Anarchy at the NYPL

Alex Abramovich fails to see the Velvet Underground

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 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.


  • 11 December 2009 at 9:20pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Wouldn't it be nice to think so? But I'm wary of giving LR that much credit; more than anything it seemed like a mid-sized clusterfuck: what's left of VU short-circuits what's left of the NYPL.

    Besides, no press = no opportunities to be rude to the press. And when you're LR, being rude to the press is one of life's great pleasures.

  • 11 December 2009 at 9:28pm
    e scordato says:
    Lou Reed.
    My husband (also a member of the press) and I debated attending this event. I argued strenously against it; much as I love VU I did not want to see what seemed to be a seriously misconceived reunion panel. I could tell random-encounter-in-NYC Lou Reed stories but I won't.

    Instead we opted for another long skinny remnant of thrilling musics past presented in a library: Patti Smith and her daughter, who performed at the Morgan Library, relating to the William Blake exhibit there. Patti did a bangup job of being mystifying, mystified, and fairly charming.

    What's next, Mick Jagger at the Bodleian?

  • 12 December 2009 at 3:51pm
    Fatema Ahmed says:
    The reconstructions of 'citizen-journalists' from inside the library seem less exciting now that you can listen to the whole event on the NYPL website. We all know how Lou Reed feels about journalists ("Some people work very hard,
    but still they never get it right"...?) but perhaps he's beginning to see the light these days? Or, at the very least, his iphone more clearly:

  • 12 December 2009 at 7:19pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Yep: Lou Reed.

    Best of both worlds: The NYPL's posted an MP3 of the talk on their website:

    Not so bad after all!

  • 13 December 2009 at 9:29pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Oops: You beat me too it, Fatema! As it happens, Reed goes off on journalists, big time, 2/3 of the way through, in the course of talking about VU's first outing to the West Coast. Though nothing beats Mary Woronov's description of same:

    "We spoke two completely different languages," Woronov said. "We were on amphetamine and they were on acid. They were so slow to speak with these wide eyes - 'oh, wow!' - so into their 'vibrations'; we spoke in rapid, machine-gun fire about books and paintings and movies. They were into 'free' and the American Indian and going 'back to the land' and trying to be some kind of 'true, authentic' person; we could not have cared less about that. They were homophobic; we were homosexual. Their women, they were these big round-titted girls, you would say hello to them and they would just flop on the bed and fuck you; we liked sexual tension, S&M, not fucking. They were barefoot; we had platform boots. They were eating bread they had backed themselves - and we never ate at all!"

  • 14 December 2009 at 9:20am
    Jenny Diski says:
    That's a near perfect description of 1968.

    The world I knew divided between the speedfreaks and junkies who played the Heroin track only until the grooves (ah, grooves, remember grooves?) flattened, or the acidheads who played only the other tracks, so that the Heroin track remained pristine. I don't remember them (acidheads) minding the S&M all that much, though.

  • 14 December 2009 at 7:07pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Jenny: Thereby confirming my suspicion that the old Brian Eno line — "only 1,000 people ever heard the VU, but everyone who did formed a band" — is bullshit; that the band reached plenty of people in its lifetime, both here and in England. (CF, Brian Epstein loving the first album, the Yardbirds covering "Waiting For The Man," the Rolling Stones's plagal cadence songs — "Stray Cat Blues," etc. — nicked from "Heroin," etc.)


    And yes, I love that description; it's one of the two best riffs in the dozen or so VU books stacked next to my desk. (The other, from Sterling Morrison: "What I expected the audience to do was tear the house down, beat me up, whatever. In the Sixties I had King Hatreds. I was a biker type and I hung around with nasty black people and nasty white people and played nasty white and black rock and roll music.")

  • 14 December 2009 at 11:11pm
    Niall Anderson says:
    When I was about 21, The Irish Times sent me to interview Lou Reed. Like most pasty-faced malcontents I knew the VU stuff by heart, but only the most popular or notorious bits of Reed's post-VU career. I don't know why I was sent to meet him, except that I was pasty-faced and grumpy, and the regular music critic was on holiday.

    Anyway, we got on famously, for a bit. And then the photographer came in. While the photographer was doing his bit, Reed got more and more disgruntled. I spotted the change in atmosphere instantly, but I couldn't account for it until Reed sat forward and said to me, 'Look: if you spar with me I'm gonna spar with you. If you push me I'm gonna push you back. And maybe that will be uncomfortable for you. But I don't care; I'm used to it. But if you treat me like an UTTER PRICK, the interview is over, okay? And this interview is over.' And then he walked out.

    So I sat there for about thirty seconds, wondering what had gone wrong. Then Reed's PA came in and said, 'What the fuck went on here?' We said we had no idea, and explained what exactly we'd been doing at the moment he decided to quit. It was oddly like being questioned by the headmistress. The PA thought about it for a second and said to the photographer: 'What side were you shooting him from?' 'The left,' he said. 'That's your fuckin mistake right there,' she said and followed Reed out of the room.

    It was only later that we worked out what was up. At the previous night's show at The Olympia, all the photographers had been corralled to Reed's right. And the cover of the album he was touring at the time - Ecstasy: - shows him at a point of, er, ecstasy from the right. Who knew Lou was quite so self-conscious?

    Anyway, I learnt a few things about Reed that may be worth passing on to other prospective interviewers. First, tell him you liked his most recent gig (even if you haven't seen it). Tell him you liked the eighteen-minute version of Sweet Jane that he played, and ask him how much of it he improvises it each night. Then ask him a few general questions about guitars and amplifiers. Suddenly, a whole new world will open up. Ask him about the deficiencies of Marshall amps and he'll suddenly launch into an anecdote about John Cale. Ask him about stereo recording and he'll talk about David Bowie. Ask him about microphones and he'll start telling you about how Moe Tucker is the best drummer he can imagine. Basically, don't ask him anything personal, and he'll tell you everything.

    DISCLAIMER: I never got to try this approach out fully on him, but it was working fine till we shot him from the wrong side.

Read more