[12 August 2007]
In meeting Andy Warhol, the Velvets acquired what few fledgling bands have been lucky enough to achieve: a wealthy patron. In addition, Warhol’s Factory, populated by an enormous range of people of varying talents, provided a fertile cross-pollination of ideas and personalities, whilst also constituting a powerful PR machine.
For John Cale, Andy Warhol’s Factory was like entering a fountain of ideas, with “new things happening every day”; for Lou Reed it was “like landing in heaven”. Everywhere they turned there were odd characters and odd situations, and Reed would write down in a notebook fragments of what he heard and overheard. Many of these fragments would end up in song; others would suggest a title or a story situation. The Factory crowd also noticed Reed as well. “Everyone was certainly in love with him—me, Edie, Andy, everyone,” confessed Factory regular Danny Fields. “He was so sexy. Everyone just had this raging crush… he was the sexiest thing going”.
Warhol and Morrissey had recently been approached to get involved with setting up a new discotheque in Long Island; the plans would come to nothing (after seeing the Velvets, the club owner hired The Young Rascals instead), but at this point Warhol was actively looking for a rock band to play there. Bizarrely (according to Victor Bockris), Warhol had actually contemplated forming his own rock band three years earlier, with LaMonte Young and Walter De Maria.
Seeing The Velvet Underground at Café Bizarre, Warhol liked the fact that Lou Reed looked “pubescent”, and that the audience left the gig looking “dazed and damaged”—according to Reed, Warhol saw them the night they were fired. Paul Morrissey claims that it was his idea to marry underground films to rock’n’roll, but that it was a purely commercial decision to work with the Velvets, rather than an artistic one. At the time, Morrissey also thought that Reed and Cale lacked presence, and that what the Velvets needed was a singer with “a bit of charisma”. He suggested someone who was already a part of the Warhol camp: Nico.
The suggestion that Nico should join the band didn’t go down too well with the Velvets, to put it mildly. Morrissey played them her single on the Immediate label, and according to him Reed was “hostile to Nico from the start”. What changed Reed’s mind was the fact that Warhol was offering them an enticing management and recording deal. There was of course the recognition that his patronage would bring. In the end, it was too good a deal for the Velvets to turn down. According to Nico, Reed agreed simply because he lacked the confidence to refuse—or perhaps, lacked enough confidence in himself as a vocalist. Still, at his insistence the billing would distance Nico from the group, making it crystal clear that she was not a band member. They would be The Velvet Underground and Nico. So Aronowitz was ousted (he’d only had a “handshake deal”—something he subsequently regretted) and Morrissey and Warhol officially became joint managers of The Velvet Underground. In return for 25%, Warhol would invest in new equipment, get them gigs and a recording contract. In fact, after buying two instruments from Vox, Warhol got them to supply further equipment for free, having arranged an endorsement deal (the band would later endorse Acoustic, and then Sunn).
But a problem remained: Nico wanted to sing all the songs, which Reed refused point blank to allow. But since her presence meant that some gentler songs were now needed, Reed wrote three ballads for her, which suited her unique, breathy singing style (“like an IBM computer with a German accent”, as Warhol put it): “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. The gentler songs contrasted interestingly with John Cale’s experiments in drone-like repetition.
According to Cale, Nico was deaf in one ear (from a perforated eardrum), which caused her to go off-pitch from time to time, much to the band’s amusement. “Lou never really liked me” Nico later complained—though that’s hard to believe when you listen to ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. She and Reed were lovers early on, and even lived together for a while. Recalling this period, Nico described Reed as “very soft and lovely. Not aggressive at all”, and even that “you could just cuddle him like a sweet person”. Sterling Morrison was more cynical: “You could say Lou was in love with her, but Lou Reed in love is a kind of abstract concept”. The relationship lasted eight weeks, and was supposedly ended by Nico. Cale, meanwhile, had been seduced by Edie Sedgwick within 48 hours of arriving at the Factory, and moved in with her for the duration (six weeks) of their relationship. Edie had also had a brief affair with Nico. John Cale has described the material Reed wrote for Nico as “psychological love songs”, and even Reed acknowledged her strengths as a performer. Yet after Nico left the Velvets, Reed would write no more songs for her—despite being asked to by both Cale and Nico herself.
Nico had little to do on stage when she wasn’t singing except stand stock-still and play tambourine (usually out of time), and at times things could get a little tense between her and the band. Even so, she was a striking vision: dressed all in white in contrast to the Velvets’ black attire. Her modeling days had certainly taught her how to strike a dramatic pose. She was also taller than all the men surrounding her and, inevitably, she captured most of the media attention. As Maureen Tucker said: “She was this gorgeous apparition, you know. I mean, she really was beautiful”. Critic Richard Goldstein described Nico’s stage presence as “half goddess, half icicle”.
Singing For ’Drella
However little Andy Warhol knew about music (and he never expressed any noted preferences), even he must have sensed that in TheVelvet Underground he’d found more than just another rock band. “Andy told me that what we were doing with music was the same thing he was doing with painting and movies i.e. not kidding around” Lou Reed recalled. He was bowled over by Andy’s way of looking at the world and once remarked that sometimes he would spend days thinking about something Andy said. Reed was also impressed by Warhol’s work ethic: “I’d ask him why he was working so hard and he’d say, ‘Somebody’s got to bring home the bacon’”. Warhol would ask Reed how many songs he’d written that day; Reed would lie and say two. Lou also remarked on Andy’s generosity, pointing out that though Andy was the first to arrive for work at the Factory and the last to leave he’d still take them all to dinner: “He gave everyone a chance”.
But the exact nature of the group’s relationship to their new manager remains vague. As Sterling Morrison pondered: “Was The Velvet Underground some happy accident for him, something that he could work into his grandiose schemes for the show? Would another band have done just as well? I don’t think another band would have done just as well. At that time we seemed uniquely suited for each other”.
John Cale described Warhol as “a catalyst” for the Velvets, that he understood exactly what they were about, how best to bring that out. “I doubt that Lou would have continued investigating song subjects like he did without having some kind of outside support for that approach other than myself” he elaborated. “I think it was just basically Andy and I who really encouraged that side of a literary endeavour”. Morrison echoes the fact that Warhol gave them “the confidence to keep doing what [they] were doing”.
It’s probable that Reed and Warhol each saw echoes of themselves in the other. But Warhol had earned the nickname of ’Drella (a combination of Dracula and Cinderella) that Ondine, another of the Factory crowd, had given him. Warhol had an acid wit that Reed could seldom match, and his jibes were less malevolent than Reed’s—they could be bitchy and funny at the same time, whereas Lou was often just bitchy. But as Malanga states, Warhol also had his dark side: “he could slice a person with a glance”. In fact, Lou actually came in a poor third to Nico when it came to put-downs. Meeting again shortly after their break-up, there was a moment of frosty awkwardness between the two, followed by a long pause after which Nico came out with the charmless “I cannot make love to Jews any more.”
In the end, the Velvets’ relationship with Warhol is best summed up by Mary Woronov, artist and collaborator: “They were with Andy and Andy was with them and they backed him absolutely. They would have walked to the end of the earth for him”. All of the Velvets spoke highly of Warhol ever after, Cale perhaps most succinctly of all: “He was magic”.
At this point the Velvets had been ordered by police to stop rehearsing in their West 3rd Street apartment (above a firehouse), and told to rehearse in the country if they were going to make that kind of noise. Cale was experimenting with an electronic “thunder machine” at the time. The same cop had also accused them of throwing human excreta out of their window. So they began to rehearse at the Factory every day, accompanying Warhol in the evenings to art openings, cocktail parties, dinners and nightclubs, as part of his permanent 10–20-strong retinue. It’s doubtful whether the drug-free Tucker tagged along, and she must have been somewhat bemused by the Factory’s denizens. (They in turn liked the fact that she looked boyish, which fitted right in with all the blurring of gender going on there.) Later on, Moe worked at the Factory briefly, transcribing tapes of Ondine’s rantings for Warhol’s book A: A Novel. However, she refused to type any of the swear words, substituting asterisks instead. Meanwhile, Ondine had turned Lou Reed on to methedrine, which became became his main indulgences for years to come.
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Excerpted from The Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground, publishing 1 September 2007 by Rough Guides, a division of Penguin Group International. Copyright 2007 by Rough Guides. All rights reserved.