Andy Warhol of The Velvet Underground talks about the creative leggings and legacy of one of the most influential bands in the world
When John Cale, one of the founding members of The Velvet Underground, learned that Todd Haynes wanted to make a film about the band, he was thrilled. “I really thought he was the right man for the job,” he says, his distinct Welsh tones echoing over the phone from New York. “He really knew the area.”
From his 1998 Iggy and Bowie inspired glam rock story Velvet gold mine to his daring study of Bob Dylan, I am not there, in which actors from Cate Blanchett to Christian Bale played “aspects” of the troubadour, Haynes embraced the music of the 60s and 70s emotionally and intellectually. The first documentary of his career, The velvety underground is another big leap forward, a full immersion in one of the most influential bands of the era.
“I mean, [Rolling Stone rock critic] Lester Bangs said modern music starts with The Velvet Underground, ”notes Haynes when we meet in Cannes. “And I think you can interpret that in different ways.”
From the inspiring Bowie covering Velvet underground tracks like “White Light, White Heat” to laying the foundations for glam and punk, the band’s influence on the music has been exponential. “A tree,” says Haynes poetically, “whose branches have stretched in so many directions. [Artists] received new opportunities through this band. “
Fortunately, you won’t find any critics posing about the importance of The Velvets in Haynes’ film. With remarkable archival footage cut from the period, the director focuses on surviving band members Cale and drummer Moe Tucker, as well as others who “were there”.
For a while he holds back – it’s just audio / voiceover cut to pictures – before finally unleashing Cale, now 79, and others on the screen. “It almost feels like they are survivors from another planetary time,” says Haynes. “You can see it in the lines of their faces.”
Founded by multi-instrumentalist Cale, singer-songwriter Lou Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLise, who was soon replaced by Tucker, The Velvet Underground was born in the mid-1960s amid New York’s thriving avant-garde art scene.
“We wanted to take advantage of our environment,” says Cale. “The people who were involved in the scene.” Haynes’ film brings this to life in a powerful way, immersing audiences in the creative frenzy that inspired Cale and his bandmates.
“I came here from Wales to chase avant-garde music and find out what the new music scene was going to be,” says Cale.
When he began to study classical music on a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship in 1963, he found underground filmmakers Jack Smith and Jonas Mekas, who were shooting multimedia films at the nearby Cinematheque, along with singer-songwriter Norman Lamont and the Sound artist Tony Conrad. “It was a Lower East Side cabal of really unruly musicians,” he laughs.
It was important for Haynes to explore The Velvet Underground’s roots through the lens of the avant-garde. “People were very interested in each other’s creative work and were interested in ways of overcoming the boundaries between artistic media.
“And so I thought, ‘This is an opportunity to use this [experimental] Cinema as the visual elixir of life for film. ‘ And to see if that way it transports you back in time and place and helps us to hear the music in a different way and to feel that it is new. “
As Haynes’ film so aptly shows, The Velvet Underground exploded when Reed and Co. were introduced to pop art pioneer Andy Warhol, who ran the band and produced their first album in 1967 The Velvet Underground & Nico – a collaboration with the German singer, who broke boundaries with her open portrayals of drug use in songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and BDSM in “Venus in Furs”.
“Andy was the right person for all of this,” says Cale. “He was really calm and mischievous.”
Cale calls Warhol’s studio the factory “an advertising machine”. This debut album with its Warhol cover picture of a banana could even be bought with a “peelable” skin.
“That was one of the reasons why that first record was delayed by almost a year,” says Haynes. “You even wonder about the financial reality. They developed a special machine to create the banana sticker! An obscure band that Andy Warhol promoted!
“Andy Warhol meant something … but in a commercial sense he didn’t mean anything to the whole country.”
As Haynes marveled at the Factory, a place where everyone from Judy Garland to Marlon Brando performed, Cale speaks fondly of the “camaraderie” they all shared.
“The Factory was a very safe place for most of the people in the gay community because there wasn’t a bar down in the village that everyone went to to hang out. It was the factory, ”he says.
“It was something new every day. I mean, every time I get up in the morning I say, ‘Well, who are we going to see today?’ And there was … Tennessee Williams, right there. “
Haynes’ task of putting the documentary together became a ploy because The Velvet Underground was almost “absent” from what he calls “traditional footage” that one might expect from a band – promotional materials, concert clips, etc.
He looked for alternative strategies, such as the use of “live” portraits that Warhol took – close-ups in black and white studies where you can simply watch Lou Reed breathe and look silently into the camera. “I hadn’t seen it in a long time,” admits Cale, “but I think those ‘still lifes with eyeballs’ really told a story.”
The stormy history of the band is also skilfully cataloged by Haynes, who does not shy away from the more difficult moments.
In 1968, Cale was ousted from the group after Reed issued an ultimatum to Morrison and Tucker: either fire Cale or Reed leaves. Was it painful to see this farewell all over again? “No, I mean it was just there,” Cale shrugs. “So we just went through it and did it. I mean, no one else knew the discomfort of what had happened. A few fans here and there, however [it’s] not primarily in the head. “
Cale, who later produced albums for Patti Smith and others, got back together with Reed in the 1990s Songs for Drella, a cycle of songs about Andy Warhol, who died in 1987. They toured as The Velvet Underground two years later, but in both cases “conflict resumed,” notes Haynes. “It’s kind of like going back to old relationships, it goes so deep and touches such raw chords in your life,” he argues.
“But only because they meant so much to each other and revealed so much of each other and created so much together.”