The Birth of Cool: 50 Years of The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Birth of Cool: 50 Years of The Velvet Underground & Nico

In July of 1965, Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison pushed record on a Wollensack reel-to-reel machine and captured early versions of six Velvet Underground tracks. The songs on this rehearsal tape — made in an apartment on Ludlow Street in New York, for which Cale and Reed paid $25 a month — are as tentative as they are formative, folky strumming over the steady saw of Cale’s viola. They were looking, Cale once said, for a sound that combined “the music of Erik Satie, John Cage, Phil Spector, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan.” It would take them — joined by drummer Maureen Tucker and It Girl chanteuse Nico — a little less than a year to get there, but when they did they would go much further still, creating an album of inexhaustible power.

Released on March 12, 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico would prove to be as influential as the world-conquering groove of Motown or the popcraft of The Beatles. Not at first, of course. It was a failure, climbing to 171 on the Billboard album chart, then disappearing — literally, when the first pressing was pulled due a legal issue concerning a photo on the back cover. But over time, this album’s combination of seemingly conflicting elements — R&B rhythm guitar and avant garde drone; desperate sentimentalism and transgressive hedonism; aggressive masculinity and gay camp; pop ambition and pure art — would unlock an ocean of possibilities.

Everything the Velvet Underground would chase after on the three studio albums that followed, as well as the revelatory live tapes that continue to surface, untangles strands first tied together here: the famously brutal second album (said to be a reaction to the failure of the first) an exploration of the unhinged guitar noise of “European Son” that pushed past all limits until there’s no difference between performance and life; the hushed moral sunrises and sunsets of the third album an expansion of the delicacy of “Sunday Morning” and the empathy of “I’ll Be Your Mirror”; the snap of Loaded an attempt to harness the rock & roll concision of “There She Goes Again” and “Run, Run, Run.”

For the musicians who took inspiration from the Velvet Underground to clear space for world-changing music of their own — music that sometimes reached the radio or (in the case of the Ramones) the sports arena in ways the Velvet Underground never could — the band was a pinwheel of sounds and strategies. For David Bowie, it was a way of obliterating gender as binary. For Patti Smith, a way of uniting the incantatory freedoms of epic poetry with the shamanistic power of ‘50s rock. For the Ramones, a combination of back-alley violence and street-level humor. For R.E.M., a way of standing inside and outside the traditional (musical, sexual, emotional) at the same time. For U2, a set of masks with which to enter the worlds of rock & roll, art galleries and celebrity, picking pockets as they went.

The list goes on. The way Reed and Morrison’s love of rock’s rhythmic fundamentals joined Cale’s interest in minimalism created a new framework, a dream weapon that could be a meditative tool, a battering ram, or both. It would prove as fundamental and limitless as blues changes. Guitar interplay that refuses to recognize the difference between repetition and revelation has become an indie rock lingua franca. There it is in 1988, on Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat” (a song about the time Morrison later spent as a tugboat captain), and there it is again, more than a quarter of century later, on “Central Park Blues,” a song by the English duo Ultimate Painting that takes the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” and makes it smaller and warmer, like a tiny photo you put in locket and wear around your neck.

And on and on. Just last year the Australian filmmaker Dannika Horvat gathered with members of a band called Good Morning, pushed record on a machine very different than the Wollensack reel-to-reel Reed, Morrison and Cale used 51 years earlier and captured a song called “Saint Kilda Sunrise.” The guitar could come from the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” or it could come from Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat.” It no longer matters. As the electricity revolves slowly round and round a space opens that’s small — no bigger than the singer and the listener — and then grows larger. “It’s Tuesday, and it’s raining, and I can’t think of anything else,” Horvat sings. For a little more than two minutes, that seems to be all there is in the world.

“If you listen to the record, it’s like someone sitting across from you.” That’s Lou Reed talking to David Fricke in 1987, twenty years after the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, but he could as well be talking about Dannika’s “Saint Kilda Sunrise.” He was explaining the effect of the Velvet Underground’s music: “Rock does this thing to you. You get directly to someone, unfiltered. This person doesn’t have to be in a movie theater. This person will be listening, alone, maybe at 5 in the morning,” he said. “We were always writing on a one-to-one level.” Rock & roll had transformed his life. In turned, he wanted to transform others.

Though he talks about this transformation on an individual scale, there is reason to think that the band was after an entire world full of those individuals when they made The Velvet Underground & Nico. Much is made of how out-of-step and daring the album was — “I’m Waiting for the Man” jittered with the feeling of a subway ride uptown to 125th Street to score drugs; “Heroin” crawled toward the rush of dropping a needle full of those drugs into your body; “Venus in Furs” pulsed with S&M whip cracks and the heel click of patent-leather boots. The album was a small black hole of New York demi-monde depravity released just months before the day-glo frolic of the Summer of Love.

Maybe it was. But to focus on this is to miss the pop ambition that animates The Velvet Underground & Nico, and the sense that was no real reason to think that demi-monde depravity couldn’t conquer the world. It’s to miss how quickly things happened for the Velvet Underground, who played their first paying gig in November of 1965 and were being managed by Andy Warhol a month later. Warhol was then a unique figure, rising to stardom by manipulating popular images in experimental ways, and able to entwine fine art, intellectualism and celebrity while seeming to shun all three. A visit by him to one of his own art shows could spark a small riot. When Warhol entered their world, it gave the Velvets proximity to power and fame. They were on national TV, in a CBS news segment about the making of an underground film. They were shoulder to shoulder with Dylan and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.

This is where they meant to go, and even before they got there, they saw themselves as part of this world: When Cale went to London in the summer of 1965, he brought a demo tape with him, knocking on Marianne Faithful’s door to see if she might slip a copy to her boyfriend, Mick Jagger. He brought home singles by the Kinks and the Who, and the Velvet Underground heard in those songs some of the same spark they were after. “It made us feel on the one hand that we were not alone,” he said. “They spurred us on to break through ourselves before these new bands stole all our thunder.” When the Velvet Underground lift the opening of “There She Goes” from the Rolling Stones’ arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” they mean to steal this thunder back.

“I don’t know where I’m going,” Reed sings at the start of “Heroin.” When first cut at Scepter Studios in April of 1966, the song began differently, with the words “I know just where I’m going.” Cale felt Reed ruined the song when he changed it. But the change was crucial. It highlighted the search at the center of the song, and opened it up to let others who were lost find their way in, even if they’d never think putting a spike into their veins. Reed’s songs were full of such characters, all looking for a place: the girl crying behind the door in “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the whiplash girlchild in the dark in “Venus in Furs,” the boy greeting the dawn with a restless feeling by his side in “Sunday Morning,” the boy longing for adventure and a sailor’s suit and cap to wear on the open seas in “Heroin,” whoever looked back at you in “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” The Velvet Underground & Nico created a home for these feelings and these people, a world they could enter whenever they needed. It still does.

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