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Notebook for Night Owls: The Velvet Underground

Nineveh

Andy Warhol’s new discotheque seems to be an attempt to instill permanence into a private joke. Presided over by the Velvet Underground, and decorated with colored lights, slides and films, it occupies a long mirrored room atop the Polski Dom on St. Mark’s Place, and has the air of a dancing party out of “The Masque of the Red Death.” Most discotheques seem to have been constructed around Sartre’s famous principle that hell is other people, but Warhol, being an innovator, has gone further than other entrepreneurs. He has so arranged his discotheque that his patrons tend to feel, after five minutes in the place, that they have wandered into some evangelist’s vision of Nineveh and that perhaps it is time to mend their ways.

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The room is, of course, very dark, and it is streaked with reddish light. The Velvet Underground, consisting of three guitarists, two dancers, and a pretty girl named Nico who sings a little, disport themselves for most of the evening on a raised stage against a back projection of films and slides. Since the musicians in the group, although loud, are comparatively unskilled, the patron’s attention is mainly focused on Gerard Malanga, who dances continuously, in a style which combines feverishness and languor, in front of the band. He wears leather pants and a tee-shirt imprinted with a picture of Marlon Brando, and he is occasionally partnered by a girl named Ingrid Superstar. But the real star of the show is a strobe beamed upon the audience but usually kept focused on Malanga. When he dances inside the strobe beam Malanga shimmers as if he were in a St. Vitus attack.

Halfway through their set Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar pick up a couple of coiled leather whips and, while the musicians play a song of which the only distinguishable line is “Whip your mistress till you reach his heart,” they do a sadomasochistic ballet which ends with Malanga kneeling with his head against Ingrid Superstar’s thighs while she pantomimes whipping him. This piece seems to impress the audience profoundly. All the dancers on the floor stop to watch (all except one couple who appear to be part of the show and who continue all night to dance a sort of ritualistic Watusi), and a few people whisper to their partners that poor Malanga needs a rest. Then the group swings into a fast number, complete with whistles and sirens, the lights begin to flicker wildly, half the audience covers its ears, and Malanga dances off the stage to recover from his exertions.

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It was at this point, on the night I was there, that a thin dark girl in a blue pants suit seized her escort and announced to him that she was going immediately to church. Her partner, who was dressed like Lord Byron in a flowing ruffled shirt, pointed out quite sensibly that since it was past midnight she might be better off going to bed, but the girl said that the weight of her sins had grown so heavy upon her that she could not rest another minute without confessing them. Several people in her vicinity nodded approvingly. ♦

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The Velvet Underground at Max’s: No Pale Imitation

The Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City? At first I thought it was some kind of joke. As if someone was trying to rig a re-run of the Terrible ’60s by conjuring up old ghosts in old haunts. The Velvets, after all, had been the darlings of the Pop/amphetamine culture, whose spiritual center was often to be found at the round table in Max’s back room, and it was not inconceivable to imagine some entrepreneur attempting to cash in on what would certainly be a premature revival of those jaded, faded years.

But no. The Velvets have changed considerably since they left Warhol’s gang. No more demonic assaults on the audience. No more ear-wrenching shrieks of art. No more esoterica. “We once did an album with a pop painter,” Lou Reed told the audience last Wednesday as the group began a two-week engagement upstairs at Max’s, “because we wanted to help him out.” “You’re doing better without him,” a fan yelled back.

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And so they are. It seems the Velvets are now back to where they once belonged, functioning as a genuine rock ‘n’ roll dance band, dedicated to laying down strong rhythms and a steady beat that gets the vital juices flowing. No fuzz tones, no academic exercises. They were always good musicians, sometimes precocious and lacking discipline, but admired by their peers, nevertheless, for originality and innovation. Now they are all bloody virtuosos, with a mature sense of knowing when they are good and enjoying it. The result can be positively exhilarating.

The audience told me that. Opening night, of course, was something of an event, a kind of Old Home Week that brought together various elements of the rock/pop hierarchy, plus nostalgia seekers and true believers, most of whom had not seen the Velvets since they exercised at the Gymnasium three years ago. I don’t know what they expected to hear, but they certainly weren’t disappointed.

The Velvets served up scads of crisp, new material, along with what Lou calls “rock ‘n’ roll versions” of the group’s old standards, like “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “I’m Waiting for My Man.” The first set was done “in concert,” with the audience seated behind tables, but in no time at all everyone was fighting the urge to dance. People started smiling, sometimes in amazement, as the boys began pulling these incredible notes from their instruments, and then they started beating time on their knees and bobbing their heads.

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By the time they were halfway through the first set people were yelling “Right on!” and you know what that can do to a performer, especially if he’s white and the guy yelling is black. The room is small, and very conducive to that kind of rapport. After two nights of this the group was firmly convinced that they had done the right thing by coming into Max’s to make their return appearance on a New York stage.

By Friday, night they were at the peak of their power. The word must have gotten out that the Velvets were back and in rare form, because the audience was right there from the beginning. They applauded the first notes of each old number and when Doug Yule, playing lead guitar, went into the bluesy, heart-tugging solo on “Sweet Nothing,” which is the Velvets’ “Hey Jude,” they went wild, interrupting it twice with applause.

I don’t know what effect this will have on their careers, but judging from past audience reactions to the Velvets (and other groups), I would say things are at an all-time high. I, for one, have always believed that the Velvets have never received the attention they deserve, but I attributed this to the fact that they have never tried to be commercial. They seemed to enjoy being artsy and esoteric. I also think that they were so indigenous to New York City that they were probably too sophisticated for the rest of the country. Oh, they always had a loyal following, even in the most obscure burgs, but it was all purists. No mass market. They’re more eclectic now, so things may change.

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They have made significant contributions to rock music, that’s for sure. They have influenced many groups, including the Beatles, the Stones, and the Airplane (who lifted one of Maureen Tucker’s drum riffs line for line and used it on one of their biggest singles). The Velvets are also the foremost exponents of something I call white/urban East Coast rhythm and blues, a form that doesn’t rely on a white singer doing black face. All rock has black roots but the Velvets are one of the few groups around (along with the Stones) who have succeeded in developing their own style without coming off like a pale imitation. They have managed to evoke a culture born of the Long Island Expressway, and what’s wrong with that?

They’ll be at Max’s another week, at least. Two shows a night, Wednesday through Sunday, starting at 11:30. There’s a $3 admission fee, but once inside you can relax and enjoy. There’s no hustle. ♦

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1970 Village Voice review of the Velvet Underground's last performances at Max's Kansas City

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Andy Land 3: The Shot Heard Round the Demimonde

For Andy Warhol, a night on the town was hardly a news-making event, especially in the Sixties. But in September 1968, when Voice writer Leticia Kent caught up with the pop-art icon, it was front-page news. As Kent wrote in the September 12 issue of the paper: “It was the underground film-maker’s first public appearance since last June, when, as everyone knows, he was shot down by Valerie Solanas.”

The shooting, on an otherwise typical day in early June, had rocked the downtown demimonde, and it nearly took Warhol’s life. “I don’t even know whether or not I’m really alive or — whether I died,” Warhol told Kent. “It’s sad. Like I can’t say hello or goodbye to people. Life is like a dream. What would you call that?”

Warhol had come a long way since his brush with death. Just three days after the shooting, in the June 6 issue of the Voice, writer Howard Smith provided a blow-by-blow account of an “ordinary afternoon” that suddenly turned to panic and pandemonium. Smith also looked at the strange path that led Solanas (spelled “Solanis” in the story) to commit such a violent crime. As the Voice went to press, it was still unclear whether her assassination attempt had succeeded. “Tuesday his condition was still listed as critical,” wrote Smith, “and doctors gave him a 50-50 chance to live.”

In his 1980 memoir, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, the artist describes the experience from his perspective. “As I was coming down from my operation, I heard a television going somewhere and the words ‘Kennedy’ and ‘assassin’ and ‘shot’ over and over again. Robert Kennedy had been shot, but what was so weird was that I had no understanding that this was a second Kennedy assassination — I just thought that maybe after you die, they rerun things for you, like President Kennedy’s assassination.”

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Just after midnight on June 5, 1968, RFK had been gunned down in Los Angeles, too late to make it into that week’s issue of the Voice. The following issue featured Fred McDarrah’s haunting portrait of the late New York senator. The two shootings, separated by two days and thousands of miles, rattled New York City, highlighting the growing threat of gun violence. In POPism, Warhol recounts an exchange between Robert Rauschenberg and Factory regular Brigid Berlin at Max’s Kansas City:

She went on toward the back room and collided with Bob Rauschenberg who was coming down from the upstairs, all sweaty from dancing. “I told him the news about Bobby Kennedy,” she said, “and he fell to the floor, sobbing, and said, ‘Is this the medium?’ ”

“What was that supposed to mean?” I asked her.

“First you, then Bobby Kennedy,” she said. “Guns.”

This week’s opening of “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again” at the Whitney Museum of American Art provides a good excuse to revisit one crazy, tragic summer from the pages of the Voice.

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“The Shot That Shattered the Velvet Underground”
by Howard Smith
June 6, 1968

It was an ordinary afternoon at The Factory, the huge, new loft on the north side of Union Square which is the center of the Warhol scene. Sun came in the windows and gleamed off the mirror-topped desks. Paul Morrissey, Warhol’s executive producer, and Fred Hughes, an assistant, sat around talking with Mario Amaya, a visiting art magazine editor from London.

Suddenly the elevator doors opened and Andy Warhol walked into the loft with Valerie Solanis [sic], a sometime writer and super-woman-power advocate who had appeared in his film, “I, a Man.” She had come by The Factory earlier in the afternoon looking for Warhol, and had waited for him outside in front of the building for three hours. They walked over to talk with Morrissey, Hughes, and Amaya. It was typical Factory small talk, Hughes recalled. “You still writing dirty books, Valerie?” he asked.

Hughes wandered off, and Morrissey took off to the bathroom. Then the telephone rang, and Warhol went to answer it. While he spoke with Viva, the reigning superstar, Valerie Solanis [sic] pulled a .32 automatic out of the pocket of her trench coat. Warhol turned and saw the gun. “Valerie,” he yelled. “Don’t do it! No! No!” She fired three shots, and Warhol fell to the floor.

Then she turned on Amaya, and shot him in the hip. Amaya fled to a back room in the loft and crashed through a door, breaking the latch with the impact. She pursued him, and tried to force the door open while Amaya held it closed with his body. Morrissey, meanwhile, had heard the shots and ran to watch her through the small projection window.

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She then turned and walked back to Hughes who, terrified, begged her not to shoot. “I have to shoot you,” she told him. Hughes fell to his knees, pleading “You can’t. I’m innocent.” Just as she seemed about to shoot, the elevator doors opened again and distracted her. “She was very confused, very agitated,” Hughes recalled. She turned back, pointing the gun at Hughes, who was still on his knees, pleading for his life, and then Valerie Solanis [sic] darted on the empty elevator and disappeared.

Hughes called the police and an ambulance. Warhol lay on the floor, he said, still conscious and bleeding only slightly, but obviously in great pain. He seemed delirious, and cried “I can’t! I can’t!” Then photographer Billy Name came into the loft, saw Warhol, and went to him. Warhol heard him cry, but mistook it for laughter. “Billy,” he said softly, “don’t laugh. Don’t make me laugh.”

The police arrived, and finally the ambulance, and Warhol was taken to Columbus Hospital. “They thought he was dead at first,” Morrissey said. But Warhol was alive, and was rushed to surgery, where a four-man team of doctors fought for five and a half hours to save him. Tuesday his condition was still listed as critical, and doctors gave him a 50-50 chance to live.

While the doctors operated, friends, press, and superstars jammed the tiny lobby of the hospital. The press was voracious; the superstars responsive. In one corner Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp were being interviewed; in another, Viva and Gerard Malanga were being set up for photographs. Later, Warhol’s mother, a tiny old woman wearing a babushka, was brought weeping out of a back room. Malanga and Viva went to comfort her, and a hospital attendant brought a wheelchair to take Mrs. Warhol, who has a heart ailment, outside to a waiting taxi. A flock of photographers struggled for front photographs, almost trampling the old woman in the process.

Then word arrived that Valerie Solanis [sic] had turned herself in to a rookie cop at Times Square, and some of the press rushed to the 13th Precinct station, only a few blocks away, where she was to be booked. While she was being questioned upstairs, a battery of photographers stood poised for an hour in front of the door through which she would enter. Twenty other newsmen milled about the room. When she finally came through the door, her hands were cuffed behind her back, it was bedlam. Photographers climbed behind the booking desk, elbowing cops out of the way. While police tried to book her, she posed and smiled for photographers. It was impossible to book her; the clicking and whirring of the cameras drowned out the sound of her voice. The police gave in, and let the press interview her. She was responsive to the questions. When asked about a motive, she said “I have a lot of very involved reasons. Read my manifesto and it will tell you what I am.” After a few minutes, the police hustled the reporters out of the station and took her back to be booked in the fingerprint room. She was charged with felonious assault and possession of a deadly weapon.

Valerie Solanis’s [sic] life revolved around her “manifesto,” a 21-page mimeographed document entitled S.C.U.M., Society for Cutting Up Men. She was a man-hater, not a lesbian, but consumed with a passionate loathing of men. All the passion was contained in the manifesto, which she sold to support herself by placing ads in The Voice and peddling it — at $1 for men and 25 cents for women — at coffeehouses and Max’s Kansas City. “She was always known to be odd,” said an acquaintance, “even within a pretty odd scene. But she was very friendly, very warm. All her hate was in her writing. In person she was gentle, not aggressive at all.”

Yet suddenly she turned savage, and people at The Factory searched for a motive. She was bitter, they said, because Warhol had refused for over a year to use a script that she had written. She also had at one time accused Warhol — absurdly, his associates said — of dubbing in over her voice in the film, “I, a Man.” Neither clue seems sufficient to explain the horror that shattered the Velvet Underground.

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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.

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“Nico, 1988” Demands the World Look More Closely at the One-Time Chelsea Girl

The music made by the songwriter and composer Nico in the two decades after her brief association with the Velvet Underground tended toward drone and plod, toward a Teutonic bluntness and a gothic mournfulness, its beat as flat as her bleat. On occasion, her work echoed the lullaby delicacy of the songs Lou Reed wrote for her, among them “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” But Nico’s work, as Nico would be the first to tell you, was not for everyone — which, of course, makes it mean all the more to those of us who love it.

“I’m very selective of my audience,” Trine Dyrholm’s Nico declares to an interviewer late in Nico, 1988, writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s precise, piercing study of the star’s last years. The statement is half put-on justification, something like what the teenage Nico fans I knew during the years the film is set might say to explain the tininess of our groups of friends. But there’s truth in it, too: Nico wouldn’t and couldn’t change her art, her sound, herself even if she had wanted to. Reed wrote for her the question “And what costume shall the poor girl wear to all tomorrow’s parties?” Nicchiarelli’s film, the rare biographical picture to advance a critical argument, insists that Nico, born Christa Päffgen, wore no costume: By the 1980s, a lifetime removed from her modeling career and the Factory scene, Nico and her art had become one. Nico, 1988 shows us the star pouring all her pain and exuberance into music that she doesn’t care whether you take or leave. She even wants to leave it herself, toward the end, when the idea comes to her that she might work in a flower shop instead — that she might spend her days around life. But she can’t. She might insist that some acquaintances call her Christa, but she’s too Nico not to be Nico.

Like much of Nico’s music, Nicchiarelli’s film is a funeral march, trudging toward the oblivion hinted at by the title. Most of Nico, 1988 takes place two years before its subject’s death, in 1986, when a now raven-haired Nico (played with an inquisitive weariness by the excellent Dyrholm) tours Europe with a band of amateur musicians desperate for gigs. Some also are desperate for their next fix. We first see their leader shoot up in Manchester, England, while being shown a one-bedroom flat she’ll be renting. Nico asks to use the restroom, and then, alone, pulls out the microphone of the tape recorder she carries everywhere and studies the room’s ambiance. Apparently satisfied, she pulls a needle from her pack, taps it, then jabs it into her ankle.

At its best, Nicchiarelli’s film, which is based on accounts from people who knew Nico, summons up the presence of its subject, studying her behavior, allowing her her mysteries. What is she listening for on that recorder? When she nods off, heroin pulsing through her, what does she dream of? What does she make of the scraggly crowds of leathered outcasts who attend her shows? Nicchiarelli does offer some explanations, through flashbacks often less convincing than the film’s 1980s present. As the smack hits, we see a baby crying in a hospital, then a vision of Nico’s golden 1960s self, the woman thought of as the femme fatale and the Chelsea girl. Later, crashing in the home of a booking agent who wouldn’t spring for a hotel for the band, Nico declares that she misses her son, the boy she had too young, before she’d had a chance to invent herself — before she had become Nico.

That’s blunt, but so is a parent’s pain. Nicchiarelli doesn’t belabor her subject’s regrets, and she never suggests that there’s one key to understanding Nico’s heart. And instead of setting up a sentimental reunion, Nico’s regrets push the film toward tragedy. We meet the handsome young son (Sandor Funtek) in a French rehab hospital. And we wince when Nico suggests that when he’s released, they might make up for lost time by him coming on tour with her — the last thing a recovering addict should do. He joins her on the next tour, in 1987.

Much of the film covers life on the road in the days before the collapse of the Soviet empire. It’s a blur of cramped cars, school dormitories, small crowds, and even smaller triumphs and humiliations. The show must go on, which means heroin must be secured and border guards must be satisfied. Sometimes the show seems meaningless, and she yells at the band and storms offstage; sometimes, like in an underground club in a school in Prague, the show seems like an urgent cry of freedom itself. (Dyrholm’s furious power in the best concert sequences have more fire than I’ve ever heard from the real Nico.) She’s persistently interviewed by clueless journalists who only know her VU work; she pretends not to notice that the manager (John Gordon Sinclair) with whom she occasionally sleeps is desperately in love with her.

Curiously, movingly, in the final scenes, the sense that we’re treading grimly toward her death lightens, just a bit. Having cleaned herself up, Nico at times seems to enjoy being Nico, and Dyrholm even dares a smile. Her performance works both as impersonation — her amused utterances sound a lot like the real Nico’s announcement, after an exquisite 1983 performance of “Orly Flight,” that “I’m not a very good piano player” — but succeeds most as an investigation, even a summation. Nico, 1988 offers all I want from this kind of movie: a sense of what time with someone unknowable might have been like.

Nico, 1988
Written and directed by 
Susanna Nicchiarelli
Magnolia Pictures
Opens August 1, Film Forum  

 

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Talking to Danny Fields About the Ramones’ Gabba Gabba Heyday

Danny Fields is a punk legend’s punk legend. He’s not the most famous person to emerge from the creative petri dish of 1960s, ’70s, ’80s New York, nor the richest. He hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, unlike many of the musicians he has worked with, including the Ramones, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground. But if you are interested in this period in downtown Manhattan, when the city was bankrupt of money but teeming with talent — and many people are, as the phenomenon of Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids confirmed — then Fields is your guy. Now 78, he has been a kind of Zelig, somehow involved with what seems like everyone who ever mattered in pre-MTV music.

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Fields grew up in Queens, left for a while to go to school at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, and made it back to New York in 1960, settling in Greenwich Village, then the beating heart of counterculture in the city, if not the United States. He made friends with Andy Warhol and sort of lived with Edie Sedgwick, worked in and out as a music journalist, became for some time the publicist for Jim Morrison and the Doors, was the first person to give Iggy Pop cocaine, and helped Nico get a record deal with Elektra. “Danny’s a connector, he’s a fuel line, a place where things are liable to erupt,” Iggy Pop said in a 2015 documentary about Fields called Danny Says (named for a Ramones song they wrote about him). “I imagine that Danny’s legacy, aside from the brilliant way he’s chosen to live his life, is how he has enhanced the lives of others by being a connector.” Thankfully for history, Fields had a journalist’s eye, too, and either documented this world or at the very least kept a memory bank filled with stories about it, which he will gladly share if you happen to randomly meet him, as I did one afternoon some years ago. Though our interview a few weeks ago for this piece was by phone, on that day we sat in his living room surrounded by photos of him with the gods and he’d tell amazing tales about any of them if prompted.

This spring, Fields is re-releasing My Ramones, a book of photographs he took of the Ramones at the beginning of their career, originally published in 2016 as a limited edition. The more than 250 photos in the book were shot between 1975 and 1977, during, among other scattered and wild moments, the band’s first tour. Fields became the band’s manager after seeing them live at CBGB in 1975 and, bored while they were busy recording their debut album, picked up a camera and started shooting. Here, the punk behind the punks tells us what they were like.

Ramones on Park Lane, during a guided walking tour of early morning London.

Today, everybody documents everything, but how did you know it might be of value one day to document your life with the Ramones?

I didn’t. I just started doing it for a lack of something to do, because when you’re a manager, you’re sitting at the recording session and thinking, “I’m redundant here.” I did my job — got them the record deal. The engineers turned a lot of knobs and set up microphones and things, and there was nothing I could do. So I took out my camera. I took two rolls of film — 75 pictures — of the early recording sessions. And because I was their manager, I could take candid pictures. I had a Nikon F2 and I used a 35mm or an 85mm.

The Ramones really defined what it looked like to be a punk, partly because of these early photographs of them. Were they image conscious? Was it something that they had to think about or did it just come naturally to them?

Well, both. There’s nothing they didn’t think about. And what they thought about was what will project naturally. They were big fans of the New York Dolls. They would look at them and think, “Oh wow, they’re glam, should I be glam?” And they tried it out for a while. Joey was a fan of the New York Dolls, and I think he was very proud of a tight pink leather suit he had. Johnny, before I met them, wore silver lamé pants. It was a phase. They said, “You know what, we can’t be like the New York Dolls because these clothes are so elaborate, and you’d have to have a wardrobe person with you. What if we just do something that we never have to think about again, which is what we look like every day?” The leather jacket and Levi’s and Converse. It was classic, and they knew that. Simple and classic suited them. They only thing they’d change was their T-shirt and the socks.

Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy flicking through bins of vinyl at Free Being Records on Second Avenue.

Did you think they would be a huge success?

No. Yes. I mean, you hope. But I couldn’t have predicted. They were in trouble because of their tempo, radio-wise. Too fast or too loud, or too comical. “I Wanna Be Sedated” — are they serious? That’s a single? It’s a cute tune, but it’s a little weird for a lyric. And yet, though they were “punk,” they were [really] pop songs. And now all music sounds like that. That rolling fast rock. Green Day popularized it and now TV commercials sound like that. It turns out that musicians don’t want to have to learn a lot of complex fingering. They just want to let it rock and let it roll — make it hummable. And it got called punk.

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What was the first time you heard the word “punk”?

The first time I heard that combination of letters? 1930s movies, about a little gangster or someone like that. It’s been in the language for five hundred years, so I don’t know. And when it was applied to them you sort of go, “Okay, it’s a good word, it’s four letters, ends with a K.” Of course, wherever you went it meant something different. There was a style of mohawks and piercings and extraordinary hair, and that was punk. Requiring safety pins and all that. Those kids invented that look for themselves with a little help from Malcolm McLaren, who first saw a safety pin on Richard Hell in New York and went back to London with a fashion idea.

In England, the music had a more political aura. The Ramones were not at all political. In England there were some people saying, “You have some nerve calling yourselves punk, you’re not political, you’re fraudulent.” And what could we say? We didn’t call ourselves that! [Everyone else] called us that. It just became a word that means we don’t really have another better word for this, but it’s different so we’re gonna call it something easy to remember.

Joey on the steps of the Roundhouse in London in 1976.

Tell me about life on the road with them.

I don’t know. Again, unless there was a major market, there was no need for me to be on the road. I didn’t tune the guitars and I didn’t carry things. I was there but I wasn’t into slogging. I wasn’t into sitting in a van with them. The few times I did, I thought, “I’ve got to take the train next time.”

The first times in Europe, all they could do was hate the food. I didn’t want to be around that. It’s food. How can you bother to hate it? You eat it if you’re hungry and leave it alone if you’re not. But they would get into big things about it during their tour in England, because backstage [in England] food is generally Indian. They didn’t like it, and they always wanted hamburgers. Then it’s, Where’s the ketchup? Ketchup wasn’t a common staple in England then. That’s what life on the road was. Who needed that?

Compared to some of the other people you’ve worked with, were they easy to work with or were they divas?

No one is easy to work with who is worth working with.

Dee Dee and his spare Rickenbacker guitar

I’ve always been particularly fascinated by Dee Dee. There’s all these stories about him being a prostitute and nobody really knows for sure. What was he like?

He was more social than the other guys. He was more likely to make friends with people in other bands. Was he a prostitute? I don’t know. Every kid is a hustler at some point. Why starve if you’re good looking? You don’t have a lot of years to be good looking, and if you starve you won’t even get to live them out. So I don’t think he was majorly a hustler, but in times of emergency people do things. As long as they cause no harm, who cares?

Have you noticed how nostalgic people are for this era of New York? Why do you think that is?

There’s nostalgia for it everywhere. I think it was one of the last times when there were humans instead of the internet. Instead of Facebook. With people being really human, and having adventures that made you need to be alive, not to be on the other end of a monitor or keyboard.

Recording “Ramones,” the first album

People like Fran Lebowitz have said sometimes that New York now sucks in comparison to then.

We were all twenty years old or something, so of course the world was better. I think Fran once said something like this, too: Look in a mirror [when you’re young], you’re never gonna look better. Do I miss that, or would I trade with anyone [to get it back]? Of course. Who wouldn’t? But it’s not real, so why waste any time missing it.

You weren’t waking up every morning and saying, “It’s the Seventies! We’re lucky to be alive!” You’re going, “Am I gonna get laid? Am I gonna pay rent? What color socks should I wear?” You don’t think about it as a glorious era. People who claim they miss the Seventies  are the people who weren’t born yet. They’re the ones who say, “It must have been so great.” That only happens when things change and you look back on it.

Was there a moment that you realized that the Ramones had become bigger than just a band?

Maybe during the fortieth anniversary in 2016. As I said before, in the midst of a moment happening, you’re not thinking this is momentous. You’re thinking, Can we live through this? I was only with them for five years. [Later] when they would play a huge city, the neighborhood would have to be police-barricaded because there were so many fans, and they’d play in a stadium for 100,000 people. It must have had its own headaches. You’re sort of restricted now. Wherever you go there’s armed guards around you or keeping people away from you. It’s sort of the opposite of what you loved about what you were doing in the beginning. This is what you wanted, to be so famous that you needed police barricades outside your hotel? No. That’s the price of it, though.

Ramones perform at The Club in Cambridge, MA.

What did they want?

To make enough money to retire so they’d never have to work again. And at the end, when they started making a lot of money, they wanted to invest it well. I don’t know; they wanted to buy nice real estate. What does anyone want when they’re fifty years old?

Did your parents understand the kind of success you had?

No. I was a wretched rock and roll loser. “We thought we brought him up better!” But then my friend Linda Eastman married Paul McCartney, and my father would say, “My son is a friend of a Beatle!” Immense fame eclipses everything, doesn’t it?

Do you remember if John Lennon ever came down to see the Ramones?

I don’t know. You don’t keep track of that. Especially after you’ve stopped caring. Jack Nicholson was at the Whiskey to see Iggy — so what?

Ramones’ first video shoot at M.P.C.’s TV studio. The video contained eight songs in seventeen and a half minutes and has never been officially released.

The real fans matter more.

I’m a real fan — that’s the thing.

I once came to your apartment because I was writing a story about a friend of yours, and it’s like a New York yearbook come to life, filled with framed photos of you with every cool famous person ever.  What is it like to live with all these memories literally staring you in the face?

Recently the kitchen in my apartment was redone and I had to take out giant old appliances and bring in giant new appliances, and to do that I had to take down all the pictures.

No!

Yeah. I went to Madrid for two weeks in February; when I came back it had been done. They are all stored in a carton. So I’m living with empty walls now. And sometimes I miss them. I’ll say to someone, “Let me show you this,” and I start walking to where they used to be, and they’re not there. Just nails sticking out of the wall.

People tell me to put them back up, but I don’t know, it’s kind of mummified. I don’t want to think about [the past]. It’s gone, it’s over. I’m happy that people think I was fabulous, but at any given moment one doesn’t feel very fabulous, and you only sort of get that when people see those pictures and go, “Oh my god, these pictures are so great, can I take a picture of the pictures?” So I guess I should hang them up. People expect you to play the greatest hits.

Shooting pictures for Rock Scene Magazines in the alley behind CBGB, now named Extra Place.

My Ramones: Photographs by Danny Fields
By Danny Fields
Reel Art Press
176 pp.

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Addicted to Lou

‘I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” Thus spake musician/producer Brian Eno, delivering unto the Los Angeles Times, on May 23, 1982, one of the most legendary quotes about one of the most legendary rock ’n’ roll albums of all time.

But facts don’t always align with memory, and numbers can’t define artistry. Shortly after Reed died (on October 27, 2013, at age seventy-one), former Warner Bros. Records executive Jeff Gold posted a fascinating piece of memorabilia online — the first two years’ worth of sales figures for The Velvet Underground and Nico, the inaugural album from the band founded by Reed and multi-instrumentalist John Cale. Released fifty years ago this past March, the record consistently ranks among the top tier of best rock ’n’ roll album lists and actually did better with the public than Reed remembered: In slightly less than two years it had sold, according to the royalty invoice Gold unearthed, 58,476 copies in the U.S.

Not Beatles or Stones numbers, to be sure — or the Monkees, who outsold those British behemoths combined for the number one U.S. spot in 1967 — but a respectable base for the career of a quintessential New Yorker.

Reed’s contact sheet from photographer Mick Rock’s studio in London, 1975

Lou Reed is one of two reasons I live in New York City. (The other is painting.) When I was fourteen years old, living in Baltimore, I heard the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat album on a college radio station. The group, which Lou fronted and wrote most of the songs for, was already broken up by then, but the radiant aggression of the title track — “White light, white light goin’ messin’ up my mind/White light, and don’t you know it’s gonna make me go blind” — hooked my teen medulla as surely as if Reed had been peddling smack on the street corner.

The next day I walked to a local Korvettes department store and bought the only Velvets album to be found in their big Formica bins, the double-LP concert recording 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. The older teenager behind the register whistled at the raised miniskirt on the cover, adding, “That’s the good shit!” This convinced me, if I needed additional proof, that the Velvets were beyond cool. The caustic psychedelia of the live version of “What Goes On” set off sparks in my brain like a grinding wheel on rusty steel, conjuring an elastic reality (influenced by 1970s black-light aesthetics) in which Day-Glo pyramids cast strobe-lit shadows under skies of melting stained glass. Over the years I have splattered paint on huge canvases, made love, carved Halloween jack-o’-lanterns, and enjoyed other transporting acts to the chaotic drone of “What Goes On,” one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest existential anthems.

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By the time I got to art school, in the late Seventies, I began to pay closer attention to the lyrics and realized that the gritty ecstasy of the music was actually quite earthbound, and all the more compelling for it. The mad freedom of “I’m Waiting for the Man” — “I’m feeling good, feeling so fine/Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time” — was a siren call from the streets of New York to a kid in a backwater town like Baltimore. Many of the denizens of Lou’s Gotham — those drag queens and hustlers — were as yet beyond my experience; plus, I was a teetotaler amid the cornucopia of substances that was Seventies America. But Lou’s music mainlined a cultural contact high completely in tune with my passion for painting, underground comix, and head-shop graphics.

In my mid-twenties I moved to New York City. Everywhere I looked I saw Manhattan through Lou’s eyes: AIDS victims, corrupt politicians, callous cops, homeless Vietnam vets — all characters that would appear on his heartfelt 1989 album, New York, a musical novella combining humor and squalor, humanity and the devil. Although I was too young to have seen the Velvets in their “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” glory at the Dom on St. Marks Place, I have worked at the Village Voice for more than a quarter-century, and for much of that time, our offices were two blocks from the hallowed spot where the Dom once sat. Often, when grabbing lunch and threading my way through the blankets, spread out over the sidewalk, that offered for sale used boomboxes, cassette tapes, and toaster ovens — all of it of highly dubious provenance — I’d flash on scratchy films I’d seen of those storied performances, with Andy Warhol providing the seizure-inducing light show and Silver Factory extroverts writhing under cracking whips.

Reed and Nico at the Blakes Hotel in London, 1975.

Reed was twenty-five when he masterminded that first Velvets album — he wrote all the lyrics and most of the music — and this past March, on what would have been his seventy-fifth birthday, the New York Public Library announced the acquisition of his archive from his wife, musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. Don Fleming, the archivist in charge of the more than two hundred boxes of Reed’s business papers, personal correspondence, photos, recordings on various media (some unreleased, a few sealed), and other clues to a life, says Anderson’s first thought was, “I want it all online — everything for everyone just to be able to enjoy it.” Fleming explained that such a project would take years, and that the most pressing goal was to find a home that could properly maintain and preserve such an important slice of cultural history. (Fleming is no stranger to the vicissitudes of music history. In addition to serving as the archivist for folk music preservationist Alan Lomax, he has performed in a number of bands, including the Velvet Monkeys and Half Japanese, and has been a record producer for acts as disparate as Sonic Youth, Alice Cooper, and Nancy Sinatra.)

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Just a few nuggets from Reed’s archives (which will be opened to the public sometime next year) can summon raucous aural memories and trigger unexpected cultural connections. Reed could be prickly — one contract collected among his papers stipulates that promoters provide the star’s roadies with “one case of Coca-Cola (no other soft drink will be accepted)” — and sometimes could simply be a prick. That’s the implication of a list attributed to an anonymous member of Reed’s road crew: “The Ten Commandments of a Rock and Roll Band (according to Lou): 1. Subjugate the lessers on staff. 2. Instill division in the crew thru gossip and innuendo. 3. If there’s a wrong note, blame the nearest technician. 4. Post-date all checks. 5. Make sure perdiem [sic] is the wrong currency. 6. Always stray from set-list… 9. Always order 12 person bus for a 14 person crew…” But a lime-green sweater-vest in the collection, adorned with clashing red portraits of Reed from the cover of his 1972 Transformer album, is a literal reminder that it is exactly the stark contrasts between his taciturn persona and his beautiful musical hooks that define his sui generis catalog. Transformer’s “Perfect Day,” with its sweet string section, is a perfect example of the flip side of Lou, beginning as the tale of a couple drinking sangria in the park, meandering to the zoo, and taking in a movie before wandering into melancholy at the end: “Just a perfect day/You made me forget myself/I thought I was/Someone else, someone good.”

David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Reed at the Dorchester Hotel in London, 1972

A newcomer to the legend of Lou might be taken aback at a concert photo of the musician (with a close-cropped bottle-blond ’do) apparently shooting up onstage, accompanied by the headline “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves.” Yet maybe the odd relic will initiate a Google search exposing this newbie to a PDF of ten yellowed pages from the March 1975 issue of Creem magazine — exuberant music critic Lester Bangs’s knockdown, drag-out interview with a game Reed. Bangs prefaced the piece with the claim “Lou Reed is a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is. On top of that he’s a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh. A panderer living off the dumbbell nihilism of a seventies generation that doesn’t have the energy to commit suicide.” The discovery of such coruscating criticism — or a reminder to reread it in the Bangs collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung — is just the result archivists crave.

For those seeking a glimpse of Lou’s gentler side, there are photos by Mick Rock of the “pathetic death dwarf” adopting a puppy. There is also a picture from Reed’s high school yearbook, which ran with the caption “Tall, dark-haired Lou likes basketball, music, and naturally, girls.” Indeed, one friend scrawled, “ ‘Sleez’ — To the guy who could be called Freeport’s gigolo” in blue ink near the clean-cut Lou’s photo. Lou was born in Brooklyn, but his family had moved to the suburbs of Long Island by the time he was nine. While he was in college, he was subjected to electroshock treatments, an attempt to address his increasingly moody demeanor; there has also been speculation that his family was concerned he was gay. But Lou’s sister has movingly written that their “blazing liberal” parents were simply acting on poor advice from a doctor, who’d told them extreme measures might improve his “depressed, weird, anxious, and avoidant” nature.

Reed and Warhol at the launch party for the Rock and Roll Heart album, New York, 1976

This mix of “sleez,” as it were, with emotional and physical violence came to the fore in the songs on The Velvet Underground and Nico. Reed, Cale, and “chanteuse” Nico offered listeners tales of urban debauchery: the “white boy” who feels “sick and dirty, more dead than alive,” and so heads to Harlem to score heroin in “I’m Waiting for the Man”; the “whiplash girlchild in the dark” who stars in the ode to sadomasochism “Venus in Furs”; the “poor girl” who will wear a “costume fit for one who sits and cries” in “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Warhol’s famous peelable banana graphic graced the front cover; photos on the back featured leopard-skin patterns and polka dots projected onto band members’ faces, evoking those Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia extravaganzas.

Amid the Billy Name photos and quotes from such avant-garde luminaries as the Voice’s Jonas Mekas — “[The Velvet Underground] remains the most dramatic expression of the contemporary generation” — printed on the album’s gatefold cover, an observation from the Chicago Daily News might have caught a prospective buyer’s eye: “Warhol’s brutal assemblage — non-stop horror show… To experience it is to be brutalized, helpless — you’re in any kind of horror you want to imagine, from police state to madhouse. Eventually the reverberations in your ears stop. But what do you do with what you still hear in your brain? The flowers of evil are in full bloom with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”

You’d buy it, right?

Next month marks another Velvet Underground golden anniversary: the recording of White Light/White Heat, which, legend has it, took only two days. If the first album spelunked the demimonde, this second go-round further redlined the decadence meter — Reed described the lead character of the seventeen-and-a-half-minute “Sister Ray” as “a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack, and having this orgy when the police appear.” The album is serrated by feedback and rimed with dissonance, chockablock with Cale’s seesawing organ, Maureen “Mo” Tucker’s clattering drums, Sterling Morrison’s and Reed’s pugnacious guitars. Few lyricists could reach back to their own youthful forays under the electrodes as Reed did for “Lady Godiva’s Operation” — “Shaved and hairless what once was SCREAMING/Now lies silent and almost SLEEPING/The brain must have gone away” — yet the pretty, undulating melody reveals his apprenticeship crafting knockoffs of Top 40 songs for Pickwick Records a few years earlier. For all the fuzz and Reed’s mordant vocals, one can still sing along with this album. (Well, maybe it’s tough to keep up with the rabid, single-take improvisations of “Sister Ray” and John Cale’s cadaverous monotone on “The Gift.”)

Warhol at the Factory, 1977

After several years on the road with Warhol — they’d parted ways earlier in that tumultuous year of 1967, with Reed also giving the boot to Nico — the Velvets considered themselves a live band and wanted to capture their onstage bedlam in the studio. They played so loud and raw that the engineer complained, “You can’t do it — all the needles are on red.”

“Just do the best you can” was the band’s answer; many years later Reed told an interviewer, “It’s aggressive, yes. But it’s not aggressive-bad. This is aggressive, going to God.” Inspired by hearing White Light/White Heat burning through the late-night ether, I went to New York instead. Over the decades I listened to many more of Lou’s paeans to Gotham and came to understand how passionately he believed in Sixties ideals of tolerance — even for all the hookers, hustlers, junkies, and dealers of the five boroughs. That said, Lou suffered no fools — New York is a hard town, and he expected even the losers to carry their weight. Hence the malevolent transcendence of such lyrics as “Here’s a toast to all that’s good/And here’s a toast to hate,” from 1983’s “The Last Shot.” Lou wasn’t afraid to gaze into the dark side, because he understood it to be as much a part of our humanity as the openness he praises in his biggest hit: “New York City is the place where they say/Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.”

It’s no surprise that Lou’s chiaroscuro visions entranced rebels of all stripes. In 1990 he traveled to Prague to interview Václav Havel for Musician magazine. The dissident playwright had become Czechoslovakia’s president after the Communist government collapsed in 1989, during the Velvet Revolution. Although that name was coincidental, referring to the relatively bloodless changeover of power, the VU would have been part of the mix of Western rock music broadcast into Eastern Europe during the Cold War by such stations as Radio Luxembourg — rock ’n’ roll as propaganda for the West’s sybaritic freedoms.

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In his introduction, Lou wrote about the problems he’d had dealing with his Czechoslovakian contacts. “The line that made me nervous was when we were told with exasperation — the government will take care of you. I’m from New York. I wouldn’t want the government to take care of me.” When he and Havel were in a local nightclub, the president took out a small book of Lou’s lyrics, which had been secretly translated into Czech during the Communist era. “There were only two hundred of them,” the president said as he handed the samizdat over. “They were very dangerous to have. People went to jail, and now you have one. Keep your fingers crossed for us.” The archives at the NYPL include a 2003 fax from Havel thanking Reed for some books the musician had sent him. The former revolutionary signed off with a heart doodle under his signature.

Lou always inspired passionate devotion in his fans. I twice saw him perform at Radio City Music Hall, a marriage of two New York musical icons. During one show he brought out Little Jimmy Scott to sing along with “Power and Glory,” for which the ethereal jazz vocalist had provided backup on Lou’s 1992 Magic and Loss album. Then came an encore duet on “Satellite of Love,” Scott levitating that bittersweet ballad into a heavenly hymn.

Now, when I listen to 1969’s rollicking version of “Rock ’n’ Roll” — “Then one fine morning she put on a New York station/She didn’t believe what she heard at all/She started dancing to that fine, fine music/You know her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll” — I realize I was pretty much fated to live in NYC from the moment I first heard those words. As a kid I wondered how anyone could have the audacity to use such a blunt title for a rock ’n’ roll song. In later years, I came to realize that rock ’n’ roll was still basically a teenager when Lou penned that ditty, in the late Sixties, and that radio was middle-aged, and our own epoch’s digital cacophony was no more than an inchoate fever dream in the mind of Steve Jobs.

‘LOU REED IS A COMPLETELY DEPRAVED PERVERT AND PATHETIC DEATH DWARF AND EVERYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO THINK HE IS’ — LESTER BANGS

Lou was as much orator and storyteller as singer, so it was no surprise that hearing him simply recite his lyrics could be as thrilling as one of his concerts. In 1991, I took a friend to the 92nd Street Y to hear him read from his just-published book, Between Thought and Expression. (A Xeroxed proof from the publisher remains one of my most treasured possessions.) As we settled into our seats, it dawned on me that there was nothing but a podium with a single microphone onstage, and no backup musicians in sight. “Lord,” I thought, “what have I gotten us into? This’ll be murder without music.” And then Lou began an electrifying evening with a phrase that consciously echoed his intro on the 1969 album: “OK, then, this is gonna go on for a while, so we should get used to each other.” Did we ever.   ❖

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PIZZA PARTY

Macaulay Culkin has kept everyone on their toes wondering whether his various post–Home Alone career turns are cries for help or practical jokes on the fans who care too much. The Pizza Underground, his comedic Velvet Underground tribute band that alters the iconic lyrics of the original rock innovators to make them all pizza-themed, presents a pretty strong case for the latter. The band has had a rough go of it, however; from merciless reviews to being booed off-stage in England, though titles like “Papa John Says” and “Take a Bite of the Wild Slice” are pretty adorable, we think. Let’s see if their variety show with “special guests” is a hit, or too cheesy to bear.

Thu., June 12, 8 p.m., 2014

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The Psychedelic Furs

Emerging from the primordial ooze of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and MC5, the Psychedelic Furs were the electrified, sax-inflected pulse that punctuated the heartbeat of the ’80s. Immortalized by the eponymous anthem that inspired John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink, the Furs shepherded Gen-Xers through the unchecked hedonism of Reaganomics and Thatcher-era malaise. Now, erstwhile guitarist John Ashton unveils Satellite Paradiso, a long-gestating all-star project that explores cosmological questions uniting science, nature, and temporality with a totalizing virtuosity. Distortion becomes a palpable electromagnetic field as Ashton embarks on a Dante-esque sonic journey through a rhythmic wormhole in space-time that leads somewhere between 1984 and a timeless utopian future.

Sat., April 12, 8 p.m., 2014

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Cowboy Junkies

Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies prove that Canadian country and blues can be just as achy breaky as the American varietal. Instead of insistent honky-tonk or cowboy influences, though, Cowboy Junkies rely on the more languid, ethereal end of the spectrum. At the heart of the group are three Timmins siblings — Michael, Peter, and lead singer Margo — and it was covers like their rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” that got them radio play. Reaching peak popularity in the ’90s, the Junkies continued to release albums well into the late 2000s. Expect bristly, alt-country melodies with Margo’s ghostly alto floating above.

Wed., March 5, 8 p.m., 2014