The Velvet Underground Over Europe

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First and last, the Velvet Underground will be associated with New York City: with the shadows, dirt and speed of the crumbling Lower East Side of the mid-sixties, where the group formed; with the steady whirl and silver foil of Andy Warhol’s Factory, where they first brushed some kind of fame; with standing on the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, waiting. The pulsing sense of the city pressing behind, scraping against, and rushing through their sound was there from the first. You can already feel it stirring in Lou Reed: Words And Music, May 1965, a fascinating album of demos released this month, featuring the earliest-known recordings of Reed and Velvets’ co-founder John Cale performing embryonic versions of songs that would forge their legend when they appeared in radically mutated guises two years later on their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.

Simultaneous with the release of May 1965, however, comes the coincidental arrival of another significant addition to the VU library, one that underlines how, although famously commercially unsuccessful during the group’s lifetime, this music would echo far beyond Manhattan. Linger On: The Velvet Underground is a sumptuous new book compiling over forty years’ worth of reportage by one of the band’s most assiduous chroniclers, Spanish journalist Ignacio Juliá. Beginning in 1979 – nine years after Reed brought the Velvets’ curtain down by quitting the group – Juliá has returned repeatedly to the VU, along the way conducting lively interviews with all core members: Reed, Cale, the irreplaceable guitarist Sterling Morrison and matchless drummer Moe Tucker; as well as Nico, who augmented their best-known lineup as chanteuse; and Doug Yule, the often-undervalued substitute drafted in after Reed engineered Cale’s expulsion in 1968.

The Barcelona-born Juliá’s near-obsessive dedication illustrates a point – one previously highlighted in 2016, when the world’s first large scale multi-media exhibition devoted to the group, The Velvet Underground: New York Extravaganza, opened at La Philharmonie de Paris, drawing over 65,000 visitors: as the quintessential sunglasses-after-dark New York band, the Velvets provided deathless inspiration to succeeding waves of proto-punks and post-punks across the USA; yet it is arguably in Europe they spawned their most fervent fans, and unquestionably in Europe that their music would have its most profound impact. In Europe, too, that the Velvet Underground were ultimately destined to mount their last stand.

Perhaps that’s a reflection of how strong, stray strands of European influence helped form the VU’s DNA from the very beginning. It starts, of course, with the extraordinary Welshman abroad, John Cale himself.

The May 1965 tape captures Cale and Reed just five months after their first astronomically unlikely meeting, two young outsiders born one week and three thousand miles apart in March 1942: the Brooklyn-born Reed an accountant’s son obsessed with poetry and rock and roll, whose fragile temperament and continual rebellion against the straight-laced values of the lonely Long Island suburb of his teenage years had seen him prescribed electroshock therapy by seventeen; Cale raised amid a landscape of work, religion, standing stones and tales of witches in the rural mining village of Garnant, South Wales, the only child of a coal miner and a primary school teacher, who escaped the valley and the future that Britain’s class system seemed to have in store for him through sheer talent and bloody-minded will.

By the time he reached New York, in summer 1963, Cale had burned through a lifetime’s worth of European musical experience. Prodigiously talented since childhood – he’d been recorded performing his own Khachaturian-inspired piano composition by BBC radio around the age of eleven – by thirteen he was violist with the Welsh Youth Orchestra, with which he toured the Netherlands. Soaking up the BBC’s Third Programme via the family wireless, ordering scores to study through the local Workingmen’s Library, he became drawn to the modernist line – Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen – and when he won a scholarship to London’s Goldsmiths College, chafed against the rigidly classical teaching and sought out one of the UK’s leading experimentalists, Cornelius Cardew, himself a former Stockhausen assistant.

Cale applied to continue his post-Goldsmith’s musical studies at Moscow University among other places, but was already dreaming of New York, fascinated with the American leader of the contemporary pack, John Cage, with whom he’d started corresponding, and Cage’s mysterious successor on Manhattan’s cutting-edge, La Monte Young, whom Cardew had met while with Stockhausen in Germany. On the recommendation of the great American composer Aaron Copland (another Cale pen-pal), Cale was awarded a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study composition at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. He left after a year and hightailed it to New York, working first with Cage, then joining Young’s cosmic-minimalist project, the Dream Syndicate, entering the beating bohemian heart of the city’s downtown art scene.

Cale bonded with fellow Syndicate player Tony Conrad, taking a room in the same derelict apartment at 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. The friendship inadvertently led to the formation of the Velvet Underground when, attending an uptown party for the chance of free food late in 1964, Cale and Conrad were approached by an executive from Pickwick Records, a company specialising in low-budget rip-offs of current hits. He reckoned the longhaired avant-gardists had the Beatles-ish “commercial look” he was seeking to assemble a fake group behind Pickwick’s young in-house writer Lou Reed, to promote a wild single Reed had recorded, “The Ostrich.” Cale and Conrad went along, game for a laugh, and the chance of making some cash.

Already a serious connoisseur of pop, Reed was a whizz at churning out the soundalike tunes Pickwick demanded, ersatz Motown one minute, bargain basement Beach Boys the next. But as they became friendly, he divulged to Cale he was more serious about a batch of songs that the company refused to record. The contrarian Cale grew intrigued. Reed showed him his private lyrics, including future VU classics “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting For The Man.” They recognised something in each other. Rock and roll was never the same again.

This is the era the May 1965 tape preserves: Reed and Cale, armed with only an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and the belief they could make these songs sound unlike anything anyone had ever heard. Reed’s folksy, finger-picking performance betrays how heavily Reed still laboured under the inescapable influence of early Bob Dylan (even as Dylan himself definitively escaped that style, with the release two months earlier of his gone-electric, gone-beat, gone-further Bringing It All Back Home LP). The music doesn’t yet know the discord, dissonance and eternal drone, the subway rumble and shriek Cale’s avant-garde training would soon meld to Reed’s abiding love of doo-wop, Phil Spectorish pop, and overloaded gut-bucket R&B guitar. Even so, as this nascent “Heroin” gathers pace and begins to hint at its future, that sense of the city, their own private New York, is already tangible. In the album’s liner notes, referring to the 56 Ludlow Street flat where Reed was soon spending all his time and the Velvets did their early experimenting, critic Greil Marcus describes it as, “The poverty in these songs—the bathtub-in-the-kitchen you hear in their clumsiness, the fifth-floor-walkup you can hear in their defiance.”

That coldwater tenement was a particular melting pot. In Todd Haynes’s 2021 Velvet Underground documentary, Jonas Mekas, doyen of the independent film scene to which the fledgling Velvets gravitated, describes post-war New York as “the place artists escaped to…a meeting of New York and the best artists’ minds of Paris and Berlin.” 56 Ludlow represented the process in microcosm.

Its inhabitants included another European émigré who had a significant, if often unsung impact on the VU’s development, the poet, publisher and filmmaker Piero Heliczer. Born in Rome in 1937 to a Polish doctor father and German mother, Heliczer had been a child actor in Mussolini’s Italy. In 1944, his father, a resistance leader, was executed by the Gestapo. After the war, his mother brought him to New York, but Heliczer continued to bounce back to Europe, living in Paris, where, in the late-1950s he co-founded the Dead Language Press, an imprint dedicated to experimental writing.

Heliczer’s partner in Dead Language was his friend and fellow 56 Ludlow tenant Angus MacLise, a poet-percussionist who, as things evolved across 1965, became the still-unnamed Velvet Underground’s first drummer, in a line-up that now also included guitarist Sterling Morrison, whom Reed had known since both were students at Syracuse University. Morrison added his own particular  Europhile spice to the stew: after leaving the Velvets, he started teaching at the University Of Texas and gained a PhD in Medieval Literature, writing studies on Beowulf and Old English poetry.

In summer 1965, this anonymous VU accompanied Heliczer at a screening event for his experimental 8mm films at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque on 41st Street, run by Mekas, another European refugee helping shape Manhattan’s downtown scene: born in Lithuania in 1922, Mekas had lived through Soviet then Nazi occupation, and spent time in a German labour camp before reaching the US in 1949.

Heliczer’s multi-media “ritual happening” simultaneously involved film, lights, slide-projections and dancers, while, behind the screen, the Velvets extemporised a constant live soundtrack. Soon, they were being called on to jam similar “strange music” for other Cinematheque associates. In a 1979 essay on Heliczer, Morrison cited the experience as a turning point: “The path ahead suddenly became clear – [we] could work on music that was different from ordinary rock and roll since Piero had given Lou, John, Angus and me a context to perform in.” Indeed, after briefly calling themselves The Falling Spikes and The Warlocks, it was their connection with the underground film community Mekas presided over that prompted the band to adopt the Velvet Underground name, after Conrad found a trashy sex-in-suburbia paperback of that title in a gutter.

It wasn’t the only turning point. It was through Heliczer the VU met Barbara Rubin – another independent filmmaker, who appeared alongside the Velvets in Heliczer’s 1965 film Venus In Furs – who in late December 1965 brought them to the attention of Andy Warhol, who was seeking a band to front his own multi-media happening, a show eventually dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

At the time Warhol became their ostensible manager, the Velvets had already almost given up on the USA and were looking across the Atlantic, feeling less affinity with American pop than the aggression of British bands like the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Yardbirds, whose singles Cale picked up on his regular trips home. Early Velvets demo tapes were already circulating around London, imported by Cale, Rubin and Heliczer’s wife, Kate, in the hope of attracting record label attention. “We had all but actually packed up and gone to London,” Morrison commented in the seminal VU biography Uptight. “We would have been in London by spring 1966, come what may, had not the EPI happened.”

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While Warhol’s intervention stopped the VU crossing the ocean, he would bring more European flavours to their mix. In public, the man born Andrew Varchola played coy about his family background, as he did most things: “I come from nowhere.” But behind the blank façade, the influence of the life his parents had known before the US was strong enough that, decades later, in Songs For Drella, the memorial-portrait song suite they composed after Warhol’s death in 1987, Reed and Cale commented on the “Czechoslovakian customs” of etiquette and work-ethic Warhol prized at the Factory.

Warhol saw his family as Czech and at home conversed with his mother in what he considered that language. But the year before he died, he noted in his diary his dismay upon meeting Czech-born model Paulina Porizkova and her mother and discovering he couldn’t understand them. In fact, Warhol’s parents spoke Rusyn. Emigres from the town of Miková, situated in present-day Slovakia, the Varcholas – although they would not at the time have recognised the then-supressed identity – were actually Carpatho-Rusyn, the stateless people whose homeland lies in the mountainous region where Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary meet. They held strongly to their culture; scholars have increasingly speculated on the influence on Warhol’s work of the religious folk art – ikons, holy cards, crucifixes – that dominated the family home and the churches the privately devout artist attended all his life.

Certainly, Warhol was in icon-making mode when, despite their reluctance, he insisted on adding to the Velvets their most overtly European facet, Nico. Born Christa Päffgen in Köln in 1938, she was evasive about her background – her parents separated before she was born, and her soldier father was killed in the war – but by the time she entered Warhol’s orbit and he started planning to make her his Girl Of The Year, Nico had already carved out the beginnings of her legend, first as a model in Berlin and Paris, then a fleeting face in European cinema, through a brief appearance in Federico Fellini’s lauded 1960 state-of-the-decadence address, La Dolce Vita.

The Velvets grouched about having her in the group, but Nico’s look –glowing blonde in white mod suits against their surly black and biker boots – and heavily-accented Germanic vocals on the perfect songs Reed gave her, including “Femme Fatale” and the near-mediaeval gale of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” set them apart from the American mainstream as much as anything else when Warhol unveiled the club-happening he built around them, the EPI, originally staged near-nightly across April 1966.

In many ways, collaging film, abstract projections, lightshows and dance with the VU’s ear-splitting live performance, it was a bigger-budget, louder, more Pop sequel to their events with Piero Heliczer. But thanks to Warhol’s star power and canny way with publicity, the residency would make the Velvets’ name in New York, garnering serious press and drawing curious A-list scene-setters like Jackie Kennedy. Fittingly, given the European currents around the group, the setting for this breakthrough was a rented hall in St Mark’s place known as the Dom, aka the Polski Dom Narodowy – the Polish National Home.

The Velvet Underground would continue to record and perform nothing but astonishing music after April 1966, but the EPI at the Dom marked the highwater mark of the band’s visibility during their brief existence.

For a moment, the path into Europe that several Velvets craved seemed to open up to them. The great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni wanted them for his existential mystery Blow-Up, being shot in London in October 1966, but expenses finally ruled them out of the already drastically overbudget film (the role went to the Yardbirds). European offers to perform came in, but Warhol was growing more interested in cinema again, and made nothing of them – in his autobiography, Cale recalls being particularly galled when Warhol took Nico to the 1967 Cannes Film Festival but left them behind. Most intriguingly, Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who had become enamoured with the Velvets’ debut album when he took an acetate on holiday in spring 1967, started talks about signing them and organising a European tour, plans that ended with his sudden death that August.

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Exacerbated by frustrations over low sales and lack of radio play, tensions built. The disheartened VU split first with Nico, then Warhol, and finally each other, when Reed forced Cale out in 1968 following the release of their second, most extreme album, White Light/White Heat. The Mark II Velvets featuring Doug Yule recorded two more LPs, masterly in different modes, and became a formidable road band. But by the time Reed quit in 1970, the Velvets had never ventured outside of North America.

It was their very elusiveness, their distant, dissident, uncompromised undergroundness, however, that saw the VU’s cult grow across Europe at a time of great unrest. Linger On’s author Ignacio Juliá first fell in love with their songs when he saw Lou Reed perform solo in Barcelona in March 1975, during the dying days of the Franco regime. As he writes in his introduction to the book:

“Rock concerts by international artists were few and far between, and represented for [Spain’s] youth culture what was being repressed on the streets. Given the nature of the beast, Lou Reed’s visit was especially tense. Members of the censorship board showed up and edited the song ‘Heroin’ out of the set-list; consequently, the concert was just one hour long, without an encore. The ensuing protest by the audience had the police entering the arena and charging against the first rows. I remember the revelation, so this is rock’n’roll.”

In his memoir A Post-May Adolescence, the brilliant French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (who would recruit Cale to compose the music for his 1991 movie, Paris s’éveille) recounts travelling to London in summer 1968 as a teenager fired up by the May student riots in Paris and there discovering the first Velvet Underground album and recognising it as a kind of secret signal: “Few people in London and literally no one in Paris had heard it…for years afterward it would serve for me as an antidote to conformism.”

In late-1960s Germany, as the nation struggled with the guilt and anger of its recent past, a generation of bands took inspiration from the Velvets. Children of parents of the Nazi era, living in their divided country, they rejected mainstream English and American rock as much as German history, and heard in the Velvets something untainted. The founders of Can, Kraftwerk and Neu all cited the influence. Indeed, bootleg recordings of the Velvet’s Dom performances, on long throbe-drone jams like “Chic Mystique,” are uncannily predictive of their kosmiche musik sounds.

The Velvets’ most extraordinary impact, however, was on Czechoslovakia. In the spring of 1968, as the Communist regime allowed a brief, tentative easing of restrictions, Prague playwright Václav Havel was able to travel to New York for the American debut of his play The Memorandum. There, in a Greenwich Village record store he bought White Light/ White Heat, knowing only it was “something unknown and unobtainable in our country.” Back in Prague that autumn, after the Soviet invasion cracked down on reforms, tapes of his album circulated among dissidents as a totem of a kind of freedom, and inspired the formation of a band, The Plastic People Of The Universe.

In 1976, most of the Plastic People were arrested by secret police for playing their outlawed music. The event prompted Havel and other Czech intellectuals to formulate Charter 77, calling on the regime to respect international human rights agreements it had signed. Circulating the document was a political crime, but it paved the way to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. One year later in Prague, Lou Reed met Havel, by now the democratically elected president of Czechslovakia. The president presented him with a hand-printed book of Velvets lyrics translated into Czech, a samizdat from the dissident days. “They were very dangerous to have,” Havel told Reed. “People went to jail.”

European fandom seemed almost to will The Velvets back into being. As Ignacio Juliá writes in Linger On, “Here was an American icon that flowered post-mortem in the Old World, where they were understood as an artistic endeavour, not merely judged under musical or moral values.”

The first unlikely semi-reunion happened one cold night in Paris in January 1972, when Reed, Cale and Nico performed a one-off acoustic show at Le Bataclan, a fragile and magical performance that was filmed for French TV. But it wasn’t until 1990, in France again, that the impossible happened. The Fondation Cartier, situated outside Paris in the bucolic town of Jouy-en-Josas, invited Reed and Cale to perform selections from Songs For Drella to mark the opening of a major Warhol exhibition. Also attending among the various Factory-era faces invited were Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker, who, unexpectedly, seemingly spontaneously, joined them to play “Heroin” – a tentative then racing, raging performance keening out over French fields that marked the first time all four had played together since September 1968. “As I got off the stage,” Cale wrote afterwards, “I was on the point of tears.”

It led to the Velvet Underground’s final outing when, in the summer of 1993, Reed, Cale, Tucker and Morrison reunited for a tour that would take in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Switzerland, Denmark and Italy – a pointed, poignant lap of honour around the Europe they never saw in the 1960s. There were plans for American dates later, but they were scrapped as old tensions flared up and saw Cale and Reed separating again. Two years later, in August 1995, Sterling Morrison died, and it could never be again.

Many say those 1993 Velvets shows were a disappointment. I’m not one of them.

I remember the opening night, at Edinburgh Playhouse, the buzzing anticipation of a crowd not believing this was actually happening. I remember the band standing blinking into a five-minute ovation before they’d even played a note. I remember them looking lost and on the brink of a new discovery during “Hey, Mr Rain.” I remember “The Black Angel’s Death Song” sounding like nothing else. I remember, for a moment, for everyone, it felt like coming home.

A version of this story was published in The New European in October 2022 under the title Velvet Revolution