My first days
with The Velvet Underground
I pushed my way through the bitches, drag queens and wannabees packed hip to cheek in the front room at Max's. Four hours earlier, I had been in Boston, stripping down to take a shower when the phone rang and changed my plans for the evening, and the rest of the year. The last twelve months, and the twelve before those, had been spent trying every possible way to break into the big money that the music business held out like a golden carrot for young players.
The phone call, with it's offer to play bass for a major recording act, was everything I could have asked for. Success. This would be it.
The back room was just as crowded except most of the clientele were seated. Against one wall I picked out Steve, the manager and Lou, the singer and songwriter. Steve saw me first and jumped up, shaking hands and slapping backs, with a smile that could sell ice to Eskimoes.
"Heeyyy. You made it. Great to see you," Steve said, standing up to rearrange the seating. "Hi Dick."
Dick was the one who drove the volkswagen bus that had no heater from Boston to New York. The only trip that I can remember being as uncomfortable was a ride in the back of a hearse in mid winter from Boston to Washington to play a debutante hall. I was up all night the night before tripping on acid with Karen Butterfly. She and I watched the walls move and tried unsuccessfully to screw until the sun came up and I left to find the hearse. Dick was more talkative than the amplifiers that kept me company on the trip to DC, but it was just as cold.
"Welcome to New York," Steve swept his hand wide taking in the compacted patrons, a broad spectrum of fashion statements in various stages of dining. Over the heads of the table next to ours was a pop art picture, sort of cartoonish pointilistic style. Two faces were clearly discernable in one corner but most of the rest of the picture was difficult to decipher. After staring at it for most of the night the pieces finally fell into place and I realized it was a wide angle painting of a couple screwing and the bulk of the canvas was an extreme close up of the point where they came together. A large column on the left side was her thigh and the right third, an amorphous pink area, was the hip.
Just below the picture was a very large, very bald person, with the coarse face and body of a wrestler, all packed into a dress. This I later found out was Divine, billed for his/her films as a 300 lb. transvestite. I carried out my end of the conversation with both eyes on the room.
"We go to Cleveland this weekend and then a tour of the west next weekend." Steve was laying out the itinerary. "Think you can learn all the songs in two days?"
I nodded. I would have agreed to almost anything to get this gig.
Lou was regal, hiding behind a Mona Lisa smile and a gin and tonic. "You can stay at my loft, it'll give us more time to practice. Cool?"
I nodded. Across the aisle Divine laugh, throwing his/her head back and letting it roll out. It sounded like a jennyass being whipped with a two by four.
A waitress drifted by and shouted our order at her. She nodded, showing absolutely no emotion, and drifted away. Sterling, the guitar player, squirted out of the crowd that pressed against the bar and walked up the aisle carrying a Ballantine ale in each hand. He sat down and turned loose one of the dark green bottles so he could light the king size Kent that dangled from his lips.
"Hellooo, Douglas." Sterling said, words and smoke tumbling out simultaneously. He was, I would find out possessed of a very dry humor and a little bitter with the world. He kind of rolled out the hello, hanging on to the o through a curled tongue to take out some of the sincerity. He hunched over the two ballantine ales like a vulture on a fencepost, sipping and puffing leisurely, waiting for prey. Every now and then he would dart into the conversation with some bit of wit or satire, bobbing his head and grinning like a rear deck ornament in a fifty seven bel air. He used his wit like the tip of a katana, to inflict tiny cuts on anyone within range. Lou also used his commentaries like a sword, driven by a deep burning anger, he went for the killing stroke.
The waitress brought some stuff, food and a couple of beers. Dick was antsy to get on to whatever he had driven 200 miles to do so he tossed off half a beer and stood up to leave.
"Sure you won't stay, plenty of room..." Steve was selling every minute, even to Dick.
"Thanks, no, I really have to go. I promised Nancy Lee I'd be there by eleven..." he checked his watch to emphasize the time. "See you soon."
After Dick left, the conversation continued on insignificant topics. Chit chat. I started to yawn after another hour and a little later they got the message. The bill was paid and we pushed our way back out to the street.
Steve staggered around in the middle of Park Avenue for five minutes and came back smiling like an idiot. A moment later a yellow cab pulled to the curb and he opened the back door.
"C'mon, guys, I'll drop you off at the loft," he grinned ear to ear, swaying almost imperceptibly. Sterling had peeled off back at the bar so the three of us piled into the cab and took off.
The next two days were a blur of music and agreement with whatever Lou said. He had a very forceful personality and it was clear to me that he wanted what he said agreed with, so that's what I did. When the limosine arrived at the 34th street loft to pick us up, I had learned about thirty songs well enough to play along with the band and nodded pretty much continuously for 48 hours.
La Cave, in Cleveland was a successful club in 1968. One of those enterprising semi-hip types had rented a dingy basement room, threw up a cheap 12 inch stage and furnished the room with second hand tables and chairs. In the absence of any other progressive musical venues he was making pretty good money on a limited investment. The dressing rooms were hippie heaven. Second hand overstuffed sofas and fake persian rugs on the ceiling.
We had rooms at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, a short ride from the club. The heating system was set for air conditioning and a sudden cold snap had caught the building engineer by surprise so the room were well refrigerated. I settled into the room, feeling the old childhood thrill of being in a real motel. I grew up without tv and my father didn't believe in restaurants or motels unless there was no way to avoid it. With seven kids, one stop at Hojo's can run into some serious money. Later, after several years of touring, eating in coffee shops and living out of a suitcase, I had lost alot of my fascination with hotels.
I curled up on the bed and turned on the tv. It didn't matter what was on, I thought, it would be nice to have a little noise. In Cleveland, in the afternoon in 1968, the choices were slimmer than I imagined they could be. A half an hour later, when the phone rang, I was grateful to hear Steve say everyone was going over to the club to do a sound check.
Setting levels on the sound system gave us a chance to practice together for the first time since I had joined the group. All my time to this moment had been with Lou alone. We started with 'I'm Waitin' For My Man', always a good opener, and went through as many songs as we could before they threw us out. The sound was pretty good for no rehearsal, but then the music was straight forward without any serious complications. I made the usual mistakes that plague a newcomer trying to fit into an established group, a situation I was not unfamiliar with. I missed a lot of cues, got caught hanging over on endings and had to keep asking "What key?". But the audience seemed to love it, both at sound check and that evening, too.
Hanging out in the dressing room before the first set was great. People drifted in and acted like I was somebody important. Young pretty women flirted with their eyes and flashed smiles at all of us. Being new to it all, I hung back, unsure how to deal with this new attention. Maureen wasn't really interested in flirting and Lou watched it all across his psychological moat, remaining somewhat detached. Sterling, on the other hand, drank in everything.
Laughing and joking with everyone, he focused in on one or two girls and even began cutting one out of the pack. At the critical moment he pulled back and concentrated on his guitar playing. I found out later he had a girlfriend at home and maintained the image of faithfulness.
The first set came and went, and the break in between was more of the same. Schmoozing with the fans, talking about songs and missed cues. We tuned up again and headed out for the last show for the night. Three hours later, after a good set and more talking and flirting, I found myself sitting on the cold carpet of Lou's room listening and nodding. I can't remember what he talked about but it took most of the night. Songs, philosophy, stories, everything and anything. I sat wrapped in a bedspread to keep warm and nodded and listened.
When the sun came up, I was still nodding and listening. When he was ready to sleep, or perhaps out of kindness, Lou released me and I drifted back to my room to turn on the tv. One channel was on, out of the total selection for the Cleveland area of three. It was showing the farm report which included a piece on tractor safety. I sat and watched with scratchy eyes as a victim of a farm accident pleaded with me to be extra careful when operating farm machinery. He held up his right arm to emphasize his closing sentence. The camera zoomed in to where the hand once had been but now there was only a cap of scar tissue on the severed wrist. I turned off the television and pulled a pillow over my head to help me sleep.
Created by Olivier Landemaine