From One Velvet Underground Fan to Another

Sasha Frere-Jones pens a letter to Todd Haynes, the director of the new documentary, which charts the band’s illustrious career

BY Sasha Frere-Jones in Film , Opinion | 18 OCT 21

Dear Todd,

I’ve only transcribed someone else’s lyrics once. Forty years ago, I typed out all of The Velvet Underground songs on my Dad’s IBM Selectric. I get the feeling you’ve been thinking about The Velvets for just as long. This film you’ve made, The Velvet Underground, is both for people who love them and for those who absolutely don’t know what a Velvet is. You put it together with the kind of care that people bring to their family stories, that sense of being responsible for more than one life. You didn’t make a movie about Lou Reed. This is about a band and their New York and the filmmakers who led them to and away from Andy Warhol, who was maybe more encouraging than I give him credit for.

You open with John Cale’s viola from ‘Venus in Furs’ (1967), isolated and howling. It’s not Lou and it’s not pleasant, so you’ve got the classic rock crowd on their back feet right away. I didn’t really think I wanted to watch a movie told in two or three images at once but you make the split screens talk to each other. The layering reminds me of Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth (1963), one of the many experimental films you excerpt very briefly. Some of it is just so joyous. Hearing ‘Sweet Jane’ (1970) and watching people frolic in the Central Park Bethesda fountain returns some measure of lift to an overly familiar song. But then, this film gives newness back to so much of what it handles. I imagine that this is a by-product of familiarity, the responsibility of a Velvets fan who didn’t want to put in the obvious events but, when the story required it, drew on images we haven’t seen a thousand times.

Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, film still, 2021. Courtesy: Apple TV

You got Lou’s childhood friends, Allan Hyman and Richard Mishkin, to talk about being in a bar band with him. Lou punched out a window on the way to a gig! Mishkin: ‘He was like a three-year-old in many ways.’ Reed’s college girlfriend, Shelley Albin, talks about him egging her on to dance with a girl named Action. Lou Reed is here in full: talented, insecure, sadistic but not a monster, given to us without the prurience that plagues the commercial varieties of empathy.

John Cale lived at 56 Ludlow Street with Tony Conrad, who knew Cornelius Cardew and Angus MacLise, and they all worked with La Monte Young (one of the quiet rivers in this story). How can this all be so casually true? The fact that Cale and Conrad end up at Pickwick Records talking to Reed sounds like God’s own idea. Lou himself says that the first album would never have happened without Nico’s face and Warhol’s presence. It still seems remarkable that in 1966, MGM wanted to put out an album that is so chaotic and misshapen and out of time with itself.

Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, film still, 2021. Courtesy: Apple TV

Jonathan Richman, witness to more than 60 live shows, yammers on throughout, his narration at one point bundled into the same tight space as the sound of The Velvets show he’s describing – and, somehow, this wild combination works. It’s as implausible as the band. There are moments of ecstatic visual density, where your narrators lead us into a version of New York only they could synthesize.

And then, in 1968, this hilarious and gentle Welshman is booted from the band! Cale says he thought, ‘Well, I better get on to production,’ and there’s that fantastic photo of young Iggy Pop in the studio with Cale making the first Stooges album. Doug Yule, who replaced Cale, calls the band’s third release – The Velvet Underground (1969) – ‘the grey album’ and Lou says it was about ‘space’, and I immediately feel disloyal to Cale when I remember that this is my favourite.

The members of the band and their careers are dispatched with quick montages, Lou and Laurie Anderson represented by a single, adorable snapshot taken on a boardwalk. It’s the thrum of 1965 I want to go back to, with John Cage’s anti-music giving way to Young and Cale and Conrad and their hourlong drones in The Theater of Eternal Music. I want to hear Cale bring this into The Velvets and see Nico adapt to this surly bunch and watch them all take over the Polish National Home on St. Marks Place, where Nureyev came to watch and dance. Danny Fields ends up having my favourite punchline: ‘You need physics to describe that band at its height.’

Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, film still, 2021. Courtesy: Apple TV

It would feel odd to write this as if you were somebody I didn’t know. But, in the way that the Velvet Underground changed both of our lives – is that presumptuous to say? – you changed mine in 1984, when you told a lost kid standing under an arch at Brown University to take Mary Ann Doane’s Semiotics 12 class. That class was only half about theory – the other, more popular half was about film. You ended up teaching our section and I read Roland Barthes with you for the first time. That class introduced me to Wavelength (1967) and Jeanne Dielman (1975) and Sans Soleil (1983). You were making a movie with Barbie dolls called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), and you encouraged your students to unpack everything and throw away what we didn’t need, just as you’ve torn away the gossip and hagiography swaddling The Velvets and given us your own small band. You liked the papers I wrote: the single-spaced, no-margin things that demanded something like three pages of work. You told me to keep writing, and I did.


Main Image: Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, film still, 2021. Courtesy: Apple TV

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was just published by Semiotext(e).