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The Velvet Underground & Nico Is 50 Years Old But Still Sounds New

I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band. –Brian Eno, 1982

In 2013, Macaulay Culkin gave the world something it didn’t need: a parodical Velvet Underground tribute band called the Pizza Underground. A lot of people hated it, and rightfully so. By re-working “Beginning To See The Light” into “I’m Beginning To Eat The Slice,” or “Candy Says” into “Papa John Says,” and replacing an iconic album cover with the image of a yellow anchovy (Anchovy Warhol, get it?), the Home Alone star was making a mockery of a canonical band. The Velvet Underground have changed more lives than all of Culkin’s roles combined, and many would argue that their status makes them untouchable. The Pizza Underground was a silly way for a former child star to slip back into the public consciousness, and thanks to blogs like this one, they entered one of those goofy and irrelevant hype cycles that makes sincere people irrationally angry. The Pizza Underground were doused in beer and booed offstage in Nottingham sometime in 2014, and little has been heard from them since.

Here’s the thing: There are a lot of Pizza Undergrounds, in one form or another. Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Beat Happening, the Strokes, the Magnetic Fields, Kevin Morby, the Dandy Warhols … practically every indie rock band that’s come up in the years after The Velvet Underground & Nico was released in March 1967 — 50 years ago this Sunday — will refer back to that album as an influence, though they might not outright imitate it like Culkin. And even any band that doesn’t consider the Velvet Underground to be an influence only further exemplifies the VU’s ubiquity; there’s at best maybe two degrees of artistic separation between your all-time favorite indie band and this one. The Velvet Underground’s impact on popular music and culture is so massive that it’s hard to quantify. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” became the name of a now-retired festival series. “Sunday Morning” has been included on dozens of soundtracks. Every time you hear some dude’s rambling, deadpan talk-singing, he is communing with Lou Reed’s ghost. It goes on.

I thought the Pizza Underground were funny and inoffensive because Culkin’s project married two things that are great: pizza and the Velvet Underground. And combining those two things is really just another way of saying: “I *Heart* New York.”

The Velvet Underground indirectly influenced my decision to move to New York City. There are probably a lot of people who would say the same, regardless of whether they were born and raised in San Francisco in the ’90s (like me), or grew up a couple miles away from Downtown Manhattan in the early ’70s, eager to start what would become a “punk” band. The Velvet Underground made punk and just about every underground movement after it possible. In order to hear that, isolate the moment toward the end of “Heroin” when Reed chuckles to himself on tape and yelps, “Heroin: It’s my wife and it’s my life!” That chuckle was punk before “punk” even existed.

That’s not to say the Velvet Underground were without their own influences. The band’s look and Reed’s stream-of-consciousness delivery were inherited from the Beat Generation of the ’50s, who borrowed their aesthetic from jazz. The Velvet Underground directly collaborated with Andy Warhol, who was credited as the sole producer on the debut album (though there’s no evidence that he played any role in actually producing the work in a conventional sense) and he had Reed write songs about some of his Superstars, like Edie Sedgwick. John Cale, who was born in Wales, went to Goldsmiths and was a student of the avant-garde. (Reed himself attended Syracuse and studied English.) Nico was a model and actress already known in rock ‘n’ roll circles.

Because of all these things, the Velvet Underground synthesized high and low culture to create something that bands still aspire to, even 50 years later. These are studied musicians who wrote songs with simple choruses and made amateurish music on purpose, who aimed to be both intellectual and unpretentious at the same time. In the beginning, they were more of an art project than a band, an experiment that would serve to remind other artists that there is no one way to be a band, that there is limitless potential for sound.

What the Velvet Underground did own and disseminate internationally was downtown cool. Their music was experimental but still clearly indebted to pop music. They wrote songs about drugs, sexual deviance, prostitution, and the unconventional, unwholesome people with whom they surrounded themselves. The Velvet Underground weren’t hung up on the flagrant displays of machismo that defined many rock ‘n’ roll acts of the time, probably because they weren’t a bunch of macho men. Reed was given electroshock treatment as a teen because he identified as bisexual, which was seen as a byproduct of mental illness. Nico, with her deep German accent, sang the lead part on many of the best-known songs on this debut, including “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” When it came time to record The Velvet Underground & Nico, the band had enlisted a female drummer, Maureen Tucker. That’s still not something you see often enough.

My moment with The Velvet Underground & Nico happened in high school, and had less to do with their music than it did with their image. I was at an art museum checking out a Warhol retrospective; there was a room filled with television screens, each of which featured a close-up of one of the Velvet Underground members’ faces. Lou Reed in his wraparound sunglasses, John Cale with his pageboy haircut, Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison in black, and Nico with her ashy blond bangs in her eyes. All five stared straight into the camera and they looked cool. The surrounding room was draped in reflective silver, an homage to Warhol’s midtown Factory and the talent it housed. I watched those TVs for a long time in that life-sized diorama, waiting to see if the characters would move or do anything other than stare back out at me. They didn’t.

This was the ultimate clique: a group of people you wanted to stare at for a long time because they seemed like they did interesting things with their free time and they looked really good. I read a placard on the wall that essentially told me the Factory was made up of a collective of artists and musicians and intellectuals and weirdos coming together to make culture happen on their own terms. An environment like that is something that most teens pine for, regardless of where, or when, they grew up. It’s a weird feeling you get when you finally find your people and they’re decades away from you, stuck in a city across the country. It’s nostalgia for a past you never witnessed, one that popular music mimics all the time.

Growing up in San Francisco will make you think that good culture started and ended in the ’60s. A lot of parents are ex-hippies-turned-middle-class lawyers, and a lot of their kids inherit a love for the Grateful Dead. My folks weren’t like that, but the shadow of the ’60s still hung heavy. The Jefferson Airplane house was in my neighborhood; a friend of a friend lived in Janis Joplin’s old apartment in the Haight. I had a crappy math teacher who regaled us with stories about dropping acid and following bands across the country instead of, like, teaching me math. San Francisco is a city with an overwhelming feeling of “MUSIC HISTORY HAPPENED HERE” and then it stopped. But the love-ins and acid tests of the West Coast ’60s youthquake didn’t interest me, and that was alienating.

Once I started reading more about the Velvet Underground and listening to bands that were inspired by them — like Television, or the Ramones, or the Patti Smith Band — I fell hard for New York. I knew I wanted to move there, not necessarily to be in a band, but to experience the environment in which these artists made their greatest work. Because the Velvet Underground sounded so new to me, I imagined the city they inhabited to still be gritty and gray and threatening and magical, filled with hardened people who wanted to challenge themselves and make things.

On an early visit to New York I stayed at the Chelsea Hotel because I thought it would be cool. And it was cool, but it was also kind of dirty and sad: seedy without any of the people who made its seediness worth visiting. The Chelsea is shuttered now and in development to become some kind of luxury hotel; the whole neighborhood is filled with towering condos and trendy galleries. But it probably took seeing what remains of CBGB repurposed as a John Varvatos retail outpost for me to realize that the New York I thought I was in love with didn’t exist anymore — the New York that produced the Velvet Underground doesn’t exist anymore.

Last year, I phoned John Cale from an office in Midtown, about 19 blocks away from Warhol’s factory, a 15-minute train ride from the Bowery, a 20-minute walk from the Chelsea. Cale is one of the last surviving members of the Velvet Underground — he left the band in ’68 and went on to record prolifically on his own. Midway through our interview, after stumbling through a few questions about Lou Reed, I asked him what he thinks of New York these days. Cale lives in LA now, and he didn’t really have much to say on the subject other than: “It’s very expensive.” I agreed and we both laughed. “There’s still a lot of energy there, though,” he continued. “I think one of these days it’ll change again.”

And I believe that, because once all of the physical landmarks that defined an era disappeared, the music didn’t go anywhere. There is an immediacy to The Velvet Underground & Nico that still sounds unexpected and fresh in 2017. You can hear bits and pieces of that album when you go see baby bands playing their first shows at DIY venues. It’s more subtle than the Pizza Underground, but it’s there. Generations younger than mine will listen to this album for the first time and wonder what kind of environment allowed it to exist. Generations younger than mine will listen to this album for the first time and discover their favorite band because of it. Maybe they will end up moving here and starting their own projects, their own bands, their own cool downtown cliques far from downtown. Maybe they will stay in their hometowns and breed a creative culture there. Because that’s what a band like the Velvet Underground makes you want to do: something new.