The Velvet Underground: How Andy Warhol Was Fired by His Own Art Project

A look back at the tumultuous early days of a rock band who inspired thousands of others

Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Wren Graves looks back on the strange relationship between Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground as the band’s debut celebrates its 50th anniversary. 

The walls of the old hat factory had been covered in tin foil, silver paint, and scraps of broken mirrors. Day or night, there was no telling how many people might be there, stumbling about in various states of undress and un-sobriety, sketching, sculpting, printing with silkscreens, taking photographs, and making movies. Others came for social reasons, looking to see or be seen, to meet the famous or just score drugs. In the years that followed, artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were frequent guests, as well as rock stars Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, writers William S. Burroughs and Truman Capote, and even, occasionally, Salvador Dali. The Factory, as it was called, became a meeting place for odd and beautiful souls.

Of course, the physically beautiful were welcome as well. Models and socialites came to make art or be made into art; pretty young boys and the so-called Factory Girls: Ondine, Edie Sedgwick, Mary Woronov, and many more — not merely good looking but sparkling with charisma. Today, some of them would have their own reality show, but back in 1965 they just had Andy Warhol.

Warhol coined the term “superstar,” and it was he who said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” He was the first person to take his own fame out of the realm of his personal life and thrust it directly into his work. His philosophies on celebrity and culture have influenced everyone from Lady Gaga and Kanye West to President Donald Trump.

Blonde, bespectacled, with nervous fingers always playing at his nose and lips, the Pittsburgh native was the face of Pop Art, the movement that took as its subject popular culture. His work is simple and cold, with a sly sense of humor. Boxes of Brillo soap pads, cans of Campbell’s Soup, Marilyn Monroe’s face — Warhol obsessed over them the way Renaissance painters obsessed over the baby Jesus. Also like the great Renaissance painters, Warhol didn’t want to do all of this repetitive work himself. The Factory was a multimedia collective of assistants and apprentices working under the direction of Warhol, and their successes could only enhance the master’s reputation.

After his screen prints of Campbell’s soup had become so famous — partly because of the controversy over whether the whole thing even counted as art — Warhol became wealthy by working on commission. There were magazine covers from TV Guide to Playboy, as well as screen prints. Every business headquarters, every Mark and Mary Millionaire, could order up a genuine Warhol, and since Warhol outsourced the actual screen printing to his assistants, the work could be completed in a couple of days. Warhol used this money to finance a series of daring projects.

“The Pop idea, after all, was that anybody could do anything, so naturally we were all trying to do it all,” Warhol wrote in his memoir (with Pat Hackett) POPism: The Warhol Sixties. “Nobody wanted to stay in one category; we all wanted to branch out into every creative thing we could — that’s why when we met The Velvet Underground at the end of ’65, we were all for getting into the music scene, too.” And the meeting might never have happened if New York City hadn’t tried so hard to shut down what it considered to be a dirty movie.

In 1963, the 18 year-old experimental filmmaker Barbara Rubin gained notoriety after she’d run afoul of New York’s censorship laws with her film Christmas on Earth. While the little snippets that have survived on YouTube don’t suggest anything too dirty, if you want to know why the censors had such a problem, consider the film’s original title, Cocks and Cunts. According to the New York Review of Books, “Christmas on Earth was far and away the most sexually-explicit film produced by the pre-porn underground.” And many of these explicit scenes were filmed at the apartment of a young experimental multi-instrumentalist from Wales named John Cale. 

When Warhol saw Christmas on Earth, he approached Rubin about presenting her so-called dangerous movie as part of a multimedia experience with light shows and music. He knew lighting designers; the question was who would provide the music? Rubin recommended John Cale and his band.

“We didn’t really have a lot of gear. It was a lot of fun, putting a guitar, vocals, a viola, and a bass through two amplifiers,” Cale told the Red Bull Music Academy. “The minimalism that you hear was much worse later on. Then Andy [Warhol] showed up, and, all of a sudden, you’re in a different league altogether.”

While it was Cale (or to be more reductionist, his apartment) that got The Velvet Underground their breakthrough gig, the group, like many rock bands, was driven by two large personalities. Cale, with his background in classical music and his deep love for everything experimental and avante garde, was one; the other was the group’s primary songwriter, Lou Reed. The two men had previously collaborated for a band, The Primitives, on a minor hit single, a parody of popular dance songs called “The Ostrich”. It included nonsensical dancing instructions like, “Stand on your head and do the ostrich.” The song has become famous for the way Lou Reed had tuned his guitar to all one note (D-D-D-D-d-d) to create a droning effect. Today, tuning a guitar to one note is called ostrich tuning.

Rounding out The Velvet Underground were Moe Tucker, who played her simplified drum kit standing up, and Sterling Morrison on guitar. “Sterling Morrison was an intellectual who seemed to bridge the art scene of John Cale with the rock’n’roll world of Lou Reed,” recalled Billy Name, Warhol’s assistant and sometimes-boyfriend. Later, the gulf between Cale and Reed became too wide for any bridge. But at the time, the volatile mix of personalities was stable enough to function.

Warhol, however, thought the band needed a little something extra.

“He was this catalyst, always putting jarring elements together. Which was something I wasn’t always happy about,” Lou Reed recalled to Rolling Stone. “So when he put Nico in the band, we said, ‘Hmmm.’ Because Andy said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to have a chanteuse.’ I said, ‘Oh, Andy, give us a break.’”

Nico was certainly a jarring element, at least musically. The German-born model, actress, and nightclub singer was a typical Warhol “superstar” with bohemian sensibilities and conventional good looks. Here she is about a year before she joined The Velvet Underground, with “I’m Not Sayin’”, a fairly typical pop song.

In contrast, what Reed had already written for The Velvet Underground was anything but typical. Lots of folks have written love songs about a boy or a girl; Reed wrote a love song to diacetylmorphine.

But if Reed wasn’t too thrilled at having a chanteuse hoisted upon him, he soon discovered that working with Warhol was its own kind of thrill. The artist could be endlessly inspiring to an impressionable young songwriter.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you write a song called “Vicious”?’ And I said, ‘Well, Andy, what kind of vicious?’ ‘Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.’ And I wrote it down, literally… I went back and wrote a song [for Reed’s 1972 solo album Transformer] ‘Vicious/ You hit me with a flower/ You do it every hour/ Oh baby you’re so vicious.’ Then people would come up and say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ I didn’t want to say, ‘Well, ask Andy.’ Or he said, ‘Oh, you should write a song, so-and-so is such a femme fatale. Write a song for her. Go write a song called “Femme Fatale.”‘ No other reason than that. Or “Sister Ray” – when we were making the second record, he said, ‘Now you gotta make sure that you do the “sucking on my ding-dong” song.’ ‘Okay, Andy.’ He was a lot of fun, he really was.”

The songs were written, the talent assembled, and Warhol had made several movies of his own to screen along with Rubin’s Christmas on Earth. The multimedia art show was given the name The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The debut performance was certainly explosive. Here’s Ara Osterweil from the book Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks in an essay on Barbara Rudin.

“On January 13, 1966, Warhol was invited to be the evening’s entertainment at the NY Society for Clinical Psychiatry’s forty-third annual dinner, held at Delmonico’s Hotel. Bursting into the room with a camera, as The Velvet Underground acoustically tortured the guests and [underground artist] Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick performed the “whip dance” in the background, Rubin taunted the attending psychiatrists. Casting blinding lights in their faces, Rubin hurled derogatory questions at the esteemed members of the medical profession, including: ‘What does her vagina feel like? Is his penis big enough? Do you eat her out?’ As the horrified guests began to leave, Rubin continued her interrogation: ‘Why are you getting embarrassed? You’re a psychiatrist; you’re not supposed to get embarrassed.'”

The rest of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows were performed in front of a more willing audience, but you get the idea.

And now we come to the great question: Did Andy Warhol help or hurt the commercial chances of The Velvet Underground? Yes, is the answer. On the one hand, that performance got the band into The New York Times, with the headline “Shock Treatment for Psychiatrists.” There’s no such thing as bad publicity, as P.T. Barnum used to say. On the other hand, these were not the kinds of performances that help a young band build a following. “There we are, doing six sets a night at this terrible tourist trap in the Village,” Reed said. “The audience was attacking people over the music.”

But Warhol had clout, and the band did not, and it was Warhol who got The Velvet Underground a contract with Verve Records. Warhol even produced the record, although when David Fricke at Rolling Stone asked Reed how, exactly, Warhol produced the record, Reed said, “By keeping people away from us.” He created a safe space for the band to work.

“We were signed because of Andy. And he took all the flak. We said, ‘He’s the producer,’ and he just sat there. Then MGM said they wanted to bring in a real producer, Tom Wilson. So that’s how you got ‘Sunday Morning’, with all those overdubs – the viola in the back, Nico chanting. But he couldn’t undo what had already been done.”

The Velvet Underground & Nico was released in 1967 to a chorus of crickets. Billy Name thinks the problem was the lawsuit. “The single biggest factor that fucked up [the album] when it came out and started to climb the charts was that [Warhol collaborator] Eric Emerson sued Verve… because his image was on part of the collage on the back of the album cover. Eric wanted money for that, and nobody was willing to give it to him. So Verve pulled the record from all the stores, and it fell off the charts because it was no longer available. And it couldn’t be saved.”

There are a few problems with this explanation, however. The Velvet Underground & Nico hadn’t sold all that well to begin with, and the band’s lawsuit-free second album, White Light/White Heat, didn’t sell any better. It’s not a perfect comparison; Nico had left/been kicked out of the band, so perhaps the loss of Nico was as big of a sales detriment as the lawsuit. This explanation seems a bit tortured. I have no research to back this up, but my feeling is that the kind of person interested in experimental art-rock doesn’t care if half the songs are sung by a pretty German model. Regardless, something wasn’t working.

“It was getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between the PR and the actuality because we ended up in the middle of a storm of publicity that we didn’t know was coming,” Cale told the Red Bull Music Academy. “We got a lot of notoriety very quickly, attached to Andy. I guess Lou didn’t like that.”

“Andy passes through things, but so do we,” Reed said. “He sat down and had a talk with me. ‘You gotta decide what you want to do. Do you want to keep just playing museums from now on and the art festivals? Or do you want to start moving into other areas? Lou, don’t you think you should think about it?’ So I thought about it, and I fired him. Because I thought that was one of the things to do if we were going to move away from that… He was furious. I’d never seen Andy angry, but I did that day. He was really mad. Called me a rat. That was the worst thing he could think of.”

John Cale again. “The way [Reed] handled it and the way he did it was really destructive. I mean he just like blew up the band and fired Andy without telling anybody, and it was like, ‘What?’”

“I always felt that Andy wanted Lou Reed to be his Mickey Mouse,” says Billy Name. “Walt Disney didn’t invent Donald Duck; the people who worked for him created those Disney characters. And all this stuff we did at The Factory was under the aegis of Andy Warhol. So I always felt that Andy really wanted Lou to be his Mickey Mouse, this really big thing that everybody could latch on to because Lou was so adorable, and he was a rock star and a lead singer in a rock group. It would’ve been so right and so workable for Lou to have been Andy’s Mickey Mouse and do for Andy what Mickey did for Walt Disney. But it didn’t happen.”

And so Warhol and The Velvet Underground parted ways. Cale wasn’t long behind. As he told Vulture, “The problem with the Velvets was always a conflict between doing revolutionary songs, like ‘Venus in Furs’, and pretty songs.” It’s clear which he preferred.

The Velvet Underground formed in 1964, met Andy Warhol in 1965, released their first album in 1967, and one of the founding members left in 1968. 1969 saw The Velvet Underground, sans Cale, 1970 saw Loaded sans Mo Tucker, and then Reed left to go solo, something he’d already done in all but name. The Velvets stumbled on, but it hardly counts without Cale and Reed. So let’s call it six years. Six years is nothing for a band. The Velvet Underground came and went quick as lightning, and the thunder didn’t arrive until much later.

John Cale went on to produce for Patti Smith and Iggy and the Stooges. Lou Reed released Transformer and had an honest-to-god hit with “Walk on the Wild Side”. And then something strange happened: The Velvet Underground blew up. They blew up on delay, like cartoon dynamite on an impossibly long fuse. They blew up because of the slow workings of word of mouth, because ex-members continued to have success and fans wondered about the early albums, because so many of the rockers they influenced blew up, too. As Brian Eno famously put it, although the first album only sold 30,000 copies, “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

It would be nice to learn a lesson here, lest history repeat itself and another wonderful band goes ignored for decades or, even worse, forever. But the history of The Velvet Underground is so strange, so unique to a particular epoch of American life, that it’s hard to pinpoint the moral of the story. What would a modern Andy Warhol even look like, now that art has been pranked and provoked and teased in every direction imaginable? What would a truly groundbreaking rock band sound like, now that rock and roll is in demise? Oh well. The Velvets would have rejected a pat moral anyway; they always preferred the ambiguous to the obvious, the gray to the black and white.


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