Going Above Ground

Todd Haynes's Velvet Underground documentary


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


“We were just anarchists. But we were anarchists with heart.” So says John Cale in the liner notes to the Velvet Underground’s Peel Slowly and See box set, written by Rolling Stone editor David Fricke, which I have read approximately 7,000 times. Thank god for Columbia House (remember them?) and their buy-one-get-one-half-price box set deal, back in probably 1994 or so. I first encountered one of my life’s favorite bands for the price of roughly 20 bucks, which was encouragingly affordable back in the days when you actually had to buy physical copies of your music.

That five-disc set, with a peelable banana on the cover, opened up an alluringly seedy vista of the imagination, far from the confines of my leafy, pleasant, tedious suburbia. Containing all four of the band’s records with tons of demos and outtakes and rare tracks, it’s probably still the best comprehensive account of their sound. Vividly grimy like old celluloid, world-wearily romantic as the best pulp fiction, and as insistently avant-garde as anything else in the 20th century, very much including their sometime patron Andy Warhol, the Velvets are the kind of band you want to make movies about.

So it was with great anticipation and excitement that I went to a movie theater to see Todd Haynes’ new documentary about the Velvets. Cinephile or not, there are some films — especially about music, which will inevitably approximate seeing it live — you really should see on the big screen, alone in the dark, with the best surround system possible. I wish, for instance, that Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s excellent doc on the Stooges, had been more available on a big screen. Especially for now defunct bands you wish that you’d been able to see live, something of the immediacy is lost from the safe distance of a laptop screen or an iPad, which is where I rewatched the film on Apple TV.

Todd Haynes is a natural fit for director. Deeply involved in AIDS activism with ACT UP and a pioneer of New Queer Cinema back when queer stories weren’t marketable in Hollywood, Haynes made a film about Karen Carpenter’s tortured life using Barbie dolls, diagnosed modern malaise through Julianne Moore’s two different housewife characters: ambiently anxious in Safe and emotionally repressed in Far From Heaven. Velvet Goldmine fictionalized the story of Iggy Pop and David Bowie (much to the latter’s chagrin), two contemporaneous musicians deeply influenced by the Velvets’ seductive din. Haynes understands the Velvets’ world aesthetically and politically, and he almost succeeds in giving them the documentary film they deserve.

Seeing them live was, especially in their early days, a truly multisensory experience. Haynes provides an appropriately immersive deep dive into the nocturnal milieu of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol’s trippy films are projected massively over the black-clad band, churning away with their distortion and feedback, pale statuesque Nico banging at her tambourine, as all manner of freaky denizens of Warhol’s Factory get down. Haynes’ richly textured use of montage, split screen, and multimedia fits the cinematic vibe of the shows perfectly. The “derangement of the senses” approach fits because that was what the Velvets were all about.

As rare bootleg footage plays in one corner of the screen, other frames appear and loom into view, disclosing new visual information. As the band plays on, we simultaneously catch clips from a gay porn film, or from La Monte Young’s experiments with drone, or one of Warhol’s screen tests, poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg or Reed’s college mentor Delmore Schwartz, or poignant shots of the bridges and backstreets of the ruined but glamorous midcentury New York City, which naturally spawned a million bands, books, and films all by itself. It’s probably too expensive now, but Haynes’ film reminds us how midcentury NYC was a haven for the artistically inclined weirdos who wanted to live cheap and dangerously, creating their own aesthetic and building a community around it, which is exactly how cities like that become so legendary (and expensive) in the first place.

As Fricke wrote, listening to the Velvets is something of an outsider’s joy. It starts as a secret discovery that you then share with fellow like-minded oddballs and sooner or later it ends up becoming canonical. A still awestruck Jonathan Richman explains, in his adorably earnest way, how incredible their shows were whenever they played at the Boston Tea Party, their favorite venue. Richman demonstrates the dense, droning, hypnotic tones that the VU were able to summon at will, and how they could hypnotize the crowd.

In some ways, Richman is the ideal Velvets fan. The guy who wrote songs about the joys of sobriety and monogamy never remotely lived the decadent lifestyle of the songs. You don’t have to live it in order to get it. Richman is still captivated by the massive, cavernous sound they made, primitive yet erudite, danceable yet meditative. Reed’s heart was just as much into snarling proto-punk as the stolen kiss of doo-wop, which offers listeners their own way into the music. By blending different elements of high and low culture, the Velvets inspired people from around the globe — once you’re in, you can follow their influences and tributaries forever, into what would eventually become punk rock and grunge and indie and hip hop and raves and so forth. It’s beautiful when Richman describes his first thought upon hearing the first record as “these people would understand me.”

And if they can do it, why can’t you?

I find that what truly gets me hooked on a band for life is what covers the widest possible emotional spectrum, providing a soundtrack for just about every mood. You have to love a band that sings just as sincerely about scoring dope (“Run Run Run”), or thirsting for spiritual redemption (“Jesus”), or an orgy (“Sister Ray”), as it sets a darkly funny short story to music (“The Gift”) and then reels from a plaintive love affair (“Pale Blue Eyes”) and raucously sings the simple joys of listening to big city radio (“Rock and Roll”) within a few short years.

At its best, Velvet’s music alchemizes simplicity into complexity. “Heroin” is only really a couple of chords repeated at various speeds and intensities, and Lou Reed can’t technically sing but gets his point across with croons and snickers and growls as the song creates a hallucinogenic atmosphere unlike any other. Cale, who played the bass, organ, and the viola (of all random instruments), had spent enough time in the classical avant-garde (we see an amusing TV show clip where he explains that he played an 18-hour-long piece by Erik Satie) that he could easily pound out the ominous rhythm of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” which Lester Bangs once vividly described as “like watching the sun rise over a teeming industrial city.”

Giving space to all the Velvet’s music, not just the Warhol era, is where Haynes’ film falls short. Cale dominates the interview portions, which is understandable since he’s a living legend, has an interesting Wales-to-NYC origin story, and is a vital part of the band’s early history. But the other members of the band aren’t given as much attention as they deserve. I like how he introduces them individually with a first name juxtaposed with one of Warhol’s just-stare-at-the-camera screen tests, but there is more to the story than we get onscreen.

For example, Sterling Morrison was a gifted rhythm guitarist whose unassuming nature meant he might have played second fiddle in terms of personality, but he always kept pace even during some intense solos. The film pays him his due, but we don’t have much of a chance to hear what it was like for a rocker from Long Island do his thing in the middle of the Warhol crowd. The contributions of Doug Yule, who features prominently on the third and fourth records, definitely deserve more attention. Especially considering how he played lots of superb guitar and his lovely vocals on “Candy Says,” “Oh Sweet Nuthin’,” and “New Age” (among others) and the fact that he is apparently still with us. Did he just not feel like talking?

And it’s worth asking: why didn’t the chiller, poppier, more introspective latter half of the band’s oeuvre get a deeper look? Almost three quarters of the movie are over before we even start to get into The Velvet Underground and Loaded, both of which are filled with plenty of complex, engaging, and profound songs. This was when the band was truly on their own, too, with Warhol and Cale gone and a radical change in the band’s sound that somehow feels true to their spirit.

At the beginning and the end of the Velvet’s story, it’s Lou Reed who is in the eye of the Velvet’s hurricane, hunched over in his black shades, strumming a massive guitar, a snicker flickering across his lips. We learn from his sister, high school friends, and former college bandmates about his teenage alienation in dreadfully suburban Long Island. They discuss his trauma, his defensiveness, his sexuality, his literary ambitions, his ego, his obnoxiousness, and his sensitivity. Reed mentions how excited he was to have an early novelty song he wrote played on the radio. He cracks that the two dollars he got in royalties was far more than he had ever made with the VU. It’s already hard to be in a touring band of any kind. It’s got to be extra painful when you know you’re making great music and yet all signs indicate that you’re heading down a one-way street.

Reed had a thousand-yard stare in his 20s. One interviewer remarks that Reed was a tortured soul, and that certainly seems true. Not every misanthrope is protecting a delicate core, thus providing a reason for the surliness, but you can easily hear it in the music without having to strain. For every insult and middle finger to the audience, Reed had a tender love song and a striving, inquisitive spirit behind that famously impassive hipper-than-thou façade, a self-protection trick borrowed from Warhol.

Back in his college days the brilliant, drunken, troubled Schwartz used to make Reed swear to him that he would always write well and truly. If he didn’t, he would come back from the grave and haunt him. Reed kept his word. By the end of the film we see him with Warhol, probably in the mid-70’s, all in black with his fingernails painted gold, chatting about what John and Maureen are up to these days. He probably doesn’t realize how many of your favorite musicians are at that very moment playing those records that nobody noticed back when they were made, nodding along, listening intently. •


Matt Hanson lives in New Orleans and is contributing editor at The Arts Fuse and American Purpose. His work has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Baffler, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, LARB, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He Tweets at: @MattHansonAF. He can usually be found in the nearest available used book store.