HEROES OF VELVET UNDERGROUND-DOM
Everyone with a significant interest in the Velvet Underground knows
the names of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker,
Nico, and Andy Warhol. As with any major rock group, however, there
were dozens of figures making significant contributions to their
evolution that are generally overlooked, undercredited, or even
virtually unknown to the larger public. White Light/White Heat: The Velvet
Underground Day-By-Day discusses
many of them. Here's a brief guide to some
of the most notable:
Doug Yule: Many would find it
strange to classify a full-time member of the Velvet Underground from
October 1968 to mid-1973 as someone who's overlooked or obscure.
Consider, however, that several film documentaries covering the Velvets
fail to even mention Yule's name. Consider, too, that he was not
inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Lou Reed, John Cale,
Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker when the Velvet Underground were
admitted to that institution in 1996, although he actually plays on
more commercially released Velvet Underground recordings than Cale
does, even discounting the post-1970 recordings made without Reed in
More important than the quantity of Yule's work, however, is its
underrated quality. While not the idiosyncratic talent that Cale was as
an instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, Yule was a fine bassist who
quickly and adeptly eased the group's transition to a more powerful, if
more conventional, rock sound. It's also overlooked that he made
significant contributions as a multi-instrumentalist, also playing
organ with the group onstage—that's his electrifying swirl on the 1969 Velvet Underground Live
version of "What Goes On"—and also chipping in on keyboards, drum,
guitar, backup vocals, arrangements, and the occasional lead vocal
("Candy Says" being the standout) in the studio and in concert. Far
from being an incidental, faceless entity needed to fill out the
lineup, as some accounts might have you believe, Yule was not just an
adequate replacement—he was a very considerable asset to the group.
Angus MacLise: Although he was
the group's original drummer and a full member of the Velvet
Underground for much of 1965, there's a good reason why the name of
Angus MacLise isn't familiar, even to many VU fans. He doesn't appear
on any of their commercially released recordings (although he can be heard on the versions of
"Heroin" and "Venus in Furs" on the soundtrack of the short film Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable,
shot at the Velvet Underground's performances in Chicago in mid-1966,
during which MacLise temporarily rejoined the lineup to help cover for
an ill Lou Reed's absence). Nor did he go on to fame in any other
capacity, or even release any music in his lifetime other than an
obscure flexidisc, though several CDs of his recordings have come out
Still, MacLise's idiosyncratic percussive style—sometimes likened to
the sound of falling rain, and incorporating world music influences
from his travels in the Far East—helped shape the avant-garde aesthetic
that immediately set the Velvet Underground apart from other rock bands
when they formed in 1965. MacLise also supplied voltage for their
electric guitars in their very early days, the band running extension
cords between their apartments through the hall in 56 Ludlow Street on
New York's Lower East Side. Not incidentally, both Hetty MacLise (whom
Angus married in the late 1960s) and Terry Riley, both of whom later
worked with Angus in settings outside the Velvets, feel in retrospect
that Angus's experience as a poet was influential upon the nature of
the material the group developed.
Paul Morrissey: Ask most
people who managed the Velvet Underground, and their answer will be
Andy Warhol. That's only partially true. Though Warhol was indeed
involved in their management from the beginning of 1966 through around
mid-1967, technically speaking he co-managed them with Paul Morrissey,
a filmmaker who himself managed Warhol. It should also be noted that
the Velvets were briefly managed by Al Aronowitz (though he didn't bind
them to a legal agreement) in late 1965 before meeting Warhol, and that
Steve Sesnick would take control of their affairs from mid-1967 through
their demise in the early 1970s.
Morrissey said in his interview for White
Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day that many of
the ideas often credited to Andy originated from Morrissey himself. As
for Warhol's direct involvement with the functions usually associated
with a rock manager—getting them gigs, dealing with record labels,
dealing with the logistics of their stage show, and so forth—certainly
Morrissey was more involved than Andy was. According to Paul, "In
actual reality, the basis of these things came almost always from me,
and not from him, during these years I was there. I'm the one that met
them, told them I would manage them, put Nico in the group, and Andy
would present them, be called the manager. But have you ever heard of a
manager who had a manager?
I'd love for you to come up with another situation where there was
somebody who was a manager who had a manager who told him what things
should be done and then went and did them himself."
Steve Sesnick: Unlike Andy
Warhol, Paul Morrissey, or even Al Aronowitz, Steve Sesnick is not
renowned for anything other than managing the Velvet Underground. Too,
he's often cast as a villainous character for sowing discord within the
band, both Lou Reed and John Cale calling him a "snake" in different
interviews after they left the Velvets. In particular, Cale has felt
that Sesnick tried to push Reed as the band's leader at the expense of
group harmony, and Sesnick's pressure to live up to certain
expectations and images has been cited as a key factor in Reed's
departure from the band in August 1970. "The real snake is a guy named
Steve Sesnick," said Reed in the November 1987 issue of Creem. "He was a very bad person,
trying to divide everyone, telling one person one thing, telling
another person something else, and pitting people against each other,
starting with John and me, and then working his way down through the
band. That way he could maintain power. I quit in the middle of Loaded because I couldn't stand it
There's usually a different side to every story, and while defending
Sesnick's overall performance isn't an enviable task, it should be said
that he did do a lot for the
Velvets in certain respects. He took on a very uncommercial band and
worked hard on their behalf, helping them in their transition from
their role as part of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable into a
standalone rock act that toured nationally in prominent venues. Doug
Yule has said Sesnick did a lot to extract financial support from MGM,
the band's label before 1970, at a time when the Velvets weren't
selling that many records.
"He tended to, let us say, exaggerate or elaborate upon the truth,"
says Steve Nelson, who dealt with Sesnick on numerous occasions over
the next few years as manager of the Boston Tea Party and a promoter at
venues where the band played elsewhere in Massachusetts. "So sometimes
it was hard to know what was the truth about what he was really saying.
I think that that was one of his weaknesses, although he used it as a
strength in terms of as a promoter, talking his way into people. He
always had a good patter.
"His strength was, he was really dedicated to the band. He wasn't there
as some music-biz guy to kind of exploit them. 'Cause first of all, it
wasn't really like a huge commercial opportunity. There was a part of
him that came from his heart, in terms of really being committed to the
Velvet Underground. When they booked, they showed. He got them there.
And that wasn't always true with people that we booked in those days.
Sometimes things got pretty flaky. But I never had any problems with
him in that regard. In terms of business dealings, he was pretty
straightforward. I booked them a lot, and he never let me down once."
Tom Wilson: The Verve/MGM
executive who signed the Velvet Underground, when every other label
they had approached—definitely including Columbia, and according to
Sterling Morrison, also including Atlantic and Elektra—had turned them
down. He also produced their second album, White Light/White Heat, and though
he's only credited as the producer of one track ("Sunday Morning") on The Velvet Underground & Nico
(with Andy Warhol credited as producer of record for the rest of the
LP), it's been speculated that Wilson might have been the actual
producer of the May 1966 Los Angeles recordings of "Heroin," "Venus in
Furs," and "I'm Waiting for the Man" that are used on the record.
The depth of Wilson's actual contributions to the 1966-67 VU recordings
has been questioned. It's been recalled that, for the VU sessions and
those of some other bands he produced, he'd spend much of his time on
the phone with girlfriends. According to Paul Morrissey, he primarily
signed the Velvets because of Nico, feeling she was the only commercial
aspect of the band. But as John Cale told Creem in 1987, "He was inspired,
though, and used to joke around to keep everybody in the band light."
And Lewis Merenstein—a close friend of Wilson's who first worked with
Tom as an engineer back when the producer broke into the record
business in the mid-1950s, and co-produced Cale's first solo LP—feels
Wilson would have given the Velvets "freedom and enthusiasm. Tom did
not have a heavy hand. He wanted people to be who they were. He got
along with everybody. He was truly a free spirit."
In his very distinguished career, Wilson also produced Bob Dylan, Simon
& Garfunkel, the Mothers of Invention, the Animals, the Soft
Machine, Dion, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor.
Norman Dolph: The Columbia
Records sales executive who co-financed the April 1966 sessions at
Scepter Records Studios in New York that produced the bulk of the
banana album. In essence he was a co-producer of sorts for the sessions
themselves as well, acting much more in that traditional capacity than
Andy Warhol did, though Warhol and not Dolph would be officially
credited as the producer of the tracks on the LP. Dolph also used an
acetate made from these sessions to try and get the group a deal with
Columbia, but was immediately and forcefully turned down. (One of the
acetates made from the sessions would sell on eBay for about $25,000
about 40 years later, marking one of the highest prices ever paid for a
John Licata: The engineer for
the April 1966 sessions at Scepter Records. Licata "was a wonderful,
cooperative, easy to get along with, unfreaky guy," observes Dolph. "He
was the total antithesis of the Velvet Underground. At no time did any
of the musicians ever tell him what to do. They went in and played, and
he got what they wanted. On the banana album, they credit Val Valentin
with the engineering. He may have done much of the remix or whatever,
but he's certainly not the engineer that was responsible for the sound
of the album at its basis. When I heard the banana album [a year
later], it sounded to me just like what we did. It didn't sound
appreciably different from what we did at Scepter."
Tony Conrad: Now well known in
his own right as an experimental musician and filmmaker, Conrad played
with John Cale in La Monte Young's group from late 1963 to late 1965.
With Cale, he was instrumental in developing that group's jet-strength
amplified drone on stringed instruments—a quality that Cale was in turn
instrumental in bringing into the Velvet Underground. Conrad also
played alongside Cale and Lou Reed briefly in late 1964 and early 1965
live in the rock band the Primitives, and according to most accounts
found the book lying on a New York street, The Velvet Underground, that the
band named themselves after.
La Monte Young: One of the most
esteemed avant-garde composer/musicians of the twentieth century, in
whose group Conrad and Cale played, as did Angus MacLise, who played
with Young for various periods between 1962 and 1965.
Walter De Maria: Drummer in the
Primitives, the pre-VU band also including Lou Reed, John Cale, and
Tony Conrad, playing several concerts in late 1964/early 1965. De Maria
had also played in a rock group that briefly existed in 1963 which also
included La Monte Young and none other than Andy Warhol.
Terry Philips: The Pickwick
Records producer who signed Lou Reed to the label as a staff songwriter
in late 1964, getting credited (along with other writers) alongside
Reed for composing numerous mid-'60s Pickwick releases. The most
noteworthy of these is "The Ostrich," the late 1964 single credited to
the Primitives on which Lou Reed takes lead vocal.
Some accounts would have it that Philips and Pickwick stifled Reed's
creativity, and particularly discouraged the recording of controversial
songs like "Heroin." But in his interview for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet
Underground Day By Day, Philips repeatedly stated his admiration
for Reed's talents and regrets that he and Pickwick couldn't have
worked with him more. "I helped encourage him on his writing to do
things that were more like 'Heroin,' and more like the kind of writing
he did in short stories," he stated. "We were working towards a goal. I
thought he could be what he became." It's also worth noting that Reed
was not the only hip musician whose path Philips crossed, as Terry had
also worked with Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector. He would
also record free jazz musicians Sunny Murray, Albert Ayler, Pharoah
Sanders, and Larry Young, and be a partner at one point with renowned
writer LeRoi Jones in a jazz label.
Delmore Schwartz: The
acclaimed short story writer (most famous for "In Dreams Begin
Responsibilities") and novelist was a professor to Lou Reed at Syracuse
University, helping to inspire Reed's own writing. In the songwriting
credits for The Velvet Underground
& Nico, "European Son" is titled "European Son to Delmore
Schwartz." It's somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek dedication, however;
knowing Schwartz's aversion to rock lyrics, the group chose the song
with the least words to name in his honor. "Delmore despised rock and
roll lyrics, he thought they were ridiculous and awful, and 'European
Son' has hardly any lyrics so that meant that was a song that Delmore
might like," explained Sterling Morrison in his 1986 interview with
Ignacio Julia for Spanish television. "He didn't care about the music
part of rock and roll, he just hated the lyrics, so we wrote a song
that Delmore would like: twenty seconds of lyrics and seven minutes of
Piero Heliczer: Experimental
filmmaker, and longtime friend of Angus MacLise, at whose multimedia
events or "happenings" the Velvet Underground played some of their
first shows in 1965. It's clear these "happenings" had a big effect on
Sterling Morrison, who wrote in the literary magazine Little Caesar, "For me the path
ahead became suddenly clear. I could work on music different from
ordinary rock'n'roll since Piero had given Lou, John, Angus and me a
context to perform it in."
Kate Heliczer: Then-wife of
Piero Heliczer, she circulated demos of the Velvet Underground in
Britain in 1965 and 1966 in an attempt to help them find management
and/or a record deal.
Al Aronowitz: New York Post reporter who was
among the first journalists to take rock seriously, introducing the
Beatles to Bob Dylan in 1964. While dabbling in rock management, he
handled the Velvet Underground for a month or two near the end of 1965,
though as he didn't sign them to a contract, it was easy for the group
to leave him in favor of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. The late
Aronowitz's highly opinionated account of his stint with the Velvets
can be read at http://www.bigmagic.com/pages/blackj/column80.html.
Barbara Rubin: The young
experimental filmmaker and friend of Allen Ginsberg who urged Al
Aronowitz to take on the Velvet Underground in late 1965, and then
urged Gerard Malanga to see the Velvets in December of that year at the
Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village. That in turn led to Paul
Morrissey and Andy Warhol seeing the Velvets at the club and offering
to manage the group.
Henry Flynt: Experimental
musician who, like John Cale, had circulated in the New York
avant-garde scene of the early-to-mid-'60s with the likes of Tony
Conrad and La Monte Young. In September 1966, he filled in for Cale for
four Velvet Underground performances at the Balloon Farm in New York.
Though a few other musicians are known to have sat in informally with
the Velvets in 1965 and 1966 (including Piero Heliczer, Helen Byrne,
Richard Mishkin, and Bobby Ritchkin), Flynt's brief run seems to have
been the most extensive such stint.
Edie Sedgwick: A dancer at some
of the Velvets' very earliest performances after they hooked up with
Warhol in early 1966. By most accounts she severed her contact with
Warhol and the Factory, and thus the VU, in February of 1966. As much
attention as she gets these days for her relationship to Warhol and the
Factory, her role in the Velvet Underground story is very slight,
though it does include a brief romantic relationship with John Cale for
a few weeks in early '66.
Gerard Malanga: Andy Warhol
assistant and poet/photographer/filmmaker who was perhaps the most
renowned of the dancers of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable,
particularly for doing a "whip dance." Some have speculated that his
dress and image influenced Jim Morrison of the Doors.
Mary Woronov: Another EPI
dancer, frequently enacting routines with Malanga, and subsequently an
acclaimed film director.
Danny Williams: Sometimes
credited with handling lights at the EPI shows, disappearing on July
25, 1966 in an incident that's often been thought to have been a
suicide. His story is told, and excerpts from his films shown, in the
2007 documentary A Walk into the Sea,
directed by his niece, Esther Robinson. The movie also includes brief
silent snippets of the Velvet Underground rehearsing in early 1966 that
were shot by Williams, taken from footage that lasts about fifteen to
twenty minutes altogether. For the record, Paul Morrissey maintains
that Williams "didn't have do anything to do with any lights or the
Plastic Inevitable; that was done entirely by me. There was no light
show other than the five film projections, five slide projections, and
one spotlight that was used in a mirror ball that revolved. We didn't
need any other lights, nor could we afford them; there was no place to
put them or anyone to work them."
Eric Emerson: Another EPI
dancer, as well as sometime Nico boyfriend and actor (alongside Nico
and her son Ari) in the film The
Chelsea Girls. Sometimes regarded as one of the chief villains
of the Velvet Underground story for threatening legal action for use of
his photo (in a projection at an EPI performance) on the back of The Velvet Underground & Nico,
causing the album to be withdrawn from distribution for a while and
helping to kill whatever commercial momentum it might have gathered.
Billy Name: Important part of
the Factory who took the pictures for the covers of both White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground.
Ron Nameth: Filmmaker who shot
the 1966 short film Andy Warhol's
Exploding Plastic Inevitable during the Velvet Underground's
performances in Chicago in mid-1966. Although Lou Reed and Nico were
missing from these performances (for which original drummer Angus
MacLise temporarily rejoined the group), and although the Velvets can
only be seen briefly (though they're heard on the soundtrack), this is
the most comprehensive on-screen document of the Exploding Plastic
Ari Delon: Nico's son (and only
child, usually considered to have been conceived with star French actor
Alain Delon), who appears with the Velvets in Andy Warhol's movie The Velvet Underground: A Symphony of Sound,
shot at the Factory in early 1966.
Charlie Rothschild: Booked
shows for the Velvet Underground in California in May 1966, and again
in September-October 1966 at the Balloon Farm in New York.
Gary Kellgren: Engineer on many
of the Velvet Underground's late-1960s recordings. More renowned as an
engineer on some of Jimi Hendrix's recordings, and as co-founder of the
Record Plant recording studios in New York City, which the Velvets
Hans Onsager: Road manager for
the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s, and son of Lars Onsager,
winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Steve Nelson: Manager of the
Boston Tea Party, the Velvet Underground's favorite venue, in the late
1960s, subsequently frequently booking the Velvets (at a time where
they were in definite need of the work) at several clubs he operated in
the state of Massachusetts.
Vic Briggs: Formerly guitarist
with Eric Burdon and the Animals, he tried to produce the Velvet
Underground for a few nights in late 1968 at the sessions for their
third LP before it was mutually decided that it wasn't working out.
Billy Yule: Drummer for the
Velvet Underground for their two-month stint at Max's Kansas City in
New York between late June and late August of 1970, playing on the Live at Max's Kansas City album and
some of the recordings used on Loaded.
Other members have since expressed regret that they didn't wait until a
pregnant Maureen Tucker had given birth and was ready to resume her
place in the band before recording Loaded, and Billy Yule's more
conventional rock style wasn't as suited for the group as Tucker's more
idiosyncratic one. But Billy was there to fill the drum chair in summer
1970 at both one of their most important long-running gigs and some of
the sessions for their final studio album with Lou Reed, and for that,
his contributions can't be discounted.
Ahmet Ertegun: Signed the
Velvet Underground to Atlantic Records in early 1970, enabling them to
escape an unsatisfactory situation with MGM and make a more
professionally recorded album, Loaded,
than any of their previous efforts. Ertegun and Atlantic would
subsequently be criticized by some band members, however, for failing
to promote Loaded well,
failing to give the Reed-less band an opportunity to record a follow-up
studio album, and for issuing a live LP (Live at Max's Kansas City) with the
Reed lineup that had bootleg-quality sound. Sterling Morrison has also
said that Ertegun and Atlantic were among the parties to reject the
Velvet Underground when they were shopping for a record deal in early
Tommy Castanaro: A real mystery
man, this Long Island session drummer, probably recruited through the
Musicians Union, appears on a couple tracks on Loaded.
Adrian Barber: Co-engineer and
co-producer of Loaded, also
playing some drums at the sessions. He also worked with Cream, the Bee
Gees, and the Allman Brothers. A former member of the Liverpool group
the Big Three, way back in December 1962, he'd also made lo-fi live
tapes of the Beatles that were released almost 15 years later as Live! At the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany.
Geoff Haslam: Another English
co-producer/co-engineer on Loaded,
his most famous other credit being producing the MC5's High Time album.
Shel Kagan: The least
celebrated of Loaded's three
Robert Somma: Editor of
Boston-based, nationally-distributed rock magazine Fusion who, though rarely credited,
was perhaps the journalist who did more than any other (with the
possible exception of Richard Williams in the UK) to raise the Velvet
Underground's visibility in the rock press in the late 1960s and early
1970s, championing them via pieces in Fusion
and other publications.
Jonathan Richman: Perhaps the
VU's most fanatical fan, seeing them many times in Boston and elsewhere
as a teenager, and becoming one of the first important Velvet
Underground-influenced musicians as leader of the (occasionally John
Cale-produced) Modern Lovers in the early 1970s.
Richard Williams: The
journalist who did more than any other to popularize the Velvet
Underground in the British rock press in the late 1960s and early
1970s, especially via rave reviews in Melody
Maker. Later to sign John Cale and Nico to Island Records, and
currently chief sportswriter at the UK national paper The Guardian.
Danny Fields: Atlantic Records
publicist who helped arrange for the sale and release of the August 23,
1970 tapes issued on Live at Max's
Brigid Berlin (aka Brigid Polk):
Andy Warhol Factory worker and actress who tapes the Velvet Underground
at Max's Kansas City on August 23, 1970, their final night before Lou
Reed left the band. These are the tapes later issued on the LP and
expanded CD versions of Live at
Max's Kansas City.
Richard & Lisa Robinson: Husband
and wife who were instrumental in encouraging Lou Reed to begin a solo
career after his exit from the Velvet Underground, with Richard
Robinson producing Reed's debut solo LP in early 1972.
Paul Nelson: Mercury A&R
man whose idea it was to compile and issue the two-LP set 1969 Velvet Underground Live, one
of the greatest live rock albums ever, in 1974, when such lengthy
archive concert releases of cult bands are virtually unknown.
Singer-songwriter who helped compile 1969
Velvet Underground Live, and wrote the LP's liner notes.
Patti Smith: The first star
punk/new wave musician to help retroactively popularize the Velvet
Underground, not only via their incorporation of the group's influence
on her John Cale-produced 1975 debut LP, but also by covering some of
their songs in concert. Prior to her recording debut, she also wrote
rave reviews of the Velvet Underground rock critic, as did her
guitarist, Lenny Kaye.
M.C. Kostek & Phil Milstein:
Editors of the Velvet Underground fanzine What Goes On, the organization that
did more than any other to spread the growth of the group's cult after
unless otherwise specified.
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