Earlier this week, three of the Velvet Underground‘s surviving members gathered for a moderated panel discussion at the main branch of the New York Public Library. The band’s fans formed a long and winding queue along the building’s stairs; Andy Warhol’s amanuensis, Billy Name, who looks a bit like Santa Claus now, held court at the head of the line. To passers-by, it must have looked like Christmas on 42nd Street.
The occasion itself was a bit of a miracle: For one thing, the moderator was a journalist – and anyone with opposable thumbs can tell you that Lou Reed, who doesn’t care for journalists, takes evident pleasure in his venomous and/or monosyllabic replies to their questions. (‘Journalists are morons, idiots,’ he’s said. ‘You can hit them, stab them, kick them in the shins, abuse them and outrage them and they won’t even notice.’ Click here and here to compare Reed’s style, as an interview subject, to Warhol’s.) Reed also doesn’t care for Doug Yule, who replaced John Cale as the Velvet Underground’s bassist, and eventually took over the band itself, and was appearing that night in lieu of Cale. (Reed doesn’t care much for Cale, and Cale doesn’t care much for Reed.) When the Velvet Underground first reunited, in 1993, Yule wasn’t invited to join them. And when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally got around to inducting the band, in 1996, Yule was told that he’d have to pay his own way to the ceremony, and watch it as a member of the audience.
All of which is also to say that the more you cared for and knew about the Velvet Underground, the less you had to expect from this ersatz reunion. And yet, how often do you get a chance to see the Velvet Underground, or some approximation of them, engaged in some sort of action?
As it happens, I didn’t get to see them at all. Because I had a press pass, I’d never been issued a ticket. Without a ticket, I couldn’t make it through the revolving door that separated me from whoever was in charge of the press list. And so I found myself standing to the side of an unsympathetic security guard, and next to Lou Reed’s (perfectly nice, but equally stymied) producer.
What did I miss? Because I wasn’t the only one to come up against the NYPL’s press-impasse, I’ve relied on citizen-journalists to reconstruct the evening.
‘ANARCHY at www.nypl.org/2night when the Velvet Underground is oversold and hits max. capacity early,’ an early Twitter update read. ‘Even tkt holders not allowed in!’
‘It was a very cool night of discussion in which I got some decent pictures and confirmed a few things in my mind,’ said Mike Newman, a DJ, who did make it into the hall. He also provided a few bullet points:
• Lou Reed is indeed an asshole.
• Lou Reed hates everyone except for Andy [Warhol] and Moe [Tucker, VU's drummer, who was also onstage at the NYPL].
• Lou Reed thinks the VU was the best band ever.
• I have a lot of respect for [panel moderator/apparent martyr] David Fricke.
• I love VU records and wanna hear one now.
To which I’d like to add the following:
• For all his faults (‘Some like oil/And some like dirt/Some like women with the butts that hurt’; ‘I’m no Lear with the blinded eyes’), Lou Reed is a hero.
• It made me so happy to see so many people show up for him.
• I was even happier to avoid the inevitable letdown.
Walking away from the library, I thought about the time I’d walked Lou Reed past another unsympathetic security guard, and into another hall, which a friend of mine had booked. Reed had been totally cordial that evening, and cold – damaged, I suppose – but I was thrilled to help out in some small way. Later that night, I called another friend, a novelist who’d spent a portion of his twenties scoring smack near the Velvet Underground’s old stomping grounds. ‘Lou Reed fried his brains for us!’ I said. ‘I fried my brains for Lou Reed,’ my friend replied.