The Velvet Underground were arguably the world’s first sleeper band. From their inception in 1964 to an acrimonious split nine years later, the avant-garde rockers made little money and never had a hit record (not counting pre-Velvets dance tune ‘The Ostrich’, which co-founders John Cale and Lou Reed recorded as The Primitives). In fact, the band were so lowly regarded by their contemporaries that Cher famously said at the time: “The Velvet Underground will replace nothing, except maybe suicide.”
Well, fast-forward half a century and there aren’t many ’60s bands bigger (perhaps The Beatles and The Rolling Stones). For the latest in NME’s In Conversation series, we caught up with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Todd Haynes, who was hand-picked by acclaimed artist and Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson to helm The Velvet Underground, a new documentary about the band. He digs deep into the group that kickstarted his musical obsessions.
His Velvet Underground doc made Lou Reed’s family cry…
The Velvet Underground were NYC through and through, so it made perfect sense to show Haynes’ film at the New York Film Festival. It made even more sense that Lou’s relatives be there to watch it.
“I just saw [the Reed family] at the New York Film Festival,” he says. “Lou’s sister, Merrill, had trepidation and concerns about being in the film; but she was extremely moved, and was sobbing. She said: ‘You are now a member of the Reed family,’ which was very touching to hear. Also, Sylvia Reed, who was married to Lou for 20 years, loved the film and came twice to the festival to see it.”
…but he was too scared to meet Lou himself
The legendary frontman sadly died in 2013, aged 71, but even so, 60-year-old New Yorker Todd Haynes had ample opportunity to meet him. If only he’d plucked up the courage…
“I’d see him at openings like [long-running New York event] The Whitney Biennial. He would always be with Laurie and my friends and I would see him across the room. We’d all be like: ‘Oh my god it’s Lou Reed’ but I couldn’t go up to him, I was too scared. I had friends who did and said: ‘Mr Reed I love your music so much!’ [Haynes mimes Reed punching his friend in the face] ‘Pow!'”
Gus Van Sant almost played Andy Warhol in a biopic
An integral figure in 21st century art, as well as the band’s success, Warhol has now been immortalised on-screen by no less than 12 actors. It’s almost weird to see actual Warhol in archive footage during The Velvet Underground. For Haynes, though, there’s only one Warhol biopic he would pay to see.
“The person who’s closest to Andy Warhol I know is [Oscar-nominated director] Gus Van Sant. Gus has this funny vacancy in the way he talks [which is very like Andy],” says Haynes. “He doesn’t even have to do impressions, he’s too vacant to do that. A boyfriend I had, Jim Lyons, who was an editor and dear friend who passed away – he had a project in mind, a portrait film about Andy Warhol and Gus agreed to star in it but sadly Jim didn’t last.”
He hated Crispin Glover in ‘The Doors’
“It is really hard to play Andy Warhol,” says Haynes, continuing his dissection of the artist on screen. “The Doors movie [starring Crispin Glover as Warhol] really bugs me because of how lasciviously he’s played and how luridly he’s played. He’s played as a predator. I think it was conceived incorrectly in the script as some queer, tongue-licking, gross, lurid guy. That’s not who Andy Warhol was. He was very shy, very weird and very passive, but there wasn’t a person I interviewed for this film who was there at the factory and knew Andy, who didn’t say the most loving things about him.”
Jonathan Richman snuck backstage to meet Andy Warhol
“When I decided to [make this film], I knew I had to get Jonathan Richman [from the Modern Lovers],” says Haynes. “I knew he was there – and later I found out he’d been to 70 of the band’s shows!
One story Haynes excitedly tells NME involves Richman’s first ever Velvets gig in 1967. He didn’t have a ticket to the show in Cambridge, Massachusetts – and had to forge a fake student journalist pass so he could get in. Nico and Warhol were both in attendance, despite Nico not performing, and John Cale was still in the band.
“Jonathan managed to get backstage!” says Haynes. “This teenage aspiring artist… was hanging out and talking to Andy Warhol! At one point he said: ‘Mr Warhol, I just have to tell you – I don’t understand your art.’ And Andy turns to Jonathan and says: ‘Yes, you do.’ He was so gentle, so kind and so right on because we all understand Andy Warhol’s art, even when we think we don’t.”
‘The Velvet Underground’ is streaming now on Apple TV+