Loaded: The Life (and Afterlife) of the Velvet Underground

Image of Loaded: The Life (and Afterlife) of the Velvet Underground
Release Date: 
December 5, 2023
Grand Central Publishing
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The Velvet Underground, playing music far ahead of its time in mid-60s New York, has always been more written about than actually heard. The cliché is the few people who bought The Velvet Underground and Nico, their first album, all started bands, but it’s not far from the truth. Among the performers heavily indebted to their legacy are David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman, Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Yo La Tengo, and many more.

That first album was released in March of 1967, when the light-hearted “Happy Together” by the Turtles was at the top of the charts. The VU album featured “Heroin” (the title is self-explanatory) and the S&M-themed “Venus in Furs,” written after songwriter Lou Reed read Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s book of that title. Even without listening to the lyrics, John Cale’s viola dipped in acid signaled what was going on.

Loaded (it was a VU album title) starts well before this. It’s an oral history by Dylan Jones, editor in chief of Britain’s Evening Standard, someone you’d think would be geographically and culturally removed from these very New York goings on. But like Edie: American Girl by Jean Stein (the role model, from 1994), it gets very close to the scene it’s describing. In fact, the two books overlap considerably. Edie Sedgewick was one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, and the band entered that world when Andy Warhol agreed to “manage” them.

The format encourages a variety of perspectives. To put it bluntly, Reed was a very prickly character who hated journalists, in particular, but that doesn’t stop many of the subjects from judging him a cuddly bear. To his credit, Jones doesn’t focus exclusively on Reed, but gives each of the members—especially Cale and German chanteuse Nico—their due.

And it’s not really a book about a band. It’s about the milieu, and the many human objects in Warhol’s orbit. The “dramatis personae,” with capsule biographies, is useful. On one level nobody comes off all that well: Reed was a selfish jerk, Cale arrogant, Nico distant and occasionally racist, guitarist Sterling Morrison troubled, the superstars often pathetic after their 15 minutes. And yet, and yet, Warhol’s Factory produced great art (in film and on stage in addition to the canvas) that defined the era, and the first four VU albums are among the greatest rock has ever produced. New York in the period under study was a ferment of creativity.

The era had a long gestation, and a long tail. Warhol did mundane commercial art early on, with a focus on shoes. Reed studied poetry with Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University, graduating to produce pop songs for a budget record label. Cale was a musical child prodigy from Welsh coal mining roots who came up through the La Monte Young trance school and radical classical music. Drummer Moe Tucker was an unschooled minimalist (but perfect for the band). Their coming together had the cataclysmic effect of a splitting atom.

Warhol said little beyond “gee” and “wow,” yet he was the catalyst holding everything together, while simultaneously becoming one of the world’s most celebrated and imitated artists.

After Reed splits with Warhol and VU breaks up, the scene splinters. Jones could have ended the book there, but he follows everyone, either to their graves or senior citizen status. That means we get Reed’s period in the wilderness before David Bowie helped resurrect his career, and Warhol after being shot. There are sections that are somewhat bleak. Reed spent a lot of his fitful solo career in Europe, and the author’s connections are invaluable here.

Jones could have done more with Reed’s late flowering after he met performance artist Laurie Anderson and they married in 2008, but the basics are here. There’s not as much as you’d expect on Studio 54, where Warhol took up residence. Just about everyone relevant talked to the author, with some of the more articulate being Patti Smith (of course), filmmaker Todd Haynes, journalist Nick Kent, record executive Danny Goldberg (especially him) and, oddly, guitarist Jimmy Page. VU’s influence on Led Zeppelin is not readily apparent.

The oral history format leads to some very readable books, and this is one of them. It captures the briefly incandescent times.