THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
The band's first taste of Andy Warhol's Factory
Book excerpt by Dylan Jones
Excerpted from the book LOADED: THE LIFE (AND AFTERLIFE) OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND.
Copyright © 2023 by Dylan Jones. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
According to Reed, Warhol presented Nico as an ultimatum: he would manage them, give them a place to rehearse (the Factory), finance their equipment, support them, find them a record deal, produce them, and make them famous. . . as long as they gave him 25 percent of their earnings, did what they were told, and put Nico in the band. Warhol didn't think Reed was a good enough frontman (he didn't think he was especially attractive, either). And so Reed and the band went along with it. He didn't really feel the group needed a chanteuse, but as long as they were able to use her sporadically, he reckoned it would be fine. Edie Sedgwick had already expressed an interest in fronting the band, and Warhol sidestepped the issue by asking Reed to write a song about her. He duly did, penning "Femme Fatale." He gave it to Nico to sing "because she could sing the high chorus." The thing about Warhol that really appealed to Reed was that he knew they were real: "Andy told me that what we were doing with music was the same thing he was doing with painting and movies, i.e., not kidding around."
John Cale recalls his first meeting with Warhol: "The band went up to the Factory. We were invited by Gerard Malanga, who came down to see a performance and decided that dancing with a whip was good for our act. The first thing we noticed when we got there was that a lot of preconceptions about what went on in art went out the window. Everybody was very serious, which suited us fine. All we wanted to do was work on our music. They were crawling along the floor, but they were crawling along the floor making silkscreens, which, if you've ever tried to do, is quite a task. They were working very hard."
Moe Tucker: The place was totally nuts. I was very shy. I'll be blunt. I had never heard anyone say the word "fuck." I swear to God, that's the truth. That just was not the way anybody I knew talked.
John Cale: The Factory, the minute you got there, the great thing about it was you felt there were people who understood what you were trying to do. They got us. All of a sudden, we weren't just four people fighting everybody else. You felt like you were part of what was a pretty good army. We went all over New York in a swarm. It was an endlessly enter- taining scene to be around. Something was always happening. And what a parade of stars you saw coming through. There were several different layers to life at the Factory. There was the gay community, for a start. Lou understood that and enjoyed it. He threw himself into that, in fact. He had a lot of fun. Sterling and I, less so. Moe just tut-tutted a lot.
"When the Velvet Underground met the Warhol clan at the end of '65 and entered the Factory, John Cale described it as a kind of creative playground," says Todd Haynes. "That's minimizing, I think, the euphoric sense of creative permission. It was a place where art was made, all the time. Ondine, who appeared in Warhol movies, describes them as 'Golden' years, where you almost couldn't make a wrong move. There was something going on in the Sixties-and this was a unique subset of all that, with its own terms that were very different from the wider counterculture."
Mary Woronov: Barbara Rubin brought them to the Factory. Andy immediately liked them. These people couldn't get played on the radio. No one liked them. No one had heard of them before. This mattered. They were different, and they were sexy, but not normally sexy. All of Andy's movies are very much like the Velvets. And also, Andy's movies were sexy, but homosexually so. And Lou's stuff is very on the dark side. The same with Andy. I don't think he sat around reading [Jean] Genet, but Lou did. And so did I. To me, [gay people] were fucking exotic. Boys of the night were sexy, all those hustlers. Lou understood that kind of sex appeal. You know like some guys, they fall in love with hookers? They just love that. But Lou saw it differently. He saw boys. And he picked up on the vibe. And Andy shared that vibe. Not that Andy really fucked anybody. Lou liked being there. I don't know if John liked being there. First of all, John was more interested in women. And secondly, he was sort of condescending. Lou was never condescending. You could just never go down low enough for him. Because that's where he got the meat and potatoes of what he wanted to write about. Lou was a middle-class kid, and he was just phenomenally romanticizing the dark side. He loved transvestites. He loved the craziness of the amphetamine addicts.
Paul Morrissey (filmmaker): I put Nico in there. They really needed her. I made her the star of the group. I thought, "We need someone you can look at." Lou had no voice, no character, no personality. He just had a nasty attitude. And the way he treated Nico was disgusting. He was just so mean and selfish and jealous of her.
John Cale: I was just getting over the fact that we had Moe in the band. Did we really need another woman? Then it struck me that this was great PR on Andy's part. She had this blonde bombshell look, people couldn't take their eyes off her.
Danny Fields: Andy was like a vacuum cleaner. He sucked in the best and the brightest. The Factory was a very welcoming place if you were the right kind of person. We were invited everywhere, and no one knew why, no one knew who we were. Andy used to travel with an entourage of twelve to twenty people. We'd knock on the door of an ancient Jewish billionaire on Fifth Avenue. It was the real Bonfire of the Vanities. "Oh, Andy, come in. Who are your guests?" Everything was fertilizing everything else.
I think Andy saw the Factory as a court. It had jesters, priests, whores, princes, everything but a dwarf. It occurred to Andy that it would be nice if we had a band. These days you have a trainer and psychiatrist, back then you'd have a band, especially if you're inventing the idea of a mid-twentieth century. And by some godly coincidence, Gerard Malanga or Barbara Rubin saw, one night, this pathetic, about- to-be-fired unbelievably brilliant Velvet Underground at Café Bizarre in the Village, and Warhol started to go. And then it was, we have this big space, why don't you set up your stuff with us? And then there was the management, and suddenly rock and roll was the thing. And it was. The golden age of rock and roll. Comets everywhere. Supernovas everywhere. Every new album by every new band was a galaxy unto itself. Dazzling. One could get spoilt. One did get spoilt. The Byrds and the Airplane and the Dead, Hendrix, Janis.
Lou Reed: I was a product of Andy Warhol's Factory. All I did was sit there and observe these incredibly talented and creative people who were continually making art, and it was impossible not to be affected by that.
Dylan Jones- photo by Richard Young
Also see our Maureen Tucker interview
And our Doug Yule interview
And an interview with Velvets engineer Norman Dolph