The Velvet Underground: New York Art

Book Review

By Joanne Huffa

The Velvet Underground: New York Art
John Kugelberg, editor
Rizzoli (New York, 2009)
$62 (CDN)/$50 (US)

Early in this new book about the legendary rock band The Velvet Underground ( or, ‘the V.U.’), there’s an essay by Sterling Morrison, the V.U.’s guitarist, in which he discusses the group’s fledgling performances, the scene that begat them, and the importance of filmmaker Piero Heliczer, and writer and early member Angus MacLise. Written in 1979 (Morrison died in 1995), it’s one of the book’s textual highlights. In it, he lays bare the truth behind the band’s name. Although it was culled from an infamous book about S&M, the band members agreed upon it because it connected the band to the underground art and film circles in which they moved, and acted as a reminder that, while one may listen to The V.U.’s music, there’s more to their story than what’s on record.

Venerable printing house, Rizzoli, has taken up the task of presenting the V.U.’s story. Along with some rare and stunning images of the band, the book also documents New York in the 1960s. While the V.U.’s first gigs were providing a live soundtrack for Heliczer’s films at screening parties, it is their relationship with Pop artist Andy Warhol that is central to the band’s legend. The Warhol connection makes up much of what the book contains. Photos of album cover art (Warhol designed the ‘peel off banana sticker’ for the cover of the band‘s first album in 1967), newspaper articles, lyrics and music, performance flyers, tickets and images of the Warhol crowd (e.g., socialite-model-actress Edie Sedgwick; poet and Warhol’s studio assistant Gerard Malanga) and the band in concert abound.

The passage of time has made the V.U. an icon in the music world, and Warhol’s multifaceted art career (see this issue’s article on Warhol’s film “Trash“) influences today's young artists and designers in myriad ways; however, this wasn’t always the case. The book contains reproductions of newspaper clippings that pan Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable events, indicating that the V.U., who provided the music at them, were not the critical darlings of their day.  Most of the columnists who wrote about these parties, which included ‘whip-play’ performances courtesy of underground film actress Mary Woronov and Malanga, regarded them as curiosities, at best. (One exception comes from the Columbia Daily Spectator’s Mitch Susskind and Leslie Gottesman, who summed up their Exploding Plastic Inevitable experience as “the best entertainment in New York.”) Today, it is easy, but erroneous, to think that bands like the V.U., and the scene at Warhol’s studio, the Factory, truly ‘defined’ the 1960s. Rather, these people were far less mainstream than some histories of that decade suggest.

The Velvet Underground: New York Art takes the form of a deluxe coffee table book, with an emphasis on glossy illustrations, and its size and volume (320 pages). However, it also contains a lot to read. The texts are a real treat for fans, especially the 2009 conversation between Lou Reed and drummer Maureen Tucker. Full of Reed’s sardonic humour and the pair’s recollections, it culminates in a discussion of Tucker’s drumming, including this generous and well-deserved compliment from Reed:

“You know, Maureen almost single-handedly created the whole stand up drumming, girl doing the drumming. And, to this day, there’s no drummer in the world that can drum what Maureen Tucker can drum. They can’t. They can’t do that. That’s a certain talent that Maureen has and that’s consistently overlooked I think by everyone. They don’t understand what that drumming brought to everything. But, other musicians know. I think they should build a statue of Maureen or something. She created a genre of drumming that she’s not credited for but you see it all over the place, especially with young bands.”

While fans of The Velvet Underground, Warhol and cultural historians will benefit from owning this book, its one weakness is the lack of contribution from the band’s electric viola player John Cale. Although Cale left the band prior to its third album, he was involved in the band’s brief 1993 reunion. His insights would have strengthened the story of perhaps the world’s most successful (at least, posthumously) art band.

Joanne HuffaJoanne Huffa is a writer, researcher and editor who spends most of her time thinking about music and other people's words. She wishes Toronto wouldn't take its history, architecture and authentic diners for granted. If she ever becomes a drummer in a band, she will honour Maureen Tucker's work.