It’s been fifty years since Lou Reed and co released their debut album. Yes, The Velvet Underground & Nico has been in the world for fifty years.
When I was in high school I went through a slight Andy Warhol obsession, as teenagers are prone to do. I’m on a snowboarding trip in Colorado; I come across an unmarked, two-story record shop in Boulder. I sift through racks and racks of crates searching for nothing in particular. I already have a smallish record collection of Bright Eyes and Spoon albums I bought at their shows, some hand-me-downs from my uncles, some 45s from an estate auction, but when I approach the Vs, I pull that banana-clad white sleeve up and examine Andy’s signature.
Velvet Underground. I have heard of this one. This was the album where you can peel the banana. This is the album where Andy made them work with some model they didn’t like. This is the album that brought avant garde to the people, though I don’t know what the term means at the time and am even more unsure, as I write this, but I know it’s something different. So, I buy the album, even though I’ll have to protect it on the plane. The shop employee simply says, “Classic,” as he rings me up. Every night I get home from the slopes, I pull the album out and admire the cover again. On the back, portraits of the band, layered with projected colors. They are “cool,” there’s no other word for it.
I arrive at the airport and get home sometime between 3 and 4 in the morning. I tear the shrink-wrap from the album and hold the album up, inspecting the grooves, and finally place the album down and set the needle. Even through my sleep-deprived state, I know I’ve found something in that will stick with me from “Sunday Morning” alone.
And it does. Years later, this album is still on heavy rotation on my record player. I could tell you about how they got on Verve Records, which was primarily a jazz label. I could tell you how they claimed the album was recorded live, but you can tell guitar tracks overlap through “Venus in Furs.” I could tell you about Nico’s bizarre death by bicycle or Doug Yule being forced to call Squeeze a Velvets album, even though no original members remained in the band. I found all these stories about the album later, but at the time I just grabbed something that interested me.
As much as I love the music, there was something about picking this album out in an unorthodox place. Sometimes music calls out to us and we have to listen, because you never know how it will stick with you.