In mid December 1965, with the "classic" lineup of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker established, the Velvet Underground had finally started making money. Manager Al Aronowitz had just gotten them their first paid concert opening for The Myddle Class in a New Jersey high school. He immediately followed that up by arranging a residency for the band at Greenwich Village music club Café Bizarre on W. 3rd St.
Barbara Rubin, who had been working with the Velvet Underground on multimedia projects over the previous year and who had introduced the Velvet Underground to Aronowitz, had another key part to play in the early career of the band. Throughout 1965 Rubin had also been working with the world famous visual artist Andy Warhol on a number of projects in and around his studio The Factory, so when the Velvet Underground started at Café Bizarre, her interest in them spread through Warhol's circle. According to Paul Morrissey, a filmmaker, Warhol collaborator and member of Warhol's stable of talent and personalities known as his "Superstars", Rubin asked Gerard Malanga, artist, writer and close Warhol collaborator, to photograph the band. Morrissey joined Malanga, and he saw in the band a unique sound and image that he believe would fit perfectly into the plans that he and Warhol were cooking up for The Factory. Morrissey asked Lou Reed if they were being managed and, according to him, Reed was vague. Morrissey proposed he and Warhol manage the band under Warhol's name, and the next day the Velvet Underground had a new manager. As Aronowitz put it,
I got the Velvet Underground into Café Bizarre and the next thing I knew they were leaving with Andy Warhol.
The year and a half that Andy Warhol managed the Velvet Underground is perhaps the most legendary (or mythicized) period of the bands career. From December 1965 to Summer 1967. It marks a number of milestones for the band. This is the period in which their careers as musicians solidified, they had their first tour, and their first album was released. Warhol started off his tenure as manager with a bang, booking them the most famous concert of their early career.
The first show that Warhol secured the Velvet Underground was at the Annual Dinner of the New York Society of Clinical Psychiatry at Delmonico's Hotel in New York City on January 13, 1966. Accompanying them to Delmonico's Hotel for the first time was Nico.
Nico, born Christa Päffgen on October 16, 1938, was a German model, actress, and Warhol Superstar who had roles in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) and Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girl (1966). At age 16 she was discovered by German fashion photographer Herbert Tobias who gave her the name "Nico". She navigated a number of fashion and acting roles, splitting her time between New York and Paris until 1965 when she was introduced to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. This lead to her releasing her first single, I'm Not Sayin' / The Last Mile, accompanied on guitar and produced by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame. Brian Jones would also introduce her to Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, with whom she started collaborating. By January 1966 she had become a Warhol Superstar.
Paul Morrissey was of the belief that the Velvet Underground didn't have a satisfactory singer or front-person, a "chanteuse" was needed. Knowing that Nico was looking to continue her singing career he asked that Lou Reed write music for her to perform with them. This became part of the agreement the band had with Andy Warhol. Reed would later say that at that time he didn't have to write anything new for Nico - he simply selected songs for her that he had already written which he had decided were out of his vocal range or ones that would benefit from a feminine voice. Thus the Velvet Underground & Nico lineup was formed.
When Nico joined the Velvet Underground onstage for the first time, she performed with a group that would all agree that Nico was not a member. Whether it was the way she was forced on them, that the band felt they didn't need her, or perhaps the milieu of sexual tension when both Lou Reed and John Cale were attracted to her, Nico's joining was reminiscent of their work as auditory backdrop for Barbara Rubin, Piero Heliczer, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol movies. Nico was tall, blonde, spoke and sang in heavily accented English, and was an actress and model in Europe. However, just as the group had collaborated with the filmmakers to create multi-media events that surpassed simple film screenings, the Velvet Underground understood that Nico brought something unique to their sound. Therefore despite any misgivings or ambivalence the band may have had towards her they worked her into their set. Lou Reed and John Cale wrote new songs for her such as "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Femme Fatale" and reworked some old ones to fit her voice, like "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Sunday Morning".
Andy Warhol was invited by the New York Society of Clinical Psychiatry to speak (and entertain) at their 43rd annual dinner. The entertainment that night was billed as "The Chic Mystique of Andy Warhol". As Grace Glueck of the New York Times reported the next morning,
The Psychiatrists who turned out in droves for the dinner where there to be entertained - but also, in a way, to study Andy.
Accompanying Warhol were members of The Factory - Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga, Billy Name, Danny Williams, Jonas Mekas, Nico, and the Velvet Underground, with the addition of Barbara Rubin. They would mingle, or try to, with the black tie and gown wearing guests. Williams and Mekas would film the proceedings, and between the camera-in-your-face interviews by Rubin of the attendees, and photographs by Adam Ritchie (an economics researcher-turned-freelance photographer who along with Rubin had been an early admirer of the Velvet Underground) there is an unexpected amount of coverage of such a unique cultural crossing.
The program ran as such: Cocktails were accompanied by screening of Andy Warhol films, followed by dinner with live music, the night concluding with a short talk by film director and critic Jonas Mekas. Come dinner time, the Velvet Underground and Nico took the stage and performed before the bemused audience. Armed with brand new amps and equipment paid for by Warhol, they cranked up the volume. Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga stepped to the foot of stage and joined the performance by dancing with a leather whip they had brought. The whole thing was too much for some of the audience. Grace Glueck treated her readers to some choice opinions from amongst the doctoral crowd,
I suppose you could call this gathering a spontaneous eruption of the id.
Warhol's message is one of super-reality, a repetition of the concrete quite akin to the L.S.D. experience.
Why are they exposing us to these nuts?
Just like what had happened a month previous in Summit, NJ, the Velvet Underground performance thinned the crowd. Not many of the attendees were willing to wait and hear what Jonas Mekas had to say, claiming that the event was "ridiculous, outrageous, painful". The Velvet Underground were ambivalent going in but ultimately deemed the concert a success. Billy Name, according to the Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk", considers this event to be a turning point for the collaboration most central to the Factory. Name suggests that it is here that Andy Warhol started to move the lime-light away from Edie Sedgwick and towards Nico and the Velvet Underground, affecting a shift in the purpose of the Superstar-promoting that tended to be central to Warhol events. This shift, at the cost of Sedgwick who had been the first Warhol Superstar and the previous year's "Girl of the Year", would buy the Velvet Underground more work.
Here is one last quote collected by Grace Glueck from a psychiatrist criticizing a musical career that would prove to outweigh any detractors:
Everything that's new doesn't necessarily have meaning. It seemed like a whole prison ward had escaped.
The New York Clinical Psychiatry dinner would prove to be the first collaboration of a type that would bring together every facet of the Factory and would become the multi-media extravaganzas called...
Organized by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, the multi-media concerts known as Exploding Plastic Inevitable events consisted of the collaboration of Factory talent and creativity.
The formula of the multi-media event took form in the week-long event in early February 1966 called Andy Warhol, Up-Tight at the Film-makers Cinematheque, Jonas Mekas' theater on 41st Street. Each day there were 2 performances, with a 3rd on weekends, and each started with a Danny Williams light show done to a Warhol film, then the Velvet Underground with Nico would perform while projected over and onto them were other Warhol Films. While the Velvet Underground performed Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick, just like they had done at the Psychiatry dinner, would join them on stage and dance, provocatively, with their whip. This week of performances would mark the last time Edie Sedgwick would work with Andy Warhol.
At least 2 more Up-Tight events would happen - in Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ and on March 12th in Ann Arbor, MI. Known now primarily as a concert series featuring the Velvet Underground & Nico, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable precursor Up-Tight was a film screening event. Each event were billed as film screenings and in Ann Arbor it took place at the Fourth Ann Arbor Film Festival, billed as Up-Tight with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground.
Velvet Underground & Nico performing at the Annual Dinner of the New York Society Clinical Psychiatry, Delmonico Hotel, New York, January 13, 1966
Photographs by Adam Ritchie
(Salvatore Mercuri Velvet Underground collection)
Between Ann Arbor's Up-Tight on March 12th and starting Exploding Plastic Inevitable on April 1st, 1966, one of the most famous photographs of the Velvet Underground was taken by photographer and underground documenter Nat Finkelstein.
Photograph by Nat Finkelstein
(Lou Reed Papers)
This photograph was taken at the opening of Paraphernalia Boutique on 794 Madison Ave., New York, in late March 1966. A young Betsey Johnson was then the in-house designer for the boutique. She had recently made clothes for a Andy Warhol & Edie Sedgwick movie and began designing stage outfits for the Velvet Underground. During this time she would fall in love with John Cale and they would marry in 1968.
When the Velvet Underground and entourage came back to New York, Andy Warhol rented Open Stage, a hall immediately above the Dom Bar at 23 St. Mark's Place, for all of April. Starting Friday, April 1st, under the title Erupting Plastic Inevitable, the event took place nearly every night of that month, starting at 9pm and running straight till 2am. Within the week they were renamed Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the formula was set. During this month the Velvet Underground would take their first stab at professionally recording music for their first album Velvet Underground & Nico (1967).
The main draw, as with all of these early Factory related events, was the name of the promoter - Andy Warhol, but usually sharing top billing is the Velvet Underground and Nico. While the band performed their early songs, including "Venus in Furs", "Heroin", and with Nico singing new ones like "Femme Fatale", projected onto them were the Warhol films Sleep, Eat, Kiss/Haircut, Vinyl, Suicide, and others. Accompanied on stage, as always, was Gerard Malanga but this time with actress and Warhol Superstar Mary Woronov. Danny Williams again augmenting the experience with his light shows.
These events would employ whole sections of the The Factory, allowing the Superstars, performers, musicians, filmmakers, and technical minded of the group to all participate. Purportedly, they were all payed equally by Warhol regardless of whether they were on stage playing guitar or were running the projector. With a formula for success and a repeatable performance now established, Exploding Plastic Inevitable would show throughout New York City and tour the US and Canada over the next year.
After their month-long lease at Open Space concluded, Exploding Plastic Inevitable traveled to the west coast. First to Los Angeles, CA, where on May 3 they began a 2-3 week concert series at The Trip, a venue on Sunset Strip. However, after only a couple of days the venue shut down and, as the story goes, for them to get the money owed for the canceled dates they had to stay in town for the original duration. One of their few nights at The Trip, Gerard Malanga said in the McNeil and McCain oral history "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk", the soon-to-be rock legend Jim Morrison came to see them. It was after this point that Malanga says Morrison stole his style and started wearing what would become Morrison's iconic outfit - namely his black leather pants. The Velvet Underground would take advantage of this time to record more songs for their first album
By May 26th their sequestration in L.A. was over and they went to San Francisco, CA, where over the following weekend they performed at The Fillmore, the early Bill Graham promotion. Sharing the bill on these night was Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, at that time just "The Mothers", and these concerts resulted in a now-famous clash of two seemingly diametrically apposed subculture movements. One was the east coast, amphetamine driven, black leather clad Rock & Roll art scene bringing their "New York" attitude and a new closed-off and intense meaning to the tour's previous moniker "Up-Tight". The other was the west cost, free love, marijuana suffused Hippie movement. It is often characterized as simply "Uppers" vs. "Downers", the affects of the popular drugs of choice in the respective scenes, but it could also have been a clash of their respective counter-culture values. Regardless of the cause, the story goes that the Velvet Underground ended their 2nd night by propping their instruments against their amplifiers so that they wailed with feedback and walked off stage, causing Bill Graham to cut their 3-night run short.
The humble writer of this guide is a born and raised Manhattanite who grew up listening to Punk Rock music and therefore would be remiss if not to highlight the thoughts members of Exploding Plastic Inevitable had of that crowd.
We were not well received by the owner. I still don't understand why he bothered to book us because he obviously hated us - Moe Tucker
As soon as we got out of New York and crossed the Hudson it was very bad - Lou Reed
We were so mad. We wanted to get out of there. I hated San Francisco, I hated Hippies. Hippies were scum - Mary Woronov
The 1998 PBS American Masters episode "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart" (season 12, episode 4), a retrospective celebrating the life and work of Lou Reed, contains many great interviews and is the source of these quotes.
This is footage of the live manipulation of a Liquid Light Show as seen at a Velvet Underground concert. This clip is sourced from the Lou Reed Papers and is identified in the collection as being from a 1967 Boston show date, located most probably at the Boston Tea Party.
The light show is achieved by moving colored liquid floated on a transparency across the bed of an over-head projector. These motions were done to the rhythm of the music.
Danny Williams had become known as an innovator of live concert light shows for the Velvet Underground, however in September 1966 Williams disappeared from a New England beach and most likely drowned. Williams is generally considered to have committed suicide. Therefore this is most probably not him.
(Lou Reed Papers)
In a 1989 interview with Kurt Loder, Lou Reed had this to say about the subject.
What [Exploding Plastic Inevitable] were doing was much more sophisticated. It was using lights and film. [...] The guy who did the strobe lights [Danny Williams] claimed he was from Harvard but I always doubted it. He was trying to do research into whether strobes can cause an epileptic fit, whether it could cause anxiety, cause calm. There were a couple of people in the avant-garde who were working on the alternation of black and white frames. A friend of John Cale named Tony Conrad did a film that you had to sign a disclaimer when you walked in saying that if I had a heart attack from watching this movie... This is the avant-garde that's happening in New York. [...] I think it was a lot more intense than what was going on on the west coast. I think possibly the climate had something to do with it.
Exploding Plastic Inevitable would tour for another 12 months with slowly waning success. In November 1966 the Velvet Underground and Nico would attend one last recording session with the intention of creating a hit single featuring Nico to support the upcoming album. The consequence was "Sunday Morning" released with "Femme Fatale" on B-side one month later. It lacked the oomph hoped for and by the time 1967 rolled around, with no more recording studio demands, Andy Warhol and The Factory's investment in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable started to wane. Still often with Gerard Malanga's and Mary Woronov's accompanying dances, Warhol became an increasingly rare sight to see at these events. Always reliant on his name, when Warhol's interest started to go elsewhere, the audience did also.
Not even the March 12th 1967 release of The Velvet Underground & Nico could reverse the groups fortunes. It was tepidly reviewed, delayed by expensive manufacturing, and recalled by a lawsuit, developing a myth that must have been wider than it's audience. Lou Reed's response to the albums failure is commonly characterized anger that the band's hometown of New York City had abandoned it's musical child.
The last Exploding Plastic Inevitable was at The Scene, a New York club on 46th St. managed by Steve Paul, in May 1967. Andy Warhol wasn't there, nor was Nico - she was busy in Ibiza, Spain on a modeling gig. Of note that night Ronni Cutrone, then Warhol's art assistant, was present and had joined Malanga and Woronov dancing on stage. As Cutrone recounts, the audience was thin that night but even so something clicked. Perhaps it was because they were able to play different songs, having to work around Nico's absence, maybe the audience or the group felt something winding up. Regardless, the audience rushed the stage to join Cutrone, Malanga, and Wornov dancing.
Like much that Andy Warhol and the Factory touched, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were indelibly marked by their time spent part of Exploding Plastic Inevitable. From January 1966 to Spring 1967 Warhol's money and fame had secured the Velvet Underground exposure and national notoriety. It bought the Velvet Underground & Nico studio time to record their first album, production staff, a record deal to sell it, and the security to freely practice their raucous creativity.
The separation of the Velvet Underground from Plastic Exploding Inevitable, Andy Warhol, and The Factory has many versions. It started soon after the May concert at The Scene, Lou Reed fired Nico to the general agreement of the band. The bitterness that Reed is characterized as having at the time about the hometown failure of their first album also had caused them to abandon their home city to which they so closely identified. They would not perform in New York again for years.
So when, on May 26th & 27th, 1967 they got 2 nights at Steve Sesnick's Boston Tea Party, Boston, MA, the Velvet Underground jumped at it. It is not clear whether The Scene concert was before or after the Boston Tea Party dates. Reports differ - the Boston Tea Part was billed as "Andy Warhol's Nick & the Velvet Underground", but by this time Nico had been fired thus requiring her to be redacted from the concert bill. However most narratives have it that on the first night of the Boston Tea Party concert Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey flew to Boston with Nico to bring her to the show. They arrived late, purportedly half way through the set, so Lou Reed drove home the split by not allowing Nico on stage.
Despite the drama backstage at the Boston Tea Party, in the house the audience was packed. The band played "I Heard Her Call My Name", "Sister Ray", and "White Light/White Heat, new songs that would appear on their 1968 album "White Light/White Heat". The concert went well and must have proven to Lou Reed what he had suspected - New York had turned on them; their new fans were elsewhere. As Aidan Levy wrote in his biography "Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed",
Having solidified a regional reputation and a loyal fan base, Lou then did the unthinkable - he fired Warhol.
Lou Reed would say that his split with Andy Warhol came about as a direct response to Warhol himself. According to Reed, Warhol sat him down and asked him what he wanted to do, professionally - whether he wanted to just keep playing in art galleries. As the Lou Reed & John Cale song "Work" from their 1990 album Songs For Drella recounts,
Andy sat down to talk one dayHe said decide what you want Do you want to expand your parameters Or play museums like some dilettante I fired him on the spot, he got red and he called me a rat It was the worst word that he could think of And I've never seen him like that