Velvet Underground: The New York City Punk-Rock Poets
Even though the Velvet Underground made only four albums and broke up several years before punk-rock rumbled through New York City, their politically charged, crude, and noisy songs influenced a generation of musicians and writers.
John Cale, a classically trained violinist and pianist, together with singer-songwriter Lou Reed, created the band in 1964. They sought a break from the breezy, west-coast flower-power sound of the 1960s, a sound they thought was afraid to dirty its hands. With Sterling Morrison on bass and Maureen Tucker on drums, the Velvet Underground mixed nihilism with drug use, sadomasochism, and unstudied cool--a mix that proved irresistible to pop artist Andy Warhol, who was convinced he needed to manage a band and that they were the band he needed to manage. Warhol added German-born actress Nico (best known for her role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita) and produced the group's seminal first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, in 1966.
One of the songs from that album, "European Son," was dedicated to poet Delmore Schwartz, Reed’s mentor as a student at Syracuse University. The year before the album's release, Schwartz had died from heart failure, likely caused by years of alcohol and barbiturate abuse. A poet of brutal emotional landscapes anchored in the commonplaces of daily life, Schwartz's attention to a simple vernacular language made a lasting impression on Reed. The influence is apparent in songs such as "Waiting for My Man" and "Heroin," with their focus on the quotidian life of a heroin addict. Take these lines from "Waiting for My Man," which simultaneously reads like an instruction manual and warning:
Up to a brownstone, up three flights of stairs
Everybody's pinned you, but nobody cares
He's got the works, gives you sweet taste
Ah then you gotta split because you got no time to waste
I'm waiting for my man
The Velvet Underground’s songs were as politically potent as Bob Dylan’s, but, as one critic has noted, "whereas Dylan refused to acknowledge the origin of a song’s subject matter directly, Reed flaunted his." Picking up, perhaps, on the tenor of the poems of the New York School Poets such as Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, Reed penned lyrics naming the people, the places, and the seemingly incidental details that composed the New York underbelly. In "Run Run Run," for instance, a stroll through Union Square promises that "You never know who you’re gonna find there," and finds "Marguerita Passion" who "went to sell her soul" and "Seasick Sarah" with the "golden nose."
Reed drew from a range of literary sources beyond the New York School, including the Beats and the French Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Arthur Rimbaud, poets who placed primacy on the expression of the immediate sensations of human experience. Just as Reed’s lyrics informed a succession of musicians during the 1970s and the decades that followed, his literary influences seemed contagious as well: David Johansen of the New York Dolls compared his own songwriting to the poetry of Rimbaud; Patti Smith, whose debut album Horses remains the defining "art-punk" record, channeled Baudelaire and Rimbaud; Richard Hell and the Voidoid’s punk anthem, "Blank Generation," was modeled on Rod McKuen’s poem "Beat Generation"; and founding Television member Tom Verlaine changed his name in tribute to the French poet Paul Verlaine. Beyond poetic influence, many of the musicians that emerged from the early New York punk scene also published their own collections of verse, including books by Patti Smith, David Byrne, and Sonic Youth members Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore.
The Velvet Underground’s legacy is defined by many things: their noisy sound, their intelligent cynicism, and a long list of criminally great songs. The famous saying about the band is that only 100 people heard them, but all 100 started their own bands. However, the Velvet Underground's most enduring contribution to music, arguably, is the world made possible by their lyrics. As David Bowie has said, "The nature of [Reed’s] lyric writing had been hitherto unknown in rock...he supplied us with the street and the landscape, and we peopled it."