New York’s Velvet Underground Experience Shows How One Band Can Change The Face Of Rock And Roll
They may be considered rock royalty today, but when they first appeared on the scene, the Velvet Underground were flops. This is something that the Velvet Underground Experience — a new exhibit in New York’s Lower East Side that details the band’s history and influence on music — makes abundantly clear from the get-go.
But while this outlook may seem negative to some, it actually adds a beautiful poetry to the immersive showcase, which takes fans through the Velvet Underground’s personal experiences, artistic output, and cultural legacy. The show is proof that underground artists who never really blow up can over time become seminal milestones who will never be forgotten.
This isn’t the first stop on the Velvet Underground Experience’s world tour, either. The exhibition started in Paris in 2016, and gave over 65,000 visitors a look at exclusive photos, videos, and artwork collected by band members, fans, and music journalists. But given how much of the band’s history takes place in the Big Apple, there’s a beauty to attending the New York version of this show at 718 Broadway, where the stoops being lounged on by Lou Reed in the featured photos are only a few blocks away.
The scope and staging of the exhibit certainly gives the Underground its due. The red and white front entrance feels like a Clockwork Orange-ish dream, and the interior floods the viewer’s eyes and ears with colorful psychedelia and classic interviews. A timeline of the band arcs around the room, starting with their 1950s upbringing, moving through the famous Warhol era, and ending with Lou Reed’s retooled version of the band. Throughout the space, one can find kiosks profiling each member of the band and its cadre, from John Cale and Doug Yule to Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling. A huge chill-out canopy in the exhibit’s center, small rooms showing psychedelic film footage, and iPad-enabled listening stations loaded with the Velvet Underground’s back catalog provide moments of quiet introspection amid the maelstrom of sound and imagery.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Shore.
The exhibit’s New York run kicked off with a special Q&A with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, who talked about the band’s history and process. Describing the unique droning sound that the Underground became famous for on tracks like Heroin, Cale said, “We knew early on that there were these load-bearing, sort of Doric columns within our music, and that the drone was one of them. We knew we had to use it to hold up our sound.”
Cale was delightfully real about his career, lacking any preciousness when it comes to the legacy around which the entire exhibit centers. Discussing his role as arguably rock’s most famous viola player, Cale asked the crowd, “Do we have any viola players in the audience tonight? No? Right, exactly.”
When the subject of Andy Warhol came up, John was both frank about the pop artist’s effects on the band, both positive and negative.
“He taught us that there were awkwardnesses in art,” said Cale. “What looks like a mistake at first sight isn’t always [one]. You’ve got to let things breathe, to hang around. He taught us that.” Cale conceded, however, that Warhol’s influence on the band wasn’t always positive. “[Warhol] brought Nico in because he thought we needed some beauty in the band. And that caused a disturbance…that was one of the causes of the destruction of the band.”
This refreshing honesty is ever-present in the Velvet Underground Experience. While the exhibit itself is a display of the band’s huge influence on rock and roll, the stories, photos, and art paint a portrait of a band dealing with hardship and disappointment. But this combination – of a then-unsuccessful band and an immersive experience built around their lasting affect on music – is an inspiring reminder to any artist waiting for their day to come. Sometimes, it just takes the rest of the world a few decades to catch up.
The Velvet Underground Experience runs in New York until December 30th. Get tickets here.
WORDS: Chris Krovatin
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