Velvet Wonderland: Rediscovering The Velvet Underground’s New York


Fifty years ago this week, the Velvet Underground and Nico was released, causing barely a ripple in the wider music world, but leaving a trail of influence nearly unequaled in the history of rock & roll. To celebrate the anniversary, we’re resisting some of the locations that helped form and definite band.

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Loft space, 56 Ludlow St.
In a loft with no bathroom, heat, or electricity, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLise rehearsed the first Velvet Underground songs. (A tape — minus drummer MacLise — surfaced on the box set Peel Slowly and See in 1995.)

Cale and MacLise had broken ground in the emerging world of minimalist music, playing together in La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate. (Tony Conrad, another minimalist pioneer, is a member of an early version of the band called the Primitives.) Reed and Morrison knew each from college at Syracuse. The Velvet Underground would combine the steady-state drone and repeated single notes of minimalism with the propulsion of the blues and R&B that Reed and Morrison loved.

In 1965, the nascent Velvets appeared in an underground film directed by a neighbor in at 56 Ludlow, Piero Heliczer, called “Venus in Furs.” Heliczer invited them to perform as part of a multimedia show at the Filmmaker’s Cinémathèque on Lafayette Street.

A side note: From 56 Ludlow, look to the Bowery to the west. That’s where the exploitation paperback from which the band took its name is found, reportedly by Conrad. “The Velvet Underground,” per Morrison, despite the whips and chains on the cover, “was basically about wife swapping in Suburbia.”

The Ludlow Street lofts are now home to a software company, a recording studio, a magazine publisher, and the building is now wired for electricity.

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Café Bizarre, 106 West 3rd St.
Less a genuine Greenwich Village folk haunt than a tourist trap (“it was a dump,” according to Reed), this club hosted a residency by the Velvets in December, 1965. Drummer Maureen Tucker had now joined the group, but the club’s “anti-rock group” policy meant she was restricted to banging on a tambourine.

Underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin brought Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Gerard Malanga and Nico to the Café Bizarre to see the Velvet Underground. Warhol loved the band’s confrontational edge — audiences left performances “dazed and damaged.” Warhol had been asked to be part of discotheque opening in the spring of 1966 on Long Island. He took the Velvets under his wing with the idea that they’d play there. (The gig eventually went to the Rascals.)

Café Bizarre is long gone. Now, the east corner is a JW Market; NYU Law School’s Faculty Club takes up the rest of the block between Sullivan and MacDougal.

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Hotel Delmonico, 502 Park Avenue
Warhol was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the New York Society For Clinical Psychiatry on January 10, 1966 at the Hotel Delmonico, on Park and 59th. He decided his remarks would take the form of showing some of his films, with the Velvet Underground providing music. Some 300 guests sat down in the Hotel Delmonico’s Grand Ballroom for a black tie dinner and were greeted by the Velvets playing at full volume, with Nico now on vocals and Malanga cracking a whip in the air while Edie Sedgwick danced. Jonas Mekas (a Voice columnist) and Rudin filmed the guests while asking blunt questions about their sex lives. “I’m ready to vomit,” said one.

Donald Trump bought the Hotel Delmonico for $115 million in 2001 and converted it into a luxury condominium building, the Trump Park Avenue.

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Warhol’s Silver Factory, 231 E. 47th St.
Twelve blocks south of the Delmonico was Warhol’s art studio, located in an industrial building near the United Nations. There, on the fourth floor of 231 E. 47th Street, Warhol oversaw the making of silk screens and collages, and shot experimental films and his screen test series (Bob Dylan was a subject; so was Beck’s mom, Bibbe Hansen, a Factory regular).

The Factory is social center for artists, filmmakers, journalists, drag queens and hangers-on of all sorts. The Velvet Underground practices there regularly from 1966 – 1968. (Rehearsal tapes were included on the 45th anniversary edition of “The Velvet Underground & Nico”; you can hear Reed going over the words to “Venus in Furs” while they fool around with Bo Diddley’s “Cracking Up.”) The cover of the Velvets third album shows the band on a couch at the Factory. According to Ken Pitt (David Bowie’s first manager) to access the Factory you rode up in a rickety old elevator — more like a cage than a proper elevator. Open on three sides, the thing offered a harrowing view of the sheer drop as you ascend.

Demolished in 1968, the building is a car park now.

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The Dom, 23 St. Mark’s Place
After the January, 1966, performance at the Hotel Delmonico, the Warhol multi-media show — first dubbed Up Tight — went on the road, playing college campuses in March. When the Long Island disco booking fails through, Warhol and Paul Morrissey are alerted to a ballroom in an East Village hall at 23 St. Mark’s Place. It’s called the Dom, an abbreviation of Polsky Dom Narodwy, or Polish National Home, the organization that owns the space. They rent the spot for the month of April, and the show is renamed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in a Village Voice ad which reads: “Live Music, Dancing, Ultra Sounds, Visions, Lightworks, Food, Celebrities, and Movies: ALL IN THE SAME PLACE AT THE SAME TIME.”

When the band returned from a California tour, however, they found their lease ripped up and the room under new management with a new name: the Balloon Farm. Still later it becomes the Electric Circus. The band played both in time.

There’s no rock venue there today. A Chipotle and a Chinese restaurant are in part of the building, as is a tattoo parlor, though next door, at at No. 25, is the the punk rock apparel shop Search and Destroy.

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Scepter Studios, 254 West 54th St.
In April of 1966 the band recorded the majority of their debut album here (though it would not come out for nearly a year) in studios belonging to Scepter Records, the label that put out the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. Scepter had taken over the run-down recording studio from CBS, which had called it Studio 52, and used it for radio and television broadcasting. The building will later house the iconic ’70s nightclub and discotheque, Studio 54. Nowadays, the Roundabout Theatre Company runs the place, though you can still enjoy a nightclub scene in the basement dinner club.

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The Chelsea Hotel, 222 W. 23rd St
One of New York’s quintessential rock & roll hotels. Bob Dylan lived there in 1965 (he wrote “Sad Eyed Lady of Lowlands” there), and Leonard Cohen recalled his assignation with Janis Joplin there in “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Scenes for Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls were shot there, though a scene with Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov was shot in an apartment on West Fourth Street, with the Velvet Underground in the next room improvising music. John Cale met his future wife Betsey Johnson at the Chelsea in 1967.

The hotel is currently closed, undergoing renovations, with plans to re-open in 2018.

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The Gymnasium, 420 E. 71st St
In April 1967, the Velvets played a series of gigs here on the Upper East Side, following the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico. (A tape of one show included on the 45th anniversary edition of the Velvet’s second album, White Light / White Heat, includes the only recording of a rocker called “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.”) The delay between the debut album’s recording and release meant the Velvets couldn’t take advantage of their 1966 notoriety. Warhol, in an attempt to rekindle the energy of the band and the flagging EPI, arranged for a series of gigs in the spring of 1967 at the Gymnasium in Sokol Hall.

It was a real gym, complete with barbells, weights, parallel bars, even a trampoline that kids leap onto from the balcony where Warhol’s projectors live. The maintain their residency for the rest of the month, playing to small crowds and sniping critics.

You can still get your sweat on in Sokol Hall, which offers gymnastic classes, as well as dance and yoga.

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The Scene 301 W. 46th St.
This basement club in the Theater District — a block west of Broadway and down some dicey stairs — was run by Steve Paul. Warhol and Paul hosted “underground amateur hour” advertised as featuring appearances by “stars of The Chelsea Girls” as well as “gurus, creative people, pop celebrities, society submergers” and the Velvet Underground.

The Velvets play here in January and of May of ‘67. Soon after, they cut their ties to both Warhol and Nico. And they won’t play another gig in New York until 1970.

Currently this space is under construction. Watch your step.