In the summer of 2009, my wife and I moved to New York City; more specifically Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. Previously, we lived in western Massachusetts, a place filled with forests and general stores and Robert Frost-esque rock walls. Needless to say, there was a bit of culture shock. I had gone to college out near Boston, so I was a little used to the grind and crawl of city dwelling, but Ruthanne was less prepared. She spent the first 2 months nervous and unhappy; she liked the rock walls, and didn’t like the cement wall that our apartment window looked out on.

New York isn’t hiking paths and twisty roads and mountains that are really hills; it’s plazas and avenues and digital billboards in Times Square. It’s Frank Sinatra and the Today Show and TKTS and restaurants we’d never heard of. It’s a place that almost lives up to your expectations you had since you were a kid, but falls tragically short.

But there is another side to the Big Apple (a name no native New Yorker has ever uttered in his life); a stereotypical seedy underbelly part of its past, now acknowledged as lore and legend. Andy Warhol and the Factory and drug-addled parties are an integral part of it. Describing in detached detail that aspect of NYC, as a Greek chorus might the plight of Oedipus, is the Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground started as two guys (Lou Reed and John Cale) who loved the avant garde, and eventually became the house band of the Factory, Andy Warhol’s art/movie studio. The Factory had its original home on 47th St. in Manhattan, and was populated by a cadre of artists, hangers-on, drug addicts, and Warhol’s friends. Usually, a single Factory denizen would be all four.

Andy Warhol

Andy was one unique cat. Everything I’ve read, heard and seen about him says he was spacey, free-thinking and revolutionary in his own way, but also manipulative, insensitive, and capable of extreme cruelty. His films are some of the most sexually explicit (and sexually bizarre) ever produced, though he was an unmarried, deeply Catholic virgin. Some say he was gay, but as far as intercourse with another human being goes, I don’t think Andy ever had it.

Enter the VU. After humble beginnings, including John Cale giving their demo tape to Marianne Faithful in the hope she would pass it on to Mick Jagger (she didn’t), Andy Warhol eventually took notice of them. In addition to becoming the Factory’s house band, the Velvet Underground also provided the musical accompaniment to Warhol’s traveling multimedia art show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol also became the band’s manager, and the Velvets benefited from Andy’s high public profile. He “produced” (that’s with air quotes) their first album, though his involvement was little, in the name of giving the band free rein over their own sound. But the most important contribution Andy made was his suggestion (which translated as his undeniable command) that they be joined on a few songs by singer and Factory It Girl Nico.

Ah, Nico. I’m tempted to think the pairing of Nico and the Velvets didn’t initially excite any of the people involved, and was a grudging thing at best, but I’ve seen no indication of that. Still, some of the best parts of their first album came when Nico had no involvement whatsoever. Nico, who was an individual artist in her own right, couldn’t simply be absorbed as a member of the Velvet Underground. I don’t think either party would have been satisfied with that; Nico would have to share the spotlight with four other people, and VU would have to take on what was essentially dead weight. Like it or not, that pairing created an environment that might not have produced such a fantastic album had it not happened. It couldn’t be sustained, though – Nico quit before 1967 was even over.