Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris
Updated after Reed’s death in October 2013, Transformer, The Complete Lou Reed Story definitely offers a lot more than one can possibly expect from a biography. Saying that Transformer encompasses everything you can possibly want to know about the life and times of the rock icon/artist/persona would still be a huge understatement. Going way beyond the usual narration of dates, love stories, anecdotes, arguments, relationships, records and tours reviews, Victor Bockris takes us much deeper, into the artist’s mystifying mind without a single dull moment, unexpectedly delving into the psyche as well as various traumas thus making Transformer a masterpiece that may seem at times closer to an essay written with a truly contagious passion. As I was reading various passages about Lou’s most intimate, meaningful moments, I suddenly became a voyeur, travelling through space and time, only making halts to land, embedded in Lou’s cerebral cortex, at very specific, revealing moments, a caterpillar enthralled in a mind-blowing, heart wrenching, enlightening spiritual journey to redemption and self-completion.
Caterpillar….As I was sifting through other reviews, I paused as I read the word ”butterfly” and pondered. As the biography evolves you really get the sense of a colorful and vivacious punkcaterpillar struggling with an acute egoistic hedonism.Reed was constantly and desperately looking for a way to become a magnificent butterfly that proudly spreads its wonderful, astoundingly colorful wings with a rare dignified wisdom that is rarely reached by those who have such a big ego as Reed. Reading the book, you just know that in the end he had reached this point since with an ego, you cannot bend, and with an ego how can one be really dignified? How can an ego give you grace? It would be just a superficial posture, empty, impotent posture. Nothing inside, just an empty shell without any content. Reading Transformer, it is very obvious that Reed tremendously suffered from his ego all through his life. At times he may have had the posture but he was obviously to clever and sensitive to not come to the realisation that something was missing. A man should be able to be undignified too. If you are always dignified you cannot laugh, you cannot joke, you lose all humanity and become inhuman.
The book bluntly starts, and very rightly so, with the shock therapy treatment Lou received starting in the spring of 1959 after Lou’s conservative parents, Sidney and Toby Reed, sent their son to a psychiatrist, requesting that he cures Lou of homosexual feelings and alarming mood swings. According to Lou, the shock treatment helped eradicate any feelings of compassion he might have and handed him that fragmented approach that took over most of his life. Lou could be so loveable that you wanted to invite him to supper and meet your family but then behaving in such a way that you wanted to kick him out the door the next minute.
Bockris really takes his time detailing with an almost scientific manner how screwed up his relationships became from then on, not only because of the treatment itself but also how it put his relationship with his parents in a twisted love-hate trauma because he simply could not fathom how his parents could have agreed to the torture that the shock treatment therapy represented to him, and yet, he simply couldn’t remove his parents from his life, even if he really felt the urge to do so. So there you are, Bockris gets you a privileged seat in the house, an overview of Lou’s entourage through his own mind. Of course it doesn’t explain everything but it sure explains a lot of his writings and the poetry of many of the songs that songs he has written. You get an even more seizing pregnant image of Lou’s relationship with his father towards the end of the book when Bockris hands us a very important of the puzzle when he writes ”One day, as a child, Lou’s hand strayed into close proximity to where his father was standing. He received a sharp smack for this action, recounts Reed’s close friend Julian Schnabel, who adds, “He never got over the cruelty of that.”
Those who see Lou Reed as a punk icon are right, he is and will hopefully remain one but as you get further down the line reading this biography you get the urge to spread the word that he is way more than that. To me White Light/White Heatwas the first punk song ever to be recorded. Far from fast forwarding on that era, Bockris still goes through that era with all the required details even if the book Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story, by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga and is based on interviews with Nico, Cale, Reed, Morrison and Tucker, as well as others who became part of Andy Warhol’s circle of artistic collaborators. It remains widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest rock books ever published and is an utterly interesting, if not vital complement if you want to know the complete story because in this biography Bockris does not talk about that part of Lou’s life in details. You also get to see how Lou Reed desperately needs to be the center of attention as the original formation rapidly disintegrated. After the release of each album they loose one of the original member. First Nico, followed by Cale and then finally, Reed himself. You get a really good sense of his ”behavioral pattern” in one of Reed’s favorite movies called The Ruling Class featuring Peter O’Toole.
Fortunately you also get to know other aspects of Lou’s life, especially towards the end his life when he met the one and only person who managed to rekindle all those inner conflicts that were constantly harassing Reed’s mind; his magical, almost mystical, third and last wife, Laurie Anderson. The process had already been put in motion with Robert Quinn without ending well as always but Bockris is the only one who managed to take us to a place that enabled Reed to get closer to functioning as a normal human being with the updated version of the biography. It is through the character of Lulu, who originally came to life in two plays by the ground breaking German playwright Frank Wedekind, an author who came to prominence around the same time as Oscar Wilde in the 1890s. Two great extrapolations of the play are G.W Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box.
Just the fact that Reed finally managed to reach what is the closest thing to serenity through his art and music is revealing of how much of a thoroughly honest and sincere artist Lou Reed always was. Each and every record brought him a piece of the solution, even if he sometimes got lost in the way, he obviously always made sure that each and every single thing he did was meaningful to him as an artist and as a human being. Lulu is a totally underestimated album, a collaboration between him and the band Metallica, the best band he could think of to help him forge this masterpiece that finally managed to set him free, reconciling this ongoing battle between male-female and female-male, the jealousy, the fear of being rejected, all those complex feelings he was constantly struggling with came to be irremediably exposed and somehow ”tamed”. That is why Bockris in another masterful stroke of genius explains in details everything that was implied in the making of Lulu. You may not like the album, but you must take the time to think about everything it represents. Think of it as Lou and Metallica having violent, bordering non-consensual but this twisted passion is honest and not without hope and can be seen as an exorcism with Laurie Anderson’s precious help. It was the final touch that allowed Lou Reed to spend his final years at peace with John Cale with whom he released Peel Slowly and See, the ultimate Velvet Underground re-edition as well as the Deluxe Edition of White Light/White Heat . During the last six month of his life he also worked on his final collection of photographs Rimes/Rhymesand he even went to England to publicize Mick Rock’s limited edition ofTransformer, a great collection of Lou Reed’s photographs.
Of course this isn’t the only collaboration described in Transformer. You get to witness Lou’s collaborations with some of the most influential artists of his times, from John Cale, Andy Warhol (Reed and Cale made an album called Songs for Drella in Warhol’s honor after his death), and Nico, through David Bowie, Bob Ezrin, Robert Quine, Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson and the ghost of Edgar Alan Poe on The Raven as well as many, many more. Reading Transformer you do really get the sense that there is a convergence leading to Lulu and get to understand why Lou Reed finally reached a point where he finally got some closure and could sit back and enjoy life, love, friendship and joking around. Maybe he just stopped trying to be perfect in the end, at last. Bockris states that he had learned to enjoy what he had, what he was and was proud of what he had done and was at peace with himself and for that, I think everyone can only be happy for him.
By the way, reading transformer never gives you the overall feeling that Lou Reed was a complete degenerate asshole. On the contrary, you simply learn to get to know him and appreciate him for what he is and respect all the attempt his made to find out what really lies down at the end of every path he could take. Thanks to this book, I know that those of us who dare to try, no matter how fucked up we are, will one day reach a place that can be called home; that perfection can only be found deep inside our heart if only I we have the courage to let it bleed for the things that deeply, truly matters. I now understand that there is no such thing as an end, or death, only constant renewal. Reed reinvented himself so many times and in so many different ways. One MUST take that into consideration despite the despair and the fear the fear of the unknown. There is no ugliness, there is only a beauty that has yet to revealed itself, hidden in our deepest fears. This book is a major statement and is for sure as close as you will ever get to Lou Reed’sRock’n’Roll Heart. Make sure you give it your undivided attention because just like it’s subject, this book will slap you in the face if you don’t!
John Cale to Perform AlbuminFull in Liverpool and New York
Following a recent concert at the Philharmonie de Paris, our favourite viola-scraper has announced details of a major open-air gig in Liverpool, the city the Welsh musician sailed from on his journey to America more than 50 years ago, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Velvet Underground & Nico. The show at Liverpool Docklands on 26 May 2017 is the only European date for Cale’s celebration of the Velvet Underground’s iconic debut LP, with the album to be played in full alongside a specially assembled band at a purpose-built stage facing towards the Atlantic Ocean. Widely regarded as one of the most influential albums in history, the epochal albumwill only be played again in full at one further show in New York.
“I’m often reluctant to spend too much time on things past, then a time marker shows up – The Velvet Underground & Nico turns 50! As so many bands can attest to, it is the fulfilment of the ultimate dream to record your first album. We were an unfriendly brand, dabbling in a world of challenging lyrics and weird sonics that didn’t fit into anyone’s playlist at the time,” said Cale, quoted in The Quietus .
“Remaining ferociously true to our viewpoints, Lou and I never doubted for a moment we could create something to give a voice to things not regularly explored in rock music at the time. That bizarre combination of four distinctly disparate musicians and a reluctant beauty queen perfectly summed up what it meant to be The Velvet Underground.”
The 1967 album, which was backed by Andy Warhol and featured the voice of budding singer and model Nico, remains an ur-text of avant-rock after five decades, with its influence reaching from Roxy Music, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500 to most of the punk, jangle-pop, shoegaze and noise underground.
The first show will take place on May 26 at a bespoke open-air stage facing out to the Atlantic in Liverpool’s historic docklands. Cale will be joined by a number of “high-profile collaborators” to perform the album – their identities will be revealed in the run-up to the show. This year’s Paris concert featured The Libertines, Animal Collective and Mark Lanegan.
Tickets for the Liverpool gig go on sale at 9am on Friday, October 28, from all the usual outlets. Further details on the New York show will be announced later. For a taste of what to expect, here are a few of clips from the Paris show last spring, including Saul Williams guesting on “Heroin,” Mark Lanegan singing “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and Lou Doillon singing “Femme Fatale.” Hopefully that all happens again at the New York show.
Interview by Johan Kugelberg, The Velvet Underground:New York Art, 2009.
Maureen Tucker had a front row seat to punk rock history being conceived before her very eyes. An average high school girl from Levittown, Long Island, her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll when she heard the Rolling Stones on the car radio. From the Velvet Underground to Andy Warhol to Nico, Moe was there—making history herself as the first female drummer in one of the most revolutionary bands of all time. With Lou Reed by her side, they both share precious memories and a very sincere mutual admiration in this interview I chose amongst many others for its sheer authenticity and simplicity.
Lou Reed: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone go through so much trouble for a book about the Velvet Underground. Maureen , have you seen it?
Maureen Tucker: Yes! I have in front of me!
Lou : Is it a little goldmine of information, tell me?
Moe: Yeah! While I’m thinking about it, It says in it that you and Sterl’ you played together for the first time in 1963-1964 . I think it was earlier than that?
Lou : Well, we played in 1963 at Syracuse University , so it was definitely in 1963, not in 1964, during college.
Lou: I got my diploma in ’64.
Moe: Yes, and that’s where you met each other, you and Jim, my big brother, you both went to Syracuse in ’60 . Sterling was there too and you met him roughly a year after, maybe 2 years.
Lou: Yeah, because he lived with Jim!
Johan Kugelberg: Lou, is it true that the first song you ever played was ”It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” from Ike and Tina Turner?
Lou: I don’t know exactly, but it seems to be something we might have done. Many people think that Ike Turner was the first rock guitarist, so it’d be perfectly logical. But you know, me and Sterl ‘ simply adored this song! In fact I do not know anyone who didn’t like it. I’m pretty sure Maureen also loved it.
Johan: How did you discovered all those unbridled rock’n’roll albums that you were listening to before forming the band?
Lou: Well, I don’t know about Moe but in my case it was the radio, the radio or albums I heard because other people had them and were listening to them.
Moe: Yes it was on the radio as well, I lived in Levittown and there was not many … well, in fact, there was no record store apart of the supermarket, but they didn’t have anything interesting. Lou had a great collection of 45s! You remember Lou?
Lou: I remember, yes, I wonder what became of them……
Moe: The burglary on Grand Street! Don’t you remember?
Moe: Damn that was a blow!
Lou: You mean when we lost everything during our first concert at the Dom? While we were playing..
Moe: When the apartment was broken into and someone stole almost all of your 45s.
Lou: The first night we played there, someone knew there would not be anyone in the apartment because we finally had a job and they took everything we had.
Lou: Well, it’s not like we had a job we were getting paid for, but we were performing in an official way. And when we got back, there was nothing. I had ”Stay With Me Baby” by Lorraine Ellison and I had to go up to Harlem to find it because back then, no record shop in the center had that kind of stuff. At the time, John Cale and I were playing as streets musicians in Harlem. It’s amazing enough to imagine myself with my guitar and Cale with his viola da gamba, on 125th Street or St-Nicholas Avenue, or whatnot. God!! For my birthday Moe ”Bill” Bentley had given me the 45 original tower ”Outcast” by Eddie and Ernie.
Moe: Oh my God! It’s true!! Wow!!!
Lou: Yes, and it seems that they were from LA.
Lou: I don’t know which one was first but it probably had a huge influence on Sam & Dave. It came straight out from Eddie and Ernie’ world, who were pioneers, they were the first!
Moe: Yes, Yes! You still have it ??
Lou: Nah! Someone Somewhere, I dunno who, has in his stuff a sacred value.
Johan: There is indeed a little touch of Velvet Underground on that record from Eddie and Ernie. One can only guess to what extend you were immersed in the craziest of black music from the 50’s and early 60’s.
Lou: I personally think that you can take any Velvet track and if you scratch the surface a bit you will find blues and rhythm’n’blues, What do you think Moe?
Lou: Is this Maureen coughing ?
Lou: Well then give her a cigarette! Someone!
Moe: (Both laughing) Will you stop it?!! You’re making fun of me ‘cuz you stopped!?
Lou: I’m not making fun of you! I most sincerely empathize with you!
Lou: But yes, I stopped.
Moe: That’s good. You’re a good boy.
Lou: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that! I envy smokers every God-given day!
Moe: Did you ever play at Cafe Wha?
Moe: Was it not at Cafe Wha when Dick Gregory or was it…. a charity concert… or something like that? It Was Dick Gregory who had organized it all and they told we sounded like shit or something like that?
Lou: WOW!! But how can you remember that?
Moe: I believe that’s the day Dick Gregory said you weren’t worth shit, it was for the April Fool’s Dance and Models Balls with THE FUGZ at the Village Gate in 1956.
Lou: Wow! Yeah, that’s it! We are so shitty Allen Ginsberg himself came to dance around us with cymbals and all!!
Johan:Was it very frustrating for you that the album took so much time for it to be available?
Moe: It broke our heart! It was because if I understand … in fact there are 2 explanations, it depends on who you’re talking to but there is a version in which some Eric Emerson guy was on the photo at the back of the album and he wanted us to pay him 10 000$. So they erased it, and you will see when the album came out, it was no longer in the picture, though on other albums I’ve seen later on there he is again. The other one is that it took a year to find something ”Andy’s banana”.
Johan: We managed to get ahold of a Craig Brown. He was the person in charge of printing those album covers and he told us that it was a real nightmare having to paste the sticker with the banana on the cover of the album and that they had to rent a special customized machine to do it. It was very hard for them to put the bananas where they belonged.
Lou: It’s very funny, see, nowadays, of course, nobody makes bananas we can peel off, so it had to be to be some real technical feat back then!
Johan: Absolutely! It also was a huge cost for the record company!
Lou: Well, we never got anything from it anyway so I’m glad that at least it COST them something. (whom has rifled through the book) Ha! This is going to be a very expensive book!!!! You saw that Moe!! We’re going to be one of those huge coffee-table book filled with huge pictures!
Johan: I hope people will realize that this is the first time we do a huge artist monograph for a rock band, you even can put it next to a book on Marcel Duchamp or Magritte. The idea is to consider a rock band as an example of Great Art from the twentieth century as well as New York Art, because this exactly is how many people see you.
Lou: This wouldn’t hurt ..Right Maureen?
Moe: Yeah! That would be great! It would be fantastic!!!
Lou: A little late…
Moe: (laughing) Yep! Right on time!
Johan: You’ve both been active musicians and artists over the years ever since the time of the Velvet Underground, do you think, looking back, do you consider the V.U. as your debut as musicians?
Moe: No I don’t. I’ve never seen it that way. My debut… I can’t explain why, but no, it just never even occurred to me to see things under that light.
Lou: Well, quite often, in fact, as soon as I left New York! (laughs). Especially in Europe, much more in Europe than here. I think it’s always been the case for almost all types of music, such as jazz for example, that’s for sure. Europeans are simply more receptive to different stuff. I don’t know why. I’ve thought about it a lot and asked myself many questions…
John: I’ve always thought we could compare the way in which the Velvet was received, to the way we treated Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler in the 60s. Back then, they mostly played in France or Scandinavia.
Lou: Yeah, fortunately things have changed. Today Ornette has the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Award, and there’s the Lincoln Center Festival.
Johan: But it has been slow, it is still a common point. You were so ahead of your time it took a while before all these institutions finally wake up.
Lou: Yeah it’s been a good thing. It made me truly happy. I think that there should be a wing for the Velvet Underground, known as the ”Velvet Underground University” for those of us who are intellectuals. Personally, I would have liked for all of us, including Sterl’, to keep on doing small experiments. Nobody, no one among us could do alone anything that even comes close to what the Velvet Underground are like.
Moe: Yeah. That is true.
Lou: When you find other musicians and you feel there’s something going on, that something’s really happening, I miss that feeling tremendously.
Johan: I played a guitar solo that you did on ”What Goes On” for a friend of mine who was a jazz guitarist throughout his life and the first thing he said was it sounded like it was Albert Ayler playing guitar.
Lou: Now that was a very nice to say. I take it as a really great compliment.
Johan: And right away, I asked myself : Wow! Were you seeing your guitar solos as some kind of free jazz at the time but…heavier?
Lou: Absolutely! It goes without saying. That’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life! That’s what I was intending to do back then, I’m still doing it today and will always continue to do so . It’s exactly what I have in mind; Albert Ayler, Johan Griffin, they’re fantastic but to be honest it’s mostly Ornette and Don. Period. I always thought that the sound of distorted guitars felt like a sax solo. I could play pieces for brass you know. It was more or less the idea. What I liked is that the note was sustained. I could take a note then modulate it to catch the next or make it an acute and sharp sound and if I could do that, then I could pretend to be Ornette and keep on going. Even today you know, I can sing solos of Ornette such as ”Ramblin’ ” from ”Change of the Century”. That’s the perfect example of Ornette playing the rhythm’n’blues. I learned from the best.
Johan: You also liked this rhythm’ blues’ way of playing the sax that we would hear back then.
Lou: A lot. Very much. Like that sax player character, you know …Mr Lee, Lee Allen …I loved all the Little Richard albums in which he did all these solos. Even today I am in awe of these solos. But this is not what I wanted to do! I wanted to do Ornette! I wanted to do Albert Ayler. That’s what I wanted to I do using all these rhythm ‘blues’ arrangements . It was misleading because we have could have gone right pass next without even realising they are these small rhythm ‘blues’ arrangements but it don’t care..
Johan: You were completely successful and everybody has been trying to catch up to you for 40 years!
Lou: You know Maureen has almost invented all alone the fact of playing the drums standing. A real African drum girl. Still no drummer in the world knows how she does it. Maureen is very talented, and I think it is invariably underestimated by people. They do not understand everything else this way of playing has brought ! But her fellow musicians know! I think they should make a coin bearing the likeness of Maureen or something like that. This way of playing creates its own kind of rhythm and we didn’t even recognize her the credit when it is actually being reused by absolutely everyone, especially the younger bands. When I was at South by Southwest, I saw so many groups which played standing EXACTLY like Moe.
Lou: Absolutely! I imagined you being there and seeing that, roaring with laughter, because it was so cool It was absolutely your style, the way you play drums.
Moe: I’m stoked !!
Lou: And they darn well know where it’s coming from I’m telling you, they know it and they pay you homage! You can hear it non-stop,constantly. It’s a very particular rhythm and she, for certain, is the one who invented it, and she found it thanks to her and all those good things she listened to and I think we do not give her all the credit she totally deserves..
Moe: That’s very nice of you to say so honey!
Lou: I really do mean it. I listen to people all day and I can’t find a single person that is able to play the way you do.
Moe: I understand.
Lou: It’s just impossible!
Moe: I see what you mean..
Lou: It’s impossible, it’s downright impossible, and once we understand the fact that this is impossible, we understand why some other things are impossible too.
Moe: What makes me very happy in what you’re saying is that now I can be 100% sure you loved the way I was playing and what I was doing back then.
Lou: But how could you even doubt it???
Moe: Well, I never thought you hated it!! It’s just … It makes me so very happy that you thought it was real good.
Lou: Sometimes I happened to put on a Velvet Underground album and say: ”Now, listen very well to what she does, and how she plays ” But people can listen for hours without hearing it. Some people just don’t get it.
Moe: You know, what I was doing … the drummer, Orville..I don’t know if you remember this guy from my band? That’s the only person I’ve ever met who… I took his cymbals away so he wasn’t able to reach/play them.
Lou: You know in these parts of those electronic beat box that we hear today, if you listen well, the first thing that we get rid of are the cymbals. This way, we get rid of that line of barbaric drumming that’s always been played the same way everyone has always been playing them since the beginning… and for one reason or another … I mean I’ve had very good drummers whom I tied one arm behind their back to prevent them from playing this way!
Lou: And when I took their hi-hat they would getvery angry and fly into a rage!
Lou: You know there are drummers that are very good at what they do but that should be told: ”Do not play the hi-hat, ever, ever, it is prohibited, it does not exist anymore, it’s just over!”
Moe: Yeah, eight or ten years ago, a friend of mine sent me a compilation he had done when I was about to make this girlie band-like album, you know and there were, oh there must have been 30 songs of girls band he had put in the comp so that I could reflect and see if there was anything I wanted to play and there were plenty that I had never heard and some that, of course, I had already heard and loved and after going through half of the tape or maybe more I’ve realized that I had not heard a single cymbal! It was like a revelation !! Holy shit!! I was right!!!!
Lou: You bet! And you know it eventually got to the point where you didn’t need them at all!
Lou: And it liberates the rhythm!
Moe: Yeah! That’s exactly how I see it. I always had the feeling that the cymbals were too much, like a nuisance. Drummers hit on them every opportunity they get and in a 3-minutes song, it can be done 3000 times!
Lou: Yeah they also blast over the sound of the guitar and there’s no good reason for them to be. It’s not the kind of music we want to play, we don’t need that.
Lou: There are lots of things we can do instead. But you know, to find a drummer who understands that is very, very difficult
Johan: Well, Now we will give Moe all the honors she deserves in our book through your own words. Have you ever played a duo? Just the two of you, guitar and drum?
Moe: Hum No
Lou: Maybe we should. I think it is important to say that Maureen has created a certain way of playing drums that should be called the Maureen Tucker Style. Understand? It didn’t go unnoticed amongst other musicians, they realised what she had accomplished and they are right for it.A friend of mine who happens to be a producer once told me: ”Listen to this beat. You know you should do your own album because you see, it’s you guys who have invented this kind of beat, and you should really do it because everyone is doing the same thing now.” And he made me listen to a load of albums and yes, we could hear it everywhere, the beat from ”I’m waiting for the Man”, basically.
Lou: BAM BAM BAM BAM!… This one. You know you’ve got to have muscles to play it, if you are too weak, you’ll just crumble down…
Moe: (Laughs gently)
Lou: Either way, I’m Lou Reed, President of the Society of Maureen Tucker’s Admirers.
Moe: You’re too cute!
Lou: Yes, my little bunny!
To end this well, I thought of posting a clip of After Hours, a song Lou wrote in 1969 especially for Maureen because as Lou stated himself, the song was “so innocent and pure” that he could not possibly sing it himself. She couldn’t do it at first in the studio with all the other bands member there, joking around. They had to evacuate everyone from the studio, except Lou who helped her to get it right. Tucker’s vocals are accompanied by acoustic and bass guitar. The style of the lyrics and the music is somewhat reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley songs of the 1930s. It is the tenth and final track on their 1969 self-titled album.
”I could never figure out whether John Cale wanted to be Elvis Presley, The Frankenstein monster, or young Chopin” -Nat Finkelstein, Up-Tight
”He’d get paranoid craziness. I thought he was really special because of that, that craziness to me was incredibly interesting. He was really the kind that would be afraid to go into the street -from paranoia or whatever makes you that way. ” –Betsey Johnson, Up-Tight
Born in Garnant, Wales, in 1942, John Davies Cale played piano and violin from an early age. As a promising student at London University, he often chafed at the limitations of the classical hierarchy , and was drawn to the work of such avant garde composers as John Cage and La Monte Young. When Cale moved to New York in 1963, he fell in with each of these influences in turn, eventually playing viola in Young’s Theater of Eternal Music (a.k.a. The Dream Syndicate).
His work shows a fascination with opposites: lyricism and noise, subtlety and bluntness, hypnotic repetition and sudden change. Even as a student of classical music, he was an extremist: During a recital at the Guildhall School of Music, London, where he was studying theory and composition, he demolished a piano. Cale studied in Britain with composer Humphrey Searle, came to America in 1963 to work with Iannis Xenakis and Aaron Copland under the auspices of a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship, then settled in New York with such radical composers as John Cage and La Monte Young. That year Cale was one of a group of pianists to perform Erik Satie’s nearly 19-hour-long “Vexations.” Through his association with the Lower Manhattan art community, Cale met Reed, who directed him toward electric instruments and rock & roll and helped conceive the Velvet Underground, for whom Cale played keyboards, bass, and electric viola. The rock and roll milieu gave Cale a chance to unleash the fierce improvisational skills that classical music had no use for. “Velvets shows were pretty riotous. When we went to the West Coast, we’d end up playing in big clubs with a lot of the acidhead bands, and we found we could fit in there by improvising a little harder than what the acidhead bands were doing.”
“When John left, it was really sad. I felt really bad. And of course, this was gonna really influence the music, ’cause, John’s a lunatic. I think we became a little more normal, which was fine, it was good music, good songs, it was never the same though. It was good stuff, a lot of good songs, but, just, the lunacy factor was… gone.”-Moe Tucker
After two Velvets albums (The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat), Cale left in 1968 for a solo career. Cale worked in production (Nico’s The Marble Index, The Stooges) for a few years before returning with some subdued but elegant solo albums. His 1973 classic Paris 1919 established his penchant for writing allusive, emotionally compelling songs linked to historical and political concerns—a concern that reached its culmination in his harrowing 1982 album Music For A New Society. “Emotional concerns are very political, in the end,” he points out.
The mid-’70s found Cale back in the UK, fronting a series of rock bands that assaulted audiences with a stage presentation that drew as much from Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty as from Phil Spector. His three albums from this period— Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy—capture the dark and manic energy that colored his live shows, and prefigured the punk explosion that lurked right around the corner.
In the early ’70s he worked as an A&R man for Warner Bros. and Elektra, and as a consultant for Columbia, remixing albums by Barbra Streisand and Paul Revere and the Raiders in quadraphonic sound. On his solo albums of the decade, he used elegant pop (Paris 1919, with Little Feat’s Lowell George), hard rock (Fear), Phil Spector/Brian Wilson gloss (Slow Dazzle), minimalism (Church of Anthrax, with fellow La Monte Young pupil Terry Riley), full orchestra (The Academy in Peril), and punk (Sabotage). Lyrically, he displayed equal daring; delivered in a strong baritone, his work ranged from musings about terrorism, espionage, and states of psychological extremity to love songs. His ’70s tours, generally featuring guitarist Chris Spedding, were often acts of disturbing theater (recorded at New York’s CBGB, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues captured the punk ambience of the period); at one point Cale chopped up a chicken onstage, causing his band members to walk out.
By the next decade Cale had established himself as a producer/collaborator on some 80 albums, ranging from the debut efforts of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers, and Squeeze to four albums by former Velvets singer Nico; he also had worked with Brian Eno, Kevin Ayers, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Nick Drake, and Mike Heron and scored soundtracks for Andy Warhol‘s Heat and Roger Corman’s Caged Heat. While commercial success continued to elude him, he was lauded as one of punk’s godfathers, a status he contended against with characteristic irony: His primary interest remained classical music. As the ’80s waned he continued producing (Happy Mondays), scoring (the soundtrack for Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild with Laurie Anderson and David Byrne), and releasing solo work as various as the almost-pop of Wrong Way Up to “The Falklands Suite,” an orchestration of Dylan Thomas poetry that highlighted Words for the Dying.
By 1993 Cale had come full circle: Having, two years earlier, collaborated with Lou Reed on Songs for Drella, a tribute to Velvet Underground mentor Andy Warhol, he teamed with the Velvets on a reunion tour.
On his own, he continued to innovate, releasing in 1996, with help from David Byrne and Velvets drummer Maureen Tucker, Walking on Locusts, featuring a moving tribute to Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, and, in 1998, Nico, an elegy for Velvets chanteuse Nico.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
This interview conducted by Gregg Barrios was originally printed in Fusion, March 6, 1970.
Sterling Morrison was once described as the most underrated person living. He has been with The Velvet Underground since the dawn of history and hopefully will continue in that capacity forever. He was also called indomitable as well as an astute Italian duke. In any case, he is generally conceded to be a superior musician, as far above in talent as he is distant from the hype of current guitarists. In an interview while on tour in Texas, he spoke with Greg Barrios.
The group originally included Angus MacLise?
You know all kinds of secrets… How did you find that out? Yes, originally we were just jamming around and live in this unheated apartment and Angus lived in the unheated apartment next door. He had just come back from India. He didn’t want to be in a group, though, he thought it was fun to play music now and then whenever he felt like it; so Angus couldn’t be the drummer though we were good friends. At that time, we did some of the absolutely first mixed media things…
…the Exploding Plastic Inevitable?
No, before that. The antecedent of that was done in the old Cinematheque – all done by film people – things which Angus called ritual happenings. “Rites of the Dream Weapon” did you ever see a poster for that? Yes, that was the first one. Before Ken Kesey or anybody. Angus had seen lot of Dervish dancing while he was in India. He had been there for eight years and he came back with his raga scales and assortment of drums and so we used to put on these things and they had films. Piero Heliczer was involved in that.
I’ve seen his Dirt.
Yeah, and his New Jerusalem. Piero just had a showing about a month ago. He’s back in the country. He’s enigmatic.
I gather from some of his poetry…
What was that? Aquarium Productions?
No. Some items in the Film-makers coop catalog and newsletters.
There are really underground personages who have never been transformed by public acclaim. People like Piero, Angus, Tony Conrad, and Walter DeMaria, though Walter is doing somethings in art at present. Underground movies didn’t mean a thing in 1964 in New York. You were just sneaking around with no money.
There are many of them still like that even those who have produced important works like Jack Smith.
Well, yes, and take someone ever more amazing like Harry Smith who should be restrained from destroying his films. He makes those incredible hand-drawn cartoon films. I don’t know how long it takes him, they’re amazing. Have you seen any of those?
I’ve seen the Mirror Animations which is quite short.
They’re really marvelous. And every once in a while Harry flips out and destroys all he can get his hands on.
I met him once at the Chelsea Hotel with Barbara Rubin.
Yes. Barbara is one of the illuminaries.
Getting back to the group. Where did the name Velvet Underground come from? Did Andy…
No, this was before that.
Was the group composed of yourself, Maureen, and John Cale at the time?
Right and Lou Reed. And every group has to have a name so one day we saw the name on a book.
That paperback s&m book?
Yes, and we said, that’s nice. It’s abstract and the word underground meant something, and so we said sure why not – never figuring we would rise above our particular little echelon at the time, so that was fun. It was outrageous, the only people playing in New York City at the time were ourselves and the Fugs. We were lurking around the old Cinematheque and the Bridge and occasional gala underground events at the Village Gate downstairs. It was us and the Fugs – living in the lower East Side with around $25 a month combined (just about).
The first introduction I had to the group was an NET film on television in late 1965. The film was on Andy Warhol and it showed him holding a tryout for a group to use in his EPI.
It wasn’t a tryout at all. They didn’t know what was happening. They came there to do a thing on Andy and found us. We were already working with him.
Part of that film used your music alone. It was very nice.
They (people from NET) didn’t know what to make of it except that it sounded very peaceful and what we were playing was actually an instrumental version of Heroin. The final thing as they were showing the credits and it went droning on, that’s what that was. They didn’t know what was going on. The Factory (Warhol’s studio) in those days was so hectic and they had certain security measures to enforce.
The second time I heard the group was on the soundtrack of Andy’s film Hedy in 1966.
Oh, Hedy. Mrs. Lamarr!
Yes. I thought the music added to the pretentious mood of the film. It was very funny.
The movie was very funny. Almost everyone had a cameo part in the film. I think Jack Smith played the judge.
It was Harvey Tavel. I think Ronnie Tavel wrote the script. How did the group actually become connected with Warhol for a period of time?
He heard us playing in the Village. Barbara Rubin brought Gerard Malanga to hear us and he brought Andy. He thought it would be real nice – he always had the idea to do a media type thing with all types of films, with all possible ways to involve people.
Did that begin at the Dom on St. Marks Place?
Yes. And that wised us up in a hurry about where business begins and that sort of thing. We had the Dom an a three-year lease believe it or not. It really sickens me still when I go to St. Marks Place because more than anyone we invented that street. There was nothing going on there. Absolutely nothing. The Spa at one end and just Polish type stores, and Khadija Design, and the Bridge at the other end. No one had been there very long. Khadija had been there longer than anyone. It was an African clothing store. That was in 1964. Somehow we showed up at the DOM looking for a big room, and we said, ah, Dom (Polish for home), this is it. No one went down to St. Marks Place. No people coming in off the street. There was no point in being there. It appeared to be a disaster.
No concerts in Tompkins Square Park going on at that time?
No. This was way before that. If it was used I don’t know what for. So we got the building for three years and we opened it up and did extremely well. The people came down there and a person who worked in our box office said I’ve got an idea, why don’t we go and play in California. We said sure, why not. So we all went out to California even though we had been at the Dom for about a month.
Was that the trip to California which they said they weren’t ready for?
Yes, we played at the Fillmore and the Trip. We had a great time. I loved it, and when we came back we went back to our room since that was our thing. We owned it for three years, and when we came back we discovered it was now called The Balloon Farm. Actually our lease had been torn up and the director of the Polish home had been bribed and bought off and so our building had been taken away from us and later sold to the Electric Circus for around $300.000.
We did have some valuable property – so I discovered early in life that when you have something valuable someone is going to try and take it away from you unless you go around knowing things. I couldn’t believe something like that could happen and if you bother to sue or do anything like that – by the time it came up in the courts, you’d passed caring.
Were items like The Whip Dance with Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar used all along?
Gerard and Mary (Waronov) though Ingrid did some. They could do anything they wanted. The actual number of people who would travel with us varied. The dances were Gerard’s domain, and the lights Andy’s. We only worried about the music. The way the Whip Dance came about was when someone gave Gerard a bullwhip and one particular night – the night he came down to hear us in the Village, he happened to be carrying it with him and later he started dancing with it. There was no deep dark s&m motivations. Someone gave him the whip just for laughs. He also used flashlights and lifted weights. Gerard is amazing. He was a regular on Allen Freed’s old TV show.
“The Big Beat”? Wasn’t Baby Jane Holzer also on there?
Jane used to be around there, too. When Allen Freed got kicked off the air, his final publicity picture was of him and two regulars. Gerard happened to be one of them.
When did Nico join the group?
Well, she appeared with us at the Dom, so it was right before that.
Was it Andy’s idea that she join the group?
She was around because of Andy, but he couldn’t talk us really into anything. We thought it would be a good idea. I mean that’s how the whole thing was worked on the first album: The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other words, we were a unit with or without her. And she could do some things we really like, so we said do some songs. it was a complicated working arrangement because she said if I don’t sing, I don’t do anything. So it was always a question of how many songs Nico would do, should she do all of them, which we didn’t want, and that was the only cumbersome aspect of it.
Last night as Doug was singing “I’ll Be your Mirror” I detected the Germanic accent…
Oh yeah, we mimic the way she did it. She never said, “I’ll be your mirror,” it was “I be your mirrah.” It’s amazing how those songs are still so good.
What was the reaction to the first “banana” album? I know many people couldn’t get into things like “European Son” and a couple of the other cuts.
“European Son” is very tame now. It happens to be melodic and if anyone actually listens to it, “European Son” turns out to be comprehensible in the light of all that has come since – not just our work but everyone’s. It’s that just for the time it was done it’s amazing. We figured that on our first album it was a novel idea just to have long tracks. I’m not referring to any particular song, but any song running 8 or 9 minutes. People just weren’t doing that – regardless of what the content of the track was – everyone’s album cuts had to be 2:30 or 2:45 minutes.
The three-minute song.
Then here’s “European Son” which ran eight minutes or something. And basically all the songs on the first albums are longish though there are a few short ones. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is rather long.
I have your first single which has an abbreviated version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” on it.
Well don’t lose it. I really liked that record. You can’t get copies of it anymore. I have about two of those singles. There were never that many. “White Light/White Heat” was also a single. I don’t have many of those either.
I heard many rumors as to why Nico left the group. Would you clarify that?
It was all very informal. We stopped working for a while. We used to do that periodically – just refused to do anything. Nico needed money so she went out on her own. She was working downstairs at the Dom (Stanley’s) and we said sure, do anything you want, and so she was doing that. We’d take turns backing her up. I’d do it for one week, then John Cale, Lou, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jackson Browne – everyone was showing up as Nico’s accompanist. When we decided to start work again we told her about it, and she said, oh, I have three more weeks here. So we told her to decide what she wanted to do and she decided that perhaps she could go on her own and be a big star, and we said okay. There never was any ill feelings. For instance, Lou played and composed some of the selections for her first album on Verve.
Didn’t you help compose the song, “Chelsea Girls” for her?
Yes I did some meddling with chords.
I liked the first album she did. It was mostly Jackson Browne but it did have some Dylan on it.
Dylan was always giving her songs.
There have been rumors that he wrote several songs with her in mind?
I don’t know, perhaps. It’s very hard to avoid these people in New York. Dylan was always lurking around.
Didn’t Andy use Dylan in a film?
There was one film with Paul Caruso called, The Bob Dylan Story. I don’t think Andy has ever shown it. It was hysterical. They got Marlowe Dupont to play Al Grossman. Paul Caruso not only looks as Bob Dylan but as a super caricature he makes even Hendrix looks pale by comparison. This was around 1966 when the film was made and his hair was way out here. When he was walking down the street you had to step out of his way. On the eve of the filming, Paul had a change of heart and got his hair cut off – closer to his head – and he must have removed about a foot so everyone was upset about that. Then Dylan had this accident and that was why the film was never shown.
What was the general reaction to The Velvet Underground’s second album?
They were stunned.
To the fact that Nico wasn’t on there?
Oh no. By what the album was – kind of raw electronics (most of it). We liked the album very much. Generally reaction to our albums is late in coming. They just lay around for a year and then people start to pick up on them. There isn’t much you can say about your own albums.
Have you always had the liberty to put on your albums what you wanted?
Yes… it was kind of… we just did it. The company wasn’t especially aware of what we were doing.
The production credit for the first album list Andy Warhol as producer. I assume he doesn’t operate like Phil Spector?
No. This was “producer” in the sense of producing a film. We used some of his money and our money. Whoever had any money that just went all into it. Andy was the producer but we were the “executive producers” too. We made the record ourselves and then brought it around and MGM said they liked it. We just never cared to do it the way most people do.
There has been some bad reactions in critical circles toward narrative things like “The Gift” and “The Murder Mystery.” Last night, Lou said that he wasn’t going to do anymore of the narrative things because of the reaction to them. He felt “The Murder Mystery” succeeded. I do too.
I thought they liked “The Gift”. I don’t know. They might react against “The Murder Mystery” but “The Gift” is more coherent. I thought people liked it.
Do you perform either one on stage?
We used to play the music from “The Gift”, occasionally. We never did perform “The Murder Mystery”, it’s too hard. Anything involving narration is really ridiculous to try and do before a live audience.
Now with the third album you have some people saying, “now they’re on to Jesus.” Can you say that’s a progression?
No. It’s just something that you do.
In other words, they keep looking for another “Heroin,” or “Sister Ray,” and so forth.
I think the third album is a lot more subtle.
Exactly. There doesn’t seem to be anything that really comes out and grabs you like “Sister Ray.” (Excluding “The Murder Mystery” of course).
That’s okay by us. As an album, I think it holds up better than the other ones. The others, when you listen to them, something reaches out and hits you over the head, and something else drops back. The new album is a lot more cohesive. I mean why would we do another “Sister Ray”? For our purposes, we’ve already covered that ground.
Well, since you are now on the MGM label, some people thought you might have toned down because of some pressure.
That was only an administrative change so that we can use a different sales manager or something like that. Also, they have a prettier label, aqua and gold; those were my junior high school colors (laughter).
Which of the three albums do you like best?
I don’t know. It changes. Whichever one I haven’t heard lately. If I have been listening to one… for instance, I didn’t listen to the first album for a year… then I went back and decided I really like it. I’m sure no one plays much of what they do everyday. You just let it sit around for a long time, then you drag them out and listen to them.
It was nice last night when you played “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and later some new songs like “I Can’t Stand It Anymore.”
Yes, there’s all kind of things. We just shuffle them around.
Do you think the group misses John Cale and his presence or not?
Yes… no… it’s hard to answer.
I miss the viola.
Yes, but it wasn’t used that much, and it wasn’t an essential ingredient as far as we were concerned. Everyone thought when we first showed up doing that that it was a gimmick. It wasn’t that at all. You could get a sound out of it that we thought suited the song. It was used only for about three songs.
I think It’s a Beautiful Day makes excellent use of the electric violin.
The electric viola works better than the electric violin. One might say it’s an electric violin but it’s not. The electric viola registers a little deeper, so it has a nicer sound.
Have you heard John Cale’s Stooges album?
No, I haven’t listen to that yet.
Have you heard The Stooges at all?
Have you heard John’s album with Nico, The Marble Index?
Yes I like some of the songs on there. I haven’t heard The Stooges album, I’ll have to do that.
They have some of the early qualities of the Stones way back when Phil Spector would sit in and…
… play zoom bass… (laughter) if they sound that good I’ll have to listen to them.
Which of the current groups do you really like? (Doug Yule interrupting: Taj Mahal)
I do? (Doug Yule: Sure you do. I thought you did.)
I’ve always liked The Byrds. I’ve always liked The Kinks. I like Dr. John’s first album.
(Doug Yule: The Rolling Stones.)
Everyone likes them. Let’s see who’s unusual?
(Doug Yule: Creedance Clearwater.)
They get sort of monotonous.
(Doug Yule: But they have some good stuff.)
(Doug Yule: Just like us. We all have our ups and downs…)
… and all arounds
Indeed. And Quicksilver, I like them too.
Are there any groups you think have imitated The Velvet Underground’s style? or songs?
Yeah, everybody, kind of. It doesn’t pay to get into it, however, cause people might say, well you’re imitating Josh White, or someone else. If you release records you hope people will listen to them and whatever they do with it you should be happy about it. There isn’t anything to complain about.
What about people like Van Dyke Parks?
I dismiss him summarily. I don’t care what he does. I don’t think he has the credentials. Whatever he’s supposed to be doing – he isn’t good enough.
In the sense of a commercial success?
In any kind of success. If he’s such a great musician then let him go to Tanglewood. His work just sounds like some clever exercises.
He does a creditable job in co-producing Guthrie’s new album.
Oh, as a producer he might be able to do something. It’s that I don’t think classical music, or formal composition, if you will – needs people to release it on the unsuspecting pop world. If you want them to listen to that then go listen to Vivaldi or something Baroque.
But I don’t just sense the classical influence…
Okay, so he’s the great synthesizing mind of the 20th century, well he’s not that either.
Do you consider Zappa more appropriate to that title?
Zappa is incapable of writing lyrics. He is shielding his musical deficiencies by proselytizing all these sundry groups that he appeals to. He just throw enough dribble into those songs, I don’t know, I don’t like their music. I like some of the people in the group. Zappa figures how many opposites can I weld together. I’ll take this phrase from god knows who (i.e. Stockhausen – the magic name!) never heard of him. What is Zappa? I say Frank can I hear a song leaving out the garbage cans? I think that album Freak Out was such a shuck.
For instance, the following is something that would haunt me to the grave. He had this utterance in one of his albums – god knows which one – “I’m not saying I want to be black but there are times I wish I weren’t white.” Now how can anyone come on like that? And he just keeps going on. Now as a satirist, or something, he might be okay. Satirists are capable of knocking things. It’s a label you can hide behind. You might say that I myself am knocking him, well, not really. He’s doing something nobody else is doing. So in that sense he has his little niche.
There have been some comparisons drawn, somewhat outrageously, between The Velvet Underground and the MC5.
That’s a comparison that would drive me to an early retirement.
What do you think of the MC5?
I think seldom of the MC5.
Is there anything we’ve left out?
Well I don’t want it to appear that I’m knocking Zappa because too much has already gone down between us.
I thought his We’re Only in it for the Money was fun. It was a good satire on what they saw in the Beatles’ album.
Yes. But let me see him come out with something as good as Sgt. Pepper. If he comes out with one song that is as good as any song on Sgt. Pepper I revise my opinion. I can make fun of Sgt. Pepper. Everyone can. If anyone thinks that cover was clever, I have no art ability at all, and I can come up with one as funny. I mean here is what The Beatles did and without any stretch of the imagination one can come up with a parody. What Zappa saw in Sgt. Pepper was something good which showed real perception and talent, and lacking these attributes himself, he decided to do something else, and make fun of it. Is there anything on We’re Only in it for the Money that compares even remotely with anything on the original?
Well, the attitude of Zappa on some of the songs toward runaways seems more realistic that the maudlin content of “She’s Leaving Home.”
Yes. But Sgt. Pepper is still a great album. When I think of The Mothers I don’t think of anything they did – I just think of who they’re imitating. Who Zappa is deriving his horn lines from and so forth. The Mothers started out in the early days as essentially an old rock/boogie group. Zappa was doing what he knew best: old rock. There was a real good guitar player on the first album by the name of Elliot. He left because Zappa saw a chink in the social structure and he was going to fill the hole. For better or worse, he did it.
Well, he’s finally disbanded the whole group.
At last. The person Zappa always admired the most was his manager. He wanted to be his manager. Zappa is the kind of person who should be a manager or a publishing representative. He wants to be one of the really sleazy industry types. And he has some need for this too.
What direction do you want The Velvet Underground to go? Are you happy the way it’s going now?
I’d like to see us have a hit single. It’s really important that you do that. Our singles so far are a joke.
I thought some of the new songs you played last night have the potential to be good hits.
Everything, if perhaps not a hit, could be distributed. Most of our singles were never distributed. However where they appeared on jukeboxes, people have really liked them. “White Light/White Heat” as a single is nice. that single was banned every place. When it was banned in San Francisco, we said, the hell with it. That’s as far as it ever got.
You have a single out at present from the third album, “What Goes On.”
That was not a real single. It was just a cut put on a single. There’s a subtle distinction between what is a real release and what is a real real release.
In other words, a single produced for a market different from the album market.
It’s hard to say. It might, it might not. We have all sorts of strange things lying around in the can, as they say. We record them and get tired with them before they’re released. It happens many times. We get demos and we play the demos and get tired of them.
I think there is much humor in your music.
Oh, there is.
Many people, however, tend to emphasize the darker s&m qualities.
Yes, but this is not reflected in fact. We’ve made no attempt to dispel them but if anyone asks us, we say, no, don’t be ridiculous. We owe that legacy to Gerard who in his infinite wisdom did all kind of outrageous things. Suppose that title which we took for our name had been on a detective novel or whatever. It just happened that the book was about that. It was a really dumb book.
Many people consider the light show as an essential part of your image. Now that you are no longer associated with the EPI you no longer have any special lighting effects with your show…
… we got away from that. Actually we built the light show at Fillmore Auditorium. Bill Graham didn’t nor did any San Francisco entrepreneur. When we showed up Graham had a slide projector with a picture of the moon. We said, that’s not a light show, Bill, sorry. That’s one of the reasons that Graham really hates us.
In his recent book on San Francisco rock, Gleason says it (light shows) officially started in SF.
Marshall McLuhan gave us credit for it in his book. He’s the only one.
Right. I remember the photo he used of the EPI and Velvet Underground in The Medium is the Massage. That was quite nice of him.
It was nice. He showed the group that did at all. People like Gleason – he was one of our archenemies. They had the thing sewed up. The reviewer has a piece of the action. Bill Graham has the room, he has apiece of the action, too. San Francisco was rigged. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The fish being the innocent heads prowling around Haight-Ashbury. We came out there as an unshakable entity. I’d never heard of Bill Graham, in fact. I’ve never heard of him since. I don’t know who he is, I just thought he was an insane sob, totally beneath my abilities to observe. He just didn’t exist as far as I was concerned. An absolute nonentity. He knew what we thought of him. The day I arrived at his club, I was thrown out. I just walked in with my guitar and he said, you, get out of here. They told him , you’ve lost your mind, he’s playing here tonight. He said, get out, get out, you s.o.b. I wish I had. If any man really needs a beating, it’s Bill Graham.
He, of course, has his own defense mechanism. He’s currently telling everyone how S.F. will be dead without his Fillmore West.
Well, it was always like that. When we arrived it was an attack against their way of life. Graham made so much money that week-end we played at the Fillmore, that he didn’t believe it. That’s what blew his mind. We arrived, at a time before Jefferson Airplane was known to anyone, they didn’t even have Grace Slick yet. Everyone was nowhere at the time, The Mothers, and of course, ourselves. Warhol was the name at the time that made the impact with the public.
What groups shared the bill with you that night?
The Mothers of Invention, you see. The Mothers were following us around California. they also had an audition group perform. During the show, Zappa would keep putting us down, like on the mike he would say, these guys really suck. But Zappa is really a great guy, if he weighed fifteen more pounds he’d be in a hospital. No, he’s just a jerk. So The Mothers were chasing us around California so we arrived in Bill Graham country. He always had an audition group. The reason for this was he didn’t get any money. He would say, if you’re really good, I’ll let you play. This guy’s an operator. The audition group that night happened to be The Jefferson Airplane, whom he was managing. They wanted publicity and The Mothers wanted publicity because they were so many people capitalizing on our show that night. We were just a neutral party. We were going back to New York to greener pastures, supposedly, but when we got back our club was gone.
I understand you spent much time in Boston after that.
Yes, because we were so furious about New York and a lot of people who should have been behind us at the time but weren’t.
Were you there during the infamous Boston Sound period?
Yeah, Alan Lorber was responsible for that. He just wound up ruining a lot of Boston groups. Boston, however, is a really nice city, we have lots of fun there. It seems to have much more potential than San Francisco. So we played in Boston as opposed to New York City. Last time we played in New York was at the Brooklyn Academy, private parties, that sort of thing, superbenefits like the big NET one.
Have you been back to The Scene?
It’s closed. The Mafia was beating people up. They were having these incredible fights, thugs coming in. So Steve Paul just shut it down. That was going on at Arthur’s, too. The liquor laws work in such a way that if you have a trouble spot your liquor license can be revoked. So organized crime come in and says, I want a piece of the action, and they say, no, you can’t have it. So they just start these giant fights there. And the clubs lose their license. That’s what happened at Arthur’s. The Mafia people will even beat themselves up just so the police will come. That’s what happened at The Scene.
“Oh! Sweet Nuthin‘” is the final song off of Loaded, the last real Velvet Underground album (1970). It tells the stories of the disaffected, the poor Jimmy Brown, the homeless and depressed Ginger Brown, his fellow street person Polly May, and poor Joanna Love who finds herself in an endless stream of failed relationships. Between that and the chorus of, “Oh, sweet nuthin’/She ain’t got nothing’ at all,” you’d think this was a miserable song, one to listen to when you’re looking for that last bit of motivation to slash your wrists. That would be the easy approach. Rather, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin‘” is incredibly life affirming, especially in the end section where drummer Doug Yule – filling in for Moe Tucker who was on maternity leave – suddenly kicks the whole jam into overdrive. The guitars soar and the drumming continues to pound and it builds until it finally resolves to a reprise of, “She ain’t got nothing at all,” which suddenly feels like a reward instead of a lament. Who says that you can’t make something out of nothing? –Mark Toscano, David Steinberg
I’m Sticking With You!
One of the first generally available Velvet Underground bootlegs was an EP released around 1976 that served up four songs cut during the bridges between the band’s second and third (“Temptation in Your Heart”) and third and fourth albums — “Foggy Notion,” “Ferryboat Bill,” and “I’m Sticking With You.” All offered very different views on the band, at a time when the plethora of studio outtakes and oddities that we know today had still to see the light of day. However, even in this company, the plaintively swinging “I’m Sticking With You” (“cos I’m made out of glue”) came as a major shock to anybody raised on the delights of “Sister Ray” and “Heroin.” A straightforward duet between Lou Reed and Maureen Tucker, “I’m Sticking With You” was as sweet and unaffected as any classic pop duo (Captain & Tennille would have killed for this song!), its lilting melody and gauchely realistic sentiments all the more touching for their simplicity. Tucker would subsequently re-record the song with Jonathan Richman; the Velvets’ own version, meanwhile, finally made its official debut on 1985’s VU compilation. –Dave Thompson