Peel Slowly…

Up-Tight/The Velvet Underground Story 

1990 updated edition by Omnibus Press, by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga
Under Review by Tobe Damit

At the forefront of modern music are The Velvet Underground. Their story is as strange and twisted as their music. Its ramifications and implications on modern-day music, are as deep as they are Legion. Studded with exclusive, amazing photos, stunningly written accounts, interviews, comments and reviews,  Up-tight/The Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga meticulously relates the life and death of this now legendary band. The story is told based on two underlying, concurrent premises: The first being that everyone being uptight and that contradicting point of views were the driving force behind the evolution of the VU and that it had the most unexpected, revolutionary effect on the very essence of this highly unusual band and its complex fate; the second being that a series of amputations, first from the E.P.I and their first manager Andy Warhol, then within the band itself, each of them happening after a significant milestone (and/or album) was accomplished. I gradually came to understand that I was being progressively compelled to comprehend how the VU as an entity was left with no other choice than to evolve in a slightly but palpable way and that each of these amputations were proof that the VU refused anything that would be of a nuisance to the development of their music that, over the course of four+ decades, has served as a guidebook for everything from Glam-Rock to Punk to Industrial and beyond.

Warhol with the Velvet Underground and Nico, Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov in Los Angeles, California, 1966, © Steve Shapiro

I guess the story of the VU as related in this biography reminds me of some kind of slasher movie in which each time one of its multidimensional character got ”cut off”, it only made clearer what contribution and influence the ”victims” had, as musicians and as individuals, added to that collective entity. Hands down, Up-tight is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand why very few music lovers would deny that The Velvet Underground and Nico, the Warhol-designed ”banana” album, 50 years after its release in 1967, is still considered as one of the most influential albums of all time and much of those same music lovers agreed with Lester Bangs when he stated that “Modern music starts with the Velvets”.  Now the ”banana” album was the first of 3 studio albums made by the VU, unless you count Loaded, and each of them were a very significant milestone for the VU and for modern music.

Very early group shot of The Velvet Underground by ©Donald Greenhaus circa 1965. Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Angus MacLise. Before Maureen Tucker took over on drums, the Velvet Underground had Angus MacLise on bongos and tablas. He quit before the band’s first paid gigs. As Lou Reed explains, “He found out that at a paying job he had to start and stop playing when told to. No one told Angus to stop playing.” 

For starters the book establishes who-was-doing-what-where so that the reader can get a good grasp of all the elements prior to what would become a mixed media event called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (E.P.I.) overseen and sponsored by Andy Warhol. Up-Tight really tries to answer all the questions that arise, leaving no stones unturned. One of those questions being who was the first to really acknowledge the VU’s talent and virtuosity and/or maybe more importantly who had the brilliant idea to introduce them to Andy Warhol and his entourage,  The Factory. It seems that it would be mostly Barbara Rubin’s doing, Paul Morrissey and Gerard Malanga. Of course none of that would have been possible without the final approval of Warhol. On the other hand, it’s quite obvious though that the E.P.I. was bound to happen since The Velvets were already doing live performances before they were seen by Warhol, back  in 1965:   ”It seems that Piero (Heliczer, a bona fide experimental underground film-maker) and Angus were organizing a ritual happening at the time – a mixed-media presentation to appear in the old Cinemateque. Naturally, this was well before such events became all the rage – It was to be entitled Launching the Dream Weapon, and it got launched tumultuously. In the center of the stage there was a movie screen, and between the stage and the audience a number of veils were spread out in different places. These veils were lit variously by lights and slide projectors, as Piero’s films shone through them onto the screen. Dancers swirled around, and poetry and songs occasionally rose up, while from behind the screen a strange music was being generated by Lou, John,Angus MacLise and me”- Sterling Morrison in Up-Tight, p.20

“In November, 1968 Heliczer filmed The Velvet Underground performing for his film Venus in Furs, an experimental film shot on 8mm. At one point in the film Heliczer himself is seen on camera playing the Saxophone with the band. The film was originally shown to “insider” audiences at The Bridge Theatre (also known as The New Bowery Theatre), St Mark’s Place, Manhattan. In the following year, 1969, the film was screened at the Eight and a ½ New York Film Festival, an event organised by Jonas Mekas at New York City’s Elgin Theatre. Mekas described Venus in furs as “cheerfully anarchic…yet personal(ly) lyrical.”” – eye 

Already there were some amputations before the E.P.I. even begun when, Angus MacLise, the original drummer was replaced by Maureen ”Moe” Tucker who’s approach to drumming, aimed at a tribal-African style left a lot more room for other instruments and by her own admission, perceiving herself more as a percussionist than a drummer, working in close conjunction with Sterling Morrison. As for the Factory, Edie Sedgwick would not stay for long and the uptightness got in full swing as Nico, chanteuse extraordinaire was imposed to the VU by Andy who firmly believed that the band needed a pretty face. After many protests from Lou Nico enters and the name of the band is even changed to the Velvet Underground and Nico. By then the band was the main feature of the E.P.I., a mixed media event involving a light show, Warhol’s movies being projected on the stage, Malanga’s choreographed performances with other dancers fitting with the music and the lyrics . Because it involved so many people there were a lot of tensions… Always the underlying uptightness…

”Gerard Malanga was uptight about maintaining his position as the star dancer, and his standing within the group hierarchy. Paul Morrissey was uptight about Barbara Rubin’s’ Up-Tight approach, which he couldn’t tolerate so Barbara was uptight with Paul. (…) Andy really loved the multimedia show, but he was uptight about whether Picasso had heard of him yet. As far as relations between the Velvets were concerned there was some friction between the group and Nico because there are so many songs that were appropriate for her and she wanted to sing them all.(…) For their part John and Lou resented Nico(…)”  – Up-tight, p.36

Nico and Lou Reed at Castle, Los Angeles, 1966© Lisa Law

Some might find the concept of being uptight and the idea of  the process of amputation as a premise a bit depressing but, reading the book, one sure gets that there’s a lesson to be learned here. Change is a process that, as painful as it can be sometimes, is inevitable in order to evolve. Fortunately, The VU in its essence had the faculty to attract so many incredible people who were willing to do their part the best they could, whatever happened and to devote themselves totally even if somehow they knew that it wasn’t going to last for long. How did they know this? Well it’s probably because everyone and the whole situation was always so…well..Uptight. And why were they so uptight? Well there are many underlying reasons here, some are relevant to each person’s situation and key role in the dramatic story of the VU but also probably because they most likely knew all along, deep within themselves, that the story of the VU was in fact like a slasher movie, an inevitable and painful amputation process, one or more members being cut off on one given occasion until there would be no one left. The precise moment when the VU weren’t the VU anymore varies from person to person, but I have to agree when Danny Fields says: ”Suddenly there was no one left.(…) It didn’t end when Andy or Nico or John left. It ended when he (Lou Reed) left.”-Up-tight, p.120

Now specifically about the amputation process, I think it’s mainly due to the 100% integrity of each and every original members of the band who refused to compromise on what they thought should be the next evolution. After the band was managed by Warhol who had imposed Nico and incorporated the band into the E.P.I., an art project, a mixed media experience rather than the Velvet Underground just being a band who played the music they had composed. So it would be about right to say that the VU started to be known rather as a collective multimedia  show in which the VU were the main attraction than as an art/dance/experimental band.

Gerard Malanga must have been an extremely precious help for that part of the book (with at least half the book being dedicated to the era), being part of Warhol’s E.P.I. as a choreographer/theatrical performer. One thing is for sure, The VU’s career really began when Warhol took them under his wing. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable were drawing crowds with all these light shows, these movies being projected and the haunting music, all this happening well before all the hype around the Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco psychedelic era. Unfortunately, the Velvets’ timing was just slightly off for them to catch the train of the Summer of Love. Anyhow they were not hippies and carried around with

Moe!

them a New York feel, something that was very different from the West Coast flower power trend. With their black suits, black sunglasses, an electric, droning viola player who was a guy but had very long hair and the girl at the drums, Moe Tucker, who played standing up, got a lot of people guessing about her gender, sided by the charming and so talented lyricist and composer Lou Reed, fronted by the Nordic, sculptural beauty of Nico who sang those haunting lyrics using a perfect icy tone flawlessly paired with her German accent, the VU definitely had something going but, like I said, they were just a little off…  They sang about the wrong drugs: not the beatific allusions inspired by marijuana and LSD, but rather about the desperate void created by heroin.  Even if all of this was very awkward and strange for your average joe back then, their attitude and sound instantly polarised audiences. The VU, with a totally different sound and outlandish style became more and more the center of attention for the people who attended the E.P.I experience that had to come to an end, somehow.

Maureen Tucker, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed circa 1967 by ©Nat Finkelstein

Always putting their ideals first, they even also decided to ”ban”, themselves from New York City after getting totally screwed over their acquiring the Dom.  They refused the humiliation of  having to play as the house band at the DOM, the bar that was supposed to have been theirs, preferring to play regularly at a Boston venue called the Tea Party. A lot of people don’t know that during most of their career the VU were known to be a live show not unlike some kind our modern-day ”rave”, much attended during their concerts but hardly getting any air play and having major distribution problems for their albums. The E.PI. days were over. Although this album would reveal to be an all time classic and inspire such a dramatic change in the way music was played, listened to and perceived. Even the sleeve itself will forever remain emblematic of their cooperation with Warhol. Something had to give… Exit Warhol. Exit Nico. It was the end of the era that launched the VU and allowed The Velvet Underground to regularly explore and indulge their interest in musical improvisation, a trait that would be put to use for as long as they existed.

Nico and Warhol as Batman and Robin for Esquire, © 1967

There are several things that sets this book apart from any other book relating the VU story: Bockris is really well documented and has a very relevant view about the band that allows you to peek under the legend, layer by layer, one member after another, each event put in the right context, considering each departure, each victory and each deception through the eyes and mind of the people who involved, in one way or another. Furthermore, If you want to know more details about the two main co-founders of the band, Lou Reed and John Cale, Bockris is still the go-to man since he wrote the much praised Lou Reed’s biography  ”Transformer” as well as being a co-writer for John Cale autobiography ”What’s Welsh for Zen?”.  In addition to that, Bockris wrote a world acclaimed biography about the VU’s first manager and benefactor, Andy Warhol. All of which have been reviewed here on LAN, followed by a Q and A with Bockris himself. However you will get a very clear picture in Up-Tight of the love-hate relationship between Cale and Reed and how it played out in the music as well as in the social context, ultimatley leading to Cale leaving after the band’s second album White Light/White Heat. An album that has a very distinct signature and considered by many the birth of punk.  I will not discuss that but rather simply point out that what attracted me and that was probably was the  most revolutionary aspect of the Velvets was how direct their style was. No sugar coating, no metaphores. The lyrics are as crude as the music and a special relationship between content and container which feed off each other to take shape together.

The VU promoting their second studio album Wihte Light/White Heat©Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What I like above all about Bockris, is that he has this unique faculty that can easily be felt throughout his work and that is why he always will have an edge. On top of being extremely accurate, detailed, methodical and well documented, Bockris is able to go well beyond the facts and adds into the equation every single little event relevant to the subject, therefore allowing us readers to fully understand how much of an impact each and every private event whether it’s a love story, a divorce, a trait of personality or on a wider scale the social/political context and how big of an effect it had on the evolution of the band. In other words, Bockris is able to tell you  (as a matter of fact he did tell me personally this in these precise terms) how each and every character lived, breathed and thought during the period and/or the subject he is writing about.

So, without question, as you read Up-tight, you get far more than just dates, facts and hearsay, you get a clear view of what the situation was on every level. He will go as deep as one can go on each and every aspect. In order to do that he had to be all in and have, how shall I put it, an inside informant, some kind of spy, which in this case is very well-chosen: Gerard Malanga, who was Andy Warhol’s right hand man until the very end. Malanga was one of the very few that was never completely let down by Warhol, who was known to grow tiresome of people and was in on the VU situation from the very moment (and even a little before that) that Warhol was looking for a band to manage.  Malanga even kept a personal (priceless!) diary that was never published and almost unlimited access to all photos and archives pertaining to the E.P.I era and beyond (he always kept a good relationship with the VU members, including Nico) that brings a lot to an already crucial book. So if you consider those facts add what I said about the quality of the work of Victor Bockris plus the openness and honest accounts by all of the bands members (especially Sterling Morrison who is perhaps the most talkative) I would say that it’s pretty hard to beat.

Sterling Morrison by ©Nat Finkelstein

I’m not afraid to say that if you want to get to know the Velvet Underground, no matter if you already are a fan or just want to get to know them, this is the perfect book to start. If you happen to be a rock aficionado, whether you’re into art rock, glam rock, punk rock, experimental music or pure and simple rock ‘n roll, well I would be most inclined to say that the VU definitely is a band that cannot be set aside if you want a clear view of what happened then and is still taking place right now.

All pictures included/taken from Up-Tight/The Velvet Underground Story 

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7 thoughts on “Peel Slowly…

    1. Thank you so much!! Sorry it took me awhile to notice and approve!! I am truly honored!! Glad you liked it!! I have reviewed Lou Reed’s bio Transformer as well as John Cale’s autobio What’s Welsh for Zen, both by Victor Bockris as author or co-author in john Cale’s case… If it’s of any interest to you.

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