The New York City Underground

Essential Question

How did New York bands interact with the city's art scene to create something new?

Overview

Interviewer: Since you were here last time, you seem to have been working full time doing concerts all over.

Lou Reed: It’s a lie. There are five of me going out, just like the Drifters in the old days.

— Interview with Lou Reed, 1975

Although a mop-headed “swinger'”who claimed to be [Andy] Warhol created a mild furor during and after an appearance in the Union Ballroom Oct. 2, extensive evidence has suggested he was not Warhol “in the flesh'”. . . . At a reception after the program, two members of the Art Department staff who had met Warhol in New York claimed the artist and “guest of honor'” was not Warhol.

Daily Utah Chronicle, January 31, 1968

This lesson considers New York City and the cross currents that run between the worlds of music-making and the arts in a broad sense, particularly the visual and literary arts. The epigraphs above provide a launching point for a discussion about one example of such cross currents. Lou Reed, a member of the Velvet Underground, a group Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke described in 1989 as, “arguably the most influential band of rock’s last quarter century,” describes becoming multiples of himself so that he can tour frequently. While Reed associates that with the Drifters, a vocal group that purportedly performed in latter-day incarnations that included no original members, But the more obvious line of influence for Reed’s thinking goes back to Andy Warhol, the New York art world’s most celebrated figure and onetime producer of the Velvet Underground.

As this lesson will describe, Andy Warhol was interested in the meeting place of “high” art and commercial art. Where the paintings of Rembrandt and Leonardo Da Vinci are single pieces, with museums across the world fighting to get one of these originals, Warhol created multiples. Much of his work was done using a silkscreening process that allowed him to create a “run” of paintings rather than just one. As a process, it was, at least to the fine-art world, shocking. When Warhol went one step further and sent a “copy” of himself to give a lecture at a college in Utah, he further offended the sensibilities of his patrons. Lou Reed, who described Warhol as the Velvet Underground’s “catalyst,” slyly picks up Warhol’s line of thinking when asked about his active schedule: “There are five of me.”

This flow of ideas between Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, illustrated in their actual or purported play with multiples, is representative of a New York experience. Surveying the city from the vantage point of 1976, Nick Kent, in an article from the Rock’s Backpages archive, describes the scene thus: “Getting down to basics again, I’d confidently state that out of this current plethora of new N.Y. groups, at least five are capable of exceptional contributions to rock. It should be dutifully noted that at least four of those bands bear obvious heavy debts inspiration-wise to Lou Reed’s work specifically within the framework of the [Velvet Underground].” The bands/artists he’s referring to include Television, the Talking Heads, the Heartbreakers, and Patti Smith. But what did they draw from Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground? As this lesson will suggest, the answer wasn’t always in the music itself. The example of Lou Reed was an example of the cross current described above, that movement of influence between the art world and the music scene.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How the music and art communities intersected in the case of the Velvet Underground and their work with Andy Warhol
    • The example of Patti Smith as a poet-bandleader
    • The examples of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as musicians who have actively collaborated with New York’s wider art world
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Extrapolate arguments about music by assessing sound, mood, tone, instrumentation
    • Write creatively for personal and/or small group expression
    • Compare and contrast texts, arguments and ideas
    • Common Core: Students will draw connections among various print, audio and visual texts to deepen their knowledge and understanding (CCSS Reading 2; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2; CCSS Speaking and Listening 3)
    • Common Core: Students will draw evidence from informational texts to suport research and analysis of the contributions of Lou Reed, Andy Warhol and/or Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg (CCSS Writing 9)