Saturday, March 25, 2017

Velvet Wonderland: A tour of New York City, circa 1967 (and today)

Recently, I got the opportunity to pen a piece for the Village Voice on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the release of one of the most influential albums of all time, The Velvet Underground and Nico. My assignment was to write short blurbs on 10 locations in New York that made the album what it is. My piece ran in the March 17 edition of the Village Voice, edited (so I was later told) by the legendary music writer Joe Levy

Reading the final, edited version I was aware it was, indeed, edited. That's cool -- there's a lot of stuff in the published version that will make Velvets fans and historians say, "ah, yes," with a sense of the familiar confirmed. Here is the version that appeared in the Voice.

Below is what I submitted, pre-edit. I went with the location-oriented "tour" idea pretty literally, which definitely is a diversion from the published VV version. 

Among the divergences: I included that uptown location at Lexington and "1-2-5," which was dropped from the final version in favor of the Hotel Chelsea. 

Oh, yeah. If you count, there are only nine entries below (nine-and-a-half, if the discover of the book in the Ludlow Street entry is worth something...). Sue me. 


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Reviewers and biographers of the Velvet Underground put it bluntly, “The Velvets are unthinkable without New York City…if Manhattan didn’t exist, neither would they.” So how did the city do its part to shape the iconic band? Where were those places the Velvets evolved?

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, we offer a brief tour of “Velvet Wonderland,” some of the most influential places in the story of one of the most influential bands in the history of rock-and-roll.

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Our first stop is Ludlow Street. The Lower East Side is popular with immigrants and artists hunting for cheap digs. One such building is No. 56, where Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrisson and drummer Angus MacLise live and rehearse. The loft fits the bill for affordability, the drawback being that there’s no bathroom. Or heat. Or electricity.

Power is “borrowed” via the adjoining building to fuel the activities of the loft’s burgeoning musical commune, among which are MacLise’s experimental band “Theatre of Eternal Music” and whatever Reed and company call themselves any given day, like The Warlocks or The Falling Spikes.

MacLise is also involved with the underground film scene and, in 1965, the nascent Velvets perform as part of a multimedia show at the Filmmaker’s Cinémathèque (on Lafayette Street) — a night of music, film, poetry, and dancers, which sounds like a prototype for Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which we’ll get to a little later in our tour.

The loft on 56 Ludlow Street is where the quartet record their first demo in July ’65, some of which finds its way onto The Velvet Underground & Nico the following spring.

A side note: Look to the west and Bowery Street. That’s where Tony Conrad finds the cheap paperback from which the band takes its name. “The Velvet Underground” is supposedly a shocker about sado-masochism and sexual corruption. In reality, per Morrison, despite the whips and chains on the cover, “it was basically about wife swapping in Suburbia.”

The Ludlow Street lofts are now home to a software company, a recording studio, a magazine publisher, and others who must have figured out how to wire the building for electricity.

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The next stop on the tour is 106 West 3rd Street and Café Bizarre, which in its heyday hosted folk icons and Beat poets. By late 1965, its better days behind it, the venue sells a faux Greenwich Village experience to tourists who didn’t know any better. (“It was a dump,” according to Reed.)

But the Village is a draw for new acts, so the Velvets accept a December residency at the café for $5 each, plus dinner. The club’s “anti-rock group” policy means Maureen Tucker is not allowed to play her drums; she bangs on a tambourine instead.

The group performs on the small stage at the back of the café’s long room to practically non-existent audiences who pay little attention to the experimental sounds.

Fed up with the gig and the venue, the Velvets perform “Black Angel’s Death Song” — banned by the club’s owner — and are promptly fired. Which is fine by them.

Even better, during their residency, filmmakers working with Andy Warhol bring him to see the Velvets perform. He loves how the audiences leave the too-loud, too-insane performances “dazed and damaged” and offers to manage the band. This changes everything for The Velvet Underground.

Café Bizarre is long gone. Now, the east corner is a JW Market; NYU Law School’s Faculty Club takes up the rest of the block between Sullivan and MacDougal.

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Next, we head up Park Avenue to the Delmonico Hotel, where, in January 1966, the Velvets play another gig for an audience ill prepared for what is to hit them. Warhol, invited to speak at the annual dinner of the New York Society For Clinical Psychiatry, asks for and is granted permission to show some of his films rather than speak.

Imagine a room in post-dinner chic: white tablecloths, demi-tasses, and assorted drinks well drunk, salvers of cookies, ashtrays of cigarettes, and a posh crowd of doctors and their wives. Front-lit from below and casting sinewy shadows, the Velvets crank up the volume on “Heroin” as Barbara Rubin bursts in, filming the well-heeled audience while asking them embarrassing questions about their sex lives.

As the Velvets play and astonished guests bolt for the exits, whip-wielding dancers perform while a film of a man being tortured is projected on the wall behind the band. Warhol delights in the scene and the attention. Even the New York Times covers the “short-lived torture of cacophony” and “spontaneous eruption of the id.”

The building is now the Trump Park West.

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A little way from the Delmonico Hotel is Andy Warhol’s art studio and hangout, the Factory, located in an old industrial building near the United Nations. Here, on the fourth floor of 231 E. 47th Street, Warhol oversees the making of his silk screens and collages and revels in the perpetual party of people coming and going — drag queens, junkies, filmmakers, journalists, paparazzi, and hangers-on of all sorts. The Velvet Underground practices there daily from 1966 – 1968.

According to Ken Pitt, to access the floor you ride a rickety old elevator more like a cage than a proper elevator. Open on three sides, the thing offers a harrowing view of the sheer drop as you ascend.

Demolished in 1968, the building is a car park now.

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Next the tour heads back to the East Village, where, in the spring of 1966, Warhol and filmmaking accomplice Paul Morrissey seek a venue for the Velvets as part of a new Warhol-esque multimedia show that includes film, dance, lights, and music — his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Shut out at the last minute by a spot in Queens, the pair are alerted to a ballroom in an East Village hall at 23 St. Mark’s Place. It’s called the Dom, an abbreviation of Polsky Dom Narodwy, or Polish National Home, the organization that owns the complex.

They rent the ballroom for the month of April and, after a flurry of lease-signing and venue decorating, the Dom opens its doors to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable — the Velvets’ most legendary residency, on par with the Beatles at the Cavern or the Doors at the Whiskey A Go Go.

When the band returns from a California tour, however, they find their lease ripped up and the room under new management with a new name: the Balloon Farm. Still later it becomes the Electric Circus. The band plays both in time, helping to transform the neighborhood of Polish dance-halls and burlesque bars into a hip, if sleazier, destination.
Today instead of a Polish dance hall, there’s a Chinese restaurant, a tattoo parlor and, under the remaining arched façade at No. 25, the entrance to the punk rock apparel shop, Search and Destroy.

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Back uptown at 254 West 54th Street, we come to Scepter Studios, where the Velvets make their recording debut in April 1966, laying down tracks over several days that will become The Velvet Underground & Nico (though the release of the finished album won’t happen for almost a whole year).

The run-down recording studio takes up space in a building that CBS calls Studio 52, the hub for the network’s radio and television broadcasting. Scepter is “discovered” by Columbia Records executive Norman Dolph, an early supporter of the Velvets.

The building will later house the iconic ’70s nightclub and discotheque, Studio 54. Nowadays, the Roundabout Theatre Company runs the place, though you can still enjoy a nightclub scene in the basement dinner club.

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The tour now takes a serious detour up to Lexington and 125th Street, the corner where the narrator in “I’m Waiting For The Man” goes to score drugs.

Unlike standard pop music lyrics of the era, with their sugary love stories, Reed’s songs take the listener to seedy, even dangerous New York City streets. In this case, the destination is a decidedly un-touristy part of Harlem, frequented by folks down on their luck, transients and addicts.

Once he’s there, Reed heads “Up to a brownstone, up three flights of stairs” to buy drugs. The song is an unemotional and honest description of Reed scoring (and, in a later track on the album, “Heroin,” using) drugs. He’s interrogated about his motives by local black residents, he describes his dealer’s dress sense, and he explains how, once inside that brownstone, everyone knows why you’re there, but no one gives a damn, because they all want their stuff, fast, so they can high-tail it back to get high in the relative safety of their far-away lives.

Maybe today those three flights of stairs take you to rooms above the McDonald’s that anchors one corner of that busy intersection.

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In April 1967, the Velvets play a series of gigs at our next stop, the Gymnasium, 420 E. 71st Street on the Upper East Side. These gigs follow the long-delayed release of The Velvet Underground & Nico.

The delay between the album’s recording and release means the Velvets can’t take advantage of their 1966 notoriety. Worse, at the time of its debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico was ignored by the critics and was seen as a bit of an anti-climax to many of the band’s fans. It didn’t help that it was a commercial squib, too.

The effect on the band is to dampen their enthusiasm for performing, so Warhol, in an attempt to rekindle the energy of the band and the equally flagging EPI, arranges for a series of gigs in the spring of 1967 at the Gymnasium in Sokol Hall.

It’s a real gym, complete with barbells, weights, parallel bars, even a trampoline that kids leap onto from the balcony where Warhol’s projectors live. Despite the enormity of the space and the distance from the Velvets’ Village haunts, they maintain their residency for the rest of the month, playing to small crowds and sniping critics.

Hopes for the Gymnasium to become another Dom don’t work out, but you can still get your sweat on in Sokol Hall.

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Our next stop takes us to West 46th Street and Steve Paul’s Scene, where Andy Warhol and club owner Steve Paul host an “underground amateur hour.” A block west of Broadway and down some dicey stairs, the Scene advertises appearances by “stars of The Chelsea Girls” as well as “gurus, creative people, pop celebrities, society submergers” and the Velvet Underground.

The Scene is the last place the Velvet Underground play as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable; soon after, they cut their ties to both Warhol and Nico. They won’t play another gig in New York until 1970.

You’ll note this space is under construction. Watch your step.