‘The Velvet Underground Experience’ celebrates iconic group
The Velvet Underground were pioneers of alternative rock, proto-punk and art rock who inspired a generation of artists. Frontman Lou Reed and multi-instrumentalist John Cale were the creative forces behind the band that inspired a slew of artists that came after them.
Artists like David Bowie, The Strokes, The Smiths, Nirvana and many more cite The Velvet Underground as an influence on their music. “The Velvet Underground Experience,” a newly opened exhibit, offers fans an insight on how the band came to be, while also providing a visual of New York City in the 1960s.
The exhibit started off its opening week with a celebration on Oct. 10 with Cale, musician James Murphy and poet Laurie Anderson — Reed’s widow — in attendance, followed by a special walk-and-talk by French industrial designer Matali Crasset on Oct. 11. An event on Oct. 13 offered a special Q&A with Cale himself.
At the Q&A, Cale told stories of The Velvet Underground’s beginnings, insane live shows, experimentation, advice from artist Andy Warhol, Warhol's fallout with Reed and — the oddest story of all — and the time a band played at a psychiatric convention. “We blasted them,” Cale recalls from the event. Afterward, Cale answered questions from the audience that ranged from his time in the band and his personal artistry to the meaning behind some of his works.
Pictures of New Yorkers protesting the Vietnam War, as well as photos of neighborhoods before gentrification, flooded the entrance of the exhibit, setting up the stark contrast of the past and present. Pictures of old music clubs that no longer exist and young artists such as Bob Dylan decorated the walls that took viewers to the music scene of the time.
One of the exhibit’s highlights was its rare photos of the band in its early stages. Each band member is given their own tribute with their eventual inclusion of the band shown by a timeline at the entrance of the exhibit.
German singer Nico had her own tribute as well, even though she was only with The Velvet Underground for their first album, before Reed kicked her out of the band.
Reed and Cale were both given a mini-documentary that explained their adolescence and how they eventually crossed paths.
It's impossible to talk about The Velvet Underground without discussing Warhol’s significance in the band’s lore.
Warhol was a pop culture icon and modern artist, but he was also the band’s manager for a short period of time, during which he had a great influence on the group. He produced the band’s first album and produced the now-iconic artwork. He was also responsible for Nico’s inclusion in the group.
Warhol's artwork and photos of the band in the ‘60s with the artist reflect the pop culture movement happening in New York at the time.
While viewers walked through the exhibit, they could hear the songs from The Velvet Underground’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, being played over the loud speaker. Rolling Stone ranked the album No. 13 on its “Top 500 albums of all time” list and No. 5 on its “Top 100 debut albums of all time” list.
The debut album is what inspired a generation of artists who copied its template. However, it wasn’t always seen that way. For an album that is universally acclaimed today, it was originally panned by critics and declared a financial failure at the time of its release.
It wasn’t until years later, when its influence could be heard in bands that took from its unconventional sound. Music producer Brian Eno once said that although The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 30,000 copies in five years, everyone who bought a copy started a band. The exhibit displayed copies of the original pressing, which is extremely sought after today and even showcased one autographed by all members of the band, including Nico and Warhol.
Downstairs, fans could find the works that inspired Reed and the band, ranging from the book that gave them the idea for the band’s name to the book Venus In Furs, which inspired the song of the same name.
The other main attraction in the lower level of the exhibit was a wall of artists that the band inspired, showing the influence the band’s music has had over a span of five decades, shaping the rock music available today. While staring at the wall, viewers could hear covers of The Velvet Underground’s music, including a cover of “Here She Comes Now” by Nirvana.
The exhibit’s weirdest attraction, however, was a room that required ID to get into. Inside was a projector playing vintage adult films from the ‘60s, showcasing gay erotica, while The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” played.
In an exhibit about a band that changed the sound of alternative rock music, one might ask what this room had to do with anything related to the band.
It was supposed to represent what the band stood for, as well as the era in which it thrived. The room reflected the hippie era that promoted love and freedom of expression.
The exhibit is for fans of The Velvet Underground. as well as for people who appreciate the foundation they laid for artists that came after them.
On the second floor of the exhibit, viewers could buy vintage vinyl records that can go for thousands of dollars.
Needless to say, this was one of the most unnecessary parts of the exhibit, as most fans weren’t willing to drop thousands of dollars for vintage vinyl, but it was, indeed, cool to see some original pressings.
A small portion of the exhibit was dedicated to The Velvet Underground’s career post-Warhol and Cale, in which their last three records before the band’s demise in 1970 were shown.
Although Reed, Cale and Warhol all had a falling out, there was a picture of all three laughing in 1976 that could be seen on the way out. Their influence on the music industry continues to be felt today.