The Velvet Underground: The BRWC Review

The Velvet Underground: The BRWC Review

Apple TV, for some reason, has heavily promoted music documentaries that, for lack of a better label, can be called Dad-Rockumentaries.  Save for the recent Billie Eilish offering, the streaming service has delivered Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, 1971, and Todd Haynes’ (Carol) much anticipated The Velvet Underground.  Those unfamiliar with The Velvet Underground’s music would assume they are just another 60s/70s Dad-Rock band along the lines of The Mamas & The Papas, Creedence Clearwater Revival, or The Rolling Stones

If your taxonomy groups them with the aforementioned bands, I would advise you to stop reading this right now and listen to a few notable VU tracks.  Start with “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs,” “European Son,” and “Sister Ray.”  It will become obvious that VU were not on the same planet as most of their more popular contemporaries.  VU were art rock, punk, noise, and drone before these subgenres became part of rock’s vocabulary.  

VU’s founding core was composed of Lou Reed, John Cale, Moe Tucker, and Sterling Morrison.  Haynes, to his credit, presents the band as the anomaly and paradox that they were.  Cale’s background was in classical music and the avant-garde—Satie, Cage, and La Monte Young.  Reed was seduced early on by the poetry of Ginsberg, the literature of Burroughs, and American popular music.  While Cale and Reed tended toward the conceptual, Morrison, and especially Tucker, gave VU a grounded scaffolding.  If a grounded avant-garde band is not paradoxical enough, throw in two more personalities that were essential to the band’s early construction—Andy Warhol and the model/singer Nico.  

Warhol was the band’s “producer” in title alone.  In truth, he was more of a background godfather figure whose artistic blessing opened doors for the band.  Warhol’s banana album cover was the Warholian seal of approval that got the band signed to a record deal.  And of course, it must be mentioned that it was Warhol’s idea to have a Swedish model sing some of the tracks on the first record.  Nico gave the band’s music and look a different variant.  Nico was an icy blond that created a striking contrast against the black-clad quartet. 

Warhol’s thinking was that Nico’s beauty would give VU more commercial exposure.  His thinking was part public relations savvy and a 60s paradigm that reduced women to surface looks.  The Warhol and Nico elements made the band even more difficult to map.  Consider that VU was associated with Warhol—a figure of highbrow culture who nonetheless was a leader of the Pop Art movement—and their first album alternated between spiky tracks by Cale/Reed and smoother Nico tracks.  VU’s topography was far from being consistently level and flat.  One wonders how a contemporary marketer or record company executive would attempt to package VU.  It becomes apparent that only Warhol could have packaged such an anomaly of a band.    

Other reviewers have made much about Haynes’ split screen presentation in The Velvet Underground.  Split screens aside, Haynes’ documentary is not as daring as the band.  It is a fairly conventional documentary in its structure.  That does not at all mean it is banal.  The subject matter and the insights are captivating.  Sequences involving Lou Reed’s suburban upbringing, his early Doo-wop leanings and recordings, and how he would put himself in dangerous scenarios—usually while trying to score drugs—in order to gain material for his writing, are captivating sequences indeed.  John Cale’s incorporation of Natural Harmonics in his music and his use of drone sounds intended to match the brain’s state while dreaming are equally captivating. 

The sequences consisting of interviews of Moe Tucker once more ground things, in a great way.  Her blunt opinions on the hippie scene that dominated popular culture and music give context to just how out of context VU were with the rest of American culture.  While hippies did marijuana and LSD, VU’s music was the sound of heroin and amphetamines.  Haynes also does a formidable job capturing the zeitgeist of New York City in the postwar decades.  New York was a sort of Weimar Republic Berlin in terms of artistic and sexual/gender experimentation.  VU channeled the city’s sense of limitless possibilities.  

Reed and Cale were anti-establishment down to their cores.  It should have been expected that these two antis would eventually become anti each other.  Tensions mounted between the two and Cale quit.  Reed took on more of a leading role in the band.  After their second album—the criminally underrated White Light/White Heat—VU hired Doug Yule to replace Cale.  In what was perhaps the greatest surprise from a band brimming over in paradoxes, their sound became softer, more conventional, and less experimental.  Haynes’ documentary highlights the marvel that was VU—a pottage of personalities that somehow worked and made meaningful art. 

While VU’s mesmeric drones tried to mimic a brain in a dream state, their music was far from “dreamy.”  “Dreamy” is the adjective used to describe teenage love songs, pop songs, and insignificant record industry commodities that get chewed up and are quickly spit out by consumers.  VU was a tear in an American culture that was, and still is, suspended in a slumber of commodified “dreaminess.”     

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A Cuban-American obsessed with documentaries and anything by Kubrick, Haneke, Breillat, or McQueen. If he is not watching films in his hometown of Miami, he is likely travelling somewhere in Asia enjoying okonomiyaki or pho.