What I Learned about Lou Reed from One Night in a Velvet Underground Tribute Band

Half of the bands we listen to wouldn’t exist without them. So who the hell did we think we were?

October 27 marks the two-year anniversary of Lou Reed’s death (peace be upon him) and the Internet rightly overfloweth with tributes to his genius. Because everybody worships the Velvet Underground, right? Critics and pop music fans alike genuflect before them as one of history’s seminal rock bands. Even your mom knows and loves “Sweet Jane” (even if she was introduced to it via the Cowboy Junkies cover). Somehow, this dark, avant-garde crew, who disdained mainstream culture, whose front man sang about drug addiction, prostitution, nihilism, and S&M, is now adored by the masses, and their catalogue seems to have something for everyone (even your mom).

Think about it: the Velvets serve up enough experimental, noisy, deconstructed dissonance to appease the most disdainful music snobs. But like their mentor Andy Warhol, they were also pop geniuses who wrote dreamy acoustic ballads so accessible they could fit seamlessly on a Starbucks compilation. They played some of the greatest straight-up rock & roll heaters ever (“What Goes On,” “Rock ‘n Roll”), but so many other genres are audible in their songs as well, all filtered through that singular Lou Reed lens: honky-tonk country (“Lonesome Cowboy Bill”) surf (“I Can’t Stand It”) blues shuffle (“Run Run Run”) 50s doo-wop (“I Found A Reason”) experimental psychedelic cacophony (“The Murder Mystery”) even showtunes (“I’m Sticking With You”). They out-Beatle the Beatles on “Who Loves The Sun.” They practically invented new wave with “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” No one had ever sounded like them. Half of the bands we listen to wouldn’t exist without them.

But very few people got it at the time. None of their albums sold particularly well, and in 1970, the Velvets looked like they’d end up a minor footnote in the annals of Factory history. In the liner notes to the box set Peel Slowly And See, journalist David Fricke described the band as “tired, broke, and barely mourned” when they finally broke up. Lou Reed was forced to move back in with his parents on Long Island and work as a typist.

Yet this seemingly failed group seismically altered the musical landscape. Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot alleges that the Velvet Underground were a bigger influence on modern music than the Beatles: “The roots of underground and experimental music, indie and alternative, punk, post-punk and art-punk all snake back to the four Velvet Underground studio albums,” he argued after Lou Reed’s death in 2013. (Beatles fans went predictably berserk.) Guitarist Sterling Morrison described the Velvets in 1993 as “the original alternative band,” and Rolling Stone dubbed them “the most influential American rock band of all time.”

All of these superlatives make the Velvet Underground an intensely intimidating group to cover, as my bandmates and I discovered after spending several harrowing months assembling a Velvet Underground tribute. While our rehearsals were often a blast and gave us full license to nerd out on all kinds of Velvet/Lou Reed trivia, they were also filled with frustration, self-doubt, and occasional moments of abject terror. Just who the hell did we think we were to attempt this feat? How dare we try to perform as the ur-rock band of all time and space? These were our gods. This was a band we had idolized since before we could even drive.

But the date we were offered for the tribute was August 6 — Andy Warhol’s birthday. Clearly, we had no choice but to rock or die trying. Plus, playing one Velvet Underground cover had been a staple of our shows for awhile. We figured we already had three or four Velvet songs under our collective belt, so how hard could this be?

Answer: so goddamn hard.

Bora Bora as the Velvet Underground.

I thought I knew these tracks backwards and forwards, but re-creating them live was far more complicated than any of us had any idea it would be. It turns out that even though many of the songs have simple structures, they actually contain tons of subtle irregularities, stops, and changes that you might not even notice in the recordings. I’m sure it’s part of why they’re so timeless and amazing, and why our ears never tire of them, but it makes them a giant pain in the ass to memorize. Nico’s deep vocal register and singular delivery made her parts insanely challenging for me to sing. Reed’s ambling, storytelling lyrics felt impossible to memorize. At a certain point, we decided Lou Reed was a warlock who had embedded the songs with spells to trip up other musicians who would dare play his tunes (“More warlock shit!” was an epithet often yelled during rehearsals when we struggled to get something right.)

Other challenges: you can’t play along with the John Cale-era recordings, because the band tuned their instruments down (a half-step? A whole step? Who knows??) in order to get the best tone possible from Cale’s viola. Some of their most gorgeous moments, like the celeste on “Sunday Morning,” and the choir of harmonies on “I Found A Reason” are incredibly difficult to re-create live (John Cale actually intertwined a chain of paper clips with the piano strings to get that incredible sound on “All Tomorrow’s Parties”).

So, assembling that show was kind of a bitch that ate my entire summer. But it was also one of the most meaningful and fun experiences of my whole musical life. Even though I slept, ate, and breathed the Velvet Underground for several months, I never tired of them — if anything, my appreciation of the deeper layers of what they accomplished just grew. All of us gained a whole new level of respect for their genius.

“We were just anarchists,” John Cale said of the Velvets. “But we were anarchists with heart. We really felt that we were doing this with a certain altruistic, non-malevolent spirit.” And despite all their fatalism, the fear and loathing that runs through their music, you can feel that heart in their recordings, that sense that Reed and the band were trying to connect, to share something important, for them and for us. Lou Reed wasn’t trying to be popular. He wasn’t trying to be liked. He was trying to tell the truth.

So on October 27, let’s all pour one out for the man who formed the band, the person to whom I owe basically my entire music collection, who gave the next generation of musicians license to expose the darkest parts of their psyches, a dude who never sold out, and remained an unrepentant bastard to the end. Here’s to you, Lou.

Still reading? You are a hardcore fan! Here’s some Velvet Underground/Lou Reed fun facts with which you can amaze your friends!

  1. Lou Reed was a platoon leader in ROTC at Syracuse University. He was eventually expelled from the program for holding an unloaded gun to his superior’s head.
  2. Reed’s first post-college job was writing and recording generic pop songs for budget albums (called “Supermarket Specials”) at Pickwick Records in Long Island City. He described himself as “a poor man’s Carole King,” and had a minor hit in 1964 with a dance-song parody called “The Ostrich.”
  3. The band’s name came from a pornographic book by the same name. The Velvet Underground was a sensationalistic account of the supposed sleazy sexual underbelly of American suburbia. Tony Conrad (former bandmate of Reed and John Cale when they were playing in the Primitives) found the book in the street.
  4. The VU were fired from their first gig at a Greenwich Village dive called Café Bizarre for playing “Black Angel’s Death Song” one time too many. In fact, the owner told them if they ever played it again they would be fired — so they opened with it. Because nobody’s the boss of the VU.
  5. Unbelievably, Andy Warhol was in the audience at Café Bizarre the night they got fired. He loved what he saw and became their manager soon afterwards. What’s the moral of the story here, kids? That’s right: fuck your boss, he doesn’t understand your vision at all.
  6. Warhol produced the band’s first record The Velvet Underground & Nico, although his production was mostly about simply stepping back and staying out of the band’s way. Warhol understood the Velvets’ aesthetic decades before the rest of the world did. Lou Reed described the recording of one of the greatest albums in music history: “Andy was the producer and Andy was in fact sitting behind the board gazing with rapt fascination… at all the blinking lights. As a consequence of him being the producer, we’d just walk in and set up and did what we always did and no one would stop it because Andy was the producer. Of course he didn’t know anything about record production… He just sat there and said, ‘Oooh that’s fantastic,’ and the engineer would say, ‘Oh yeah! Right! It is fantastic, isn’t it?’” But Warhol didn’t stay out of the way completely…
  7. Warhol was the one who insisted that German chanteuse Nico be given a role in the band, and encouraged Reed to write songs for her. The group was understandably irritated by this decree (most bands don’t like having blonde supermodels plunked down into their midst) and Nico didn’t last long with them. But listening back to “Femme Fatale,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” can we all agree that Andy knew what he was talking about? Because her vocals on those songs makes the world a better place.
  8. Warhol financed the VU’s first record with $1500 ($700 of which was his own money).
  9. Drummer Moe Tucker moved to Georgia after the Velvets broke up and worked at Walmart. She joined the right-wing Tea Party Movement in 2009 and stated on their website that “I have come to believe (not just wonder) that Obama’s plan is to destroy America from within.”
  10. Czech playwright (and future president) Vaclav Havel listened devotedly to smuggled contraband VU albums in oppressive Communist-era Czechoslovakia, and took inspiration from the music to fuel his resistance to the regime. Upon meeting Lou Reed in 1993, Havel presented him with an old handmade book of Velvet Underground lyrics. “If the police caught you with that, you went to jail,” he explained to Reed. (Even possessing music with lyrics in English had been against the law.) Reed, a man seldom impressed by other humans, was awestruck by Mr. Havel, whom he called a “heroic, intellectual, music-loving amazing person.” The two of them bonded over music, smoking, and late-night drinking, and when the Czech president was invited to the White House in 1998, Havel insisted that his friend Lou be included in the evening as well.

Jennifer Boeder is Writer-At-Large for Cuepoint, as well as an editor, musician, and DJ. She lives in Chicago.

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