The Velvet Underground & Nico


The Velvet Underground & Nico


The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground & Nico


The Velvet Underground & Nico is the debut album by American rock band the Velvet Underground with vocalist Nico, released in March 1967 by Verve Records. Recorded in 1966 during Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia event tour, the album would gain attention for its experimental performance sensibilities and controversial lyrical topics, including drug abuse, prostitution, sadism and masochism and sexual deviancy.
Though it was a commercial failure upon release and was almost completely ignored by critics at the time, the record has since become one of the most influential and critically acclaimed rock albums in history, appearing at number thirteen on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time as well as being added to the 2006 National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. In 1982, musician Brian Eno famously stated that while The Velvet Underground & Nico initially only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”


The Velvet Underground & Nico
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. “Sunday Morning” Lou Reed, John Cale 2:54
2. “I’m Waiting for the Man” 4:39
3. “Femme Fatale” 2:38
4. “Venus in Furs” 5:12
5. “Run Run Run” 4:22
6. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” 6:00
7. “Heroin” 7:12
8. “There She Goes Again” 2:41
9. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” 2:14
10. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” Lou Reed, John Cale 3:11
11. “European Son” Reed, Cale, Sterling MorrisonMaureen Tucker 7:46
The Velvet Underground & Nico Alternate Cover
The Velvet Underground & Nico Alternate Cover


The Velvet Underground & Nico was notable for its overt descriptions of topics such as drug abuse, prostitution, sadism and masochism and sexual deviancy. “I’m Waiting for the Man” describes a man’s efforts to obtain heroin while “Venus in Furs” is a nearly literal interpretation of the nineteenth century novel of the same name (which itself prominently features accounts of BDSM). “Heroin” details an individual’s use of the drug and the experience of feeling its effects.
Lou Reed, who wrote the majority of the album’s lyrics, never intended to write about such topics for shock value. Reed, a fan of poets and authors such as Raymond Chandler, Nelson Algren, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Hubert Selby, Jr., saw no reason the content in their works couldn’t translate well to rock and roll music. An English major who studied for a B.A. at Syracuse University, Reed said in an interview that he thought joining the two (gritty subject matter and music) was “obvious”. “That’s the kind of stuff you might read. Why wouldn’t you listen to it? You have the fun of reading that, and you get the fun of rock on top of it.”
Though the album’s dark subject matter is today considered revolutionary,nseveral of the album’s songs are centered on themes more typical of popular music. Certain songs were written by Reed as observations of the members of Andy Warhol’s “Factory Superstars”. “Femme Fatale” in particular was written about Edie Sedgwick at Warhol’s request. “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, inspired by Nico, is a tender and affectionate song; in stark contrast to a song like “Heroin”. A common misperception is that “All Tomorrow’s Parties” was written by Reed at Warhol’s request (as stated in Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga’s Velvet Underground biography Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story). While the song does seem to be another observation of Factory denizens, Reed had written the song (and even recorded a demo version in 1965) before meeting Warhol.
The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground & Nico


The album cover for The Velvet Underground & Nico is recognizable for featuring a Warhol print of a banana. Early copies of the album invited the owner to “Peel slowly and see”; peeling back the banana skin revealed a flesh-colored banana underneath. A special machine was needed to manufacture these covers (one of the causes of the album’s delayed release), but MGM paid for costs figuring that any ties to Warhol would boost sales of the album. Most reissued vinyl editions of the album do not feature the peel-off sticker; the original copies of the album with the peel-sticker feature are now rare collector’s items. A Japanese re-issue LP in the early 1980s was the only re-issue version to include the banana sticker for many years. On the 1996 CD reissue, the banana image is on the front cover while the image of the peeled banana is on the inside of the jewel case, beneath the CD itself. The album was re-pressed onto heavyweight vinyl in 2008 and this edition also features the banana sticker. The original British release was a single sleeve and did not have a banana on the front but featured the reverse of the American issue.
The Velvet Underground & Nico Original Back Cover
The Velvet Underground & Nico Original Back Cover


When the album was first issued, the main back cover photo (taken at an Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance) featured an image of actor Eric Emerson projected upside-down on the wall behind the band. Having recently been arrested for drug possession and desperate for money, Emerson threatened to sue over this unauthorized use of his image, unless he was paid. Rather than complying, MGM recalled copies of the album and halted its distribution until Emerson’s image could be airbrushed from the photo on subsequent pressings. Copies that had already been printed were sold with a large black sticker covering the actor’s image. The image was restored for the 1996 CD reissue. More recently, a reissue of the vinyl via Newbury Comics features both the peel-able banana as well as the original back cover featuring Eric Emerson’s image.
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground


The Velvet Underground In California
Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable landed in California in the spring of 1966, advertising “light shows & curious movies” and looking, for all the world, like an alien invasion. Warhol had brought whips and leather-clad dancers, along with Nico, an impossibly beautiful German chanteuse who’d appeared, five years earlier, in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” At the heart of his circus: the Velvet Underground, who sang strange, seemingly atonal songs about hard drugs, louche poets, and sexual deviance. Three of the band’s four members had grown up on Long Island; they spoke with Long Island accents and loved doo-wop, Bo Diddley, and Booker T. and the M.G.’s. The fourth member, John Cale, was a classically trained viola player from Wales. He’d arrived in the U.S. on a scholarship sponsored by Leonard Bernstein, studied with Xenakis at Tanglewood, then fallen in with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, in New York City. In New York, Cale had filed the bridge of his viola down, strung the instrument with metal strings, and amplified it. The result, he recalled, was “a great noise; it sounded pretty much like there was an aircraft in the room with you.”
“It was all very campy and very Greenwich Village sick,” Ralph Gleason wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. In his book “White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day,” Richie Unterberger quotes a critic for KFWB in Los Angeles: “This is a tasteless, vulgar review that should never have opened.” “A prime example of me bringing in something I don’t like was the Andy Warhol show,” Bill Graham, of the Fillmore, later remembered. “It was sickening, and it drew a real Perversion U.S.A. element to the auditorium.”
The feeling was mutual. “We spoke two completely different languages,” Mary Woronov, who’d been a dancer with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, said. “We were on amphetamine and they were on acid. They were so slow to speak with these wide-open eyes—‘Oh, wow!’—so into their ‘vibrations’; we spoke in rapid machine-gun fire about books and paintings and movies. They were into ‘free’ and the American Indian and ‘going back to the land’ and trying to be some kind of ‘true, authentic’ person; we could not have cared less about that. They were homophobic; we were homosexual. Their women, they were these big round-titted girls, you would say hello to them and they would just flop down on the bed and fuck you; we liked sexual tension, S & M, not fucking. They were barefoot; we had platform boots. They were eating bread they had baked themselves—and we never ate at all!”
Unterberger’s chronology is the closest thing we have to a record of the Velvet Underground’s first few visits to California. But last month, Universal Music released “The Velvet Underground: The Complete Matrix Tapes,” which collects four complete, consecutive sets the band played on their third West Coast tour, in San Francisco, in November of 1969. Though much of the material has appeared before—on “1969 Velvet Underground Live,” on 2001’s “The Velvet Underground Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes,” and on last year’s reissue of the band’s self-titled third album—many recordings are new, and the collection itself is inspired and inspiring.
By 1969, the Velvets had shaded lighter. Warhol, Nico, and Cale were all gone. (Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule, was a talented but conventional rock and roller from Boston, barely out of his teens.) For their third album, V.U.’s frontman, Lou Reed, had written exquisite songs—“Pale Blue Eyes,” “Jesus,” and “Candy Says,” which Yule was given to sing—in which the paranoia that marked his earlier ballads, like “Sunday Morning,” had given way to something softer, more searching and spiritual. The Velvets had always contained musical extremes: loud and soft, melodic and dissonant, avant-garde and primitive. By the end of the sixties, their emotional repertoire had become just as broad.
Meanwhile, California had shaded darker. Los Angeles was still reeling from The Manson Family murders. Altamont was one week away. And, as David Fricke points out in his liner notes, the first two sets on “The Complete Matrix Tapes” were recorded on November 26th, the day before Thanksgiving, which was also the day that Richard Nixon signed Executive Order 11497, calling for the random selection of Selective Service draftees. “Good evening,” Reed said that night, from the stage, at the start of the band’s first performance. “We’re your local Velvet Underground. We’re glad to see you, thank you, but we’re particularly glad on a serious day, like today, that people could find a little time to come out and just have some fun to some rock and roll.”
The Matrix was a small club; the space it occupied had once been a pizzeria. On the recordings, it sounds like the Velvets performed in front of dozens of people at most. Decades later, one of the owners recalled a two-dollar cover and guessed that the band, which played two sets a night, would have gotten about $100 each evening. But the musicians were generous, drawing on all of their albums and working through songs they had yet to record. Toward the end of the very first set, they played Reed’s new ballad, “Sweet Jane”—a baby’s breath version that appears, for the first time, on “The Complete Matrix Tapes,” and has radically different lyrics from those that have come down to us:
Waiting down on the corner
Miss Jimmie and Miss Anne
They said, ‘Let’s go up to Billy’s house,
He’s got a couple of strange friends there.’
So I went up to the fourth floor
And much to my surprise
Nobody looked at my body
They were all looking at my eyes
For a group of musicians who could be savage on record—who are seen (correctly) as the precursors to punk—this is remarkably heartfelt and delicate. The next day, the Velvets would play “Sweet Jane” again, and these characters—Billy, Miss Jimmie, Miss Anne—would all be gone. But as I listened to Reed’s song, I couldn’t help thinking about what their story might have meant to those who felt out of sorts, or out of alignment, on that Thanksgiving weekend, forty-six years ago. I imagined teen-agers wandering in off the street, paying two dollars and hearing something that cut so gently against the grain of its time, while pointing toward other places where differences—queerness, of one kind or another—would be welcomed and, eventually, celebrated. In terms of gay rights, San Francisco had already pulled ahead of New York by 1969. But as a New Yorker, I took pride in the fact that, on that night in California, Reed’s compass would have pointed those wayward, out-of-place kids toward New York.
Alex Abramovich is the author of “Bullies: A Friendship,” which will be published in March, 2016.
By Alex Abramovich DECEMBER 8, 2015
DH4GR3 THE VELVET UNDERGROUND US pop group about 1969. From l: Lou Reed (lower), Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Nico, Doug Yule
DH4GR3 THE VELVET UNDERGROUND US pop group about 1969. From l: Lou Reed (lower), Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Nico, Doug Yule


“Heroin” Was Our Heroin
On a December weeknight in 2009, five hundred Velvet Underground fans lined up outside the Forty-second Street entrance to the New York Public Library, all of us playing it cool but feeling giddy. When passers-by asked what we were going to, people said things like “A panel.” Inside, Lou Reed, Moe Tucker, and Doug Yule would be talking to David Fricke, of Rolling Stone. No music, no John Cale, and, of course, no Sterling Morrison, who died in 1995—but even that much Velvet Underground, for a fan born too late to have seen them in their era, was almost too exciting to comprehend. After two decades of listening to their albums, and of scraping together modern-day connections to the band where I could—watching Reed and Cale play some of “Songs for Drella” on Letterman, in 1990, reading articles about the band’s European reunion tour in 1993 (Tucker: “ ‘Heroin’ is our fireworks. ‘Sister Ray’ is our fireworks”), seeing Morrison sit in with Tucker in 1994, and spotting the lovably cranky Reed around town after I moved here, in 2000, and keeping a respectful distance—I waited for this event, so much purer than any live Velvet Underground experience I’d managed to glean before, with the level of anticipation that Waldo Jeffers felt inside his box. It would be soon.
We waited in the cold. A young woman, knowing her market, handed out fliers, saying “Re-create the Factory for one night in New York?” with each one.
There’s no denying the great moments of Lou Reed’s solo career—among them “Perfect Day,” “Street Hassle,” “Romeo Had Juliette,” and, what the hell, “I Love You, Suzanne.” But the Lou Reed I loved best was the Velvet Underground version: the Lou Reed of “Sister Ray” and “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the one responsible for making “Coney Island Steeplechase” play in my head every time I see Kings Highway on a subway map. Like most fans, I discovered V.U. when I was a teen-ager, and it changed my life. I lived in a farm town near Hartford, I was happy and reasonably innocent, I hung out with the children of teachers and actuaries, but somehow the Velvet Underground’s music, full of feedback and violas and dirgelike drumming and childlike sweetness, with lyrics about heroin and Candy Darling and whiplash girlchildren in the dark, felt like what I’d been always waiting to hear. It was more vital, more interesting, more contemporary than any music I’d ever encountered. And, despite itself, it was accessible and easy to love. For every “Venus in Furs” there was a “Sunday Morning”; scariness and weirdness appeared alongside tenderness. On the later albums, especially, much of the brilliance came in very palatable forms—straight-up rockers like “Foggy Notion,” happy goof-arounds like “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” singsongy stuff like “Andy’s Chest,” with its bats and bears and ocelots and kites. As a teen-ager in 1989, I could drive around singing along with lines like “Wine in the morning, and some breakfast at night; I’m beginning to see the light,” and laugh, and the laughter was just extra joy, because the guitars and the melody were already so satisfying. Much of the Velvet Underground’s music was high art; much of it had a sense of humor. And its defining image was a yellow Andy Warhol banana. There’s nothing friendlier than that.
At the library, inside the grandly elegant Celeste Bartos Forum, “Sunday Morning” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Who Loves the Sun?” and “After Hours” played, and audience members of many ages greeted friends and took their seats. The occasion was the publication of “New York Art: The Velvet Underground,” a massive art book full of images of posters advertising concerts at the Boston Tea Party, album covers, handwritten sheet music, and the like. Some of these artifacts were on display in vitrines along one wall; one poster in a case advertised a “FREAK OUT from noon to 10 pm.” Some were projected on screens behind the stage—for example, a Verve ad with a picture of Warhol and the line “So far underground, you’ll get the bends!”
Paul Holdengräber, the library’s events director, came onstage and said, in a German accent, “You may be interested to know that this event sold out in three minutes and twenty seconds.” He promised the audience a night of “cognitive theatre,” and said that David Fricke would “instigate” the conversation; he invited everyone to check out the memorabilia after the talk.
Then the lights went down—way down—and stayed that way. The room was dark. Library employees walked along the perimeter in the shadows. The fans sat in silence. Over the speakers, sounds of audio popping, music bits and false starts, could be heard; these sounded suspiciously like a record, a real vinyl one, being played by a person who couldn’t find the right groove. And then the right groove was found: the opening notes of “Heroin,” the studio version. People in the audience cried out and clapped.
There was Lou Reed’s beautiful, calm, inviting guitar, a little ominous, a little curious—the sound of anticipation. Here was Moe Tucker’s mallet—a definitive, thudding whomp. Then John Cale, and his electric viola—the drone. A coming-together of a sound that said beauty and danger at once, something to enjoy and fear up ahead. Reed’s voice came in:
I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m going to try for the kingdom if I can
’Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
The pace picked up—the guitar and the drums sounding like a quickening heartbeat, Reed’s singing growing more urgent:
When I put a spike into my vein
And I’ll tell you, things aren’t quite the same
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know
The song slows down again in the next verse, and then picks up again. The library played the whole thing: the great big clipper ship, the sailor suit and cap, the spike in the vein, the blood in the head, the closing in on death, the Jim-Jims in this town, the politicians making crazy sounds. Morrison’s rhythm guitar, Cale’s shrieking viola, Reed’s vocals, talking and real singing, Tucker’s drums racing along with them, the crescendos—and then Reed saying “I guess, but I just don’t know.” The whole thing smoothed out, returning to the quiet guitar and the mallet.
You don’t hear “Heroin” on the radio; you don’t hear it played in a big open room. You don’t even hear it on “Live at Max’s Kansas City”—a man keeps requesting it, drunkenly, and Reed finally says, “We don’t play ‘Heroin’ anymore.” That night, sitting there in the dark listening to “Heroin” with a few hundred people who loved it as much as I did, I thought of what church must feel like to believers: sacred and communal, interior and intimate and public. Reed’s guitar played one last chord, and seemed to say—as his lyrics said so many times—that everything would be all right.
The lights came on, and Lou Reed and Moe Tucker and Doug Yule walked onstage. Audience members stood up and cheered. The applause sounded torrential, like the feedback hiss in “Black Angel’s Death Song.”
On the panel, Lou was Lou, prickly, quick to describe people who hadn’t understood V.U. in its time as “stupid,” but loving in his memories of Nico and Warhol; Moe was Moe, funny, straightforward, and blunt as her drumming style. They talked about playing for free hamburgers, Moe typing for Andy Warhol, Nico driving their tour van, recording “Sister Ray,” and charging any band member who played a blues lick a ten-dollar fine; the stories were delicious to hear.
But “Heroin” was the fireworks—seven minutes of pure joy. The event gathered a few hundred of the devoted and the grateful together, and gave us a chance, in the presence of the music and Tucker and Yule and each other, to say We love you, Lou, and Thanks for the Velvet Underground, in a form that he could stand.