“The Velvet Underground Experience” Exhibit Pre-Opening Party; Manhattan; October 9, 2018
What’s that old Frank Zappa line about “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture?” Well I never put much credence into the musings of a guy whose main musical influence showed up in Weird Al and Primus (though I did appreciate his politician phase in the ‘80s). I like all four forms of art, so if you want to take one and try to explain the other, have at it! And if you want to make a big, immersive, lovingly designed pop-up gallery show about the Velvet Underground that focuses a little more on the evolution of anti-establishment east coast cool than the band’s immensely influential music, have at that too!
Speaking of Zappa, story goes that Verve Records – the Velvet Underground’s initial label – also had the Mothers of Invention signed at the same time. And given the West Coast-centric, hippie youthquake taking over pop culture at the time, Verve dumped a little more promotional heft into Zappa’s crew than the dark, heroin-espousing, post-Beatnik urban porn the Velvet Underground were feedbacking out. And so became the music industry template going forward: Jump on the latest trend rather than show foresight into the next one.
When their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, came out in 1967, the Velvet Underground no doubt came across as too strange, noisy, and, yes, trendy – gaining most of whatever early hype they got via their connection to Andy Warhol and his arty NYC goings-on – to be embraced by a wider American mainstream that was still trying to wrap its head around the length of the Beatles’ hair. I mean, people are still a little freaked out by people who dress in all black.
“The Velvet Underground Experience” exhibit – a smaller version of which premiered in Paris in 2016 – just opened last week in the west village, and creatively conveys the outre status the Velvet Underground inhabited throughout their career. And it does so primarily through the historical understanding that the band – so cutting edge at the start – were actually a kind of cumulative metaphor of an explosive cultural movement (via beatniks, pop artists, emerging civil rights, and folk music) towards an exposure of the violence and decay at the heart of post-war America, rather than the multi-colored, flowers’n’flares on its mainstream, west coast pop sleeves.
That 1967 debut does perfectly encapsulate the oddly gorgeous, post-war urban decline of New York City that has become the cool, loft-life blueprint. And that album did a hell of lot more, like introduce the world to some of the most influential rock’n’roll figures of the end of the century, and light the fuse for punk rock, electronic minimalism, and indie rock well into today. (After a wholly dark, shadowy exhibit, the large, colorful wall of modern music, art, and advertising figures that closes the exhibit does a solid, quick job of demonstrating the Velvets’ long influence shadow.)
So yeah, that first album is amazing; as is this exhibit, that extends an introductory, NYC history-filled contextual section with loads of ephemera, and individual shrines to each member and some of the wild tangential figures who inhabited the Velvets’ lower Manhattan art world. While there are loads of cool artifacts for the fanatic, the show is really more of an “experiential” exhibit rather than a collector’s dream closet. There are more large, well-printed photos of stuff than the actual stuff (though again, there’s lots of that).
The exhibit’s centerpiece – a sparse, wooden beam house with silver padding all over the ground – has screens along the walls and ceiling that offer up extremely rare film footage and short documentaries to view while lying around. (My girlfriend made an excellent point that they might’ve thought about the aging visitors who might not have an easy time getting down and up from that floor.) It was probably meant to mimic lying around Warhol’s Factory, but feels a little more like hanging in the basement of that friend who always has all the cool rare videos. They’re best seen on some less crowded Wednesday afternoon than during a cult celebrity-packed pre-opening party crowd, drinking free drinks.
John Cale, Danny Fields, Sylvia Reed, Marcia Resnick, Bob Gruen, Laurie Anderson, Victor Bockris, Anthony DeCurtis and Michael Azerrad were just some of the notable heps who were traipsing around the pre-opening party. Cale was practically speechless when I asked him what he thought of the show. But considering he’d just walked in, and fans and old friends were slowly descending, he could only utter, “Well, wow, I didn’t expect all this.”
Also awestruck was award-winning graphic designer Spencer Drate, who has designed classic albums from the Ramones, Talking Heads, U2, Marshall Crenshaw, Lou Reed, and many more. He also designed the Velvet Underground’s Live MCMXCIII album that the band released after it’s one brief reunion tour. That album and American tour poster are featured in this exhibit.
“This show is extraordinary and creative,” says Drate. “You feel the entire Velvet Underground and the culture around them through broad visual platforms – photos with text, videos – a total historical environment that you are walking through. A mixture of raw underground to overground.”
That wooden film house, some odd verbiage in the installation descriptions and a few glaring factual mistakes (that hopefully were cleaned up before the official opening the next day) were strange but kind of loveable bends. In a way, they mirrored the icy foreign vibe Nico added to the Velvets debut. And the wonderful dark, tucked away Nico room did the same – angling Nico further into the status of undeniably important art influence, after living a sullen life often slovenly tagged as a damaged tag-along to others.
But while the influence of the band’s early days and first album are undeniable, there’s a little too much emphasis there, and the next three albums get a little short-shrifted. Each one, remarkably, became influence touchstones themselves on different sounds and scenes. One might argue that the second album, White Light/White Heat, is their most influential statement, but now I’m starting to dance a bit too much about architecture.
The digging down into co-producer names, cover art arguments, 7” single pressing totals, and other fanboy arcana isn’t the point here. This exhibit aims to focus on the contextual relevance of a once forgotten, now preeminent musical group. And in that, this winding, three-floor experience works well for fanatic and basic rock’n’roll fan alike.
As Laurie Anderson simply stated when I asked her what she thought: “It’s all very beautiful.”
“The Velvet Underground Experience” is located at 718 Broadway, and is open until December 30.