Darkness: The Velvet Underground, 40 years ago

Blanca Riestra. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

29 April 2010

Forty years ago a student from Syracuse and a Welshman broke all the rules by producing music that came from darkness and despair, and which inspired musicians for the next four decades.

In 1964, at the height of psychedelia, while hordes of hippies were living their dream to the rhythm of lysergic acid in the multicolour universe of San Francisco, a student dressed in black from Syracuse and a Welshman met in a university dorm and started to play music that had little to do with what was in fashion at the time.

The New York of the 1960s was a heartless place. No free love, no flowers in the hair, good intentions or generational anthems. They christened the band The Velvet Underground and were immediately joined by Moe Tucker, a percussionist who dressed like a boy, and a smooth-talking, gawky bassist called Sterling Morrison. The band´s name came from a cheap novel on sadomasochism someone (Moe´s brother) found thrown away on the street.
Lewis Reed, whose parents had sent him for electroshock treatment to bring him back to the road of all things good and holy, soon showed a strange talent for creating darkness. In the wake of the beatniks, he wrote about the other side of the American dream. Despite the colourful advertising, the United States still had racial problems, a great deal of hypocrisy and domestic struggles generously tarnished by the horrors of the Vietnam War that was destroying an entire generation of young people.

In The Velvet Underground´s songs, you can hear the industrial beats of desperation, of life on the edge, of the dark side, of the "no future" that was later saved, dusted down and used by the punks; the transvestites rubbed shoulders with the pushers and the junkies sang love songs to their strange passenger. Personal relationships were almost always violent in an urban setting dominated by solitude. At the time, according to Viktor Bokris in Malaga on 24 February last, any apprentice writer who thought anything of himself drank from Rimbaud and Lautréamont. The darkness also came from there, I suppose, from reading poems by Delmore Swartz (one of Reed´s lecturers, who committed suicide in the Chelsea Hotel in 1966) and the French symbolists, who were also the last Romantics, not only from the rats in the relatively safer environment of Washington Square.

And under one of those alignments of the stars that happen every now and then, leaving us drowning in perplexity, Reed´s lyrics joined forces with the best backing sound in the world: the music of the electric viola and the organ and bass of John Cale, a contemporary music student and pupil of John Cage. Cale put together a silky wrapping of vibrations, dissonance and disturbing sounds (noise, distortion, atonality) to accompany, protect and add depth to the small Velvet universes.

From then on, legend was just one small step away. One night, Destiny took Andy Warhol to one of the joints they played in and he decided to turn them into the centre of an unheard-of multimedia experience developed by the Factory; he called it "Exploding plastic experience". Live on stage, The Velvet Underground became a canvas on which his films were screened non-stop in an almost trance-like atmosphere. The songs lasted forever and the deafening volume rocked the decadent, cool high society through long evenings and nights we can only imagine as memorable.

The Velvet Underground´s first record was the Banana Album in 1967. It was the work of the inspiring genius of Warhol and the coming-together of three explosive egos: Reed, Cale and Nico. Everyone remembers Nico´s lethargic voice and her sad, sleepy eyes singing "I´ll be your mirror".

The experience was short-lived: 3 records. By 1970 (more or less when I was born), the dream had already reached its end. Its death throes included a reformed band and LPs of little worth and the band’s members were soon to continue along their own creative roads. However, The Velvet Underground is still one of the most influential rock groups in the history of music: forerunners to punk, progressive rock, new age, the Goths, dark wave and indie music. Without their influence, there would have been no transvestite Bowie, no Iggy Pop, no Ramones, no Sonic Youth, no The Cure, no Nirvana, no Radiohead and no many others...

As Brian Eno once said, not many people heard The Velvet Underground during its fleeting existence, but all those who did started a band.


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