Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground

Rob Jovanovic

With exclusive new interviews from Velvet Underground, this is a captivating account of one of the most influential groups in rock history.

Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Price: $26.99
Author: Rob Jovanovic
Length: 320 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-03
Excerpted from Chapter 1 from Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground copyright © 2010 by Rob Jovanovic. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1: 1942 - 1964 Beginning to See the Light

'They put the thing down your throat so you don't swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. I wrote "Kill Your Sons" on Sally Can't Dance about that. You can't read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.'

-- Lou Reed

In New York during the late 1950s, the suburban view of homosexuality was that it was a mental condition that had to be 'cured'. Though Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beat gang were running around the city having their taboo-busting adventures, it was all nonetheless very much underground. Homosexual men were still seen in terms of extremely effeminate stereotypes. For a middle-class family, the mere thought that their son might be gay was cause for great concern, and in many cases drastic medical attention was sought. The Creedmore State Hospital Psychiatric Unit on Long Island was one of the local institutions used for 'curing' such 'disorders'. The methods used for such cures weren't pretty or sympathetic. Many doctors prescribed electroshock treatment to try and alter a patient's brain patterns.

With its eighteen floors rising above the local surroundings like the imposing centre of some gothic horror story, the Creedmore cast a physical as well as a psychological shadow over its local environs. Inside the new patient was taken through endless secured corridors before reaching a waiting room deep inside the massive complex. After changing into a hospital gown, he was strapped to a table while electrodes were fitted to his head and a sponge was placed inside his mouth. Within seconds the power was cranked up and a bolt of electricity was sent coursing through his seventeen-year-old body. Soon he lost consciousness while the treatment was continued. When he came round some time later, Lou Reed was terrified to realise that he had lost his memory.

To put it quite simply, New York is the ultimate city, the capital of the modern world. It's been mythologised as Metropolis and Gotham City, the iconic silhouette of its skyline is ingrained in memories across the world. The steam rising from under manhole covers, yellow taxis with horns blaring, skyscrapers rising up in every direction, with streetwise guys and hip girls on the street corners. A myriad TV shows and countless movies have made the city seem like the entire human race's second home.

From Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, as famously used in the opening sequences of that consummate New Yorker Woody Allen's Manhattan, to the birth of Tin Pan Alley and the boom in sheet music, through early Broadway musicals, it is also the epicentre of world music. The city has been called the capital of jazz (Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington), been a centre for Doo Wop (Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers) and the 1960s folk movement (Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Greenwich Village), the birthplace of punk (The Ramones, Patti Smith) and new wave (Blondie, Talking Heads) and it was in New York where rap first hit the streets with Grandmaster Flash. Right up to the Beastie Boys' 'An Open Letter to NYC' on their post-9/11 album To The 5 Burroughs, this city has been the heart and soul of music for almost 100 years.

During the 1950s Manhattan was home to some of the world's most powerful record labels (Atlantic, Columbia, Decca and RCA), the biggest music publishers and most popular recording studios. The centre of activity was the famous Brill Building between 49th and 53rd Street. Here a hub of songwriting teams assembled to produce some of the twentieth century's most memorable music. Goffin & King, Pomus & Shuman and Leiber & Stoller among others honed their trade turning out scores of hit songs. 'Dream Lover', 'Spanish Harlem', 'Yakety Yak' and 'River Deep Mountain High' are just some of the countless songs New York exported to populate charts around the world. By 1962 the Brill Building was home to over 160 music-related businesses, with the whole structure of the industry represented over the eleven floors of just one edifice. You could find the songwriters, who would look to sell their output to the publishers; there were demo studios where you could hire musicians to produce a tape to help sell a song to the various artist management agencies also housed in the building, and when that was done you could also find the radio promoters who would help get the finished song out on the airwaves.

Once the finished product was out in the open, it was often the backing of a disc-jockey that would make or break a tune and so the DJ suddenly became a powerful figure in the burgeoning music business. One of the most influential and important of these emerging DJs was Alan Freed. Freed is most famous for coining the phrase 'rock and roll' as a term for the overt rhythm and blues that was then gaining in popularity. He'd been working in radio since the Second World War as a sports-caster and then as a jazz and pop DJ in his home state of Ohio. Under the working name of 'Moondog' he hosted the Moondog Coronation Ball -- now regarded as the world's first 'rock concert' -- at the Cleveland Arena in 1952. By the mid-1950s, Freed had moved from Ohio to New York and hosted a show on WINS radio, where his voice reached the growing Long Island suburbs and the first generation of teenagers.

Freed was spreading the word to a massive, rapidly expanding and hungry listener-ship. New York in the 1950s was expanding its boundaries as more people were moving out to the neighbouring suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey. It was a time when the middle classes were indulging in a blossoming new consumer culture and people were increasingly likely to spend their disposable income on records.

Rock music was in its infancy and the newly named 'teenagers' were showing their first signs of rebellion; James Dean and Marlon Brando portrayed troubled and tenacious figures on the silver screen and the still-new music of rock and roll began to fill the airwaves. Writer Jack Kerouac used New York as his East-Coast base while writing his classic On The Road and spearheading the Beat Generation, and as the decade progressed, more and more jazz clubs morphed into rock and roll dance halls. At the same time, black music was seeping into the mainstream as traditional blues evolved, through the electrification of the guitar, to rhythm and blues, and then to rock and roll. The latter of these genres was hijacked by white performers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis who, alongside black singers like Chuck Berry, took the nation by storm, providing the teenagers with a thrilling new medium through which to enjoy themselves. Without the responsibilities of their pre-war forebears, the American youth of the 1950s was the first to have both the time and the money, to simply have fun, and rock and roll music was the centrepiece of the fun they wanted to have.

Alongside the chart toppers were the popular vocal Doo Wop groups of the New York area. Doo Wop was a vocal style that had evolved from a mixture of gospel and black pop vocal groups like The Ink Spots. The Ink Spots had been around since the early 1930s in Indianapolis, but really grew to national prominence during the Second World War, culminating with the success of 'The Gypsy', which topped the US charts for thirteen weeks in 1946.

During the late 1940s, Doo Wop started to have a real influence on vocal music. The Ravens were one of the first of these groups to have chart success, and became a massive influence on all kinds of popular musicians, as they integrated jazz and gospel into a more mainstream format. 'Ol' Man River' was one of eight Top Ten hits they enjoyed. It wasn't just their sound that was influential, many bands with 'bird names' sprung up too, with The Swans, The Crows and The Wrens. But it was The Ravens who continued to push musical boundaries and even incorporated rock and roll with its swinging saxophone arrangements.

The Jesters were one of the more successful groups to follow The Ravens, scoring several mid-1950s hits ('So Strange', 'The Wind', 'The Plea', 'Please Let Me Love You') and becoming synonymous with the new New York sound. Through Alan Freed's radio show this new music was heard across the tri-state area, and bands started popping up in suburban neighbourhoods across the region. In 1955 the five-piece black vocalists of The Cleftones were formed in Queens, going on to have terrific local, if not national success. These bands in turn led other local kids to have a go for themselves. One of those local kids who had been listening intently, and was utterly taken with the Doo Wop bands, was Lou Reed.

Rob Jovanovic is the author of books on Kate Bush, Beck, R.E.M, Pavement, Nirvana, George Michael, and Big Star. He has contributed to such music magazines as Mojo, Q, Level, Record Collector, and Uncut.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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