I always loved guitars and rock and roll. Who didn’t? All through college – and high school, for that matter – I was in bands playing in bars. We played the Top 10, Top 40 – whatever was popular then, that’s what we played.
There’s a 45 I made when I was 14. I’m in the background, playing guitar and going “ooh.” It was just three of us. I played guitar. I didn’t sing. I wrote the material, but the material was just a mimic of what was on the radio. That was doomed to failure. That was the first “professional” recording I made. It was kind of fantastic: King Curtis, the saxophonist, was on it. And I was not really aware of who King Curtis was at the time.
I kept writing little things on my own when I was in school at Syracuse University, studying with Delmore Schwartz – reading George Eliot, Phillip Booth, people like that, in creative-writing courses, poetry courses. So that’s kind of my background. I was doing that and bar bands. Really bad ones.
I got a job when I got out of school at a budget-record line, Pickwick Records. And we would write real hack stuff. If surfing was popular, we would write ten surfing songs, and make up the names of the groups. But it was really just me and three other guys. And they’d sell these albums for a buck in Woolworth’s.
Aside from that, I was writing some other stuff, for no known reason. I don’t know why I was doing that, in retrospect. I mean, why do that? I don’t think I was looking for a record contract or anything like that. It’s also interesting to me that I had this so-called job.
I think of myself as a writer, working through rock and roll as a medium – and doing it from here, New York. People come here from all over the world. New York is the center. New York isn’t even part of the United States. It’s hard to imagine the Velvet Underground not coming from New York.
The first time we played a show in New York was at a place called the Café Bizarre. It was just a tourist place – there were no people there. After that, Jonas Mekas, who now has the Anthology Film Archives, had a place called the Cinemathèque. Andy Warhol had a week at the Cinemathèque, and he decided to show his movies on us while we played and Andy was interviewing the audience. No one’d ever seen anything like it before.
Some people get a kick out of architecture. You know, they build a bridge, or a house, or a this or a that. I like playing rock and roll and playing with the lyrics. I never compared our music to Pop Art, although the movies Andy was making were like the songs, or the songs were like the movies, and they were both unlike anything else that was around right then. It was the alternative to Hollywood and pop. Warhol gave us a home, so to speak. Certainly that made it possible to feel encouragement to keep going in this direction. It fit like a hand in a glove. I can’t imagine any other group that could’ve been there with him. We were incredibly lucky. No one knew or cared about us, but he took us seriously. Otherwise, we were unemployable.
The only jobs we had were when somebody would ask Warhol to show his things in a museum, or in a film festival at a college, and he would take us. The Chrysler Museum would invite him, and we would go and play in the museum, which would be showing slides and movies on top of us while we played.
We didn’t want to do derivative blues. We were very aware of that. That’s not what we were about. I couldn’t play it, either, so that was another good reason to stay away from it. There were people who could really, really play that well, and I couldn’t. I think of the Velvets’ work as realistic, not bleak. You’re talking to somebody who was around Warhol, and also reading Allen Ginsberg and Naked Lunch and Junkie by William Burroughs. I can’t compare myself to them – I wouldn’t dream of it – but some of the subject matter may bear a similarity.
If you think of it that way, it wasn’t a particularly unusual thing to be doing. I thought from a lyric point of view this was uncharted waters: The potential was unlimited. I’m not a musicologist. I wasn’t really that aware of Brecht, for instance, or Weill, or the old blues guys. And they were certainly writing about things like that. I mean, it’s pretty colorful to me – film noir, you know, in rock. I loved Raymond Chandler, for instance. And Delmore – what Delmore had done in the sense of the simplicity of the language. What you could do with the simplicity of language. What would happen if you put a beat to that? That’s the nice thing about music, and the fun of putting lyrics together. I didn’t have some ambitious goal, though. I’ve wondered that myself: Why was I doing that?
The Thalia Theater in Hamburg got in touch with me about the possibility of collaborating with Robert Wilson. Originally they were looking at H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. But then I just thought it would be fun to go through time, and what would you see if you did? Time Rocker turned out very beautiful. And it’s interesting ’cause you can write for other voices, different characters, different points of view. Other people are performing it – you’re just sitting there. In the beginning, it was very anxiety-provoking, till I finally just got used to it.
I’m trying to write another album now. I have a song I call “Justice and the Stick.” It’s about Abner Louima. There’s something to write about. I’ve never understood why people don’t write about some of what’s actually going on. You don’t have to make it up: It’s right there.
Interviewed by Ethan Smith