In Manhattan, in the mid-1960s, something exciting was happening.
The excellent new documentary “The Velvet Underground” assumes that you already know the band’s amazing music. Director Todd Haynes introduces us to the artists and the environment that helped them flourish.
Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed comes off as an insufferable jerk.
Troubled by his homosexual tendencies and his unquenchable ambition, he treated everyone around him poorly. His college friends remember young Lou as angry, uptight, and completely unforgiving of other people’s imperfections.
After moving to New York City, Lou Reed finally met a musician great enough to earn his respect: John Cale.
Though not nearly as famous as Reed, John Cale was the artistic soul of the Velvet Underground and the godfather of alternative rock.
Cale was raised in a nationalistic Welsh household. He only learned English in grammar school. But he was a musical prodigy, mastering classical piano and viola at an early age.
Cale got a scholarship to study in the US. There he fell into a seriously artsy crowd. He became obsessed with repetitiveness (repeating the same short piece of music over and over) and droning (holding the same note for hours for a trance-like effect).
Their 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico is a masterpiece. The recipe for magnificence was Lou Reed’s straight-forward songwriting mixed with John Cale’s abrasive avant-garde music.
Lou Reed’s innovation was that he wrote clear, straight-forward lyrics about subjects that no one had dared to sing about.
“Waiting for the Man” is simply about a guy scoring drugs in Harlem. “Heroin” is simply about an unhappy man shooting up. The masterpiece “Sister Ray” is 17 minutes long, but it’s a simple tale about a wild tryst featuring a group of queens with names like Sister Ray and Miss Rayon.
Some young people think that their generation invented the concept of tolerance for transgender people. But Lou Reed was writing unjudgingly about trans women more than a half century ago.
There will never be a more beautiful song about the trans experience than “Candy Says.” The song is far from Woke, however. It is not a celebration; it is an empathetic exploration of a troubled trans woman (the real Candy Darling). She is no longer male. But she is far from female and feels hopelessly alienated from the world of women.
How the heck did The Velvet Underground get away with recording songs like this? They were fortunate enough to be managed by Andy Warhol.
Andy Warhol is listed as the Producer of The Velvet Underground & Nico. He wasn’t, but he was there in the studio to ensure that the label bigwigs did not censor Reed’s controversial lyrics or tone down Cale’s viola droning.
John Cale also credits Andy Warhol for inspiring them to work harder than other bands. People know Warhol’s work, but they don’t know about his work ethic. Warhol subsisted on Coca Cola and amphetamines, which fueled his perpetual creation and commerce.
The Velvet Underground is one of the all-time greatest bands. If you haven’t discovered them, do yourself a favor and search for them right now on YouTube or Spotify. If you already know their music, you’ll certainly enjoy “The Velvet Underground” documentary.