Apart from a lot of photos and four of the greatest albums in the entire rock and roll canon, the Velvet Underground did not leave much behind. Posters, snippets of video, lots of concert recordings (only one of them professionally made), and the slack-jawed memories of those lucky enough to see the band live, many of whom went on to create music deeply influenced by this deeply influential band.
The group’s 1967 debut, “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” is almost indisputably the greatest first album in rock history and has inspired some mind-boggling idolatry: Its iconic songs, nearly all written by Lou Reed, have been covered by multiple generations of musicians — from David Bowie to Patti Smith to Joy Division to R.E.M. to Nirvana to Beck to the Decemberists, and beyond — and one guy I know collects copies of the album and actually owns more than 800 of them. Their influence has become such an integral element of alternative rock that it’s hard to point to specific current acolytes. But if you clicked on this article, you already know most if not all of that.
Recordings aside, much of what the group did leave behind can be experienced at “The Velvet Underground Experience” exhibit at 718 Broadway in New York’s Greenwich Village, just blocks from the site of the Café Bizarre, where they performed in their early days, and The Dom, where they cemented their reputation as part of Andy Warhol’s multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows in the mid 1960s. (It is an updated version of the exhibit of the same name that was staged in Paris two years ago.)
Special events around the opening of the exhibit — which is scheduled to run through Dec. 30, although it could be extended — are a walk-through with designer Matali Crasset tonight, a Q&A with the band’s bassist and cofounder John Cale, on Thursday, and a special concert by veteran indie rock band and deep Velvets devotees The Feelies on Saturday at the White Eagle Hall in Newark, NJ. (And co-sponsor Tidal went the extra yard by collecting Velvets playlists from some 14 artists including TV on the Radio, The National, Julian Casablancas, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Luna’s Dean Wareham and the Feelies’ Glenn Mercer, although our favorite is Robyn Hitchcock’s.) The Experience is co-presented by Bandsintown and Citi.
Since it lacks a framing device like the lurid stage costumes that were the centerpiece of recent exhibits of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones (although it would have been funny to see some of the Velvets’ iconic black turtlenecks), the exhibit instead focuses on dramatically rendered photography, artifacts, vintage footage and films produced exclusively for the exhibition, the latter projected in ways recalling the trippy sensory overload of the Warhol era.
“The exhibition portrays the creative effervescence of the ’60s New York from which the Velvet Underground emerged to achieve mythic status and change the face of pop culture,” said exhibition co-curators Christian Fevret and Carole Mirabello
Separated into several themed areas, the “Experience” begins by setting the context of New York in the early 1960s via dozens of photos taken by veteran Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah, ranging from street scenes to a young Bob Dylan performing at a folk club.
Visitors are then moved through the band’s career, with biographical sections on each member and photos. The most elaborate is the Warhol “Factory Years”: in a long cubby-like space in the center of the exhibition area, cushions are on the floor with screens overhead on which film clips of the era are projected. The exhibit runs more or less in chronological order, following through founding bassist/violist John Cale’s departure and the group’s transition into a slightly more conventional rock band, right through to Reed’s exit in August 1970.
Along the way are many photos of the band and their milieu — some of them familiar but many more rarely seen; Fevret told us he scanned the contact sheets very thoroughly and pointed to one of Cale’s hands as he plays the bass as just one of many previously unpublished ones — eye-popping posters, Warhol’s famous “screen test” films and what may be the most valuable collection of Velvets vinyl anywhere. In one section, there are promotional singles, the impossibly rare “Loop” flexidisc with the accompanying magazine, and a copy of the band’s first album signed by all five members and Warhol. Nico gets her own room, a small one off of the main exhibition area, that features clips of her films playing and a design inspired by Warhol’s legendary Factory.
On the lower floor, two areas called “New York Spirit” and “Legacy” examine the group’s vast impact, ranging from other posters, publications and art of the era, with a giant wall plastered with photos and posters or musicians and other artists bearing their Velvets influence.
And in the floor below that is the Bandsintown studio, where performances will be held for the duration of the exhibit.
The Greenwich Village that the Velvets inhabited is 50 years away, so far gone it’s almost unrecognizable on the streets “Experience” visitors exit onto — but the eternal rush and buzz of New York remains, as does the sense of possibility that spawned this band and continues to inspire so much creativity and provocation, ideally at the same time.