Lou Reed Rising

Naked Lunch Becomes TV Dinner: The Rise of Punk Rock

No “legendary” rock band of the 1960s has proven more legendary than the Velvet Underground. The name alone (before it was abbreviated by fans into “the Velvets”) carried a special resonance, evoking Genet decadence, whip-and-leather s&m, Warhol chic, and European ennui. And even though other urban bands (the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rascals) were more commercially successful at the time, the best songs of the Velvets (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Beginning to See the Light”) have an emotional texture and a sharply defined drive which propel the songs beyond the time in which they were written.

Yet when one tries to think of the Velvet Underground photographically, one draws a grainy blur. The great rock stars of the ’60s live vividly in our memories through their photos; one thinks of the Beatles first in their suit-uniforms, then in their glossy Sgt. Pepper outfits, of Hendrix in his black-nimbus Afro and layers of scarves, of countless shots of Jagger pouting and preening and hip-thrusting. Yet the Velvets, except for the imperially lovely Nico, seemed not to occupy visual space at all. Even when one listens to their live albums now, it’s impossible to imagine what they looked like playing their instruments — they don’t come into focus. This shadowiness makes the power of their music all the more provocative since it means that not theatricality but its absence is what gives that music its current urgency. The Velvets didn’t have a strong stud-star at center stage (as did the Stones and the Doors) and didn’t provide a good-vibes community atmosphere (as did the Dead and the Airplane) and didn’t attempt to stagger the audience with histrionics (as did Alice Cooper and just about everybody else). What makes the Velvets vital now is not only what they had but what they lacked: stylishness, ornamentation, politics, and a hedonistic ethos.

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I first heard the Velvet Underground in the record library of Frostburg State College in western Maryland; the album, their first (with a jacket painting by Warhol), was the only rock album in the entire collection, and that distinction intrigued me. Yet, except for their chanteuse, Nico, and her ghostfloating vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” except for Reed’s quirky phrasing and John Cale’s merciless viola on “Black Angel’s Death Song,” the music was unenthralling. The liner-note quotes about “three-ring psychosis” and “Warhol’s brutal assemblage” described a realm of experience that was for me as faraway and nocturnally exotic as Apollinaire’s Paris, or Brecht’s Berlin. At a time when the most popular bands on campus were corporate entities like Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was difficult to connect with a band that dedicated songs to Delmore Schwartz. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Velvet Underground had already disbanded, that they had left behind not one studio album but four; only when I came to New York and discovered a dingy copy of White Light/White Heat in a Canal Street 99¢ bin did the music of the Velvets hit me with its careening bloodrushing force.

Now, three years later, their music is even more compelling. And though the Velvets were either ignored or denounced in their prime — they go undiscussed in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City and Carl Belz’s The Story of Rock, and even in Stephen Koch’s vertiginously brilliant book about Warhol their music is described as “the hideous ‘acid’ maundering … of insufferable navel-gazing guitars” — it’s clear now that they were the supreme American avant-garde band. With the Warhol affiliation no longer impinging upon their aesthetic, the music can be freshly heard and appreciated for its radical primitivism. “Sister Ray” is still throbbingly dissonant, a river of electronic fever, and the best of Loaded is as vibrantly alive as if it had been recorded last week at C.B.G.B. by white-shirted kids with virginal Stratocasters. This is true precisely because the music of the Velvet Underground was in no way formally innovative. The Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, the Grateful Dead — all were more experimental, eclectic, and orchestrally inventive, yet there’s something wanly dated about their music now … it’s as pale and faded as old Peter Max posters, or discarded copies of the EVO. Once the values and sentiments of the psychedelicized counterculture lost their sway, the audaciousness of the music seemed sheer pretentiousness — intricate toys being passed off as sacerdotal gifts. The desire for community was so fervent, and the reverence for pop stars so fanatically intense, that when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Elvis … don’t believe in Beatles,” people reacted as if he had said something shattering, something revolutionary. If someone next week sang, “I don’t be-Aretha … don’t believe in Roxy,” he’d earn a tempest of derisive laughter. And rightly so.

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Well, the Velvets never fell for the platitudes of transcendence (via acid) and community (via rock) which distance us from so much of the Sgt. Pepper era rock. The dynamics of the Velvets’ music — its disorderliness, loneliness, melancholy, abrupt joyfulness, claustrophobia (contrasted with the wide blue vistas of much post-Woodstock rock), chiaroscuro shadings (contrasted with the Peppery psychedelicized rainbows), antihedonism, and druggy wistfulness — are consonant with the tensions of the Ford era. Though there’s a pull of litany in their songs, the Velvets were never purveyors of salvation — they were always too thoughtful, too tentative. Their modest expectations, their distrust of charisma (both political and cultural), and their disdain for grand gestures are attitudes congruent with the apolitical politics of Jerry Brown. (Is this why Alexander Cockburn plays “Sister Ray” at least five times a day?) It’s a leaderless time, and the Velvets never believed in leaders; their music always stressed survival over community. Even their most beautiful love songs (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) were about the distances between people — about the inability to penetrate the mystery of the other. The drug they sang about was not a vision-inducing agent like acid, or a partytime pass-it-around substance like pot, but the drug that most completely isolates one from others: heroin. The Velvets’ music was about nihilism, the nihilism of the street, and this barely bridled energy — what John Cale called “controlled distortion” — is expressed cinematically by Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah novelistically by William Burroughs, musically by post-Velvet rockers like Patti Smith (who sings “Pale Blue Eyes” more passionately than Lou Reed ever did), Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Dolls, Talking Heads, and Television.

The Heads and Television may even be more commercially successful than the Velvets originally were because both are more melodic, more visible (unobscured by multimedia effects), and more photogenic. The Heads look like a still from a Godard movie (“La Chinoise,” maybe) and Tom Verlaine looks like Artaud from Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” But since they’re as yet unsigned, the underground-rock breakthrough which is most precipitous is embodied in a wonky little wacker named Jonathan Richman, the auteur-alumnus of a Velvet-influenced band called the Modern Lovers.

This Jonathan Richman, a feral child of Rocky and Bullwinkle, will soon be shuffling his way across the FM dial and into America’s bruised bosom. Richman has already received moderate airplay and modest notoriety with his soupy contributions to Beserkley Chartbusters, Vol. 1, particularly his witty celebration of highway life called “Roadrunner,” which offers a fine antidote to Springy’s overripe imagery. An album of keen documentary interest has just been released which may make Jonathan Richman a household name in every household in which Mary Hartman is the smiling madonna. It’s called Modern Lovers and it’s a demo tape produced by ex-Velvet John Cale for a Warner Bros. album which was never made. The Velvet influence is reflected not only in the music (the organ work, for example, is strongly reminiscent of “Sister Ray”) but in the expression of angst.

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Fascinating is the contrast between the New York of Loaded and the Boston of Modern Lovers. Where the cityscape of the Velvet Underground is cluttered yet lonely, Richman’s ironic rhapsodies about Boston conjure up a city which is somnolently empty, a city visually and aurally impoverished.

I’m in love with the modern world
Massachusetts when it’s late at night
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I got the radio on
Just like a roadrunner

(“Roadrunner”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan’s Music)

And here is Richman faced with the mysteries of amour at his local bank:

There’s only three in the other lines
In my line, well, I count eleven
Well, that’s fine cause I’m in heaven
I got a crush on the new bank teller
She looks at me and she knows

(“The New Teller”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan Music)

Small wonder Joni Mitchell is having sleepless nights …

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Yet when Susan Sontag wrote that new art is painful because it hurts having your sensorium stretched, she was anticipating Richman’s effect. For he has an unforgettable voice: off-key, off-pitch, so achingly widehorizonly flat that it makes a Rothko painting resemble a lunar landscape by comparison. When he performed last year at C.B.G.B., he lazily strummed his acoustic guitar and yammered mindlessly on about Love, wonderful Love, and how wonderful it is to have a girlfriend to share Love in the Modern World with, strum strum strum, and after the audience gave him exaggerated bravos, he performed his special version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the third or fourth time.

Wedded to such an instrument of torture, Richman’s Weltschmerz-pose could make him a sui generis rock star, though we’ll have to wait until his first solo album is completed for Beserkley Records before we’ll know if he can stretch himself, or if he’s just a dandy with a gift for punky pinched irony.

Punk humor, a healthy parody of rock machismo, can be found in the music of the Dictators (who sing: “The best part of growing up/Is when I’m sick and throwing up/It’s the dues you got to pay/For eating burgers every day … “) and the leather-jacketed Ramones, in the Daffy Duckery of Patti Smith, in magazines like Punk and Creem, and in television heroes like Fonzie and Eddie Haskell. It’s a style of humor which reverses banality, thrives upon it, and enjoys juxtaposing it with high culture references in order to create a comically surreal effect.

Of course, the rock-and-roll regent of punkish irony is ex-Velvet Lou Reed whose solo albums include Transformer (with Reed’s most popular song, “Walk on the Wild Side), two live collections, Sally Can’t Dance, Berlin (my favorite Reed work, a misery-drenched masterwork: sunless, spiteful, and cold-bloodedly cruel), and Metal Machine Music, a two-record set of such triumphant unlistenability that it crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence. What Reed learned from Warhol (though he could have learned it equally well from Mailer or Capote) is careermanship: making yourself such a commanding media figure that even when your latest work is a pathetic package of retread riffs and coffee-grind lyrics, people will still be intrigued by the strategy behind it.

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In the forging of an emblematic identity, Reed not only turned himself into a clown but into a cartoon. When he played with the Velvets, he looked like a bright brooding college kid in sweater and slacks; now, in the premiere issue of Punk magazine, a hilarious interview with him is interpolated with cartoons showing him grumbling, sneering, wrecking television sets — transformed from Joe College into a metamphetamine W. C. Fields. The diva of American rock critics, Lester Bangs, has described the decline of Reed’s artistry thusly: “Lou Reed is the guy who gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke … ” Bangs sees Reed’s post-Velvet career as one long graveyard stroll, noting that after the breakup of the Velvets, “People kept expecting him to die.”

Instead, he became a death-artist, a performer in pursuit of ultimate separateness (a pursuit very much like Warhol’s futile quest for perfect pristine stillness), and after absorbing chemical cannonades which left his brain as battered as Charles Bukowski’s face, Lou Reed survived and parodied Death on the Installment Plan. “Heroin,” for example, was a song which was dropped from the Velvets repertoire for a while because too many people embraced it as being pro-smack, when in fact Reed intended the song as a sort of exorcism. Yet only a few years later Reed would not only perform “Heroin” in his solo act but would take out a syringe, wrap the microphone cord around his arm, pretend to shoot up, and hand the syringe to someone in the audience. When Cher said that the music of the Velvet Underground would replace nothing except suicide, she was unknowingly anticipating the rue-morgue antics of Lou Reed and his progeny. Just last week I heard one of New York’s underground bands, the Miamis, do a song glamorizing the La Guardia bombing incident, and at one point the lead singer proclaimed, “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander!” Maybe he and Reed should take a ride in De Niro’s taxi …

Where Lou Reed used to stare death down (particularly in the black-blooded Berlin), he now christens random violence. Small wonder, then, that his conversation ripples with offhanded brutality: though he probably couldn’t open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence. One night, when a girl at C.B.G.B. clapped loudly (and out of beat) to a Television song, Reed threatened to knock “the cunt’s head off”; she blithely ignored him, and he finally got up and left. No one takes his bluster seriously; I even know women who find his steely bitterness sexy.

After dumping all this dirt, I have to confess that this walking crystallization of cankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there’s something princely about him, something perversely impressive. There’s a certain rectitude in Lou Reed’s total lack of rectitude: one can imagine him sharing a piss with Celine in some smoky subterranean chamber, the two of them chuckling over each other’s lies.

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In the absence of Celine, it’s encouraging news that Reed and John Cale may soon team up again, for Cale could force Reed to exert himself, and Reed’s presence could help raise Cale’s visibility. Though Cale is currently touring with the Patti Smith Group, doing a rambunctious miniset along with the encore numbers, he’s still a tiny figure in the rock tapestry. The post-Velvet career of the classically trained Cale (he studied with Aaron Copland) has been stormy, flamboyant, and fueled by alcohol. But his output has been prolific: Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax (with avant-garde composer Terry Riley), Fear, Slow Dazzle, and, most recently, Helen of Troy. Where Reed did his deathwalk by looking like an emaciated survivor out of The Night Porter, Cale went the rock-Dada route — performing cunnilingus on a mannequin during a concert, playing guitar in a goalie’s mask, lurching around with Frankensteinian menace. Like Reed, Cale has been treated as a joke yet, unlike Reed, his latest work is worthy of serious attention — Helen of Troy is a classic of drunken genius. The album lacks the stylishness of his earlier work and at first listen, everything seems askew — the mixing is odd (the bass dominates, the vocals seem distanced), the pacing seems muscle-pulled, the lyrics offhand then arrowy — and then the sloppiness shapes itself into force and beauty. Island Records has not yet decided whether or not to release Helen of Troy in America. Which is indecision bordering on criminal negligence. In the meantime, seek out the album through stores which deal in English imports and see if it doesn’t haunt your nights like a reeling somnambulist from the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Indeed, the Velvets and their progeny are all children of Dr. Caligari — pale-skinned adventurers of shadowy city streets. Richard Robinson, author of The Video Primer, has a video tape which shows Lou Reed and John Cale rehearsing for a concert to be performed in Paris with Nico. After Reed runthroughs “Candy Says,” they perform “Heroin” together: Reed’s monochromatic voice, Cale’s mournful viola, the dirgeful lyrics (“heroin … be the death of me …”), the colorless bleakness of the video image … a casual rehearsal had become a drama of luminous melancholia. What was blurry before became indelibly vivid, and the Reed/Cale harlequinade melted away so that one could truly feel their power as prodigies of transfiguration. For them — as for Patti Smith, Eno, Talking Heads, and Television — electricity is the force which captures the fevers, heats, and dreamily violent rhythms of city life, expressing urban disconnectedness and transcending it. Electricity becomes the highest form of heroin … listening to the Velvets, you may have been alone, but you were never stranded.


Lou Reed and John Cale — Together Again Back in the Day

The Village Voice has a long history of brilliant and dynamic music editors, and Brian McManus fits that tradition. In 2014 he decreed that it was time for America’s original alternative weekly to take a look at its hometown’s music and put together a compendium of the fifty best albums ever made about New York City.

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Staffers at the editorial meetings campaigned for albums they felt absolutely had to be on the list, ranging from Sonny Rollins’s The Bridge (number 27) to Afrika Bambaataa’s 1983 Death Mix (number 23). With only fifty slots available, the discussions at times got intense. The Velvet Underground and Nico, that seminal New York City band’s first album, was a given — it came in at number 7. And, of course, Mr. New York himself, Lou Reed, had to be represented as well, and everyone knew the obvious choice. But I made a forceful pitch for a different album, one that also featured Lou’s partner in rhyme (and assonance, and feedback, and distortion, and abrasively transcendent melodies) from those heady days of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable — John Cale. I lobbied for and won a spot on the list for 1990’s Songs for Drella over Lou’s own musical broadside New York.

That did not sit well with some of the Voice’s readers, leading us to use a quote from one angry comment as the headline to a follow-up article: “ ‘I Fucking Hate This Generation’: Memorable Comments on Our 50 Most NYC Albums Story.” In that piece McManus allowed me space to double down on my unpopular choice, and so it was with more than a little satisfaction that I recently came across this insightful 1989 review of a very early live performance of the ambitious Drella song cycle. Rock writer Rosemary Passantino first captures the flavor of that preview night: “It was an international crowd dressed in black, black, and black. French, Spanish, and Czech conversations blended with Brooklyn and New Jersey accents.” Then she goes on to nail one of the most compelling aspects of Drella, which to this day helps set it apart from the two songwriters’ solo catalogs — and indeed from their entire Velvets’ output: “Reed and Cale’s familiar jagged rhythms and raps still surprised, like veteran street fighters’ broken bottleneck swipes…The tension of ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ remains, but the music was more exquisite, under glass, stripped of the jam panic of youth, ego, and addiction. Cale boxed Reed into his minimalist corner, while Reed bullied Cale beyond his neat charts.”

In other words, both artists had matured and were again — just like in the Velvets’ most uproarious days — arriving at a sonic space very different from what either could do on his own. Although there was no love lost between the duo after their acrimonious break in the late 1960s, the contrastingly talented collaborators rose to the occasion for the sainted Andy — soared, in fact, to some kind of heavenly melodic realm their devout Catholic subject would have (perhaps did and does still) appreciate.



When the Voice Reviewed an Album for the Ages

In June 1967, culture critic Richard Goldstein panned the Beatles’ new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in the pages of the New York Times: “The sound is a pastiche of dissonance and lushness…the over-all effect is busy, hip and cluttered.… Like an over-attended child ‘Sergeant Pepper’ is spoiled. It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises and a 91-piece orchestra.… There is nothing beautiful on ‘Sergeant Pepper.’… For the first time, the Beatles have given us an album of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent.”

Perhaps Goldstein had already seen the light, because a few months earlier he’d glimpsed a future with all manner of the punk and alt-rock that would expand on the Beatles’ majestic pop. In April of 1967, he gave — with a few insightful caveats — a rave to the first album by the Velvet Underground.

Founded by John Cale and Lou Reed, the Velvets were already known as the house band for Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable — which, we discovered in an ad in the March 31, 1966, issue of the Voice, was originally termed the Erupting Plastic Inevitable — and its multimedia extravaganzas. For performances at the Dom on St. Marks Place, Warhol projected still images and movies upon the band and on various “silver dream factory” denizens who gyrated under cracking whips. A cross section of downtown culture is presented in this full page of ads, featuring the first iteration of the E.P.I. You could amble around and see Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, check out Sunset Boulevard at a rep house, or, if you preferred your entertainment more subterranean, there was Warhol’s My Hustler — “See sea, sand and sin” — or live shows from Dr. Lattah and His Feelies, presenting “Color Suck: An evening of oral and nasal dreams including notes by an assassinated preacher on the Ten Commandments.” ­In this boho milieu, the raucous reverb and seizure-inducing strobes of the E.P.I. were just another night on the town.

In promotional ads, impresario Warhol gave the German chanteuse Nico equal billing with the Velvets. His instincts from a decade of crafting high-fashion advertising graphics taught him that soaring cheekbones and blonde tresses could never hurt. Reed, who wrote the bulk of the band’s songs and switched off on lead vocal duties with the Teutonic femme fatale, was always skeptical, and would shortly maneuver both the pop artist and the statuesque model out of the group.

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In the ad for that first album, the tagline didn’t quite track — “So far underground, you get the bends!” — but Warhol always counted on a bit of misdirection in his work. “What happens when the daddy of Pop Art goes Pop Music? This does!” the ad copy continues. “It’s Andy Warhol’s very first, very far-out album — featuring the unbelievable Nico. See the Andy Warhol Show, starring Nico, now appearing nightly, out-of-sightly at the DOM, 23 St. Marks Place, New York.”

There are so many sins against Lou Reed’s ego in those three sentences that a breakup was inevitable. But who knows how much that tension contributed to the startling originality of the Velvets’ sound, a mix of the droning minimalism Cale learned from composer La Monte Young and the Top 40 knockoffs Reed had crafted for the down-market Pickwick Records label. This was music greater than the sum of its parts on steroids.

Reviewer Goldstein obviously appreciated that the zeitgeist was crackling below 14th Street, and that keyboardist–string player Cale, guitarist Reed, bassist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and yes, vocalist Nico were distilling it into something elementally potent. (Unfortunately, Goldstein has no comment on the transcendent melancholia of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” which Reed later revealed was Andy’s favorite Velvet Underground song.)

Below are the pages with the original review, in all their brittle, yellowed glory. Following them is the text, for your copy and pasting pleasure.

The Velvet Underground is not an easy group to like. Some of the cuts on their album are blatant copies: I refer specifically to the progression lifted from the Rolling Stones “Hitchhike” in “There She Goes Again.” The lead vocal on other songs sound distressingly like early Dylan. Some of the mterial [sic] is dull and repetitive. And the last two cuts, “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son” are pretentious to the point of misery.

But the Velvets are an important group, and this album has some major work behind that erect banana on the cover. “I’m Waiting for the Man” is an impressively understated vignette about scoring in Harlem. “Venus in Furs” is fine electronic mood-manifesting. “Femme Fatale” is an unearthly ballad subtly fuzzed-up to drive you mad fiddling with bass and treble switches. Nico’s voice is harrowing in its pallor, but chic, very chic.

Most important is the recorded version of “Heroin,” which is more compressed, more restrained than live performances I have seen. But it’s also more a realized work. The tempo fluctuates wildly and finally breaks into a series of utterly terrifying squeals, like the death rattle of a suffocating violin. “Heroin” is seven minutes of genuine 12-tone rock ’n’ roll.


Thirty Years After His Death, Andy Warhol’s Spirit Is Still Very Much Alive

I hate being odd in a small town
If they stare let them stare in New York City*

Andy Warhol, the striving son of Eastern European blue-collar immigrants, rose out of the cultural maelstrom of postwar America to the rarest of artistic heights, becoming a household name on the level of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Picasso. Warhol’s paintings of tragic celebrities and posterized flowers caught the 1960s zeitgeist by the tail, and he hung on right up until his death, thirty years ago this week, on February 22, 1987. He dazzled and/or disgusted audiences with paintings, films, installations, and happenings that delivered doses of shock, schlock, and poignance in equal measure. In retrospect, Warhol’s signature blend of high culture and base passion, of glitz and humanity, has had more lives than the pet pussycats that once roamed his Upper East Side townhouse.

Two years before he died, Warhol published America, a small book that is more interesting for its writing than for the meandering black-and-white photographs of a one-legged street dancer cavorting on crutches, Sly Stallone’s cut physique, and other sundries. There is a striking passage accompanying shots of gravestones that eventually led to a posthumous joint project — fitting for an artist whose work had long involved collaboration. “I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank,” Warhol had written. “No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say ‘figment.’ ”

This imaginative stroke was realized when Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum teamed up with EarthCam to send out a live feed of Andy’s grave 24/7/365. (His parents’ headstone can be seen in the background.) Warhol was famous for movies that barely moved, and here the sporadic action stems mainly from visitors who come to commune with the Pope of Pop, occasionally bearing gifts of Campbell’s Soup cans, sometimes having a party. Perhaps Warhol the design virtuoso might have found a better camera angle, but the ghostly night vision, varying with the weather, can turn nearby crosses as pale as Warhol himself. The sounds in the background can be surprisingly peaceful, soft bird chirping backed by soothing traffic rumbles. One midnight I heard a forlorn train whistle, like a mood-setting cliché from an old Hollywood movie. Perhaps, for a former workaholic, this is the best way to rest in peace.

And Warhol continues working in another way. Unlike the Trump Foundation, which apparently only benefits the Trump family, the Andy Warhol Foundation supports a broad spectrum of artists and writers. I know, because I’m a recipient of a Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. But before I was even aware of the writers program, I had gotten used to seeing the foundation listed as a provider of funds to museum exhibitions, regional art centers, curatorial programs, and individual artists’ projects. The foundation licenses Warhol’s imagery (which has appeared on everything from skateboards and Levi’s to bottles of Perrier and Absolut) to fund its endowment, which pays out millions in grants and awards annually.


Trump Tower, 1981

Warhol — who hobnobbed with both the marginal and the 1 percent — crossed paths with Donald Trump and his then wife, Ivana, in 1981 at a party for the infamous power broker Roy Cohn. Later, Andy discussed with Trump the possibility of doing paintings of Trump Tower. “I don’t know why I did so many, I did eight,” Andy noted in his diary on August 5. “In black and grey and silver which I thought would be so chic for the lobby. But it was a mistake to do so many, I think it confused them.” He addressed another possibility further down the entry: “I think Trump’s sort of cheap.”

The deal fell through, but a few years later Warhol was invited to judge a cheerleading audition in the newly opened building. “I was supposed to be there at 12:00 but I took my time and went to church and finally moseyed over there around 2:00. This is because I still hate the Trumps because they never bought the paintings I did of the Trump Tower.”

It’s unlikely Trump has ever read the diaries, because he uncharacteristically never took offense. In fact, he quoted Warhol in two of his books (or his ghostwriters did), repeating the same aphorism in both: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” What Trump will never understand is that while art was once Warhol’s business, now, through his legacy, generous philanthropy has become his art.


Andy Warhol with giant Baby Ruth bars, 1966
Andy Warhol with giant Baby Ruth bars, 1966

Andy was a Catholic, the ethic ran through his bones
He lived alone with his mother, collecting gossip and toys

Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 6, 1928. His father was a laborer, his mother a part-time housekeeper. They had emigrated from a region in the Carpathian Mountains wedged between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, near Transylvania, known as Ruthenia. High-strung and often bedridden, young Andy contracted rheumatic fever when he was eight years old. He also suffered from blotchy white skin patches and, as he hit puberty, severe acne.

The Warholas practiced a collage of Catholicism: “Half Roman Catholic, half Russian Orthodox, it was originally called the Uniate Catholic Church, but was also known as the Greek Catholic Church. They recognized the Pope, but retained the Easter Rite mass, which was said in Slavonic,” is how Bob Colacello describes it in his Warhol biography, Holy Terror. The geometries of floor-to-ceiling icons behind the altar of the church the Warhola family attended provided a motif for the artist’s mature work that would set it apart from his contemporaries’.

During his teenage years, Andy was obsessed with the then burgeoning genre of celebrity magazines, writing letters to his favorite stars, undoubtedly thrilled on one occasion to receive in return an eight-by-ten-inch glossy from Shirley Temple, signed, “To Andy Warhola.” He loved the Sunday funnies, too, and after he had become world famous, Warhol told one of his stable of “superstars,” Ultra Violet, that as a boy he’d been sexually attracted to Popeye and Dick Tracy.

On Warhol’s seventeenth birthday, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, heralding the end of World War II. A few days later, Warhol enrolled at Carnegie Tech. He was an atrocious speller, most likely dyslexic, and almost flunked out his freshman year, foundering in a humanities class called “Thought and Expression.” Over the summer he helped his brother Paul sell vegetables from a flatbed truck, all the while making lightning-fast sketches, including one of female customers with pendulous breasts as a visual pun for their squeezing of tomatoes to test their freshness. These well-wrought, witty drawings won an award and got him reinstated.

In his senior year, Warhol entered a painting of a doughy visage with a finger jammed up one nostril in a citywide art contest. Despite kudos from the German painter George Grosz, who was one of the judges, The Broad Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose was rejected. The notoriety paid off, however: Andrew Warhola was the only graduate to sell out his portfolio.


Andy Warhol on payphone at World's Fair, 1964
Andy Warhol on payphone at World’s Fair, 1964

I drew 550 different shoes today
It almost made me faint

After graduation, Warhol lit out for the Big Apple. Pounding the pavement between fashion publications and ad agencies, he got his first break drawing shoes for Glamour magazine. A typo in the illustration credit dropped the a from his surname, and a future global brand was born.

The commercial jobs came fast and furious. Warhol was also visiting art galleries almost as religiously as he did daily Mass. In these white cubes, he gazed at large canvases by the dominant Abstract Expressionist movement and, later in the 1950s, at Robert Rauschenberg’s exuberant Combine paintings and Jasper Johns’s deadpan flag canvases. Unlike Warhol, these two up-and-comers hid behind a shared pseudonym when doing commercial work, and although they themselves were lovers, in an era still lorded over by the macho, hard-drinking New York School painters, they disdained Warhol as “too swish.” Warhol heard this gossip from Emile de Antonio, a freelance artists’ agent who would soon help get his work exhibited. “De was the first person I knew of to see commercial art as real art and real art as commercial art, and he made the whole New York art world see it that way, too,” Warhol later recalled.

It was de Antonio, studying two canvases by Warhol in 1960 — one of a Coke bottle done with crosshatching and Ab-Ex drips, another painted as flat as an ad — who launched a thousand (and then some) silkscreens. As Warhol remembered almost two decades later, de Antonio advised him, “One of these is a piece of shit, simply a little bit of everything. The other is remarkable — it’s our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first one and show the other.”

Warhol followed de Antonio’s counsel, observing sometime further on, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too.”

This is ersatz egalitarianism, of course, because although the sentiment is initially stirring, anyone paying attention knew from the jump that the average consumer would never be able to afford a “Warhol Coca-Cola” — that’s the point of the high-grade scarcity that defines the “real art” market this commercial artist so desperately wanted to break into. But what to paint next? He needed ideas, and Warhol biographers Tony Sherman and David Dalton write of his paying the gallerist Muriel Latow fifty bucks for suggesting a Campbell’s Soup can. In later years Warhol would obscure Latow’s role — he loved Campbell’s Soup, his mother gave it to him every day; he hated Campbell’s Soup, his mother gave it to him every day — but this set a pattern of the artist’s pumping those around him for subject matter.

To achieve his hybrid high-low vision, Warhol used all of his graphic design skills to scale up his process, first employing rubber stamps for the fleur-de-lis patterns of the 32 otherwise individually painted Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), then turning to silkscreening for images of dollar bills, first printed on small sheets of paper and then — two hundred of them — on an eight-foot-high canvas.

In a 2010 New Yorker essay, Louis Menand wrote, “Marcel Duchamp loved the Campbell’s soup can paintings because, he said, they freed art from the tyranny of the retinal image. You don’t need to stare at the paintings to get them.” Yet Warhol, who avidly collected art by everyone from Braque to Magritte to Johns, obviously loved “retinal” art, that combination of vibrant color and lush texture that has characterized painting from the cave walls onward.

A black-and-white painting such as Daily News, from 1962, reveals Warhol wedged between two worlds. The headlines read “Eddie Fisher Breaks Down” on the right, “Met Rally Edges L.A., 4-3” to the left. Warhol, who had then been at the height of the graphics profession for a decade, understood that this serendipitous collage of image and narrative — Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher are heading for divorce on page one, a horse screams, like a refugee from Picasso’s Guernica, on the back sports page — was, in graphic-art terms, a “marriage” of first page to last, which is how newspapers are printed, adding a conceptual formal union to the real-life dissolving one.

2017 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Andy Warhol
Edie Sedgwick screen test, eyes closed, 1965

Surrealist memories are too amorphous and proud
While those downtown macho painters are just alcoholic

Next came the disasters and celebrity paintings, in which Warhol mingled the Catholic Mass with mass media, the aura of the silver screen with the nimbus of sainthood.

Gold Marilyn Monroe, painted in August 1962, shortly after the Hollywood megastar had committed suicide, can easily be read as a Byzantine icon — but is she the saintly mother or the redeemed whore? Here, and in his portraits of Taylor and other celebrities, the clotted screen prints bristle with imperfections that reveal a humanity the hagiographic studio shots, which Warhol used as source materials, erased through soft lighting and smooth makeup.

Warhol further upped the ante with Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (1963). On the left-hand section of two panels, each roughly nine by seven feet, he enlarged and screen-printed a newspaper photo of an auto accident, stacking it like an altarpiece with fourteen overlapping panels, some fading, some flooded with ink. The metal is as twisted as an Ab-Ex brushstroke; a slumping, overexposed figure glows like a ghost. The right-hand panel — a flat orange expanse — seems a luminous resting place. Warhol, however, claimed a more mercantile reason for the extra 63 square feet of canvas: “The two are designed to hang together however the owner wants….It just makes them bigger and mainly makes them cost more.” He later said, “The death series I did was divided into two parts: the first on famous deaths and the second on people nobody ever heard of….I thought it would be nice for these unknown people to be remembered by those who, ordinarily, wouldn’t think of them.” That sentiment echoes the roll call of remembrances Warhol would have heard countless times at Mass.

Andy Warhol. Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times. 1963. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on two canvases, 8’ 9 7/8” x 13’8 1/8” (268.9 x 416.9 cm).

Perhaps more than any of the rising Pop artists, Warhol was attuned to changes beyond the art world. In the summer of 1964 he began preparing for his first show at the Leo Castelli gallery, creating a series of flower canvases inspired by a magazine spread shown to him by the curator Henry Geldzahler, who’d said, “Andy, maybe it’s enough death now.” With a trademark diffidence that masked the confidence Warhol had in his own abilities to work with a vast range of graphic materials, the artist sent the color picture of blossoms to his silkscreen fabricator, accompanied by a note (with his usual scattershot punctuation and capitalization) reading, “Make a Black + White line. sort-of.” Although Warhol used garish colors for the petals, the stark black graphics tinge the flowers with a sense of foreboding. The blooms were also, as it turned out, metaphorically colored by one of the most famous political attack ads in U.S. history, President Johnson’s “Daisy” television commercial, in which a little girl counts petals before a voiceover begins counting down to a nuclear explosion. The ad, implicitly accusing Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, of having an itchy missile-launch finger, was shown only once, on September 7, right in the middle of Warhol’s preparations for the show. Warhol was coy when, shortly before the November 21 opening of the show, he told Newsweek magazine, “I was going to make the show all Goldwater if he won, because then everything would go, art would go.”


Andy Warhol with Brillo Box and Ruby the cat, 1964
Andy Warhol with Brillo Box and Ruby the cat, 1964

I never said stick a needle in your arm and die
It wasn’t me it wasn’t me it wasn’t me, I know he’s dead but it wasn’t me

But Warhol soon began to get bored with painting. The culture at large was fracturing over the Vietnam War; the civil rights and women’s rights movements were in full swing. Warhol’s Factory loft teemed with assistants buzzing on speed, the record player blasted Top 40 hits and opera at all hours, and movie cameras were starting to clack away. Andy’s movies at first seemed to negate the medium, because, well, nothing much moved: a man sleeping, the Empire State Building framed for eight hours, a gaggle of the beautiful people — actors, artists, musicians — struggling to sit still and not even blink for the three-minute duration of a “Screen Test.” Warhol’s new insight was to ally his rigorous graphic sense with the self-consciousness people exhibit while being filmed (something professional actors get paid to hide), an agitated frisson familiar to generations who have perhaps never seen a Warhol film but have watched too much reality TV.

One fall day in 1964, a sometime gallerist and performance artist named Dorothy Podber arrived at the Factory expecting to star in a movie. She became irritated when Warhol told her he was too busy shooting a picture, and asked if she could shoot one, too. Assuming she meant to use a camera, Warhol was shocked when she pulled out a small pistol and fired a bullet through the foreheads of four Marilyn canvases stacked against a wall. She was banned from the premises for life, but with this serendipitous layer of added violence the “Shot Marilyns” linger as another collaboration encouraged by Warhol’s open-door policy — not just for people but also for ideas and actions.

In October of that same year, Freddie Herko, who had appeared in such Warhol films as Kiss and The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, was living in a friend’s closet, gobbling amphetamines. A gifted dancer, Herko despaired at what the drugs were doing to his body, saying: “I have destroyed my house.” At another friend’s apartment, listening to a beloved piece of music, Mozart’s Coronation Mass, he danced madly and then leaped through an open window to his death five stories below, on Cornelia Street. “The people I loved were the ones like Freddie, the leftovers of show business, turned down at auditions all over town,” Warhol wrote in his book POPism. “They couldn’t do something more than once, but their one time was better than anyone else’s. They had star quality but no star ego.” Warhol the impresario had created an arena for the marginal to become superstars — briefly in public and more expansively in their own minds — until they crashed. Not for nothing did he include, four years later in a museum brochure, one of the most prescient observations of the twentieth century: “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” Warhol had come to the realization that his celebrity was becoming an artistic entity all its own.


Andy Warhol with The Velvet Underground, Nico's son Ari Delon, Mary Wronov, and Gerald Malanga, 1966
Andy Warhol with The Velvet Underground, Nico’s son Ari Delon, Mary Wronov, and Gerald Malanga, 1966

This is a rock group called the Velvet Underground. I show movies on them
Do you like their sound? ‘Cause they have a style that grates and I have art to make

On February 10, 1966, Warhol took out a classified ad in the Village Voice — rife with the non sequiturs that come from dictating over the phone to a live ad-taker — proclaiming, “I’ll endorse with my name any of the following: clothing AC-DC, cigarettes small, tapes, sound equipment, ROCK N’ ROLL RECORDS, anything, film, and film equipment, Food, Helium, Whips, MONEY!! love and kisses ANDY WARHOL, EL 5-9941.” This gloss of high-art branding partially explains why one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most crucial albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), features only a banana and Warhol’s signature on the cover. Although Warhol was credited as producer, his main contribution beyond the cover graphic was paying for the recording sessions. Yet Lou Reed’s songs about drugs, degeneracy, and sexual and emotional violence bear the stamp of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the music, dance, film, and psychedelic light show the Velvets toured around the country with Warhol. One unused suggestion from Warhol was to add a scratch to the vinyl where the song “I’ll Be Your Mirror” ends, causing the phrase “I’ll be your mirror” to repeat until the listener arose from his or her beanbag chair to move the needle. The idea gained no traction with the band, though in 1975 Reed did label the fourth side of his breathtakingly abrasive Metal Machine Music as “∞,” since the groove was locked and, absent human intervention, would play unto infinity.

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The Velvets went through the usual rock-band dramas, with Warhol and Nico ousted first and the band itself splintering over the following few years. In 1989, after Warhol’s death, Reed and Velvets co-founder John Cale, despite little love lost between them, got together to write and perform Songs for Drella, a suite of fifteen tunes by turns caustic, rollicking, and sweet. Drella (a nickname for Warhol conflating Dracula and Cinderella) memorialized their old mentor through personal reminiscences, and by quoting or reworking some of Warhol’s aphorisms in the lyrics to its songs (which provide the section breaks in this article).


Nico Chelsea Girl, 1967
Nico Chelsea Girl, 1967

From inside her idiot madness spoke and bang
Andy fell onto the floor

On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas, the founder and sole member of SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men), angered that Warhol had lost the script for her play Up Your Ass, came to the Factory and shot him, the bullet piercing his lungs, gall bladder, spleen, intestines, liver, and esophagus.

Mario Amaya, an art critic who had also been wounded by Solanas, was traveling in the ambulance with Warhol. The driver told Amaya, “If we sound the siren, it’ll cost five dollars extra.” Mario replied, “Go ahead and sound it. Leo Castelli will pay!” Perhaps, or perhaps not. Castelli’s first public comment upon hearing the news was a thinly veiled celebration that an open-ended commodity looked to have suddenly become a finite — and therefore more valuable — luxury item: “I’m afraid there are not that many paintings left.”

Warhol was declared dead on the operating table, ready to join Dr. Martin Luther King — shot to death two months earlier — on 1968’s roll call of loss. Time magazine blamed the artist’s shooting on the victim: “Americans who deplore crime and disorder might consider the case of Andy Warhol, who for years has celebrated every form of licentiousness….He surrounded himself with freakily named people — Viva, Ultra Violet, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar — playing games of lust, perversion, drug addiction and brutality before his crotchety cameras.” But as a surgeon cut open Warhol’s chest and massaged his heart back to life, an even greater madness was stirring that would knock him out of the headlines.

On June 4, 1968, director Jean-Luc Godard captured Mick Jagger singing, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy? When after all, it was you and me.’ ” Godard — through a capricious alignment of the stars — happened to be in the recording studio when the Rolling Stones were reworking “Sympathy for the Devil” from a rambling folk tune to a sinisterly undulating, samba-inflected sensation. As the sessions in London stretched out over the week, the world found out that Bobby Kennedy had been gunned down in Los Angeles on June 6, during the presidential primaries. When the song plays over the final scene of the movie, we hear that Jagger has changed the lyric to “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys? When after all, it was you and me.’ ”


Andy Warhol, Vote McGovern, 1972

The art-historical cliché is that Warhol’s work suffered greatly after he was shot. Whose wouldn’t? Warhol, though, continued making films, farming directing chores out to Factory colleague Paul Morrissey, who later said, “Andy an auteur? You must be joking. Andy’s idea of making a movie is going to the premiere.”

In 1969 Warhol launched Interview magazine, allying his childhood love of celebrity publications to his adult enthrallment with gossip. The culture called for nudity, the economics demanded newsprint. On the first cover, Viva lolled nude, star of a non-Warhol film that was supposed to break her into true fame. It wasn’t to be. Bob Colacello, eventually the magazine’s editor, remembers Viva at the film’s premiere “throwing grandiose kisses” to the audience and then “doubling over in laughter at her own stardom.” He notes that while it was obvious she loved receiving the attention of a true film star, she was also “hip enough to know it’s all a joke.”

In 1976, Colacello accompanied Warhol on a trip to Iran, where Warhol hoped to get portrait commissions. “I was criticized for running an interview with the empress in Interview magazine,” Colacello later related. “I was Republican and Andy was a Democrat — we would kind of tease each other about it.” The portraits of the shah and his wife are emblematic of Warhol’s most decadent period: washed-out Polaroid prints enlarged over bland colors, with none of the verve of earlier work, in which fast and furious paint handling had added emotional resonance to the subject’s features. Perhaps, post-shooting, the tragic icons Warhol had worked with in the Sixties hit too close to the bone. Instead we get wealthy socialites paying for the cachet of having their portraits done in a style dimly related to the compelling masterpieces already ensconced in museums. Thus the brand was elevated over the sacred.

Warhol did manage to recoup some of his mojo in 1971, when he updated the phallic hijinks of the Velvet Underground’s banana cover with his iconic crotch-shot packaging for the Stones’ Sticky Fingers album. He followed this with a witty poster for the 1972 presidential campaign, which pictured Richard Nixon’s jowly visage in Wicked Witch green against a flaming orange background above the hand-scrawled exhortation, “Vote McGovern.” Nixon won in a landslide, but Warhol’s bilious contrasts captured the character of a man who, two years later and to no one’s real surprise, resigned his office on the brink of impeachment.


Andy Warhol. Flowers. 1964. Offset lithograph. Published by Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. Printed by Total Color, New York. Edition approx. 300.

Near the end of that decade, Warhol flirted with the sublime once again in his massive series of “Shadow” paintings, the craggy blacks over riotous colors owing no small debt to Abstract Expressionist pathos. His captivating “Oxidation” series from around the same time, created by having assistants urinate on copper pigments, made the New York School connection formally explicit and conceptually snarky: Nothing like pissing on the ideals of your elders.

Into the Eighties Warhol continued to hunger after Hollywood-level stardom, despite his sui generis fame. He was not just an artist who was more bizarre and outrageous than Salvador Dalí, but also an impresario, publisher, promoter, shill, and flat-out celebrity. He was perfectly in tune with the Reagan era.

So in 1985 he settled for playing himself on The Love Boat. True to form, he let his executive assistant, “Ramon,” do most of his talking. When one of the boat’s crew asks, “I was wondering — how does an artist know when a painting is truly successful?” Ramon sunnily replies, “When the check’s cleared.” Later, the ship’s photographer, having given Warhol some photos to evaluate, finds out from Ramon that Warhol has concluded, “Your photography was the essence of crass commercialism.” When the photographer begins to despair, Ramon admonishes him: “On the contrary, dear boy. He loves crass commercialism. As a matter of fact he said, ‘That’s what makes America great.'”


Brillo boxes at the Stable gallery, 1964
Brillo boxes at the Stable gallery, 1964

But if I have to live in fear, where will I get my ideas
With all those crazy people gone, will I slowly slip away?

Warhol’s death, on February 22, 1987, came after a fairly routine gall bladder operation. The cause was heart failure brought on by avoidable complications during his recovery; his family received an undisclosed sum of money as compensation.

In the late Seventies Warhol had done a series of paintings of human skulls, as well as a photo self-portrait with a skull on his head. The juxtaposition of his pale flesh and dark eyes against smooth bone and empty sockets gets at the bleak abyss a skull actually represents. Although the volumetric space is quite small, the loss of knowledge, emotions, memories — all that thought and expression — can seem unfathomable.

When Warhol was shot, the New York Post front page from 1968 reveals an earnest paper covering the story of the surprise shooting of a flamboyant artist, but also delivering meat-and-potato reporting on local government corruption and no-drama coverage of the presidential primaries. Nineteen years later, the tabloid, now owned by Rupert Murdoch, reveled in the spectacle of a dead Pop artist, top of the page, and below, a live rock star, Jagger, “Jubilant” over his impending marriage to the leggy Texas beauty Jerry Hall (who would eventually marry Murdoch himself). How much responsibility does Warhol bear for our culture’s shift from substance to flash, human interest to spectacle?

How much responsibility does a mirror bear for whatever beauty or ugliness it beholds? Warhol loved both the heights and depths of American culture, and reflected it back at us through his work, which remains resonant to this day. Here is the spin he put on the concept of American exceptionalism in the 1985 America book: “Maybe you think it’s so special that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to live [here], or if they do live [here] that they shouldn’t say certain things or have certain ideas.

“But this kind of thinking is exactly the opposite of what America means,” he continues, before closing with an observation that sums up his life as a gay, Catholic, first-generation, blue-collar striver: “We all came here from somewhere else, and everybody who wants to live in America and obey the law should be able to come too, and there’s no such thing as being more or less American, just American.”

*All from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella
Warhol live, 24/7/365.<i> Figment Project</i>.
Warhol live, 24/7/365. Figment Project.
Warhol live, 24/7/365.<i> Figment Project</i>.
Warhol live, 24/7/365. Figment Project.



Jonathan Richman

Over 40 years into his career, Jonathan Richman remains one of underground rock’s most intriguing figures. His ’70s band Modern Lovers inspired punks like Sex Pistols and art rockers like John Cale, and then he achieved quasi-fame in the ’90s, thanks to an appearance with drummer buddy Tommy Larkins in There’s Something About Mary. He largely refuses interviews so what we know of him, we’ve gleaned from his performances and songs: He loves the Velvet Underground, he resents air conditioning, he’s not afraid of romance, he likes to dance at lesbian bars. What more do we need to know?

Thu., Nov. 21, 9:30 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 22, 9:30 p.m., 2013



The influence of singer and Warhol superstar Nico, who would have turned 75 this year, persists in goth culture as well as in older adherents of the slow-music movement she pioneered with fierce, uncompromising intensity. As one critic wrote, “When Nico stared into the abyss, you felt sorry for the abyss.” When John Cale first presented his Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico in 2008, the singers mostly eschewed nostalgia and familiarity for the darker, more Germanic corners of Christa Päffgen’s harmonium-accompanied dirges. Kicking off a three-night BAM run tonight, Cale reprises “Borderline” with guests Joan As Police Woman, Mark Lanegan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Peaches, Yeasayer, the Magnetic Fields, Kim Gordon, and Sharon Van Etten. He returns Thursday and Friday with complete performances of Paris 1919, his 1973 concept album. (Coincidentally, you can also take a nostalgia trip tonight with Lou Reed, who will be at Housing Works Bookstore Café [126 Crosby Street, 212-334-3324] for a program of poetry and songs in honor of the vinyl and digital reissue of Allen Ginsberg’s First Blues, a collection of his studio sessions featuring Bob Dylan and Arthur Russell.)

Wed., Jan. 16, 8 p.m., 2013


How Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ Went From Obscurity to Ubiquity

Back in September 2010, noted music journalist (and former editor in chief of SPIN and Vibe magazines) Alan Light was among 4,000 people sitting in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for Yom Kippur services when the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah choir took the stage to conclude the solemn proceedings with a stirring version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

“I just thought, ‘Man, this song is really in a very different place now,'” Light says. “Obviously, it’s attained a different status in the world if here at the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, at the climax of the service, that’s the song they come out and sing. And this was the same year Justin Timberlake had sung it at the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, and K.D. Lang had sung it at the Winter Olympics, so I just started to think of what I knew of the story of the song and that it was not a quick or easy road to get to that kind of place.”

Or, as Light writes in his new book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”: “How did this unconventional song attain such popularity, in such an incremental fashion, over such an extended period of time? Why did it go from being a forgotten album cut by a respected but generally unknown singer-songwriter to a track on Susan Boyle’s 2010 Christmas record?”

An absorbing read, The Holy or the Broken traces the song’s fascinating journey chronologically—starting with Cohen writing and recording the track in the early 1980s—and places Light’s critical examination of the touchstone recordings of “Hallelujah” (by Cohen, John Cale, and Jeff Buckley, particularly) alongside interviews with scores of folks who were either involved with those recordings or who have recorded or performed their own covers of the tune since (Bono, Timberlake, Amanda Palmer, Jon Bon Jovi, Brandi Carlile, Rufus Wainwright, and American Idol contestants included).

“I certainly wanted to know what it meant to all these people who had done it,” Light says. “And while it took some time to get people like Bono or Timberlake to talk about it, they all wanted to do it. And what was really striking, over and over again, you talk to American Idol contestants or Michael Bolton or whoever, and you might expect them to say, ‘Oh, I sang it because my manager told me to,’ but everybody had thought about it, everybody had ideas about it. Some more profound than others, but you just get the sense that nobody blithely does this song. They know they’re doing something important, and they’re aware of the legacy.”

One person who didn’t add his two cents to the book—though his public quotes about “Hallelujah” are sprinkled throughout—was Cohen himself. “I didn’t expect that Leonard was going to talk to me,” Light says of the notorious recluse. “I wanted his blessing and his support for it, which he gave me. He has kind of told the couple of stories he’s gonna tell, and if he was gonna say, ‘Oh, I thought of that line while brushing my teeth,’ that’s probably not gonna help the aura or myth of the song, so I totally understand that.”

In the book, Light expertly unwinds the song’s long, strange journey to ubiquity, beginning with Cohen’s struggle to compose the sprawling verses. Cohen—who had wrested the lyrics from their biblical moorings and shoved them into a secular world of broken hearts and cruel fates—records the song, replete with synthesizers and a gospel choir, for his ill-fated 1984 album Various Positions, which was rejected by CBS Records and instead issued in the U.S. that year by a small indie label, PVC Records.

Bob Dylan heard the song, loved it, and began covering it occasionally on his 1988 tour. He not only kept it alive but also played around with the arrangement (as Dylan is wont to do). Cohen, too, tweaks the arrangement during his mid- to late-’80s live performances, giving it a “much darker and more sexual edge,” Light writes.

Yet before we get to the beautiful and doomed Jeff Buckley, who nudged “Hallelujah” into the stratosphere when he covered it on his one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace, Light lingers for a bit on one of the most pivotal (and often overlooked) moments in the song’s journey—Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale’s stripped-down, vocals-and-piano version of “Hallelujah” on the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan.

Writes Light: “Cale created a more perfect union out of Cohen’s unnerving marriage of the divine and the damaged, but it came at the cost of a spiritual payoff. Between the reassembled lyrics and the simple arrangement, he truly humanized the song, arguably flattening out the emotional ambiguity but allowing it to retain the mystery and majesty of its imagery. NME called Cale’s recording ‘a thing of wondrous, savage beauty.'”

According to the book, a couple of years later, while hanging out at a friend’s apartment in Park Slope, Buckley pulled I’m Your Fan off a shelf and heard “Hallelujah.”

“I think it’s really interesting—the passing of the baton from Leonard as the writer to Cale as the editor to Buckley as the interpreter. There’s this linear progression between those versions, each of which opens it up to a different and larger audience,” Light says.

Certain circles celebrated Buckley’s version, but it was by no means a mainstream hit. And then he drowned in a Mississippi River tributary in 1997. Light writes: “After Buckley’s death, ‘Hallelujah’ took on an almost mythic stature. It was an insider’s secret for those who already knew about him and an accessible pop song if it was functioning as an introduction. It now served as an elegy that went above and beyond actual words and music.”

The popularity of the song quickly snowballed: It’s spotlighted in Shrek; it becomes the go-to anthem after 9/11; every singer-songwriter on the planet—from household names to coffeehouse nobodies—begins covering it live. And here we are.

Light ponders the question of whether we’ve hit “Hallelujah” fatigue, whether the song has lost its potency through ubiquity: “It seemed like it slowed down for a minute, but then it was fascinating to see Adam Sandler spoof it on the 12/12/12 show [to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims]. As I wrote in the book, it’s been taken seriously for so long, it’s kind of begging for someone to pop the balloon. And then there’s Adam Sandler doing it. So I was like, ‘Well, maybe that will slow it down for a while,’ and then two days later were the shootings in Connecticut, and that’s the song everybody turned to again.

“It was a testament to the fact that the song has reached that place, and it’s not vulnerable to something like [a spoof], that it’s bigger than that, and it can take the hit of the joke and still work the way that it’s continued to work. When Paul Simon talks about it, that song was ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ and he saw ‘Hallelujah’ come along and become the next song that does that. So now, until something else rises up and takes it away, it’s still holding that spot.”

Why? At the conclusion of The Holy or the Broken, Light offers his own eloquent explanation: “A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure. A song based in Old Testament language that a teen idol can sing. An erotically charged lyric fit for a Yom Kippur choir or a Christmas collection. Cold. Broken. Holy.”

The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” is out now.


Texan Troubadour Turns Near-Death Into New Life

When he started coughing up blood, Alejandro Escovedo realized another drink might do him in. Three (presumably sober) years later, Austin’s prodigal son delivers The Boxing Mirror, a hallucinatory account of his near-fatal battle with abstinence and Hep C. What better for his underappreciated career as the Great Brown Hope of alt-country/rock/punk than a brush with mortality. Like Tom Waits with Kathleen Brennan, Escovedo mines poetry by his wife, Kim Christoff, on aces “Dear Head on the Wall” and “Notes on Air”: One’s an avant-garde arrangement with sinister string section, while the other’s a lap-steel rocker whose rallying cry, “Because you made a truce of rubber,” is the new “Told you so.” Subtract these and opener “Arizona,” in which addiction is described as “one kiss just led to another,” and Los Lobos could’ve made this album if they, too, got John Cale to produce. That’s a compliment to all involved.


Competing With Life

A caveat: I can’t handle these clusterfucks of industry. The glossy flyers, demos, Scion ads masquerading as street mags—all leeching to “music.” So generally I avoid festivals as I do my exes who live in Texas.

Maybe I’m just showing my age, unable to endure parades of indistinguishable bands and whiskey on the rocks till 6 a.m. like I used to, scaling it back to 4 a.m. now. Four years of l’Austin living, and I always dodged South by Southwest, as the city was suddenly overrun with coiffed coastal labelheads, green-haired PR, rawk lawyers, long lines of glass-eyed kids, and somewhere at the end of it all, musicians too plastered to play their ho-hum songs in a half-hour slot.

Never as concentrated or geographically constrained as SXSW, CMJ’s throng thins each year. Whether it’s Atkins or indie-rock atrophy, outside events—be it Usher and Kanye, the Sounds Like Now Festival, or hell, the Vice party—are more danceable, daring, and drunken. Wednesday’s bands even lost out to the boob tube, as the despised Dubya and BoSox kept folks more impassioned and homebound.

Ageless Sonic Youth tethered the CMJ Opening Party at Irving Plaza by playing the new stuff, while Thurston goofed, throwing his gangly frame off the stage as if it were 1991 all over again. Dusting off the vintage “White Kross,” they melted it into a feedback fountain of . . . you know, youth. Then Wednesday’s Bowery crowd was modest for Austin’s fresh SOUND team, a six-piece so clean-cut, sweet, and crisp you could almost eat their perfect pop. Hungry out-of-towners circled with business cards soon after.

Slipping into something more grizzly and aged, the Knit’s Tap bar was similarly sparse that night for German free-fire saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and his trio, who turned jazz into plasma by way of electronics and sheer physicality. Having gone at it for four decades now, he blew out the anemic pop of the Absolute Kosher showcase upstairs in a single breath.

Maybe indie-rock could incorporate new beats and karaoke moves. Gang Gang Dance (Irving, Wednesday), while not exactly catchy, flashed a new-wave edge while sounding like a wasted night of Cocteau Twins crooning in a Taiwanese bar, all blurry 4AD lushness and synths set to dis-orient. Down in an empty CB’s Gallery, Canadian Jake Fairley faked techno-Ramones on the mic, deadpanning about quaaludes over his ceaseless thump. Best karaoke singer of the festival was Mu (a/k/a Mutsumi Kanamori) screaming over a CD of twisted fun-house music made by her absentee producer-husband, Maurice Fulton. Bawk-bawking about Paris Hilton while writhing around in “Like a Virgin” revelry, she flashed the crowd her Union Jack panties.

At the Avalon, a collegiate badge holder asked midset Thursday if John Cale was playing yet. A few seconds later, I identified the elder of rock and the avant-garde for him. Cale only whipped out the violin (and VU cred) for “Venus in Furs,” preferring instead to sample strings and his own catalog. Still literate, classical, classy, Cale’s band simmered underneath his extended, bleak Welsh tales, as well as Nico’s “Frozen Warnings.” For “Gun,” the noir was slowly cooked down to a gurgling tar of strangled guitar and throats.

Oneida, seniors on the Williamsburg campus (or as the law was decreed in Dazed and Confused: “I get older, they stay the same age”), thickened the already swampy and packed confines of Tonic on Thursday with their hallucinatory chug. Locking into “Each One, Teach One,” the trio was as precise, clamorous, and intoxicating as a night in the Brooklyn Brewery bottle factory.

Friday night, Sunn O)))), cloaked in druid hoodies and bathed in red lights, gave the Bowery crowd that distinct sensation of irritable bowel syndrome, their Moog rumbles and drop tunings resonating over their Metamucilstopheles sludge. It was followed by the anthemic hyperbole and volatile pretension of . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Their New York shows always double as an Austin expat convention, where faces of the past re-emerge, and party again as if mere nights—not years—have passed. It’s also an excuse for this year’s Siren Festival co-headliners to get even more soused and sloppy.

The Dead hauled the audience up onstage to render their finale of “Richter Scale Madness” anticlimactic, as the real epiphany had come two songs earlier, when the majestic emo-goth of “Aged Dolls” dissolved into feedback and instrument-smashing. Guitar shrapnel flew, and fresh blood was drawn from the front row. For an instant, I was back in a small, sweaty club deep in the heart of Texas, when everything still felt dangerous and new.


Crash Into Me

You can’t spell “dumb” without DMB, but simplicity alone cannot account for the collegiate domination of the Dave Matthews Band. Boston wiseacre Don Lennon thinks their hegemony is inevitable; his new album, Downtown, starts off with a deadpan account of how a clueless but horny undergrad, surrounded by the South African superstar’s music (“It was the crimson on the hilltop/it was the acorns in my hair”), pretends to be a fan so he can stay a little longer in this one girl’s single. Soon he’s converted, and not necessarily because he likes what he hears: “When you own all his albums and you’ve memorized the words/it’s kind of weird to look onstage/and think, ‘Oh my God that’s really Dave.’ ” There’s also a dance number with an ecstatic chorus celebrating Matthews’s ubiquity (“At a microbrewery or a Chili’s bar and grill, Dave comes alive/ . . . on a talk show in New York/at a cook-out in Cape Cod . . . “).

Lennon’s not just into jam bands: There are songs that describe (or at least mention) the 12-foot image of Lenny Kravitz on a Jumbotron in Lisbon, a flyer for a John Sex show, John Cale riding in a car and thinking, Kramer’s doomed relationship with Ann Magnuson, and the Mekons coming to town. Lennon’s singing is as noncommittal as his folksily MOR tunes, but as with most boys, you can tell he really cares about something when he gets petty—especially in “The Boston Music Scene,” which belatedly but ingeniously nails Stephin Merritt’s melodies and meter (and tosses off a few John Woo guitar figures, too). Lennon carps about his peers’ pretentious mix tapes, astronaut costumes, gear obsessions, and bad manners; “You’d better take my advice,” he warns, “just like you’d stick a piece of tape/on every cord and microphone/You better stick one on yourself/before they claim you as their own.” But then, suddenly, he launches into a premature elegy for his favorite bands and clubs, and you tell he really misses the glory days, when music really mattered. Which, for fans like Lennon, could start tomorrow.

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