Long before forming the Velvet Underground and entering the Factory fold, Lou Reed began playing rock ’n’ roll in high school in the late 1950s and got his first post-college job as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, which he quit to form the Velvet Underground.
In 1966, Lou Reed and his band recorded The Velvet Underground & Nico at the studios of Scepter Records, which was largely associated with the Shirelles and other girl groups. Eight years later, engineer Tom Moulton created the first twelve-inch extended dance remix in Scepter’s studio, which became a crucial format for disco DJs. And when the disco movement was peaking in 1977, Studio 54 opened inside an old soundstage that originally broadcast hit television shows like The $64,000 Question and Captain Kangaroo. That former CBS television studio was located underneath Scepter Records at 254 West Fifty-Fourth Street—a building that produced an unlikely mix of girl group pop, left field rock, debauched disco, and children’s television programming.
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In late 1965, the Velvet Underground began performing at Café Bizarre, which had fake cobwebs, candles, and waitresses in fishnet stockings who looked like Morticia from The Addams Family. “I walked by Café Bizarre a hundred times but I never went in,” said Peter Crowley, who managed another coffeehouse. “It was absolutely another tourist trap, so I never bothered going.” The Velvets’ dissonant droning and sordid tales clashed with the Greenwich Village folk crowd’s more conventional tastes. “One night at the Café Bizarre,” Sterling Morrison recalled, “we played ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ and the owner came up and said, ‘If you play that song one more time you’re fired!’ ” The Velvets began their next set with a ferocious version of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and were promptly fired.
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
While Lou Reed dabbled in experimental music in college, John Cale had an extensive background in that world. Born in South Wales, he received an undergraduate degree in classical music and absorbed the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In 1963, Cale was awarded a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study modern composition at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, but he quickly fell out with composer Aaron Copland, who had helped Cale secure the scholarship. “Copland said I couldn’t play my work at Tanglewood,” he recalled. “It was too destructive, he said. He didn’t want his piano wrecked.” Cale then moved to New York and dove straight into the city’s avant-garde scene, participating in an eighteen-hour performance organized by John Cage soon after arriving. Once settled there, Cale began playing with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble, which also included Factory custodian Billy Name and Tony Conrad (the friend of Jack Smith who compiled the soundtrack for Flaming Creatures).
The Velvet Underground continued playing for these Factory-produced events, renamed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a continuation of multimedia experiments that were taking place downtown. Elaine Summers had already staged her Fantastic Gardens mixed-media event in February 1964 at Judson Church, where film projections were splashed on the ceiling, walls, and floor, and the audience participated with small handheld mirrors. The results were stunning, and unprecedented. As the space was enveloped by a cacophony of lighting effects, music, movement, spoken word, and cinema, dance pioneer Sally Stackhouse performed on the balcony in front of a film of herself dancing. In his Village Voice column, Jonas Mekas argued that Fantastic Gardens was “by far the most successful and most ambitious attempt to use the many possible combinations of film and live action to create an aesthetic experience.” Two years later, Warhol did much the same when he projected performance footage of the Velvet Underground while they played in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom.
When John Cale moved to New York City, Lou Reed was working his nine-to-five job at Pickwick Records writing knockoff pop songs to be sold at department stores. When asked if he felt any cognitive dissonance writing the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” by night while holding down a day job crafting commercial fare, Reed pointed out that Warhol also supported his unorthodox art with paid commercial work. “So I didn’t see that as schizophrenic at all,” he said. “I just had a job as a songwriter. I mean, a real hack job. They’d come in with a subject, and we’d write. Which I still kind of like to this day.” Not long after Cale moved into Tony Conrad’s Lower East Side apartment at 56 Ludlow Street, the two artists met Reed after he recorded a garage-rock novelty single, “The Ostrich,” under the name the Primitives. This dance song contained a one-note burst of guitar noise that anticipated the Velvet Underground’s minimalist approach (“That’s rock ’n’ roll,” Reed said of that musical moment, “keep it simple”). Pickwick quickly moved to assemble a live band that could promote this potential hit in early 1965 and, because Cale and Conrad had long hair, they were buttonholed at a party by two sleazy company men from the record label. Cale, Conrad, and their Theatre of Eternal Music collaborator Angus MacLise took a leap of faith and formed a pickup band with Reed for a short promotional tour, which included appearances at a supermarket, high school, and local television dance show. The Primitives padded their short sets with inflammatory soon-to-be-Velvet Underground classics like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin,” which went over poorly.
After “The Ostrich” fizzled on the charts, the four musicians in the Primitives formed the Warlocks. (This name was also being used by a San Francisco band who, upon hearing about the existence of this New York group, renamed themselves the Grateful Dead.) Lou Reed’s group, which now included his college friend Sterling Morrison on guitar, changed their name after Tony Conrad stumbled across a sensationalistic paperback book about S&M titled The Velvet Underground. “We thought it was a good name,” said Morrison, “because it had underground in it and [because we] were playing for underground films, we considered ourselves part of the underground film community. We had no real connection to rock and roll as far as we were concerned.” After Conrad left the group, the classic Velvet Underground lineup was rounded out by drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, who replaced MacLise after he quit. Reed was a friend of Maureen’s brother, Jim Tucker, and they cofounded a mimeo poetry zine, Lonely Woman Quarterly, while the two attended Syracuse University.
Andy Warhol’s association with the Velvet Underground deepened his reach into the world of popular music, expanding his multimedia empire. “The Pop idea, after all, was that anybody could do anything,” Warhol wrote in POPism, his memoir of the 1960s, “so naturally we were all trying to do it all. 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.” In November 1965, before the Velvet Underground’s Café Bizarre residency abruptly ended, a theater producer named Michael Myerberg came up with the idea of opening a Warhol-branded discotheque. He approached Paul Morrissey—Warhol’s sort-of manager and assistant filmmaker—who put the word out that the Factory wanted to find a house band for the space. Malanga, Sanders, and underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin had already seen the Velvet Underground, which led to Warhol signing the group to a management deal. (Myerberg eventually chose the Young Rascals, a better business move for someone looking to draw in a large teen and young adult audience.)
“The Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders, and the Velvet Underground were the only authentic Lower East Side bands,” guitarist Sterling Morrison said, perhaps with a bit of exaggeration. “We were real bands playing for real people in a real scene. We helped each other out if we could and generally hung out at the same places.” Poet and provocateur Ed Sanders had already formed the Fugs in late 1964, a few months before the Velvets coalesced. “I felt camaraderie towards The Velvets,” Sanders recalled. “We overlapped. So people would come to both shows. Nico used to come to my bookstore, the Peace Eye.” The connections among this lowly trinity of bands ran deep. The Holy Modal Rounders first emerged on the Lower East Side in May 1963, and about a year later Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber joined the Fugs—contributing radio-unfriendly songs to the group’s repertoire (like Stampfel’s “New Amphetamine Shriek” and Weber’s “Boobs a Lot”).
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In April 1966, the Velvet Underground began their residency playing with Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom, where Factory newcomer Mary Woronov joined in. “Gerard Malanga felt we would be center stage and liven things up,” Woronov said. “So he brought me on with the black leather suit and a whip, and we worked out a dance with a sort of S&M kind of theme.” Their routines were supposed to be dark and theatrical, but they sometimes veered into goofier realms. “For ‘Waiting for the Man,’ I would lift weights,” Woronov said. “For ‘Heroin,’ Gerard would run around with a plastic needle that was two feet long and shoot up. It was sort of an act, to music.” Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground unleashed sheets of sound as Warhol slipped colored gelatin slides over film projector lenses or just stood on the balcony, observing the crowded scene. One night he saw “a small, muscular blond kid make a ballet leap that practically spanned the dance floor.” Warhol promptly went downstairs and met the young man, Eric Emerson, whose good looks and magnetic personality secured him a spot in several Warhol films. He was cast alongside Nico and Woronov in The Chelsea Girls and appeared in Lonesome Cowboys, San Diego Surf, and Heat.
The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in 1966 but wasn’t released until the following year. Bucking the music industry norm of securing a contract with a record label, Warhol and the Velvets went the independent route—recording it themselves. “The album says, ‘Produced by Andy Warhol,’ ” Sterling Morrison noted. “Well, it was produced in the sense that a movie is produced. He put up the money. We made the album ourselves and then took it around because we knew that no one was going to sign us off the streets. And we didn’t want any A&R department telling us what songs we should record.” Unfortunately, Factory scenester Eric Emerson played a fateful role in torpedoing the Velvet Underground’s (slim) chances of commercial success soon after the release of their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album’s back cover originally featured a shot of the band playing with an image of Emerson’s face from The Chelsea Girls projected prominently in the background. Emerson either needed drug money or was simply broke, so he threatened to sue the record label because he hadn’t signed a photo release. Verve Records pulled the album from record stores and redacted Emerson’s face from the back cover, which was a disaster for the band. “The album vanished from the charts almost immediately in June 1967,” Sterling Morrison lamented, “just when it was about to enter the Top 100. It never returned to the charts.”
Remarkably, both the Holy Modal Rounders and the Velvet Underground appeared on national television, reaching millions of households. In 1965, legendary CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite introduced “The Making of an Underground Film,” a five-and-a-half-minute segment that featured Jonas Mekas, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground (whose members—except for drummer Maureen Tucker—were shirtless and wearing body paint). “Some underground films have been criticized for dealing too frankly with such themes as sex and nudity,” CBS correspondent Dave Dugan reported, “but many movies such as this one may simply seem confusing.” Even the Fugs came close to making it on network television after Sanders’s face landed on the cover of the February 17, 1967, issue of Life—one of the nation’s highest-circulation magazines. This led to a call from The Tonight Show to appear as Johnny Carson’s guest. Ed Sanders stubbornly insisted that the Fugs should be allowed to perform “Kill for Peace” on the program as a protest against the Vietnam War but, not surprisingly, the network refused to let the Fugs sing, “If you don’t like the people or the way that they talk / If you don’t like their manners or they way that they walk / Kill, kill, kill for peace!”
The Warhol film Flesh introduced Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis to the underground film world, after which the two became regulars at Max’s (in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed observed, “Candy came from out on the Island, in the back room she was everybody’s darling”). Born James Slattery, Darling grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island—where she was friends with future Off-Off-Broadway director Tony Ingrassia. By the mid-1960s she and Ingrassia made their way to New York City, where Darling became part of the street scene. Hanging out on the stoops or in the parks, she would often be invited back to people’s apartments in the hope that she could inject a little glamour into their evenings. “Candy looked beautiful,” Jane Wagner recalled, “like she just stepped out of a movie.” Curtis quickly took Darling under her wing and, one evening, brought the new arrival to Jim Fouratt’s apartment. “I would like you to meet this boy that just arrived in town,” Curtis told him. “His name is James, but we’re going to call him Candy—Candy Darling. And Candy Darling is never going home again.” Curtis and Darling first met Andy Warhol on the Greenwich Village streets, asking for an autograph and inviting him to Glamour, Glory, and Gold, playing at Bastiano’s Cellar Studio. “Walking just ahead of us was a boy about nineteen or twenty with wispy Beatle bangs,” Warhol recalled, “and next to him was a tall, sensational blonde drag queen in very high heels and a sundress that she had made sure had one strap falling onto her upper arm.” Warhol loved Curtis’s show and provided a publicity blurb—“For the first time, I wasn’t bored”—which led to parts for Curtis and Darling in Warhol’s Flesh.
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn appeared in many Warhol films, on cabaret stages, and in underground theater productions. As with the other two, Woodlawn (née Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhaki) was also name-checked in that Lou Reed classic: “Holly came from Miami, F-L-A, hitchhiked her way across the USA, plucked her eyebrows along the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she.” In fact, Holly Woodlawn didn’t hitchhike—she took the bus to New York—but the rest was more or less true. “Through Jackie, I would end up at Max’s with Jackie and Candy and Holly,” Bruce Eyster recalled. “They were all very funny in different ways and had their own take on things. Holly was kind of like the Martha Raye comedienne slapstick girl.” Ruby Lynn Reyner also hung out with all three, and would act out scenes from 1940s movies and 1950s televisions shows with them. “They knew all the dialogue from old Kim Novak movies, Joan Crawford movies, or I Love Lucy,” she said. “We’d switch off playing the roles. Jackie and I would always fight over who would be Lucy and who would be Ethel. Oh, and Holly and I had adventures together. We used to wear these old vintage 1930s nightgowns and wander through the East Village, clinging together in the night. One time she came to answer the door and she was just out of the shower and she had a big dick. I couldn’t believe it. I always thought of Holly as my girlfriend.”
Jackie Curtis loved the limelight and couldn’t have been happier than when Lou Reed immortalized her in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his best-known song: “Jackie is just speeding away,” Reed sang, “thought she was James Dean for a day.” (Friends and acquaintances tended to use both “she” and “he” pronouns when describing Curtis, which was fitting for someone who insisted, “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual—I’m just me, Jackie.”) “Sometimes he’d kind of have a James Dean style, but ragged,” playwright Robert Heide said of Curtis, “and other times Jackie would dress as Barbara Stanwyck. She would look really good in a red wig or that kind of thing.” Jackie wasn’t the kind of drag queen who tried to pass herself off as a woman and instead developed a sui generis style—as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin learned when she would drop by Wagner’s apartment dressed either as a man or woman. “What Jackie did was more like performance art,” Melba LaRose said. “I never thought of him as a woman. He went back and forth so many times. When I met Jackie, he was a little boy with a shopping bag. He had bangs. He was very cute.” “That was the beginning of pansexuality, and David Bowie picked up on that,” said Tony Zanetta, who worked with the glam rock singer. “I find a lot of similarities between Jackie Curtis and David Bowie.” Noting that Jackie had the same DIY aesthetic as John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, Zanetta added, “Jackie Curtis’s tattered clothes look was do-it-yourself, number one. Like at Warhol’s Factory, it was about how, if you wanted to be an artist, you just basically said you were. Like with punk, if you wanted to be a musician or you wanted to be in a band, well, you didn’t really have to learn how to play an instrument. So Jackie Curtis, the Ridiculous, and punk are all connected.”
With his eye on breaking David Bowie in America, his manager Tony DeFries hired Pork performers Tony Zanetta and Cherry Vanilla to work at the New York offices of MainMan, his management company, alongside photographer and scenester Leee Black Childers. Zanetta became president of MainMan, Childers was vice president, and Vanilla directed publicity. They had absolutely no business experience and were fairly irresponsible, but no matter—DeFries was selling an image one couldn’t learn about in business school. “MainMan was definitely about Tony DeFries wanting to make money,” Zanetta said, “but I was there because I liked David Bowie and I liked what he was doing.” MainMan’s new president became friends with Bowie and toured with him during the Ziggy Stardust era, which further fueled his Warholian infatuation with stardom and image-making. “Once I admitted that to myself,” Zanetta said, “it kind of freed me and the whole world kind of opened up, especially rock ’n’ roll.” Andy Warhol, however, did not receive Bowie quite as enthusiastically. When he paid a visit to the Factory, the artist muttered something about liking his shoes, but things got more awkward when Bowie played him “Andy Warhol,” a rather corny track from his Hunky Dory album. Silence. While visiting New York, Bowie also connected with Iggy Pop, who signed a management contract with MainMan, and Bowie finally got to know his musical hero, Lou Reed.
From Chapter 24 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore