Before the Velvet Underground landed under the wing of Andy Warhol, its members were misfits who gigged in West Village tourist dives, alienated audiences and got fired for being too abrasive. “Some of the [Velvets, led by Lou Reed] played with their backs to the crowd,” Martha Morrison, wife of guitarist Sterling Morrison, says in “The Velvet Underground,” a new documentary directed by Todd Haynes that drops on Apple TV+ and plays in theaters Friday. “They had this off-putting aura. They were scary.”
Barbara Rubin, a druggy teenager from Queens who happened to have Warhol’s ear, was enchanted. She told Warhol in 1965 that he needed to see the Velvet Underground. The group was invited for an ostensible audition at Warhol’s Factory. Billy Name, a photographer there, recalls in the doc how it went: “They were all dressed in black, they started playing ‘Heroin,’ we were bowled over.”
In short order, Warhol became the group’s manager. But his relationship with the band ultimately angered Reed despite Warhol getting them cool gigs, publicity and a record deal. Warhol had an incredible work ethic and flaunted it to a miffed Reed. “Every day Andy [arrived to the Factory] ahead of me, and he would ask how many songs I wrote that day,” Reed says in the documentary. “I would tell him 10. He would say, ‘Oh, you’re so lazy. You should have written 15.’ ”
Warhol’s impact on the band was large and immediate. “Andy made the band visible in every conceivable way,” Haynes told The Post. “He gave them legitimacy and visual impact. He called the band’s music rude and crude … like his films. His filmmaking was personified by the Velvets.”
While Warhol did get them some oddball gigs — including as the entertainment for a psychiatrist-society’s annual dinner, which the New York Times covered; a shrink there likened the band to “an LSD experience” — he also gave them an ongoing stand, as part of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable, at the Dom, a former Polish wedding hall on St. Marks Place. That show became all the rage and made the Velvet Underground famous. Walter Cronkite, Jackie Kennedy and Rudolph Nureyev all swung downtown to take in the pop artist’s new discovery.
Further signs of a power struggle between Reed and Warhol emerged during that gig. As part of the act, Rubin projected polka dots onto Reed; asked why he puts up with the dots, Reed wearily replied to future Ramones manager Danny Fields, “It’s what Andy wants.”
Warhol also pushed forward the idea of having Nico, a gorgeous Teutonic blonde who stole scenes in “La Dolce Vita,” join the band to sing a few of Reed’s songs. “Paul [Morrissey, the filmmaker who collaborated with Warhol] started convincing Andy that Lou was not that much of a good-looking guy. You had to have a beautiful girl in there,” Name recalls in the doc. “Lou had to be begged by Andy.”
Reed relented and the idea proved to be a good one. “You realized,” says Velvets co-founder John Cale in the documentary, “[Warhol’s] eye for publicity and the idea of this blond iceberg next to us all dressed in black.”
But Nico herself was not so easily convinced to go along with a seemingly harebrained concept presented by Warhol. “Andy wanted her to sing inside a Plexiglas box,” Jackson Browne, who dated Nico and played guitar with her, says in the documentary. “But Nico wasn’t having it.”
Neither, apparently was Reed, who, as Cale notes in the doc, “went crazy and fired Andy” in 1967. “Andy produced the first record in that he was there, breathing, in the studio,” Reed says, although he did acknowledge that “his presence meant we could make the record without anyone changing anything.”
Seeking a reason for the parting — beyond everything else, Warhol designed one of the all-time iconic album covers, depicting a peelable banana, for the group’s debut — a reporter from Rolling Stone asked Reed if Warhol had gotten tired of the Velvets. Reed responded, “No. Andy passes through things but so do we. He sat down and had a talk with me. ‘You gotta decide what you want to do. Do you want to just keep playing museums and the art festivals? Or do you want to start moving into other areas? Lou, don’t you think you should think about it?’ So I thought about it, and I fired him.”
The artist, surely surprised that his heart-to-heart had gone so badly awry, responded by calling Reed “a rat.” Most likely, Warhol was unaware that Reed — who told Rolling Stone, “That was the worst thing he could think of” — and others already employed a more cutting put-down for him: Drella, a combination of Dracula and Cinderella.
Warhol’s absence was likely felt during the recording session for the band’s fast and noisy second album. The making of “White Light/White Heat” was suitably out there and caused such a racket that the engineer said to the group, “I don’t have to listen to this. I’ll put it on record. When you’re done, come and get me.” (After the album’s release, Reed pushed Cale out of the band, too.)
Apparently, Warhol overstepped his bounds — as Haynes put it, the Velvets “became performers for the Andy Warhol circus show” — and maybe came off as too much a member of the band. Perhaps that was what really ticked off the naturally mercurial Reed. “People thought Andy was our lead guitarist,” Reed says in the doc, before snarkily adding, “That made things difficult when we lost our great shepherd.”