'The Velvet Underground' film: How the band crossed artistic boundaries of the US establishment

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Bennett Purser

The Velvet Underground symbolized cool during the 1960s. With an experimental sound and transgressive lyrics, the Lou Reed-fronted band was managed by pop artist Andy Warhol, who embodied New York’s underground art scene at the time. They also influenced other artists — from The Sex Pistols to The Strokes — despite releasing just four albums. Today, the Velvets are considered one of America’s most important and impactful bands. Their story is captured in a new documentary on Apple TV+ by director Todd Haynes called “The Velvet Underground.”

Director Todd Haynes’ new documentary, “The Velvet Underground,” looks at how the band influenced scores of artists and became one of the US’ most important music groups. Credit: YouTube.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity

KCRW: This is your first documentary. Why did you choose The Velvet Underground as the subject? 

Todd Haynes: “This project basically came to me through someone at Universal Music Group, David Blackman, where the masters of The Velvets’ music resides. David reached out to me and Christine Vachon, my producer, and asked if I would be interested in doing a documentary and I said, ‘Yes, absolutely. Hands down.’”

Were you fans of the music?

“I was absolutely [a fan] of the music. It almost is an understatement. ... You kind of discover The Velvet Underground because you already were listening to David Bowie, or you were listening to punk rock, or you were listening to Patti Smith, or, as I was, all of those artists, and you realize, ‘Oh, okay, I get it now.’ This is kind of the root of all of that kind of music and music that was starting to explore something a little differently than even what was being explored in the 1960s, whence there was so much innovation and incredible music being made.”

They formed in 1965, and people went in and out. But the core two members were Lou Reed and John Cale, who are the focus of your documentary. Lou Reed is the temperamental rock and roller from Long Island, while John Cale is the intellectual. How did they find each other?

“John Cale played the viola. He came from Wales. But from a very early age ... he was really interested in modern music and the avant garde, and it propelled him out of Wales to Goldsmiths College in London, and then to a fellowship that ultimately landed him at Tanglewood in New York. He followed John Gage and he ultimately found his home in New York City working with La Monte Young, who was a follower of experimental, avant garde music, [and] the whole idea of the drone, which goes back to very early Chinese music. The notion of just extending a single note in instrumentation is really about minimalism in the avant garde. 

Meanwhile, Lou Reed is moving from rock and roll, R&B ambitions as a teenager, and then went to Syracuse College for a brief stint, and then landed at a place called Pickwick Records, which was sort of producing these one-hit concept cheap records of dance songs, or sort of like the records you could buy at Kmart. He wrote this song called ‘The Ostrich,’ that was kind of like an early garage rocks sound, all tuned to one note, with his very wild singing and guitar playing all playing to the single, minimalist drone, doing almost in rock and roll what John Cale was doing in his avant garde practices. 

When ‘The Ostrich’ started to get a little traction, they wanted to have a band perform it. John Cale came to a party and a producer from Pickwick Records said, ‘Oh, I like your long hair and your kind of commercial look, could you meet up with this guy Lou Reed?’ And the two of them started to explore. And Lou had written some songs as early as high school, and one of them was called ‘Heroin.’ And Cale is like, ‘This song is extraordinary. But I think the music isn't serving the content of a song that's basically about having tremendous ambivalence about living your life, and how heroin could be a way out.’ So this is what sort of bonded these two guys together. And in that close proximity, stuff started to happen.”

How did John Cale and Lou Reed get along? 

“That's a complicated story in and of itself. Lou Reed was a person with a lot of defenses. And some of those defenses would be expressed with a level of hostility and self protectiveness that he would turn out as shields to his various insecurities or sensitivities as a person, as an artist. 

They began with a solidarity, a feeling that it was them against the world, that they were going to create something completely and utterly new together. And that they had to create a level of disdain for the world around them, and even the creative world around them. And later, aspects of that protectiveness or that disdain that isolated the two of them would ultimately invade that trust when things got tough [during] all the pressures of being a rock and roll band. And also the fact that these were two extremely strong artistic sensibilities that were struggling.”

How old were they at the time? 

“They were in their early 20s when it started. But what's so interesting about Lou is that you see all sides of him thoroughly on display as a kid in high school, and absolutely in college — all of that incredible striving to encounter experience, to experiment sexually, reading literature and poetry, and using that as influences for his lyric writing and music making, but also those tough, aggressive, protective layers that he would expel on people. That was all there from the start, and it's in the music. This isn't just rock and roll behavior. This is something really elemental to this creative person. And yet I don't think it was something that was hidden. In fact, it was fueling the music itself.”

The band’s first album, 1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” was not well received. In fact, at the time, none of their albums did well, right?

“Not in terms of commercial numbers and sales and all of that. They occupied a place in New York City underground culture that was … crossing all kinds of boundaries of the establishment within the city and the cultural elite of New York at the time. That made a real impact. And people who were there at the time witnessed something remarkable that they'll never forget. It didn't translate into other places in the ‘60s, it certainly didn't translate when they finally went to the West Coast and had a sort of clash of countercultures that made them realize how deviant and transgressive the New York City ethos was in relation to the larger hippie counterculture. And I think that they were talking about experiences and a way of seeing the world that ultimately endured and opened up all kinds of avenues for music and musical expression that you can't imagine without The Velvets beginning it.”

What was their ethos, if it wasn't “peace, love and understanding” like the hippies?

“There was a sense in the ‘60s of self-realization, of affirmation, of vision [that] was built into the music, whether it was in R&B, jazz, or rock and roll. And this was music that was non-affirmative. This was music that was looking at the underbelly of experience ... sexual deviancy, transvestites, and bisexuals, and gay people, and drug users, people from the street, and how life is challenging and tough at times, and that people don't always feel good. 

And I think that opened up the ability to say, ‘Yeah, you know what, I’ve felt that way. I understand those feelings as well,’ in other musicians and genres of music that would follow. I felt it when I was a college kid and I first heard this music. And it made me feel like, yeah, I want to maybe tell different kinds of stories as a gay person that weren't necessarily a liberationist kind of crusade. They were more in line with people like Arthur Rimbaud or Jean Genet, or a different way of looking at identity that stood outside normative models.”