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24 May 2017
Evening Sedition

"You have to be fucking kidding!"

The Velvet Underground, 1966

The Velvet Underground, 1966, by Lisa Law

When I were a lad, growing up in New Jersey suburbia, I first heard the Velvet Underground on an album my brother bought. I don't know how he found out about them. (I think he still has that 33 tucked away somewhere.) What made it particularly interesting was the bit of folklore that the VU had played a gig at the local high school the year I was born. Now hold that thought for a moment while we flash forward to today.

And so earlier this year, with flickering expectation, Warren Hill picked through some old records at a yard sale in Chelsea, New York. They seemed out of place compared with the rest the junk, like a box that had been forgotten in the attic and left untouched by a string of disinterested tenants. He pulled out a soggy copy of the Modern Lovers' first LP and then he saw it, a record with no sleeve and only a few hand-written words on the label: "Velvet Underground... 4/25/66... N. Dolph." He bought it for $0.75.

...

On a single day in April, [Columbia Records sales executive Norman] Dolph sat behind Scepter's mixing boards as the band recorded what they thought would be their first record. Dolph had an acetate (a metallic "master" record) pressed after-hours at Columbia and sent it to the executives at the label. He still has the handwritten response he received when the acetate was returned, one he has paraphrased as, "You have to be fucking kidding!"

After the initial rejection, the band would enlist another "ghost" producer, Tom Wilson, re-recording some of the songs and adding others. Eventually, all the master tapes would be re-mixed by Wilson and the final product would be released as The Velvet Underground and Nico.

...

Hill tracked down the phone number for Norman Dolph and, after verifying the serial number, the former producer confirmed that it was the record he had pressed for Columbia executives. Because the original master tapes of the Scepter session have been lost or destroyed, it remains as a one-of-a-kind testament to the band's first studio session, containing "lost" versions of "Venus in Furs," "I'm Waiting for the Man," and "Heroin." The last time Dolph saw the record, it was collecting dust in Warhol's estate. How it ended up in a Chelsea attic remains a mystery, as does its future.

"We're petrified and don't really know how to sell it" says Isaacson. "We got an offer right away for $10,000, but we turned it down."

Not bad for a $0.75 investment. It now seems likely that the record will become the most expensive ever sold, exceeding the sale of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde acetate and topping $40,000. Like finding the U.S. Constitution behind a painting, it's the kind of event that will drive yard sale attendance for years to come.

"The Velvet Underground Play Portland", by Ryan Dirks, The Portland Mercury, Volume 5, Number 26, 25 November - 1 December 2004

Now we return to the past. It turns out that the first VU gig was not at Governor Livingston, but one town over, at Summit High School on 11 Dececember 1965. (We never liked Summit; pretentious, wealthy, and very stuck up. For years there was a fellow, somewhat potty, who walked around the town holding his nose because "Summit stinks.") The VU made $75 which, even in those days, wasn't enough to lure anyone to New Jersey without a very good reason. But, lured they were, and the story of their performance is amusing. Just picture all the shocked Wall Street and other professionals as you read this:

Towards the end of 1965 there was a lot of good music on the airwaves. But for us kids, High School was a real drag and life in our little suburban town (ONLY thirty miles west of Greenwich Village) wasn't too exciting. Except for one thing: a local band called the Myddle Class! To us, they were as good as the Rolling Stones ANY day and their concerts were the most exciting ones we'd ever seen. They were managed by a man who lived in our town -- Al Aronowitz. My friend Judy was the Aronowitz's babysitter and she would tell us the most amazing stories about the people who would call for Al or come home from New York with him to hide out in the suburbs: people like Brian Jones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Carole King, who wrote songs for everyone including the Myddle Class. We would hide outside Al's house for hours at a time just to catch a glimpse of those stars. Al usually hired other local bands to open for the Myddle Class but for the December 11th concert at Summit High, he hired (for $80) a NY band called the Velvet Underground. Judy told us that the band was feeling low because they had just been fired from the Cafe Wha for being undanceable, so we were not expecting too much from them.

Nothing could have prepared the kids and parents assembled in the auditorium for what they were about to experience that night. Our only clue was the small crowd of strange-looking people hanging around in front of the stage. When the curtain went up, nobody could believe their eyes! There stood the Velvet Underground -- all tall and dressed mostly in black; two of them were wearing sunglasses. One of the guys with the shades had VERY long hair and was wearing silver jewelry. He was holding a large violin. The drummer had a Beatle haircut and was standing at a small oddly arranger drumkit. was it a boy or a girl? Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song, which the singer introduced as "Heroin", the music began to get even more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave which was threatening to engulf us all. At this point, most of the audience retreated in horror for the safety of their homes, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of rock & roll music. My friends and I moved a little closer to the stage, knowing that something special was happening.

Backstage after their set, the viola player was seen apologizing profusely to an outraged Myddle Class entourage for scaring away half the audience. Al Aronowitz was philosophical about it, though, "at least you've given them a night to remember" and invited everyone to a party at his house after the show.

"I Was a Velveteen" by Rob Norris, 1979

There is another funny story about that performance. Turns out that Angus MacLise quit after being told the rules of the gig:

You mean we start when they tell us to start and we have to end when they tell us to? I can't work that way.

— Angus MacLise

So why the story about the Governor Livingston gig? Turns out that Al Aronowitz lived in Berkeley Heights — until he turned full-time manager for rock & roll groups and ended up losing his house in the process — so people just assumed that's where the infamous "suburban New Jersey gig" was held.

So there you have it.

Oh, and in the course of doing research for this entry, I found this commentary on Nico:

Now, at this time I have been crazy about Nico ever since we spent a night together in a motel stoned out of our gourds on LSD. She had just arrived from Europe with a bottle of the stuff, which she picked up in a Swiss lab. While sticking our pinkies into the bottle and sucking the LSD off each other's pinky, we decided to drive to the Delaware Water Gap. It was very romantic but after she took off her clothes and got into the motel bed, she wouldn't give me any. That's the night she told me she likes her lovers half-dead.

So, like a schmuck, I still had eyes for her, but she has been using my head for a doorknob. She keeps turning it any way she wants. Except there's one way she can't turn it. She wants me to manage her but I tell her I can't stand her singing. Not only does her singing sound like a harmonium stuck on one note, but her songs are so morbid she ought to be an undertaker. Still, she is one of the most gorgeous creatures ever conceived and I have had the privilege of seeing her naked. And would like to see her naked again.

— Al Aronowitz, The Blacklisted Journalist, Column 80, 1 December 2002

One final note. I'm not a really big VU fan. (I'm not a big Lou Reed fan either, my entry on Metal Machine Music notwithstanding.) I was just interested in finding out if the old story about the VU and GL was actually true.

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