Aficionados of the Velvet Underground were out in force on a freezing Thursday, December 15, 2016 for a commemoration of their performance 50 years ago at the Gershman Y in Philadelphia. The band had hardly begun in 1966, when they played a number of shows with their “producer” Andy Warhol and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. This was prior to recording their first record, the one with the banana on the cover. I was ten, lived in the Atlanta suburbs and wanted to be The Man from Uncle. Little did I know that the ICA in arty Philadelphia had given Andy Warhol his first museum show in 1964. Apparently, he was scared stiff.
On the bill were Britt Phillips and Dean Wareham performing along with select Warhol Screen Test films and veterans Yo la Tengo playing all VU music. The night re-convened with Britt & Dean (formerly half of the band Luna) playing newly commissioned soundtracks from their latest album: Thirteen Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests. Some of these scores resembled softer Velvety tunes and paid homage (logically) with guitar echo and reverb while other songs featured electronic drones and digital drums appropriate to art events. It was interesting to see a band pair up their curiosity in Warhol’s films with their fascination of the Velvet Underground. There is a distinction.
Warhol’s screen tests are always compelling time capsules shot at 24 frames per second and projected at 12 so they resemble still portraits until the subject moves. 500 Screen Tests were made between 1966 and 1968 featuring New York’s underworld of poets, celebrities, porn stars and drug addicts. An early death awaited many of the Factory’s odd cast of characters – Andy escaped nearly his after he was shot in 1968 by disgruntled Valerie Solanis. His prodigy, Edie Sedgwick died in 1971. Model and singer, Nico is in full command of her test, swanning around for the camera. Dennis Hopper’s test is titled Herringbone Tweed after his jacket. Within the space of a few minutes, the actor creates a stern faced narrative punctuated by worried moments and finally a smile as if he had finally found his car keys. I kept thinking how he ends up headless in Apocalypse Now. Lou Reed’s screen test with Coke bottle was the epitome of nonchalance providing a little levity behind wraparound shades.
Yo la Tengo stood in for the Velvet Underground once before in the 1996 film, I Shot Andy Warhol, but they are mostly known for furious flights of fancy and delicate songs with deadpan vocals much like the Lou Reed. They are also known for carefully selected cover songs – see their silly video version of The Cure’s, Friday, I’m in Love. This night dealt solely with the dissonant side of the Velvet Underground. To start, drummer, Georgia Hubley (who can’t help but channel VU’s drummer, Mo Tucker) sang a few songs from The Velvet Underground and Nico. Yo la Tengo then launched into less radio-friendly VU territory with some signature noise, finishing the show with an hour of inspired feedback. Ira Kaplan’s guitar wall moved in and out, above and below the “rhythm section” creating a strange, swirling undertow punctured by staccato piano or growling viola. The barrage may have surprised the audience who might have been expecting a standard rock show or 60’s flashback. They forgot that much of the impact of the Velvet Underground was the sonic approach borrowed from contemporary art and progressive jazz. This is where the band (and those who re-create and expand the ouvre) diverted from Warhol and created its own lasting legacy. Melodies and lyrics are almost an aberration.