By Christopher Sharrett.

I very much recommend Haynes’s film, but, [f]or me at least, it’s a reminder of all that has disappeared….”

Todd Haynes’s new film The Velvet Underground has an obvious place in the filmmaker’s oeuvre; it connects to his early film Poison (1991) and much that followed, films that defied homophobia, conformity, oppression and repression. His work sought to protect an experimental, and socially conscious, artistic sensibility within a film industry of the last thirty years that insults what it means to be human.

Haynes looks at the life and times of the rock band The Velvet Underground – Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and for a time the beautiful German actress, model, and chanteuse Nico – with a focus not just on their extraordinary contribution to rock music’s development (which has been nearly erased, with rock’s devolution, along with other art forms, courtesy of a public palette coarsened by corporate playing to the lowest common denominator), but their place in the postwar American avant-garde as it prospered in New York’s Greenwich Village. The names, faces, and/or art works of Allen Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Anger, Peter Orlovsky, Delmore Schwartz, La Monte Young, John Cage, and numerous others appear in the film. Some, like Mekas (the film is dedicated to him – he died in 2019), the filmmaker and founder of Anthology Film Archives, had little or no direct connection to The Velvet Underground But Haynes makes a convincing case that the band could only have happened in the hothouse of creativity that was New York in the 1950s and 60s. The band, the film seems to assert, created both a celebration of and a requiem for this culture – before the first image, we see a black screen and hear the threatening drone of John Cale’s electrified viola, suggesting the importance of the moment being announced.

John Cale, one of the principal survivors of the scene and a narrator of the film, is a Welshman from a grim village, where he was abused as a child before going to London for a classical education in music. Lou Reed, meanwhile, was a thorough New Yorker, deemed by his parents to have gay tendencies, and therefore subjected to repeated shock therapy, before he escaped to Syracuse University, where he studied under the poet Delmore Schwartz, to whom Reed dedicated the song “European Son.” Sterling Morrison, a friend of a Reed classmate at Syracuse, shared Reed’s interest in the rock and roll guitar. The three men, incredibly for the day, hired a female drummer named Maureen Tucker, previously of a local girl group. The group’s name was taken from a cheap paperback of the mid-60s, an “inside account” of the sadomasochistic underground; performance dates came only after Reed toiled writing pop songs for cut-price record labels and playing New Jersey high schools. Their appearance at Café Bizarre, a long-gone Village night spot from the Beat years, caught the eye of Andy Warhol, who became their mentor. Although he is credited with “producing” their first album, his arm around them was enough for the public – or its discerning members – to take notice of the band. For their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Warhol contributed a white front cover adorned with a large banana decal and his signature. Still, the album didn’t fly off the shelves in the same year that saw The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is hard to imagine two more different sensibilities. As the film shows, Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker disdained the West Coast hippie world view (not that they supported mainstream culture, or military policies of the day); Sgt. Pepper was a utopian album, burdened by the music hall/puttin’-on-a-show inclinations of McCartney, saved by Lennon’s caustic “A Day in the Life.” The Velvet Underground and Nico had beautiful, reflective ballads (”Sunday Morning,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”), but the album was about the harshness of the New York streets, and was, on the whole, apocalyptic (“I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Venus in Furs,” “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” and the searing “Heroin”), amply presented in Haynes’s film.

It is tempting to go through the Velvet’s catalog, in what would be a dull synopsis. I can only suggest to the reader that she listen to what is rightfully called a prelude to punk/new wave music (although The Velvet Underground surpassed all of their progeny, even the remarkable first album by The Stooges, produced by Cale). I will say that the first record, and their even more challenging 1968 album White Light/White Heat, are in the forefront of 1960s rock, combining their drone-based undercurrent (the Cale input) with jazz and electronica. The title track is said to “be about” someone using intravenous amphetamines; this makes sense given what one can make of the lyrics, but the effect of Cale playing a barrelhouse piano in the manner of Jerry Lee Lewis, the guitar amplifiers turned up full blast, provides for expansive meaning. For me it is a song of the Vietnam era, or the atomic era, the tune, one of the best rock and roll songs ever, crashing into chaos. But the inferno of this song is surpassed by “I Heard Her Call My Name,” which I’ve joked should be applied to the soundtrack of Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher (“Even though she’s long dead and gone, I heard her call me name”). And it is surpassed also by their dark epic of depravity, “Sister Ray,” an aurally and emotionally battering narrative of drugs, murder, and forced (I have to think) sex that could be the final music to Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Haynes uses the split screen for which Warhol was famous, at least in Chelsea Girls, along with the rapid-fire editing associated with Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner, Jack Smith, and others of the New York underground film scene of a half-century ago. Still, Haynes’s basic ideas, about the band and their times, are visible, the facts often startling.”

Haynes tries to cover a great deal of material as he makes a convincing case for The Velvet Underground as a product of their moment. But his method might be challenging to some. He uses the split screen for which Warhol was famous, at least in Chelsea Girls, along with the rapid-fire editing associated with Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner, Jack Smith, and others of the New York underground film scene of a half-century ago. Still, Haynes’s basic ideas, about the band and their times, are visible, the facts often startling (Reed’s torment authorized by his parents, Cale’s molestation; Tucker was pregnant during the recording of the vaguely interesting album Loaded, and Reed replaced her with a new drummer rather than wait for her return – much of the story isn’t pretty).

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Many principals are dead, including Reed, Warhol, Nico, and Morrison, but Haynes makes them present through his admirable search of tape and film archives. In presenting a complete chronicle of the band and its times, Haynes includes material that is, to me, irrelevant, and ignores details of great relevance. In 1968, Reed forced Cale out of the group, a move I thought unconscionable. He fired a classically-trained Welsh musician, accomplished on viola, piano, and bass, in order for Reed to be unchallenged leader and conventional rock and roller. In the place of Cale, an original and thoroughly innovative artist, Reed puts Doug Yule, a competent but uninspired musician. So this very important band finds its importance in two albums that were out of place in their day, except for the very attentive and curious. That’s where the story ends, and the inclusion of the Yule era, so upsetting to some of us when it happened, is a pointless bore, as were Reed’s ambitions when they came to the fore. All the band members had solo careers, with Reed’s and Cale’s standing out, but not outstanding. Reed wrote some interesting rock tunes (“Sweet Jane,” “Walk on the Wild Side”) and Cale some albums showing his proficiency (The Church of Anthrax, The Academy in Peril), but none of their best solo work matches the significance of their 1964-1969 collaboration. (I found Reed interesting for a time, but soon found it hard to pay attention, especially given his overbearing, smug demeanor in interviews.) Nico is truly worth revisiting, especially her best albums (The Marble Index, Desertshore) produced by Cale.

Haynes opens the film as I hoped he might. We see black-and-white footage of the long-defunct “panel show” I’ve Got a Secret. A young John Cale is the guest. His “secret” is that he played an 18-hour composition by Erik Satie to a one-person audience. The boorish panel (Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan, Bess Myerson – all fixtures of 5Os TV who reminded you how miserable the era was) acts amused but put-upon. I saw that show when it first aired, not knowing who Cale was at the time but very sympathetic for him, knowing he wouldn’t be treated with the greatest kindness for doing something that would be seen as adversarial to the intellectually throttling times. I’ve seen the episode since on the Game Show Network (that such a thing exists and has/had an audience says plenty about this country) and chuckled. This is truly an intelligent culture meeting the enemy.

I very much recommend Haynes’s film, but, I feel I must say, with a certain note of caution. For me at least, the film is a reminder of all that has disappeared, and for an accounting of this I’ll switch to a personal note.

On a cold day in 1967 I was standing with an early girlfriend on St. Mark’s Place. The “East Village” was only just coming into being. The Lower East Side of New York was an old Jewish neighborhood, then dilapidated, filled with kosher markets. In 1967, book shops and head shops were replacing the markets. I stepped into shops to smell incense and marijuana. The new East Side Bookstore took the place of an old kosher butcher shop. Much deeper in the Lower East Side was Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye Bookstore, the headquarters of his rock band The Fugs, actually advertised each Sunday in The New York Times theater section. A new newspaper emerged called The East Village Other; its editors felt the pioneering Village Voice was thoroughly mainstream.

As I stood on the St. Mark’s curb in 1967, I noticed that I was too close to traffic. I motioned to my girlfriend to step back. As we moved without looking, I bumped into someone. I turned to see John Cale, with long black hair, black suit and shirt, carrying a cardboard box. I excused myself; Cale walked on without speaking. It was one of life’s odd moments.

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My memories haven’t disappeared, but all of what I mentioned above has. The great bookstores are gone, including St. Mark’s Books, which had considerable status until being bullied out of the neighborhood by New York University, which I would attend 1977-83. St. Mark’s Place now features franchises like The Gap. There are few traces of culture; even the local comic book store closed – although the punk clothing store Search and Destroy, with a window filled with nude doll babies (reminding me of the “butcher cover” to The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today album, their statement about Vietnam, according to Lennon). This isn’t much, but it does remind us of the killer heart of America (including in punk itself?), to use D.H. Lawrence.

When I look at the current New York downtown, I’m heartsick at how thoroughly the counterculture of the decades following World War II has been annihilated, but I shouldn’t be. A goal of the Reagan era was to do precisely this, to announce a “morning in America” that actually meant the putting to sleep of the American consciousness. The subsequent “culture wars” were conjoined to an insistence on consumer capitalism and the neoliberal economic order, including the outsourcing of labor and the move from industrial to finance capital. The nation has become demoralized, allowing its culture to disintegrate. The rise of internet “social media” technologies shows how far we have fallen from a truly social order. As important as Haynes’s film is, it is hard to receive it with joy; anyone with memory knows how much has been lost.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus in Film Studies at Seton Hall University. His book on the TV show Breaking Bad was published in 2021 by Wayne State University Press.

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3 thoughts on “The Velvet Underground: Mourning a Lost Bohemia”

  1. What an evocative review, particularly with your reference to those “intellectually throttling times” and Betsy Palmer (unknown in the UK) but familiar from the first awful FRIDAY THE 13th franchise and well-cast as Jason’s Mom. I have VELVET UNDERGROUND L.P’s at home and two English friends living in Swansea introduced me to them when I became once again temporarily trapped in that “asshole of the world” – to quote APOCALYPSE NOW – in a region John Cale earlier escaped from.

    Yet, I’ll share one memory with you. While living in the more culturally alive Manchester I regard as my real home in much the same way Orson Welles regarded Woodstock Il. rather than Kenosha WI, I saw Nico perform live there. Later one night, I walked down from Withington after seeing CONAN THE BARBARIAN in the now lost Scala cinema and saw a dark-haired Valkyrie approach me. It was none other than Nico her hair illuminated by the light of the moon towering above those North-West stormy skies. That was my Mr. Bernstein’s vision of the girl in the white dress on the ferry from CITIZEN KANE (a film none of my present students have ever seen).

    Yes, we may lament what is lost but hope that it will return in new creative forms like that mythical phoenix rising from the ashes one day.

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