Like "And the colored girls go do da-do da-do" in "Walk on the Wild Side"?
Sure, all of it. I had my first record out when I was fourteen [the Jades' "Leave Her for Me," in 1957], doing those kinds of songs. Now listen to "There Is No Time" [on New York]. If you get past the sonic blast, "There Is No Time" is just a very hyped version of that.
Where was the R&B in the songs and sound of the Velvet Underground?
It was always in the band somewhere. There were two sides of the coin for me. That kind of music – R&B, doo-wop, rockabilly. And then Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, stuff like that. When I was in college, I had a jazz radio show. I called it Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, after a Cecil Taylor song. I used to run around the Village following Ornette Coleman wherever he played. There was his song "Lonely Woman," Charlie Haden's bass on that [he hums the riff]. Extraordinary.
At the same time there was this other song, one of my all-time favorites, called "Outcast," by Eddie and Ernie. Like pre-Sam and Dave. Just killed me. I used to play it for the Velvet Underground and say, "Listen to this bass part, it's astonishing."
There is that little guitar quote from Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike" in "There She Goes Again," on 'The Velvet Underground and Nico.'
A nice little introductory thing, right? The thing is, we actually had a rule in the band for a while. If anybody played a blues lick, they would be fined. Of course, we didn't have any money to fine anybody with. But that was because there were so many of these blues bands around, all copping on that. And while I really liked the stuff for singing, I can't sing that. I had to find my own way. So all the arranging and stuff, those R&B kind of parts might be in the back of the mind, but it came out white. I meant what I said about Dion at the induction ceremony. There was a white guy singing that way, very obviously from New York. And I was very impressed by that.
How did Andy Warhol actually "produce" the first Velvet Underground album?
By keeping people away from us, because they thought he was producing it. They didn't sign us because of us. We were signed because of Andy. And he took all the flak. We said, "He's the producer," and he just sat there.
Was he merely a benign presence?
We just did what we do, and he would say, "Oh, that was great." "Oh, you should leave it that way." "Oh, no, that's wonderful." I'd been around studios before, writing and recording these cutout-bin kind of records, trendy songs that sell for ninety-nine cents. But Andy absorbed all the flak. Then MGM said they wanted to bring in a real producer, Tom Wilson. So that's how you got "Sunday Morning," with all those overdubs – the viola in the back, Nico chanting. But he couldn't undo what had already been done.
Were any of the songs on the first Velvets album written during your previous tenure writing quickie hits to order at Pickwick Records?
Some of them. "Heroin." I don't remember the other ones, but I know I had "Heroin" down.
Didn't you feel a bit schizophrenic, writing trendy, prefab pop songs such as "The Ostrich" and "Cycle Annie" by day and then something like "Heroin" by night?
But Andy was doing commercial art, then he was doing his other art. He supported the show [the Exploding Plastic Inevitable] with his commercial art. Where do they think we got the money to put it on? We didn't have inheritances or something. We were broke. Then Andy would do a TV Guide cover or something.
So I didn't see that as schizophrenic at all. I just had a job as a songwriter. I mean, a real hack job. They'd come in and give us a subject, and we'd write. Which I still kind of like to this day. I really love it if someone comes in and says they want a song, they give me a subject. And it's even better if they tell me what kind of attitude they want. I can divorce myself from it completely. Andy used to say he really liked it when people corrected his commercial art because he had no feelings about it one way or the other. He didn't feel anything, and since they did, they must be right.
Would Andy give you subjects to write about?
Sure. He said, "Why don't you write a song called 'Vicious'?" And I said, "Well, Andy, what kind of vicious?" "Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower." And I wrote it down, literally. Because I kept a notebook in those days. I used it for poetry, things people said. Just like in "Last Great American Whale" [on New York] – "Stick a fork in their ass, and turn them over, they're done." I first heard it in the Midwest; I heard John Mellencamp say it. I'd never heard the expression before. He said, "Stick a fork in my ass, turn me over, I'm done." I wrote that one down and changed it a little.
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