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If you can remember the 1960s, goes that quote with many authors, you really weren’t there. I was about six when the Sixties properly got going and living somewhere where the last person to truly swing had botched a rebellion against a Tudor. So sadly, I remember those Sixties pretty well, a distant party glimpsed mainly on the telly, colorful, whimsical, and saturated with bright, shiny music — coffee-flavored kisses at Clarksville station, love is all you need, gentle people with flowers in their hair.
That was the Velvet Underground doing their best worst in The Black Angel’s Death Song, a torrent of words, melody, and screeching electric viola that, played once too often before puzzled audiences in Greenwich Village’s Café Bizarre, brought an abrupt end to their stint there in December of 1965. The Velvets had started taking shape the year before, but after the departure of their first drummer, an eccentric who later came to an unsatisfactory end in Tibet, assumed the form (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker) in which, with one brief, spectacular addition, they ultimately entered rock legend. The band’s name was stolen from the title of an, uh, investigative paperback (“a documentary on the sexual corruption of our age”) found on the sidewalk or — pick your myth — the gutter. Another early song, inspired by a book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (yes, that Masoch), was a further sign that the Velvets were not headed for Main Street, Pleasant Valley, or Penny Lane.
Given the time, the place — New York City — and the Velvets’ direction, it is not so surprising they spun into Andy Warhol’s orbit. He became their ringmaster, handing them a chanteuse — the German-born Nico, who had trouble holding a tune — and the role as the band in a series of multi-media events known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It was a chance, said Warhol, “to combine music and art and films,” a Gesamtkunstwerk of a kind, if not one that Wagner would have appreciated.
But more than anything else, those 18 months explain why, after more than half a century, The Velvet Underground Experience, a sprawling, “immersive” exhibition, opened, after a run in Paris, in New York City this fall (it closed in December) not so far from the location of the long-vanished Café Bizarre. There are reportedly plans for it to reappear in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Most exhibitions dedicated to a band struggle to offer a new perspective on what is, primarily, an aural experience. Ancient guitars and fading posters will please only the saddest of fanboys. But when the music was part of a broader cultural moment, there are possibilities for something better, an opportunity that the curators of this show (backed by Citi, among others, a sponsor that Warhol, no foe of the dollar, would have relished) grabbed and then fumbled.
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