New York Groove Book Excerpt
In this excerpt from New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock, the Velvet Underground begins its short but influential career that would influence rock, punk and new wave bands for decades.
The Velvet Underground Forms, 56 Ludlow Street
The Velvet Underground came together in 1965 in the apartment that singer-songwriter John Cale shared with musician and video artist Tony Conrad. The fifth-floor walk-up on Ludlow Street was on the then-gritty Lower East Side. Singer and guitarist Lou Reed commuted to the apartment from his parents’ home on Long Island on weekends to work with Cale and guitarist Sterling Morrison.
“When I moved into 56 Ludlow Street in early 1964, the Lower East Side was a pretty bleak place,” Cale told the Wall Street Journal. “It was grimy times, and there wasn’t much activity around here at night. The entire neighborhood was dark — except for the solitary bulb burning in the tea merchant’s window on the ground floor. No matter how late I came home, the guy was always sitting in that window in the pale yellow light. It was eerie, but it fit the whole scene down here.
“In the fifth-floor apartment in ’65, Lou, Sterling, and I combined the music of Erik Satie, John Cage, Phil Spector, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan. The result was a new form of rock — more about art than commerce. We rehearsed, we experimented, and the six songs we taped in the apartment in July ’65 on our Wollensak recorder wound up being the basis for our first album in ’67: The Velvet Underground & Nico.
“Our apartment was a railroad flat — a long room running from the windows in the front to a small bedroom and a bathroom in the back. I slept on a mattress, under the windowsill in the front overlooking Ludlow. We burned crates and furniture in the fireplace to keep warm. There was no heat in the winter other than the gas stove.
“I know a lot of books say that Lou moved into the apartment Tony and I shared, but he never did. After graduating from college, Lou continued to live at home in Freeport, on Long Island. When Lou and I began working hard on ideas for the band, he’d commute in on the weekends to the apartment.”
The Velvet Underground Appears at The Dom, April 1, 1966
The Velvet Underground was discovered by pop artist Andy Warhol in 1966 during a gig at the Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village. The music of the Velvets — singer/guitarist Lou Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Moe Tucker — voiced New York’s pessimism and cynicism, an alternative to San Francisco’s optimistic psychedelic rock. The Velvet Underground sang about heroin addiction while West Coast bands extolled marijuana and LSD use.
Warhol, who would briefly manage the band, incorporated performances by the band into his Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia show with Warhol’s films, dancers, poetry readings, and flashing lights. Warhol connected the band with German singer and model Nico, who had starred in Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls.
On April 1, 1966, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable began a month-long stint at the Dom. That week Newsweek highlighted the show in its Pop issue, declaring, “What’s happening now is happenings — where music, dancing, movies, everything happens at once and assaults all the senses.”
The band signed with Verve/MGM and released The Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967, which featured Warhol’s peel-off banana sticker on its cover. Cale left the Velvet Underground in 1968, Reed in 1970, and the band’s final show was in 1973.
Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022.
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