More than half a century ago, the Velvet Underground formed in downtown Manhattan and five decades later, the group has given their blessing to a new exhibition devoted to their legacy. The Velvet Underground Experience opened in Greenwich Village this week — a quick walk from where they first formed — and to mark the occasion, violist and co-founder John Cale participated in a talk at the exhibit.
The Q&A took place in the exhibit’s Bandsintown Studio, located in the bulding’s sub-basement, making for a truly underground happening in front of a small audience. The exhibition itself features photos, video and memorabilia not just related to the band but to the “other” New York that was going on in the Sixties: Andy Warhol’s art, Jonas Mekas’ film exhibitions, the underground press, etc. Its goal is not just to tell the story of the Velvet Underground – which it does with rare pictures of the band’s early gigs and insights into their entourage, like Edie Sedgwick – but to provide context for a period in New York’s history that changed the art world.
It’s a legacy that Cale, dressed entirely in dark colors, was humble about in conversation, when the event’s moderator kept pressing him on their importance and comparing them to Led Zeppelin. Despite his humility, Cale shared many tidbits about how the Velvet Underground operated, their relationship with Andy Warhol and his own solo career. Here are 10 things we learned from the talk.
1. The band’s early shows were pure sonic chaos.
“I’ve looked carefully at all the photos of the band at [New York venue] Dom, and you’ll see there are three amplifiers there and Moe’s drums,” he said. “So out of those amps came Lou’s lead vocal, Nico’s lead vocal, Sterling and I’s harmony, our guitars and our bass. So you can imagine what a horrendous noise was coming out of this. And we broke all the speakers.”
2. The Velvet Underground once confounded a psychiatrist convention.
The band played a gig just for shrinks and blasted them with enough subject matter that they might as well have paid for a therapy session. Their set list, he said, included songs loaded with dark imagery like “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs.” Still, Cale thinks they knew what they were in for since they’d seen Sedgwick dancing to the music. “Some of them were incandescent,” Cale said. “Some of [the psychiatrists] were puzzled and trying to understand, ‘Did I hear that right?'”
3. Lou Reed knew the group was ahead of its time.
“It was like, ‘You know as well as I do that there’s a lot of shit going on here [in the music] and we don’t have to explain it all now. But you will notice in a couple of years, you’ll come back and say, yeah.’ Lou was constantly saying that,” he recalled.
4. The Velvet Underground played gigs that accompanied silent films.
“[Filmmaker] Jonas [Mekas] wanted to show films that didn’t have a soundtrack,” he recalled. “He wanted to have music played in front of the audience. … He brought us in. And they screened the film on us.”
5. Andy Warhol knew the music had no true commercial potential.
“He took a look at us and said, ‘This music is not the kind of stuff you’re gonna have on the radio or in clubs or whatever,'” Cale said. “So he put us in all sorts of artistic venues like the Chrysler Museum in Massachusetts. And all the places he put us in were OK up until the point that Andy said, ‘You know, Lou, it’s all very well. I could put you in all these places, but you’ve got an audience out there.’ So he knew exactly where the problems were with the situation. But by that time, Lou had fired him.” Additionally, Cale said Reed felt like the Velvet Underground were seen as an appendage of Warhol’s work, causing him to sever the relationship.
6. The group eventually developed an improvisation technique that Cale quite liked.
“We didn’t want to play the same songs every night,” he said. “So let’s start with this idea: Moe goes out and keeps the beat, then Sterling would go out and play bass, then I would go out and play viola and then finally, wherever we are musically, Lou popped up and played guitar and then [would] start making up a song. That’s really what I wanted us to do all along. I wanted us to go out and do concerts that would never be the same twice.” One time, Reed really surprised him. “One night, Lou adopted this persona of a southern preacher and he was preaching,” he said. “It was extraordinary. It was so exciting.”
7. Warhol introduced Nico to the Velvet Underground because he wanted to give them beauty.
“He was looking at the band,” Cale recalled, “and he said, ‘You need some beauty in here.’ Yes, the music is good. But people really want something else, and he brought Nico. Not because Nico experimented with Bob Dylan in upstate New York. It was because he understood the mixture quotient, the balance. What he did was he created a disturbance in the band. … I think not knowing what was happening next was one of the causes of the destruction of the band.”
8. Cale had a falling-out with Reed at the end of their Songs for Drella session.
After Warhol’s death in 1987, the two musicians reunited to make a work in honor of their onetime manager. It went well almost to the end. “It was really easy to set it up,” he said. “We agreed to do all this work. So we had three weeks. We rented a studio and recorded everything we did and chose which ones were going to work. At the end we looked at it and it was fine. We had really good ideas and some interesting music. … But at the end of the process – it’s always at the end of the process when something goes wrong – Lou just didn’t want my name on the record. So I had to make choices. I don’t know what you think I did do or didn’t do. But I didn’t do all this work so I could be insulted. By that time, it was too late and we put it out and made the film. But it was done with the right spirit and the right heart.” The Songs for Drella album came out in 1990.
9. He first heard Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in an unusual place.
Cale earned an unusual hit with his cover when it appeared in the 2001 film Shrek, but he had recorded it a decade earlier for the compilation I’m Your Fan. He discovered it in an unusual place. “I went to a Dylan concert and the first song that was by the opening act was ‘Hallelujah’ with a choir,” he recalled. “I’d never heard it before so I went out looking for it. I wound up asking Leonard for the lyrics and he sent me the lyrics: 15 verses. So I chose all the cheeky verses, the ones that weren’t quite right. I couldn’t sing the religious ones. You could tell from the structure of that thing, it was going to be around for a long time.”
10. He learned some valuable lessons from Andy Warhol.
“There’s the usual one, which was, ‘What looks like a mistake at first sight is not,'” he said. “And you’ve got to allow things to breathe, you’ve got to allow things to hang around and jangle against things you’re unfamiliar with or unsure of it. He used to do that, and his art is full of awkwardnesses.”