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The Velvet Underground had to die Nobody wants their heroes to survive

Heroin is Vicious (Apple TV+)


November 5, 2021   5 mins

I’ve spent the last few months working on a film festival. Weeks came and went, and then months, as I chased coolness, growing more and more disgusted with myself. I dragged myself to bars that had become kitsch after being mentioned on popular podcasts, and waited for texts from directors no one in my hometown had ever heard of. I was let into parties I immediately wanted to flee, and stood on the balcony watching girls ten years younger than me sob in the rain. I felt undignified; for the first time in my life, I was almost cool.

On one of the last nights before the festival kicked off, I insisted on going to Film Forum to see Todd Haynes’s documentary The Velvet Underground. I was excited: it was the first film I’d see in weeks, as my life had gone from one of watching films to one of begging filmmakers to sign contracts — and the documentary had been praised far and wide as “exhilarating… experimental” (AV Club), “rapturous” (Slate), and “as radical, daring, and brilliant, as the band itself” (Rolling Stone).

And it’s true: I was exhilarated. I was sold when the first notes of Venus in Furs began to play, thumping almost painfully loudly in the butter-scented dark of the theatre. I was sold when Lou Reed’s beautiful young face appeared in Chelsea Girls-style split-screen, flickering with the slight human movements that Warhol couldn’t stamp out even with his commands not to move. I was sold on the hypnagogic, Brakhage-inspired collages splicing together 16mm film at that dizzying pace where impression exceeds memory. It made me think about how beautiful time is, how beautiful existence is, how beautiful youth is. As K. Austin Collins wrote in Rolling Stone, “[t]he movie makes you wish you were there”.

But I’m not sure it’s true that, as Collins continues, with the “lights darkened, [and the] dots and rays and Reed flickering before us, we nearly are”. When the lights lifted, I was there in a chair in a city overrun by private equity and a sense of impending collapse, waiting for people in their fifties to collect their bags and exit to the restrooms.

All the reviews talk about how the film isn’t a traditional narrative documentary, telling you the story of the band. Instead, it makes you “experience… feel… in your gut”. The film, then, is nothing more than a vibe. The only real impression it leaves you with is that The Velvet Underground was cool. And it was cool. They look cool, even today, in those videos with the polka dots projected on them, the hot people dancing in all the leather. Lou Reed and John Cale still look beautiful, young and sombre under Warhol’s camera. Unlike, say, The Pixies, they’re not lame at all.

And yet this isn’t quite as radical a documentary as reviews would have it. As one reviewer put it, there are interviews that “offer commentary and insight, alternating between taking a detached ‘long view’ of things and plunging us into the middle of it all”. In other words, there are normal talking-head interviews, even though they’re in square aspect ratio and even though they’re projected in split-screen and even though they’re filmed by Ed Lachman.

And you know what? It’s not fun to see members of the Factory as 65 year olds. Cultural documentary, I’m starting to think, is always fundamentally sad. It’s always a memento mori. Music is about youth and beauty, but this film can’t escape a stultifying sense of impending death, even in a “fun” version that seems mostly to prove that Todd Haynes is familiar with structuralist film. The problem with documentary is that everyone hates documentary: that’s why all the truly original ones are affronts to the genre; they are anti-recreative and experimental (Shoah, The Killing Fields, etc.). Even usually brilliant and original directors fall flat when they turn to documentary, churning out depressingly normal, depressingly obvious work (see Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, an Iggy Pop documentary complete with titles in Creeper font).

The problem of documentary, its vampire problem, is worse with music. Music is about people between the ages of 15 and 30 being incredibly cool — and Sixties cool, especially, is about youth and freshness and limits. That’s why Haynes doesn’t continue past the break-up of the band: because it’s not cool that they didn’t die, because it was lame when Green Day came out with American Idiot in 2004, because no one wanted to see Billie Joel Armstrong wearing eyeliner in his thirties.

As the film discusses, Warhol would project his work at 16 frames per second, a third slower than life. The people here seem ghostly, slowed down, plugged into a museum-like circuit, one where the individual is transformed from flesh to symbol, from transient to uncontainable. The same change makes a person cool. Coolness, celebrity, is all about some area halfway between presence and absence.

One of the highlights of the film is seeing Jonathan Richman meet the band as a 15 year old, and hearing the 2019 Richman exclaim that he thought “These people would understand me!” That’s how you always feel about your idols; like there’s someone a little far away, a few years old, a little bit skinnier, who knows.

So you don’t want to see them grow up. You don’t want them to get married and have kids and buy a house. You don’t want them to survive. You don’t want them to get normal.

At one point in the movie, Jonas Mekas, the Lithuanian filmmaker, talks about the zeitgeist of the Sixties, the movie houses of Midtown, and the New York Film Festival, all bristling with avant-garde experiment and energy. It’s hard to imagine a time when the New York Film Festival was interesting. Today, an exciting NYFF film is The Velvet Underground, a film by an old person about old people for old people. And what’s left for us? For days after watching the film, I listened to ‘Heroin’ over and over again, struck again by the pain of it, by the screechiness and hurt.

In comparison, all young people have today are Instagram memes and videos and a sense of irony so deep that until that film festival I was working on actually happened, most people thought it was all a joke. It was beautiful and triumphant, and two days after it ended, our creative director, a “meme lord”, an innocent child who had been working in an ice cream shop in Florida and living with his mom until he got scouted and brought to New York in July, overdosed, and I found out he was dead from seeing his dead body on my Instagram feed. His ex-boyfriend has posted the photo, announcing his death and asking if anyone knew how to contact his family.

Again, almost everyone thought it was a joke, and no one had his family’s address. No one knew if he had siblings. No one even knew how old he was; I could vaguely remember a conversation where he’d told me he was either one or two years older than he said he was, because even being 25 was terrifyingly old. Because to be cool, you have to die, you have to disappear. The heroin has to actually kill you.


Ann Manov is a writer living in New York. Visit her website here.

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Ludo Roessen
LR
Ludo Roessen
2 years ago

It is probably me…. but I got completely lost in this article…stop intellectualising these things… Great band…great era…some die… some fade away… that’s life…

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Ludo Roessen

I don’t agree, I thought it was a great article, beautifully written, Ann Manov really seems to capture the fleeting lostness of what that music expressed at the time. Some music lasts very well and can be enjoyed hundreds of years after it was written never mind 50 years later, but I agree with her, Velvet Underground not so much.
Comparatively, genius like Jimi Hendrix has lasted and is still mind blowing.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“And you know what? It’s not fun to see members of the Factory as 65 year olds.

Well,,, us 65 year olds were there, and saw it, and it wasn’t all that fun then either because life is mostly working and waiting. Better than now perhaps. Better art, culture, aesthetics, adventure, and with youth.

You see a documentary, and it is all compressed, just the high and low points, but my experience is that most of life is pretty much work, and tedium, punctuated by moments of action and aesthetics, and the bad.

I did not get the article, although it gave a sort of mood of wistful longing to be at the center of some actual cool, young and beautiful, artistic, scene, and a disappointment otherwise.

But I will tell you what it is so amazing about youth. Innocence. Life is the trek from innocence (not having had the experience of something), to Experience (having experienced most somethings.) That is the magic of youth – seeing and feeling all these amazing things for the first time. There is just more and more to try and do and feel – so much grand and wonderful, and so much to think of everything…

And as you get older your capacity to feel excitement and newness is less and less – you have experience, and not innocence – and that is not bad really, but it is more flatlined, the amplitude of life’s emotional sign wave is shallower and shallower – still, one always recalls the amazingness of life being new and so desirable.

I kind of get the feeling the writer is simply finding she has lost the youthful joy of first experience, she seems to have been around the block, and her innocence is now wearing out, and so the jadedness of being experienced is catching her off guard. Like the art/entertainment focus on youth and creativity and beauty passing her, and she is being surprised that she is getting on herself. More like this article is her first stage on that early line: “And you know what? It’s not fun to see members of the Factory as 65 year olds.” I think we all are surprised when one day, we realize we are grown up.

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I kinda disagree with you here. I look back on youth as a huge waste of time. Most of it was sitting around waiting for something to happen. I look back and think how great it would have been to use that enormous energy to do something.

Looking back at past bands and gigs is a waste of time. The moments can’t be recreated. Don’t even bother.

Tony Taylor
TT
Tony Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

“I look back on youth as a huge waste of time. Most of it was sitting around waiting for something to happen.”

Ditto. If only I hadn’t put so much time into what is essentially garnish.

Karl Schuldes
KS
Karl Schuldes
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Just having that energy is good enough. And feeling good.

Tony Taylor
TT
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

I remember when I used to love the Velvets, and swallowed whole great chunks of rock writing about how important, influential, how everyone who listened to them started a band, blah, blah, yawny, yawny, yawn. And then I got old and it occurred to me that Orwell wasn’t talking about politics and the debasement of language in his famous essay, he was actually taking about rock writing and the coruscatings and the radiants and the searings and all the rest of the hyperventilating about what is, in at least 99% of cases, music company jingles for teenagers and/or imbeciles.

David Shipley
DS
David Shipley
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

This is all rather sad. The Velvet Underground were cool; the noise, the squalor, the grinding rhythm and bass guitars, Reed’s transgressive image were all new then and alluring to us as teenagers. I still smile when I listen to Sister Ray or Waiting for the Man and it reminds me of those times, and brings out the last remnants of the person I was, 50 years on. I know I’m in my late 60s, retired with grandchildren, but we all grow up eventually and it doesn’t have to involve disowning our youth.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

On a packed long-haul flight two or three years ago, I selected the movie on the rock band Queen that came out then, Bohemian Rhapsody. For an in-flight movie it was ok, as I just wanted to pass the time. As the movie progressed, I wanted it over and done with, however. I was rapidly losing interest. On the in-flight entertainment system, there were a lot of movies to choose from, but only one or two had appealed to me. And maybe I had seen them already. And there were many other channels full of stuff, but nothing that was exciting enough to keep me from trying to close my eyes. I ended up listening to music.
The entertainment system on a modern aircraft seems like an extravagance and a folly for the relatively short time in a tin tube flying you to a destination infinitely more appealing than said entertainment system.
Nobody around me had been watching the Queen movie, absorbed as they were in the whole system. That made Bohemian Rhapsody possibly even more difficult to watch.

In the mid-1970s, on another long-haul flight, I recall the air stewardesses setting up a table in the middle of the aisle, plonking a projector on top of it, running it and playing “the film”: a horrendous horror movie whose title I cannot recall. Could have been that stupid Omen one. Everyone on board could basically either watch it or sleep. The brutal, brutal 70s.
The zeitgeist of the Sixties? What was so special about them? You may as well talk about the zeitgeist of the Fifties, or Twenties: but it might be horribly uncool to apply the word “zeitgeist” to any decade other than the hallowed Sixties. The brutal, brutal Sixties.

Where was I?
I suppose being at the cinema is good for measuring the whole audience’s reaction against one’s own. The communal nature of the occasion is bound to appeal. When TV channels were extremely few in number, it was easier to hear, Did you see on TV last night ….? Ironically not so much today. But that long-haul flight and the pod-like nature of the whole entertainments consumption experience said it all about the actual disconnectedness of life today. Slap on top of that now the mask-wearing society.

I recall watching late at night on regular TV a recording of Queen’s live performance in 1975 from (it might have been) Earl’s Court or some such London venue: they on stage and all dressed in flowing white robes, Mercury moving mesmerisingly about the stage. But the packed audience of mostly young people was, perhaps unusually, lit up well and it was just as intriguing to be able to see their faces, their reactions.
And watching that particular concert would have been the ideal way to pass the time on a packed plane, flying across the Atlantic Ocean or Greenland: Queen, the rock band as it, not they, actually was. No movie, no documentary would have done. My tonic was missing.
And if I can find this movie now, on a ridiculously tiny screen, I will not watch it. Just to let you know. The screen’s gotta be big.

Ideally you would have been at the concert, in ‘75. But the cinema, on the big screen, does nicely, even on a big TV. However, so much effort is expended on creating bios, ciphers, alternatives, staged copies of artists and entertainers, plonked often onto ridiculously tiny screens too, that I believe all that buzz is making us unhappy. Time is too short to have so many artists and entertainers and their outputs warped. Documentaries may easily be spoiled. May easily bore.

For instance, people are weeping and wailing at ABBA’s return to the pop fray. Weeping and wailing! Like vital food and drug supplies have arrived! To them Abba are Mamma Mia rebooted! The moment the Abba Darth Vader finally lifts off its helmet. The voyage complete, like.
And all people used to want … was a framed photograph. Whatever happened to ABBA’s Take-A-Chance-On-Me split- screen from 1978 to warm the cockles of the heart?

J N
JN
J N
2 years ago

This is sad:

QUOTE
In comparison, all young people have today are Instagram memes and videos
UNQUOTE

Jesper Bo Henriksen
JB
Jesper Bo Henriksen
2 years ago
Reply to  J N

It isn’t true, though. Different forms of art are in the forefront at different times. In the 50s and 60s, it was music; in the 80s and 90s fashion, dance, and rap culture. The kids I know today are big into food and cooking – in particular the boys! – and make-up as an art. Video and online gaming are also art forms that are of interest now.

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago

I think you are muddling up art with play and toys. We no longer have to work hard to survive, so we are supplied with stuff to pass the time away. For example, boys in Africa or South America who work in mines or in agriculture have no time for the childish things you refer to.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Jesper Bo Henriksen
JB
Jesper Bo Henriksen
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

And poverty-stricken miners were forming bands in the 1960s?
You are comparing apples to oranges.

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago

Indeed, miners have a long tradition of brass bands and choirs. That is art. But that is not the point I was making.
You refer to food and cooking, make up and video games as “art forms that are of interest now”, these are not art forms, they may be artistic, I can be artistic in the way I hang my washing on the line, but that does’nt make it an “art form”.

Jesper Bo Henriksen
JB
Jesper Bo Henriksen
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Old woman mocks teens, film at 11.

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago

If I mocked it was your comment I mocked not the teenagers themselves. Perhaps I was a bit harsh but my point, that the pastimes you describe – food, cookery, make-up and gaming are trivial pursuits not art forms, is important. They are unworthy of teenage boys’ time (gaming not so much, within reason), imo. By no means is that teenage boys’ fault. It is the fault of our consumer society and our educational and political failures.
I definitely do not blame teenagers but I am not going to shy away from stating the truth, as I see it, to protect feelings, when there is the possibility that the truth may lead to something better for them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Martin Smith
MS
Martin Smith
2 years ago

“Thought of you as my mountain top/ Thought of you as my peak/ Thought of you as everything I’d had but couldn’t keep/ Linger on…” Love, youth and beauty… all gone.

Gary Hennessey
GH
Gary Hennessey
2 years ago

Why does Unherd publish articles about rock music? Recently we’ve had a piece about what an arsehole Dylan is, the Ramones, heavy metal fans (although I admit that was a sweetly personal article by a writer who usually gives us statistics), and now this one. I regard Unherd as a serious publication, dealing with things that really matter, and so if we’re going to have articles on music, why rock, which is essentially ephemeral (yes, even the ‘quality’ acts). But then, I suppose rock has become regarded as serious by the mainstream media. Even the Daily Telegraph has it’s rock critics. In the end though, rock, being ephemeral, will let us down. Only art – by which I mean the long- standing traditions of music, literature, visual art, etc -can offer us anything of real substance and meaning. So why do we bother with anything less? Wouldn’t it be good if Unherd encouraged its readers to listen to what is, on the whole, unheard? I mean, of course, classical music. You might reply, this isn’t a music magazine, if you want to read about it, subscribe to a classical music magazine. Yes, but then there are plenty of rock magazines out there – why have articles like this on in Unherd? I’m sure I’ll get some negative responses, and I will read them but I won’t reply. I’ve said my piece.

Last edited 2 years ago by Gary Hennessey
Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Gary Hennessey

Douglas Murray has written at least a couple of pieces on classical music on UnHerd. I agree with you it would be good to see more.
Nevertheless, I think there’s room for a few articles about the edgier, more transitory side of culture, if only to point to how empty it was/is, as this one does.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Jesper Bo Henriksen
JB
Jesper Bo Henriksen
2 years ago

As someone who spends a lot of time around teenagers, it’s always of interest to me to see which classic rock acts have made it through to the current generation. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Queen, The Ramones, Guns ‘n’ Roses, yes. The Velvets and The Rolling Stones, not so much. U2 not at all.

Ian Hampson
IH
Ian Hampson
2 years ago

Music is about people between the ages of 15 and 30 being incredibly cool’
Just about as shallow as you get really

Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I was an absolute twerp during my youth, and suspect that my subsequent insight into this condition has done little if anything to ameliorate it.

laurence scaduto
LS
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

Yikes!