “No one knew anything then,” Reed said, noting that electronics and amplification were relatively new.

Although Reed heaped praise on a lot of African-American musicians, he noted that The Velvet Underground had a fine during practices if anyone played a blues lick. “Because it was not legit,” Reed said. “You had all these white guys out there playing blues and we didn’t want anything to do with that. We wanted to create our own legit pure thing.”

The evening closed with a few questions from the audience, which had been collected on cards halfway through the event. Someone asked if “The Velvets could do the same thing in 2009 as a new band.” Tucker initially said “Yeah,” but Fricke interrupted to say that the scene they were in was of a time and place and could she imagine something like that happening in New York today? Tucker agreed probably not, saying rents were so high that lots of authors, musicians and artists have left and this hurts the city. People clapped in sad acknowledgment. Reed countered that there were cheap places in Brooklyn (more applause) and that nowadays you could do music cheaper on computers instead of in studios.

Finally, the band was asked if, 40 years ago, they could have envisioned being interviewed at the New York Public Library at an event like this.

“I was not capable of thinking 40 years ahead,” Reed said to laughter and applause.

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An audio file of the event in its entirety is available at LIVE from the NYPL.

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Original illustration © Sybille Schenker

Photographs courtesy of the New York Public Library

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Lincoln Michel's work appears in Tin House, NOON, The Believer, Electric Literature, BOMB Magazine, and elsewhere. Along with John Dermot Woods, he created The Rumpus comic Animals in Midlife Crises. He is a co-editor of Gigantic, and can be found online at lincolnmichel.com. More from this author →