The Velvet Underground and Nico (Andy Warhol, 1966)
The Velvet Underground, led by mercurial front man and electric guitarist Lou Reed, and German singer/artist Nico, with her very young long-blonde locked son sitting beneath her (man, really makes you wonder all that that kid would eventually see in his life), free-form jam instrumentally in garage band style in Andy Warhol’s infamous Lower East Side Factory… before the relatively polite coppers show up, apparently responding to a noise complaint (which is an educated guess, as there’s little discernable sound, as no one is mic’d), to put a kibosh on the night.
Like many a sheltered suburban kid growing up when I did, I subscribed to the super-groups of the time like Zeppelin and The Doors, and while I don’t regret loving them (even if the perennially disgruntled Reed dismissed them as ‘stupid’… then again, as much as I would eventually come into my true calling of attacking what’s ‘popular’ as a general rule of ideological thumb, when Reed also insisted – right up until his death — that The Beatles were ‘garbage’, well, you can begin to wonder if the guy perhaps received one too many of those electro-shock treatments which his parents agreed to in order to blitz the gay out of him in his teen years), it did lead me to catch up slightly embarrassingly late on the more challenging, important punk and experimental musical movements that were going on at the time.
I mean, for instance, the only thing I really knew about the Sex Pistols when I was a high school kid was catching pimply-faced, wildly addled Sid Vicious one late night on early cable television doing his incredible on-stage annihilation of the comforting tones of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, ending the crazed performance by pointing a pistol at the audience and shooting them apart… and, while it certainly fed, for one of the first times up ‘til then, directly into my own sense of tearing up the repressive hypocrisy of polite society – and kindled a love for those anti-social non-conformists blowing up convention — it didn’t lead me quite down a path of discovery until years later… and that included never really making the time to fully explore the likes of The Velvet Underground, the raw, urban loft recording, experimental band of the NY underground chic, brought to us by (or celebrated because of their affiliation with, or something like that) the most celebrated head of that fashionable post-Summer of Love movement, Andy Warhol, who proved to be either some kind of intuitively brilliant artist and filmmaker, or a trend-setting opportunistic conman extraordinaire, or somewhere in-between (I’ve never really spent enough time delving into his work – other than catching as many of the 16mm prints of much of his work that the Cinémathèque randomly plays — but my feelings lean me towards thinking of him as more of the latter… with just enough traits of the former to keep him interesting).
Warhol tries to keep things interesting with all sort of random camera tricks (quick zooms, sudden extreme close-ups), but the real treat of the film is simply catching them all jamming away for a little over an hour, apparently working on that seminal “The Velvet Underground and Nico” album (which, while rejected at the time, has proven to have some really great enduring stuff, including Reed’s epic “Heroin”, “Venus in Furs” and all sorts of other dark street treasures). It’s a nicely evocative opportunity, a time capsule, to just kinda study the players (with a number of them, including Warhol, having tragically suffered way too early deaths) as they jam and occasionally kibitz amongst themselves (even if we can’t hear quite what they’re saying). The free-form garage-sounding music they play — harsh-edged bluesy, with a slightly druggy feel (with Warhol ironically titling the experience “A Symphony of Sound”) — is nice to listen to. Warhol himself makes an appearance (apparently handing off the camera to frequent collaborator Paul Morrissey) near the end to intercede with the cops.
It certainly made me not only go back and revisit the pleasures of that album, but to think it might be time to really delve in, past the celebrated “Transformer” album and the catchy hits, through the combative press interviews (that I found revealed more a contrarian and difficult nature than a real intellectual streak), and discover a bit more of what Lou Reed offered over that 40 plus year musical career.