How the Velvet Underground redefined counterculture
Some of the backlash baby boomers are now facing – seen in all those memes and essays blaming Grandma for the state of capitalism – may simply come from overexposure. The children of the Flower Children grew up in a world where the revolutionary works of art of their elders had become wallpaper, knickknacks and advertising fodder. Anyone who was not at Woodstock knows full well that they will never go to Woodstock.
The Velvet Underground hasn’t entirely escaped aging in banality: replicas of Andy Warhol’s image of a banana that adorned the band’s debut album now thanks to junk at the mall. But the most obscure group to ever be called “iconic” still has a pretense of freshness. Wearing black and looking jaded never seems to go out of style – and you can hear echoes of the hazy and sinister songs of the Velvet Underground as you explore today’s rebellious music scenes.
To understand the nature of the group’s endurance and the nature of the cool niche in any era, turn to the spellbinding new documentary from Todd Haynes, The velvet metro, now available on Apple TV +. The seemingly simple title is a sham: While the group takes its name from a 1963 book on sexual fetishes, the documentary subtly suggests that velor floor could refer to a particular type of subculture – one in which the intellectual and the intellectual, the stranger and the careerist, the hate and the pleasant, challenge society in a way that succeeds in changing it .
Haynes films to date, including the queer costume drama Carole and Bob Dylan’s non-biopic I am not here, elegantly bridged entertainment and experimentation, and The velvet metro does that too. Told largely with archival footage shown on split-screen, it’s a swirling 110-minute collage with a cohesive, buzzing beat. The interviews serve more as texture than storytelling, so as Haynes said Rolling stone, âMusic and images guide us, not words. “
After opening with stinging distortion on a black screen, Haynes zaps away from rock and roll to a bouncy 1963 game show starring future Velvet Underground member John Cale. The show was called I have a secret, and Cale’s secret, he tells some puzzled-looking candidates, is that he has already played a piano piece for over 18 hours. These images make culture clash and generational change visceral: Cale, who fled a dismal Welsh upbringing via New York’s classic avant-garde scene, twisted against mass post-war conformism. Everyone he was running with, too.
As the game show segment plays, Haynes cuts a video of Lou Reed, the singer of Velvet Underground, looking into a camera. The documentary appears to ask if Reed himself was able to capture Cale’s provocation on television? Maybe, between visits to gay bars and heroin dealers. Reed was tormented by his sexuality, addictions, psychology, and society, but Haynes points out how, beneath it all, ambition burned. Contrary to Cale’s fascination with experimental music, young Reed survived the suburbs by hanging on to commercial pop and rock. The documentary goes on to suggest that he helped form, lead, and ultimately destroy the Velvet Underground out of a desire for fame.
Reed died in 2013 and hated giving interviews, so The velvet metro treats him like a mean cypher while Cale, 79, dispenses memories with a majestic accent. It takes over 40 minutes – spent lavishly painting the artistic landscape of the early to mid-1960s – before Haynes even reaches the aha moment that occurred when the two bonded in 1964. While Cale and Reed were getting stuck, Cale noted that mainstream rock or pop didn’t suit Reed’s lyrics about lethal drugs, brutal sex, and the psychology of marginalization. They would need something wild, loud and dreamlike.
The resulting music intrigued Andy Warhol, this intermediary between art, commerce, bohemia and high society. The Velvets became the home group of his Factory, and Cale and Reed both said they were inspired by the work ethic on display there. Warhol and the band, which at the time included Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, also shared aesthetic flaws: tongue-in-cheek, repetition, and slowness. The 1967 debut album that emerged from their collaboration was a work of extreme and confrontational, but it was also shaped by calculated marketing. German actress and model Nico joined the group because, as photographer Billy Name recounts, a Warhol advisor told her: “You must have a beautiful daughter”.
This offer didn’t pay off exactly as hoped – Reed is quoted as saying he was surprised his songs didn’t immediately rock New York City – but it built a fandom over the years of uncrowded, but seemingly incantatory gigs. . The film dwells on the Velvet Underground’s first visit to the West Coast, where Haight Ashbury’s free love scene – with its sunny pop sound – was in full swing. The audience and bookers laughed at the moody Velvets, and the Velvets chuckled in return. âWe hated hippies,â says Mary Woronov, a Warhol associate who traveled with the group, with a look of sheer disgust. “I mean, the power of flowers, you know?” Hot bras? What the fuck is wrong with you? “
The tension between the Velvet Underground and the hippies is instructive, and Haynes lingers on it. Bra burners were “the counter-culture” – so what is against the counter-culture? When Tucker, the drummer, explains the anti-hippie in political terms – rather than putting flowers in their hair, these kids should have “helped the homeless” or “something” – it’s not convincing being since the Velvets were not known as great activists themselves. The real source of the division was aesthetic, emotional and spiritual. Cale condemns the West Coast crowd’s disinterest in âdangerâ. In response to the injustices of the world, says Woronov, the role of the artist is to “become strong and … become anti- many things.”
The positivity of negativity, maybe that’s what the Velvets and their influence boil down to. After all, what is “Heroin” if not a forgotten love song? In some of the most amazing passages of The velvet metro, Haynes shows how the humming noises that Cale loved simulate a feeling of eternal sleep. Reed’s words have often been criticized for glorifying or exoticizing risky behavior, but he insisted that these were investigations into the nature of pain and alienation. Artists who qualified as punk, metal, indie, or a number of other things would later, knowingly or not, march through the same catacombs first explored by the Velvet Underground.
Still, Haynes seems a little wary of the other part of the band’s appeal: Reed’s pop genius. The singer fired Cale after two albums, and Haynes stepped up what happened afterward, although the next two albums, recorded with multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule, contained a lot of classic tracks. The quartet wore floral prints and began to look less like a brood of necromancers than “an ordinary rock and roll band. [with] a brilliant creative person totally in charge, âas Joseph Freeman, a former assistant to Warhol, puts it. The documentary ends in an elegant atmosphere, with bios capsules of people, living and dead, in the orbit of the Underground.
In an interview with The Guardian, Haynes argued that a “spirit of revolt” and resistance to “systems of marketing and power” has been lost since the 1960s. Yet watching his film is seeing just how much the Underground – with Reed’s constant quest for a hit and with the celebrity twilight of Warhol – was in conversation with the marketing and power systems. Despite all their petulance, the band wanted influence, and over time, they got it: the trappings of Velvet-like disaffection became a consumerist aesthetic. But every year new musicians show that some fundamental resources – noise, amazement, dislike and outrage – can never be entirely sidetracked and will not lose their power. âI was released and I was bound,â Reed once sang, knowing that art can make these two things happen at the same time.