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Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground Part 2

  by Jon Rogers

published: 27 / 8 / 2012

Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground Part 2


In the second part of his history on the Velvet Underground leading up to the release of their debut album 'The Velvet Underground and Nico', Jon Rogers writes of their first meeting with Andy Warhol and of them being introduced to Nico

Reduced to a trio of Reed, Cale and Morrison and with a gig looming on the horizon the band are in need of a drummer. Fortunately, the sister of one of Morrison and Reed's friends from Syracuse, Jim Tucker, happens to play drums. At the time Maureen Tucker is a computer operator but has played on stage before with the girl group the Intruders. Having previously met Tucker through her brother Reed auditions her in the room where she keeps her drums and, despite initial reservations from Cale, she's in the band. Tucker's inclusion, at least at first, is probably down to the fact that the band are in desperate need of a drummer rather than a carefully considered decision. Tucker has only been playing the drums for about a year and a half, inspired by the debut album of the Rolling Stones released in the USA in May 1964. Reed tells producer Tom Wilson (who recorded Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone') on the 1968 MGM promo LP 'The Music Factory' that the reason she was in was that "we needed an amplifier and she had one." Still, whatever the reason, and no matter how quickly the decision was made, she was the perfect fit for the band. The group's first proper, paid gig is suitably unusual, being the Summit High School Auditorium, 125 Kent Place Boulevard in New Jersey. With admission being $2.50 the event kicking off at 8 p.m. with the Myddle Class headlining. A comprehensive account of the gig will be given by Rob Norris in an article entitled 'I was a Velveteen' in the fanzine 'Kicks' in 1979: "Everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song, which the singer introduced as 'Heroin', the music began to get even more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave which was threatening to engulf us all. At this point most of the audience retreated in horror for the safety of their homes, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of rock 'n' roll music." Afterwards, Cale was seen apologising to the Myddle Class for scaring away half their audience. It would seem that the band would polarise views from the start, while half the audience may have walked out it seems that the group did convert some into fans with Morrison recollecting later that a few people did hang around the parking lot afterwards and asked for autographs. And Cale, in his 1999 autobiography, 'What's Welsh for Zen?' admits that while he was apologising to the Myddle Class, he also felt "exhilarated" at the performance. A tape of the concert possibly exists as Aronowitz did record at least some of the songs played - 'There She Goes Again,' 'Venus in Furs' and 'Heroin' but the Wollensak recorder goes missing afterwards with, reportedly, one of the band being seen packing it away with the rest of the band's gear. Soon after their Summit High School performance Aronowitz books them for a residency at the Café Bizarre on West 3rd Street in New York. Once a key venue for the folk revival and Beat Poets when it opened in August 1957 the club has now seen better days with Reed describing it as "a real clip joint. It had a hawker outside and everything." Martha Morrison, then Sterling's girlfriend and future wife, described it as a place where the clients just sat around drinking and talking and paying no attention to the band playing at the back. The circumstances of the residency may have been far from favourable but at least they had one of their biggest fans, photographer and scenester Barbara Rubin - who can been seen on the back of 'Bringing It All Back Home' ruffling Dylan's hair - helping to drum up support. Writer and member of the Fugs, Ed Sanders, was one person who Rubin managed to drag along to see the band and he was suitably impressed. "They were quite impressive," recollected Sanders in 1999. "The kind of drone-like repetitiveness of some of the music, and of course Reed having good pipes, obviously a rock 'n' roll star to be." Also Rubin was responsible for getting a certain Andy Warhol to go and see the band, but that is closer to the end of the band's run. Despite the residency only probably lasting a couple of weeks, the band have a fairly gruelling schedule, playing several 40-minute sets a night, interspersed with 20-minute breaks, six nights a week. For which they receive the princely sum of $5 each a night. And although they have written new songs, like 'Run Run Run' by now they have to pad out their performances with covers of Chuck Berry's 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Little Queenie' as well as Jimmy Reed's 'Bright Lights, Big City'. Tucker, however, told 'What Goes On' that the only cover she remembered playing was 'Roll Over Beethoven'. In addition the stage is so small that Tucker can't fit her drum kit on stage and has to ditch it, playing the tambourine instead. And they didn't like the management. Essentially, the residency wasn't going well and they wanted out after playing Christmas Eve and then being told they would have to play New Year's Eve as well. The band got their chance when the proprietress openly disapproved of 'The Black Angel's Death Song' as it often drove the clients from the venue, which was bad for business. The very next day the band opened up with the song and were duly fired. Morrison will on various occasions state that the version of the song that got them fired was "a really good version" and will tell the 'NME' in 1981 that it was "the all-time version". He will tell Ignacio Julià for a documentary on The Velvet Underground made for Catalan public TV in 1986: "We played it terrifically well, it was passionate. " Reed though told a slightly different version of events in the 'Transformer' documentary, saying: "We got fired that night anyway, because some sailors came in and we played 'The Black Angel's Death Song' or something. These guys yelled at us, 'You fucking play that again, we'll beat the shit out of you.' So of course we started right up and played it immediately and the chairs started flying and all this... I mean an audience of four people, all of them trying to attack us. That's where a guitar comes in handy. An electric one, solid body." The band's Café Bizarre stint can't be written-off as a sheer disaster as it does bring the band to the attention of Pop Artist Andy Warhol who, along with his associate Paul Morrissey, will take the band under his wing and help the band produce, in his own inimitable way, one of the most important rock records ever. It's unsure exactly what day of the Café Bizarre residency Warhol actually goes to see the Velvet Underground but according to 'The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol' by John Wilcock, founder of the 'Village Voice', it is during the last few days. Warhol's manager, Paul Morrissey, had been looking out for a band for some time which would be part of the Factory's expansion into multimedia ventures. As Morrissey told the documentary 'Factory Days: Paul Morrissey Remembers the Sixties': "The opportunities for getting money from experimental movies were obviously nonexistent. And therefore the possibilities in 1965, in the era of the Beatles just coming to America, the Rolling Stones, an everybody supposedly making a lot of money, seemed like a very good thing." According to Morrissey, Warhol was against the idea of managing a band from the start but would go along with any reasonable idea suggested by him. The Velvet Underground come to the attention of Morrissey and Warhol via Barbara Rubin and Gerard Malanga. Rubin had asked Malanga to come along and take some pictures of the band at the Café Bizarre, he'd accepted but had no idea of how to read a light meter and so had asked Morrissey, who had done the lighting for Warhol's films, to help him out. "I went and told Gerard what to do. I liked them enormously, because the drummer was totally androgynous, and because John Cale had an electric viola and wore a huge necklace of fake jewellery around his turtleneck with his Richard III haircut. They had a different look and sound. They weren't jumping up and down or humping their guitars. They stood still. And I thought the music was very good, distinctive, different. And they were using the word 'underground' in their name, which seemed an obvious connection." "I went up to them and said, 'I manage Andy Warhol, I'm looking for a rock 'n' roll group that we could present at a big nightclub that's gonna open in Queens. Do you have a manager?' They said no. 'I'll bring Andy tomorrow; you can meet him and decide.' So I brought Andy reluctantly... he sat there. Then he said, 'What are we going to do with them?' He had no urge or interest in getting involved in any musical group. They were a calculated business attempt on my part to be a financially lucrative enterprise." Aware of Warhol's fame and wealth, the band readily agree to a proposed management deal, but also the band are taken with Warhol. As Reed told Wilcock, who was part of Warhol's entourage at the Café Bizarre: "The first thing I liked about him [Warhol] was that he was very real." Their existing manager, Al Aronowitz, is pretty much instantly forgotten about. While Warhol and Morrissey are impressed by the Velvet Underground they think they need a new, charismatic lead singer and see Reed as actually not being up to the job. In Richard Witts 1992 biography 'Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon' Morrissey is quoted as saying to Warhol: "The problem is these people have no singer. There's a guy who sings but he's got no personality and nobody pays the slightest attention to him. The need someone with a bit of charisma." One name thrown into the mix is the cabaret singer Tally Brown, who had appeared in Warhol's film 'Camp' in 1965. But, according to Morrissey, she wasn't really considered. Being in her early forties she was seen as being too old and being a cabaret singer didn't really fit with the band's dark image. Given much more credence is Christa Päffgen, born in Köln, Germany on 16 October 1938 and is already part of Warhol's Factory scene but better known under the name of Nico. Morrissey's idea was for the model and actress Nico to sing in front of the band in a "beautiful deep German voice". Her appearance certainly got her noticed. A tall beautiful lady with blonde hair who was invariably immaculately dressed, her striking looks had helped her get a walk on part in Fellini's classic film 'La Dolce Vita' and now she was seen as being charismatic enough to be the 'face' of the band and gain all the attention. Only there was one, small stumbling block to the plan. Lou Reed - and probably the rest of the band - strongly objected. It was, apparently, Reed who specifically asked for Nico to be billed separately from the group, hence the Velvet Underground & Nico. "We didn't really feel we had a choice," Reed says in the documentary 'Lou Reed: Rock 'n' Roll Heart'. "I mean we could have just walked away from it, or we had a chanteuse. So we had a group meeting and said, 'All right, we'll have a chanteuse, and Lou will write a song or two for her, and then we'll still be the Velvet Underground.' Nico's role in the band is an uneasy one, and she will last as a sort of on-off member for about 18 months, enough time though for her to put her mark on the debut album even though her role is just limited to singing a few songs. At the time her position in the band was often ridiculed by the others and was never really fully accepted but in retrospect the band came to appreciate her input. "She could sing high and sweet if she wanted to," Morrison told Ignacio Julià for Spanish TV in 1986. "But Nico could sing, she could sing the songs that we had her do, sang them well." The band set up a rehearsal at The Factory at 231 East 47th Street as a way of auditioning Nico. The rehearsal is actually recorded and forms part of the CD produced for the 1996 exhibition 'All Tomorrow's Parties: Remembering The Velvet Underground' at the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh. The tape, although poor quality sees the band having moved much closer to the famed Velvet Underground sound, rather than the more folk leanings of the Ludlow St. demo. The band now are certainly electric with the guitars dominant in the mix - although this could just be because of poor recording rather than a deliberate ploy - and the drums and vocals are hardly audible. Only two songs - 'Heroin' and 'There She Goes Again' - are heard in their entirety. 'Heroin' has come on leaps and bounds and now features Cale's soaring viola drone, even if Tucker's drumming is lost in the mix. 'There She Goes Again' is perhaps the band at their most conventional and the riff is, basically, lifted from Marvin Gaye's 'Hitch Hike', but this version is pretty close to the one immortalised on their debut album complete with the falsetto harmonies. Of most interest on the tape though is another version of 'There She Goes Again', admittedly incomplete, where Nico takes the lead vocal. The band play the song in various keys trying to find one that best suits Nico's vocal range but it seems clear that the song is better suited to Reed singing it. The rest of the tape is just the band jamming and doodling ideas. One incomplete idea is a song with the apparent title 'Walk Alone' but doesn't really get going. Elsewhere Reed recites a few lines from 'Venus in Furs' but the rest of the band don't bother joining in and instead do a take on Bo Diddley's 'Crackin' Up' as well as a bluesy-improvisation called 'Miss Joanie Lee'. Throughout the remaining doodlings snatches of Ike and Tina Turner's 'It's Gonna Work Out Fine', Booker T & the MG's 'Green Onions' and the George Harrison guitar lick from 'Day Tripper' - which was #1 in the charts at the time - can be heard from time to time. The choices are an interesting one despite the band's image being out of step and out of time with the prevailing pop records of the day, the records brought back by Cale from his trip to London and the songs selected on the rehearsal tape perhaps indicate that the band had much more in common with the mainstream chart-topping songs of the day than they would otherwise care to indicate. The group certainly played some odd gigs in their lifetime - to high school children in New Jersey and to tourists at the Café Bizarre but surely the oddest has to be at the Delmonico's Hotel in New York on 13 January 1966 where the band played for the annual dinner of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. According to Seymour Krim in the 'New York Herald Tribune' the idea of getting Warhol to speak at the dinner came from the chairman Dr Robert Campbell, who was described as a "swinging post-Freudian". But instead of speaking to the assembled audience Warhol gets Barbara Rubin to film the audience whilst she asks intentionally embarrassing questions about their sexual behaviour. Then the Velvet Underground appear to run through 'Heroin' whilst a film of a man tied to a chair and being tortured is shown behind them. Gerard Malanga does an early and rudimentary version of what will become his whip dance and looking on is one of Warhol's 'Superstars' Edie Sedgwick. Reed would later describe the event as being "absolutely hilarious". The event was extensively reported by Grace Glueck in the 'New York Times' where Dr Campbell is quoted as describing the band's sound as "a short-lived torture of cacophony". Another is quoted as saying: "Warhol's message is one of super-reality, a repetition of the concrete quite akin to the LSD experience." Footage of the event eventually crops up in Jonas Mekas's 'Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol'. By now the band's sound is maturing and developing all the time and getting close to what listeners will hear on their first album, as indicated by what is probably a rehearsal tape made by the band to help with their upcoming run of shows at the Film-Makers' Cinematheque in New York. First up is a short take - around four minutes - of 'Heroin', which features a particularly abrasive and squawling viola by Cale that just about drowns out Reed's vocals. Interestingly next the band run through Nico's pet Dylan song that he had given her, 'I'll Keep it With Mine' which she has been pestering the band to include in their set. While Nico is keen on the song, the rest of the band certainly aren't, particularly as the band wanted to keep their distance from Dylan, despite admiring his work. "We did not want to be near Bob Dylan," Morrison is quoted as saying in Victor Bockris' 1983 biography 'Up-Tight: The Story of the Velvet Underground. "Either physically or through his songs." And Morrison admits that the band dragged their heels over the song, taking their time learning it and then playing the song "poorly" when it was done. The tape is also notable for what seems to be the first recording of 'European Son', the abrasive song that will eventually close the album. This version sees it in its early stages of development and is far less aggressive than it will eventually become. As well the lyrics appear not to have been fully worked out yet as the first verse - where Reed wants to spit on those under 21 - is missed off and instead Reed references the rockabilly classic 'Suzy Q' by Dale Hawkins.

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