Delighted to host this guest post by David Heffernan. From Dublin, David is a vastly experienced and much-decorated music producer and director. Apart from ‘Curious … The Velvet Underground in Europe’, his credits also include international films on Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac.
The interior walls of a former factory building on New York’s West 26th Street were coated in a thick molasses- like film, the result, I presumed, of many years of music rehearsals and, no doubt, much else besides. This was not a glamorous place.
The year was 1993 and the weather in February in New York was especially bracing; indeed I was feeling the absence of warmth of any kind on this particularly grim morning. I’d been asked to fly from my home in Dublin by Warner Bros. Records in Los Angeles to meet with The Velvet Underground. Following frequent entreaties from record companies, and numerous suggestions from within, the band had finally agreed to get together and play a series of shows which would culminate in the release of a live album and concert film.
I’d been asked to produce the filming of the live show, but only if the band determined I was up to it: clearly this was an audition rather than a meeting. So I found myself coming face to face with the reformed Velvet Underground and Lou Reed who, by his own account, wrote 97% of the bands material and, as I would discover over subsequent months, could terrify, beguile or alienate at any given moment.
Curating the legacy of a group of musicians that had already attained mythical status within music circles – while making a film of their Paris show – was going to be a challenging endeavour, and that much was obvious. So when a remarkably fit and healthy-looking Lou Reed, in the company of his then-wife and manager, Sylvia, emerged from a well-worn service elevator and walked straight by, I couldn’t help but wonder if my trip might be in vain. It subsequently transpired that she was escorting him to his daily massage.
Shortly thereafter, Sylvia brought me upstairs to where the band was rehearing: what I witnessed that morning in New York was the Velvets playing music together in preparation for a series of shows for the first time since the summer of 1968. After a round of perfunctory introductions with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker – who were polite but somewhat bemused – Lou and I engaged in a brief and vague conversation. And that was it. As I headed back to my hotel, I still had no idea of what the band, and especially Lou’s intentions were.
What actually transpired was an exhausting, exhilarating eight months, during which I came to learn first-hand why the Velvets were the most unlikely purveys of a deeply human narrative, propelled as they were by their signature sonic screech, showcasing songs that are layered with drama, tenderness and humour.
Three years previously, in June 1990, the foursome had played together, briefly and wholly unexpectedly, at an Andy Warhol Exposition. They were guests of the Cartier Foundation, who were putting together a Warhol retrospective in Jouy-en-Josas, a small French town twenty miles south-west of Paris. Lou and John had agreed to play their song cycle for Andy Warhol, Songs for Drella, with Moe and Sterling also in attendance. At the behest of the organisers, and against all odds, Lou agreed that all four could take to the stage; not a re-union, he insisted, just a ‘once-off’.
Seasoned music journalists, including the noted NME scribe, Nick Kent recorded how Lou insisted that ‘you’ll never see us on the same stage again … ever. The Velvet Underground is history’. John, however, was more open- minded, reflecting that ‘so many ideas were left unfinished in the Velvet Underground. If it’s possible to do it again, I think we really should take the bull by the horns. I think we have a lot left to give’.
According to others in attendance, it was easy to see how Sterling and Moe felt sidelined, and not for the first time in the band’s on-off thirty-year history. A period that reflected triumph and trauma in equal measure. Given the charisma that Lou and John presented to the assembled press corps – it was, after all, their show – this was hardly surprising. But the Velvets were a band, and, as some have argued, one of the two great bands of the 1960s.
The distinguished US music writer, Robert Palmer, writing about them for Rolling Stone magazine said that ‘When the VU synergy triumphed over individual foibles and failings, it triumphed so spectacularly that personal limitations and hang-ups seemed to melt away in its white-hot glare. It’s as though the participants had been somehow alchemized as highly idealized versions of their everyday selves, and we are all the richer for it’.
But was that alchemy still attainable decades after its initial Warhol-infused realisation? Would the band be capable once more of mysteriously harmonizing the individual with the world around it ?
By the following April, the project had taken a number of turns, due mostly to the involvement of Waldemar Januszczak, the Commissioning Editor for Arts at the UK broadcaster, Channel 4. A distinguished art critic with whom Lou would share a curry with when in London, Waldemar commissioned a documentary, Curious …the Velvet Underground in Europe. Which, along with the live performance film, meant that the band was generating considerable broadcast attention, certainly in Britain.
Despite the possibility that the project could fall apart at any time given the volatile nature of the dynamic within the band, Channel 4 later decided to expand the ambition of the endeavour and committed to a whole evening, broadcasting well into the night, to the music and mythology of the Velvet Underground. Titled Peel Slowly and See, it would become the UK’s first all-night transmission devoted to a single rock band, an apposite event given the Velvets’ – and Warhol’s – lineage.
It was a case, as Lou proclaimed when referencing the bands initial release, of being ‘the first and the best’. It also meant that I had an additional number of hours of material to find to realise an ambition that had now vaulted spectacularly. Consequently, I found myself back in New York on numerous occasions throughout the rest of the year.
Andy Warhol is credited with producing the Velvets’ first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, but given his obvious lack of experience in the field, and indeed his relationship with music in general, it was intriguing to hear what he actually contributed to that process. Lou was in no doubt. ‘He was a protector’, he asserted during his interview for ‘Curious…the Velvet Underground in Europe’.
A pivotal moment in the bands career, the Warhol/Velvets axis began in 1965 at the opening of a disco in a converted plane hangar in Queens. Filmmaker Paul Morrisey suggested that Andy find a rock group to justify his involvement with this new venture, the brainchild of Broadway producer, Michael Myerberg. And so the fateful alliance between the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol began.
Attending a photo shoot with another renowned Factory scenester, Gerald Malanga, Morrisey was immediately struck by the androgynous look of the band’s drummer, and the atonal nature of the viola playing. Furthermore, he felt the group needed ‘something beautiful to counteract the kind of screeching ugliness they were trying to sell and the combination of a really beautiful girl standing in front of all this decadence was what was needed’. On Morrisey’s urging, and despite Reed’s considerable resistance, Nico – a German-born singer, model and actress – joined the Velvet Underground.
Paul Morrisey directed the movies that became known as ‘Andy Warhol films’, he informed me matter-of-factly: that he was the presiding creative force appears not to be in doubt. ‘Andy pointed the camera sometimes and would operate it, but that was it. I tended to take things from there’, he told me on the roof of a building opposite The Chelsea Hotel, located at 223 West 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. We were discussing the making of The Chelsea Girls, a 3-hour 30-minute piece of avant-garde cinema, the re-mastering of whose original print I would later over-see: Channel 4 had decided the movie would conclude the all-night Velvet Underground event.
Casually dressed in understated tweed, Morrissey’s demeanour suggested an intriguing amalgam of Jesuit and Bohemian. Credited with introducing transvestite performers into American cinema, he clearly had a hand in the production of the Velvets’ first album but was circumspect when I brought it up, merely recalling that the band members were front and centre of the actual music making. He appeared to have no desire for any credit or acknowledgement for what is considered a seminal recording.
By early May, the production of the Paris live show was in the more than capable hands of my brother, Gerald Heffernan. So I took to the road with a film crew and proceeded to shoot what became Curious … The Velvet Underground in Europe. As this was not the occasion to approach a full-on retrospective – and as time was not on our side – the basic premise became obvious: let’s make a road movie.
The music the Velvets made, and in particular Lou’s songs, embodied a liberal, intellectually tolerant set of ideas that the intelligentsia in certain European countries found – in their sense of the possible – not just liberating but revolutionary. One such individual was Vaclav Haval, then the Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia and special guest at a dinner event for the Velvets, organised by the promoter of their show in Prague midway through the tour.
In what was in retrospect a most apposite piece of guerrilla filmmaking, we door- stepped President Havel on his way out of the Palace of Culture, where the dinner was being held. His chief advisor was, for reasons not made clear, set against any formal interview but Havel nonetheless conveyed his appreciation for the impact that the band had had on him. As a young playwright visiting New York in 1968, he brought a copy of ‘White Light/White Heat’ back home with him to a country where rock music was effectively outlawed. That album became a symbol of what could be made possible, a blank canvas on which to project alternative ideas. For Havel, The Velvet Underground represented the voice of freedom.
Lou, who was allowing himself just one, or maybe two, cigarettes a day at this point, was clearly delighted with the evening’s events, especially the engagement between Havel and the band members. Lou and the Czechoslovakian leader remained close friends until Havel’s death in 2011.
Maureen Tucker was never a conventional musician, more a shamanistic musical presence. Through her rudimentary approach to drumming she conveyed a basic rhythmic foundation that her fellow band-mates found more than approximate to their needs. Seeing the band play in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Italy and finally France over the summer of 1993, it was clear that Lou in particular loved the direct primal approach she deployed. Sterling, meanwhile, perhaps the original garage band guitarist, appeared to relish the facility he provided for Lou and John to inhabit, to shine when the occasion required.
John was a master of the Baroque. In temperament, in his appearance and through his remarkable musicianship, he demanded the band take the audience as far as possible, exploring all melodic and tonal possibilities, daring his fellow musicians ever forward. Lou, meanwhile, centre- stage and dressed in the most incongruous casual attire imaginable, certainly for this Velvet Underground ‘reformation’, was almost nonchalant much of the time.
And yet there was no doubt whose songs were being performed and whose view of the world was being represented here. Lou’s guitar playing was incredibly loud, an indomitable presence, and his vocals, given that he was now in his early fifties, were comparative to his early Factory days. But for the most part, as far as the audience were concerned, it didn’t matter. This, for their many devotees, was the Velvet Underground in Paris.
Autumn 1993 and I’m back in New York, this time in slightly more salubrious surroundings, for a seminar at The Museum of Television and Radio, where the première of Curious … The Velvet Underground in Europe is taking place. Weeks earlier I’d received a call from Lou in the middle of the night demanding reassurance that ‘Sylvia would be taken care of’. I’d sent viewing copies of the film to all four band members, not for any editorial input but as a gesture of professional courtesy.
I hadn’t heard back from Sterling, who was back working on his tugboat. Moe had sent a telex and John had called me to say he thought the film was ‘beautiful’, which was a relief given his strong desire to write new material with Lou. This turned out to be an unrequited ambition, as we revealed at the end of the documentary.
I was surprised that, while Waldemar and I were invitees to the evening’s events, there was no sign of John, Moe or Sterling. Even in the context of the highly unpredictable orbit of the Velvet Underground, I found this odd in the extreme. After the screening, and a questions-and-answers session with the audience, a dinner was hosted by The Museum of Television and Radio in a nearby restaurant.
Walking out of the venue with Lou, I experienced first- hand the impact he had on the people on the side-walks and roadways of Fifth Avenue. A chorus of ‘Hey Lou’ erupted from passers-by – taxi drivers, hot dog stand vendors, and police officers – all sharing a Lou Reed moment. He felt safe and was loving it.
John Cale called me in my hotel the following morning to enquire about the previous evening’s events, the news of which was carried on much of New York’s media. He was irate but I was in no position to explain why he’d been excluded at the event the previous evening. He was hurt and, I suspect, crestfallen that he and Lou would not be writing together any time soon. Neither he, Moe or Sterling had been invited: we both knew they had been written out of the concluding part of the year-long venture.
Projects of this kind typically involve close working relationships with artists over short, intense periods of time, the vast majority of which end once the enterprise concludes. So I didn’t expect to hear from any of the members of The Velvet Underground again. But Lou did subsequently make contact: he and his band were playing in Dublin the following year and he rang my office to ask if I’d like to attend the show. As it happened, I was in London preparing to direct episodes of Classic Albums for BBC/VH1 and so couldn’t meet up.
So my final image of Lou Reed was the spontaneous, hugely affectionate outpouring he received on that New York pavement as we left the Museum of Television and Radio, feted by his fellow New Yorkers. I never saw him again.
The one new song the Velvets performed during that final tour was a Lou Reed composition, ‘Coyote’, an allegorical ‘survival of the fittest tale’ set in a wilderness where the coyote is, quite literally, the top dog. It was Lou Reed’s coda to the Velvet Underground. Not only were the Velvets rock music’s original outliers and, according to Lou, ‘the first and best’, but Lou Reed was king outlier within. And with that concluding note, the Velvet Underground was no more.
Lou Reed’s writing was forever full of prescience, honesty and compassion, qualities at odds with his public persona and his many private demons. And yes, he could terrify, alienate and cause great hurt to people at any given moment. But the visceral literalism of ‘Heroin’, and the enduringly beautiful refrain of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ reflected a humanity, a slither of real life, that was more in keeping with the Lou Reed I was fortunate enough to work with. Certainly more than the misanthropic Lou of journalistic lore.
I suspect he delighted in such mischief. Linger on Lou …