interviews

Richie Unterberger on the Making of White Light/White Heat *

The codes of history are cracked in stages. The archaeologist who discovers an arcane text scribed in an unknown tongue is not the cryptographer who deciphers it. The early versions of historical tales tend to be told in legend, myth and rumor, which are only later, and very gradually, brought up to the spec of empirical fact.

The story of The Velvet Underground fits that model to a T, and fans have been most fortunate to receive ever-clarifying stages of it. In recent years alone we’ve been treated to the exceptional work of such amateur researchers as Olivier Landemaine, Alfredo Garcia and the late Joe Harvard, and credit must also be given to such professionals as Bill Levenson, David Fricke and John Kugelburg. All have labored rigorously to overturn the dirt of uncertainty and error in search of sound information, not to mention mounds of previously-unheard Velvets music.

As I write this, their work and that of other intrepid researchers is on the verge of culminating in The Velvet Underground, a major documentary film by acclaimed director Todd Haynes, which should bring the group’s story and music to wider awareness than ever before. While largely a primer, the movie will be an extremely accurate telling of the story, in part because Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day was one of the production’s primary reference sources.* An extremely detailed timeline of the band’s history, the book is a masterpiece of historiography, and runs neck-and-neck with Landemaine’s Electricity Comes From Other PlaNets website as the best origination points for a dig into Velvets fact and lore.

*Jawbone Press, 2009. The subsequent ebook edition — originally published in 2017 but regularly updated — is the definitive version, and is available from Amazon and Apple Books.

A meticulous scholar of ’60s rock and pop music, I’ve long envied Unterberger’s abilities to both get the story and organize boatloads of data. As a fellow historical researcher dazzled by the accomplishment of White Light/White Heat, one aim of my interview with Richie was to learn about some of the techniques he used to create it. I didn’t think such monumental work could be done without exotic tricks or esoteric shortcuts, but, as we’ll discover, he used only nuts-and-bolts methods — ordinary techniques, perhaps, but performed at an extraordinary level.

In the course of that we incidentally indulged in some good VU chat, of a level of detail designed to appeal only to the most fully-loaded fan of the group.

What prompted you to do a book of VU data?

That was kind of a joint decision. The publisher, Jawbone Press, had published or distributed several other “day-by-day” books detailing the activities of major rock artists, such as The Kinks, The Byrds and the Beach Boys, in chronologically-ordered entries. They knew I was a big Velvet Underground fan, and asked if I’d be interested in doing a book on them in a similar format.

But I wanted the book to read a little differently than previous “day-by-day” books. Most of them contain lots of useful information, yet make for pretty dry reading. I wanted this one to be not strictly a reference tool, but something that’s interesting to read in its own right. I didn’t want to only relay the facts of what occurred on a given date, I also wanted to tell the tale with a narrative flow like that of books with a more conventional format. And I wanted to include a lot of first-hand research — to add to what was already known, including vintage press clippings and photos, and original interviews with as many people involved with the group as I could find.

Your approach works, as the book is certainly a page-turner. Which interviews turned out to be more substantive and useful than you expected?

Bob Ragona was general manager of frontline product at Pickwick Records, where Lou Reed worked as songwriter and recording artist in the mid 1960s. I didn’t even know who he was when I started — Dave Brown, a friend who was researching the Pickwick catalog, referred me to him. Ragona had never been interviewed about Reed and the Velvets, and had interesting and detailed memories of Reed’s time at Pickwick.

He also had a demo tape that Reed recorded at Pickwick, in May 1965, which included two early versions of “Heroin.” It also had a couple less substantial songs, and a solo piano piece by John Cale. None of that material had previously been reported to exist. (One of the “Heroin” versions was later included in a Lou Reed bootleg, Early Lou: Pre-Velvet Underground Recordings). He played me the material, though just once on a cassette player in his car. Ragona also had a previously-unpublished photo of the live version of The Primitives, with Reed, Cale, Tony Conrad and Walter De Maria, which he kindly let me use for the book at no charge.

Elliott Murphy wrote the memorable liner notes for 1969 Velvet Underground Live. He provided a lot of background about how he got that assignment from Paul Nelson at Mercury, which was especially valuable as Nelson himself died shortly before I started my research. But also, without prompting, Murphy sent me scans of his original handwritten liner notes, which are reproduced in the book. Many people, regardless of their level of fame, are reluctant to let anything from their archives be seen, let alone reprinted, or sometimes demand unreasonable fees for the privilege. Murphy and Ragona were among the welcome exceptions.

Susan Pile, who attended some of the Velvets’ shows at Poor Richard’s in her native Chicago and later worked at the Factory, had never appeared in VU literature to any meaningful extent. She shared letters she’d written in which she described the Poor Richard’s shows, as well as memories of attending recording sessions for the third album. She even had an untitled Reed poem from October 1967 that she let me use.

Some of my interviews with band insiders yielded more than I expected. Paul Morrissey, for instance, has been interviewed on numerous occasions about the Velvet Underground and Warhol. His perspective is different than most who worked closely with the group during their Nico days. In particular, he feels he’s the guy who really did the hands-on managing, and that Warhol was into the band simply as a financial investment.

Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol and Lou Reed (1966).
Photo by Nat Finkelstein

He also said that Tom Wilson only signed the Velvets to MGM/Verve because of Nico; and that to fire Warhol Reed broke up the band, got a release from Warvel [the joint Warhol/Morrissey/VU company] and then reformed it — this time without Nico. Most of his views aren’t supported by comments from the band members, but he was there and was close to the action, and I felt it was important to give him his say.

Norman Dolph had been “discovered” and interviewed by Joe Harvard, for his 33⅓ book on the Banana album, about his involvement in the Velvets’ April 1966 recording sessions, but I think he talked to me in more depth than he had with Harvard. Besides outlining the basics of how the sessions were set up and why and how he’d become involved, he gave a detailed and intelligent analysis of what was musically significant about the recordings, and the roles of each musician and Warhol. Alas, he wasn’t able to locate the letter from Columbia Records saying (as he paraphrased) “there’s no way in the world any sane person would buy or want to listen to this record.”

Another breakthrough discovery in your book was the Beverly Hills High School yearbook, and the story of the VU’s incredible appearance at a school assembly there. How did you learn of it, and how did you get access to the book itself?

Lou Reed and Beverly Hills High School senior class president Mickey Kaus (left) discuss Today’s Youth with the school’s psychoanalyst and music teacher (1968).

A reader of mine, Conrad Flynn, found the book in his family’s storage. It belonged to his mother, Nancy Conrad (the daughter of actor Robert Conrad), who had attended Beverly Hills High. Conrad sent me scans of the photos of the VU. (I didn’t get to see the book itself.) He also put me in touch with his mother, who filled me in on some details of the VU’s appearance there. A few years after White Light/White Heat came out, a political pundit named Mickey Kaus began detailing, in interviews and online, his role in booking the Velvets for that “gig,” which provided further information I was able to include in the ebook edition.

In response to the print edition of the book, two other people who’d been students there contacted me and gave me some first-hand information. This is from the ebook edition:

As fellow student Michael Dare remembers the occasion, “One day there was an assembly. Everyone had to attend. We crammed into every seat in the auditorium. We stood up. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The curtain went up. The high school orchestra played something patriotic. The curtain went down. The curtain came back up and there was the Velvet Underground, who cranked out four songs, including ‘Heroin.’

“Then the curtain went down, they brought out a bunch of chairs, and the Velvet Underground sat down at the apron and had a serious discussion of their roots and their connection to classical music with the principal of the school and the musical director of the orchestra. I later found out this came about through our student body president [Kaus], who was elected because his dad was a major music promoter and he promised to bring good music to the school.”

White Light/White Heat presents an enormous amount of information. How did you keep your data organized, and accessible to you as you wrote?

I started with a list of potential subjects I wanted to contact, which I ordered alphabetically. The list included people I thought might be of some use to speak with, or ask for some background information even if they might not be interviewed or quoted. I put each name in bold, and then put contact info under each. I noted the role each person had in the VU story, except for those which were obvious to me. The list grew a lot as I continued to work, as I found out about more people who might be worth contacting and got leads from people I spoke to.

Before I started writing I filled in the basics of as many events as I could. I created Word files for each chapter, and wrote headings for each possible entry, in chronological order. These included all known concert dates, record release dates, and other major events such as when someone left or joined the group. Olivier Landemaine’s website was a big help in supplying known concert dates (although I did find quite a few others), and some others (such as a sequence of 1967 shows at La Cave in Cleveland) didn’t emerge until after the print edition was published. I added those to the ebook version.

These files, of course, expanded a lot over time. Events I couldn’t pin down a precise date of I entered under more generalized dates, such as the month or even the season in which it took place. It might not ever be known, for example, exactly when those demos of “I’m Not Too Sorry,” etc. in Cale’s loft were done, and so I gave them the most certain dating information that I could.

The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, on stage at Open Stage, aka the Dom (April 7 ’66).
Photo by Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

When I wrote the text I didn’t start with the first entry, end with the last, and write in strictly chronological order. I did as much as I could that way, but with new information emerging all the time I constantly created new entries and hopped back and forth across time. I also filled in a lot of entries I’d already drafted with additional info as my research proceeded.

I had a big computer folder of Word files of interviews I conducted, whether by e-mail, phone, or in person. I organized interview transcripts by creating a separate file, with name and date, for each person I interviewed. If there were follow-ups to the original interview, I put those in the same file. It might sound like a lot to keep track of, but it’s not hard to hit Find and go right there.

And there was also a lot of print material — documents, articles, sometimes entire magazines — that didn’t go on a computer. I have a couple boxes of these, and organized them as best I could so I could quickly access them, putting the documents and clippings in chronological order, and the magazines in alphabetical order. I marked passages in articles and books that I wanted to quote or refer to with Post-its.

As for audio recordings (many of them of unreleased material), I filed them more-or-less in the order in which they’d been recorded. I didn’t have the time or technical means to digitize every track, but I have a pretty good memory for what’s on specific discs or tapes, and could find things when needed without trouble.

I’d like now to list names of some of your other respondents, and ask for thoughts about your interviews with each.

Kate Heliczer, the wife of VU colleague Piero Heliczer, was a conduit to disseminating the group’s early demo to London’s hip elite in 1965. She’s an important figure in their early story and yet an obscure one. Your interview is probably the only one with her about her role in VU history.

I knew about Kate Heliczer from letters between her and John Cale that are briefly quoted in Clinton Heylin’s The Act You’ve Known For All These Years. I contacted her through John Hopkins, who was one of the recipients of the demo. I was hoping there might be more in those letters, or more letters that weren’t quoted. Unfortunately she didn’t have much to add, and she’d lost some of the information from those days in a computer crash.

Kate Heliczer, as seen in her Warhol screen test (1964).

Another important breakthrough of your book was your interview with Terry Philips. His testimony drastically reshapes our sense of Reed’s time at Pickwick and of the transition from The Primitives to the VU. For one thing, Philips’ claim of having been supportive of Reed’s new, proto-VU songs directly contradicts Reed’s own statements.

Philips was initially a little nonplussed and amused that a writer would want to speak to him about Lou Reed. He was also a bit wary, since the portrayal of Pickwick in some previous books had made them out to be bumbling nincompoops of sorts, and crass exploiters of teenage tastes for quick dollars. But that worked in my favor to some degree, since he was eager to correct what he saw as misconceptions about Pickwick and his view of Reed at that early stage. An example of this was his comment, “I helped encourage him on his writing to do things that were more like “Heroin” [than] “Cycle Annie” and some of the other things. We were working toward a goal. I thought he could be what he became.”

Part of my approach to music history interviews is to make it clear pretty quickly, in as modest a way as I can, that I know a lot about the subject I’m asking about, and am not going to waste people’s time with ignorant questions. Also, although you’d think this would be a given, I’m polite and don’t press people like they’re websites to be mined for information. Usually, though not always, this has gotten subjects to open up and speak in detail fairly quickly. That was my experience with Philips.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that his account is the correct or totally accurate one. Reed and Cale remembered some things differently, particularly the seriousness with which Pickwick treated Reed’s songwriting and their willingness (or unwillingness) to have controversial songs like “Heroin” released.

Reed did record a couple of versions of “Heroin” at Pickwick, although I hadn’t known that when I spoke to Philips. That said, I don’t think Pickwick could have been a vehicle for Reed’s serious songs or the Velvet Underground, even if Philips had developed a stronger, more adventurous subsidiary label. It was still a company that was mostly known for exploitation and budget records, and it would have been hard for them to make anything like the dent MGM made with their VU LPs, as inept as that company could be in some respects.

Hetty MacLise, the widow of Angus MacLise and a significant contributor to ’60s culture in her own right.

Hetty was quite friendly and chatty. If she’d specifically been interviewed about The Velvet Underground before, I don’t recall any case. As I expected she wasn’t able to say much about Angus’s relationship with the VU, since they didn’t meet until mid-1966, but she was able to fill in a fair amount about his post-VU activities, and a little on what might have happened while he was in the Velvets.

It turns out that she saw the Velvet Underground — after Angus had left the group, but before she met him — at their early California gigs in 1966.

Hetty Maclise with Severn Darden enter the Fillmore for VU/EPI show (May 29 ’66).
Photo by Bill Young/San Francisco Chronicle.

It’s an example of how unexpected info sometimes comes up during an interview. As a more unlikely connection, she told me that she and Angus were busted on a 1968 cross-country drive with (the then-unknown) Loudon Wainwright III, inspiring his later song “Samson And The Warden.”

In contrast to the Velvets’ portrayal as anti-hippies, Hetty and Angus had a marriage ceremony in 1968 at Spring Solstice in Golden Gate Park, near Haight-Ashbury. She also played tambura on the 45 version of the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star.” And Angus performed (though in an unofficial offstage capacity) at Woodstock, supplying the answer, as I note in the book, to the trick question, “Who was the only member of the Velvet Underground to play at Woodstock?”

Richard Goldstein, a New York-based writer who reviewed an Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance in October 1966.

I don’t think Goldstein had ever been interviewed about The Velvet Underground — although you could say that about a lot of people I spoke with for the book. I say that only to emphasize that a lot of people who can round out history for journalists are out there and happy to talk.

Goldstein had some fresh perspectives, as he hadn’t had to repeat any schpiel about them over the years. I think it’s logical that the Velvets attracted the interest of one of the very first U.S. journalists to treat rock as a serious art, as opposed to some silly phenomenon that was going to blow over once the teenage fans grew up. That’s because the Velvet Underground themselves were treating rock, from both the lyrical and musical angles, in a more serious fashion than almost anyone had before. They sparked Goldstein’s full, critical story in a New York newspaper six months before they had a record out.

It was also good to have a dose of reality injected into the discussion of the Banana album’s failure to get played on New York radio, which is portrayed at times almost as a conspiracy. As Goldstein told me, “You always wondered why people were surprised. Given the material on this record, of course they wouldn’t play it. … It wasn’t just because of the content, but also the musical sophistication, [which] was way beyond anything that pop radio would have countenanced. I don’t know if [the Velvets] ever talked to me about that. I don’t think they did. I certainly would have told them, ‘Yeah, right. It’s gonna take a long time before this stuff is playable’.”

Peter Abram, co-owner and manager of The Matrix, a small club in San Francisco at which the Velvets played and were recorded.

In one of my more roundabout paths to an interview, I was referred to Stephen Parr, who ran Oddball Films in San Francisco and who was in contact with Abram. When I called Parr, he asked me a bunch of questions about the VU before even discussing connecting me with Abram. One of them was something like, “Didn’t Tony Conrad play violin in the Velvets?,” and I was thinking he didn’t have his history too straight. I answered the questions correctly, including the one about Conrad. That seemed to have been a deliberate trick question, as afterward he began to relax, and then he gave me Abrams’s contact info. I guess he was a gatekeeper, and that there were enough people who didn’t know their stuff or had bogus projects that he was now making people prove their authenticity. Parr and I later became friendly, and he even had me present some events at Oddball Films, including a program about The Velvet Underground to benefit an organization that was trying to help get a local college radio station back on the air.

The actual interview with Abram was strange as well. He was firm that he could only give me 15 minutes, and even though we both live in the Bay Area he would only do it by phone. So I had to select only the most vital questions to squeeze into the limited time, though I certainly would have liked to ask more. With what little opportunity I had, though, I was able to get some useful information. Which was important, since I think the 1969 Velvet Underground Live album — the majority of which was recorded at the Matrix — is the best live record of all time. Even with the release of a box set of Matrix tapes a few years after (the print edition of) my book came out, there are still questions about them that haven’t been satisfactorily answered, especially regarding the dates.

That was an unusual path to locate someone who I wouldn’t have expected would need to be so cloistered. Is it fair to say that in general your paths to locating and contacting people was on a case-by-case basis, and that there was no single “secret method”?

Yes, definitely. There’s no standard way to find people for interviews and research, and no guidebook or journalism school rules I follow. Finding people has, of course, gotten a lot easier with the rise of the Internet. Even in the time since I did the bulk of my VU book research, there are a lot more online resources for tracking people.

The roads to locating people are numerous and varied. Some you might think have vanished turn out to be instantly locatable through their own website. What helped the most when I couldn’t find a person easily and independently, however, was the network of contacts — not necessarily VU-related ones — I’ve built up through decades of rock journalism. Often someone I know will know how to find someone, or know someone else who might know. I’ve kept contact info for a lot of those people dating back to when I got my first computer, and that often came in handy.

Which leads to another point that might seem obvious, but isn’t always observed. If you’re going to rely on the generosity of others to find contacts and info, be available to do the same for anyone who asks, without asking for money or expecting to be paid. You don’t have to help someone who’s rude, has a bogus project or has sleazy ulterior motives, but those are rare in my experience.

Andrew Oldham.

There weren’t many cases in my VU book where I used quotes from previous interviews I’d done, but this was one as I’d interviewed Oldham by e-mail back in 2001 for my two-volume book on 1960s folk-rock, Turn Turn Turn/Eight Miles High (now available in one volume with extra material as the ebook Jingle Jangle Morning). He hadn’t played a big role in folk-rock, but I wanted to ask him about Nico’s 1965 single and also his productions of The Poets, the finest Scottish ’60s group. When it came time to write my VU book, I was able to return to his comments about Nico.

While I appreciated the time he gave me in answering my questions, I wish I’d been able to speak to him instead of doing the whole interview by e-mail. Oldham has a kind of grandiose and, to my ears, unnatural way of phrasing things when he writes. You read that to some degree in his memoirs, and it’s even more pronounced in his e-mail. Maybe he would have been more plain-spoken by voice.

Peter Jenner, best-known as an early manager of Pink Floyd. Had Kate Heliczer primed you to realize that he’d be a pertinent contact?

Actually I first learned of Jenner’s interesting, if peripheral, involvement in the Velvet Underground story back in the early 1980s, in the Pink Floyd chapter of Nicholas Schaffner’s book The British Invasion. Schaffner wrote that in 1966 Jenner “noticed that rock was spawning an avant garde of its own, and concluded that a progressive pop group could prove just the vehicle with which he might make his fortune and still keep his principles intact. Jenner’s first overtures were made to New York’s Velvet Underground, whom he had heard on tape, but a trans-Atlantic conversation with Lou Reed revealed that the band’s affairs were already being handled by one Andy Warhol.”

(Jenner told me the person he’d actually spoken to in that call was John Cale. Maybe that detail was misreported by Schaffner or, more likely, a source from which Schaffner was working.)

Jenner was very friendly and helpful in our phone interview, though there wasn’t much to cover since his role in the Velvet Underground story was minor and fleeting. It was disappointing to hear he’d lost the early VU tape he got from Kate.

Vic Briggs, guitarist for Eric Burdon & The Animals, who had also spent a few days as producer of the Velvets’ third album. How had you known to talk to him?

Here’s where some deep research into printed material pays off. In the November 16, 1968 issue of the British music weekly Disc & Music Echo, in the “Hollywood Scene” column, Judy Sims wrote, “I called two friends to see if they knew of anything that had happened, pop-wise. One told me that Vic Briggs is now producing the Velvet Underground.” That was the first and only mention I came across of Briggs producing them.

I think I got in touch with Briggs, without a problem, through Sean Egan, the author of the Animals biography Animal Tracks. That was particularly useful since Briggs has gone by a different name, Anton Meredith, for many years, and was living in the U.S., not his native UK. It would have been hard enough to try and find a “Vic Briggs” cold, and that much harder if I’d been searching for the wrong name all along.

Briggs had never been asked about his brief time producing the Velvets for the record before. And while, again, the event was so fleeting there wasn’t a whole lot to cover, he was forthcoming and friendly about what he could remember. As a bonus, I knew that Tom Wilson had produced the Animals while Briggs was in the band, and around the same time Wilson was producing the Velvet Underground. So Briggs had a quote about Wilson’s function (or non-function) as a record producer.

As a side note, here’s another example of how a researcher always have to be on the lookout for obscure print sources. It was only around late 2019 that I became aware of a very specialized book titled The MGM Labels: A Discography, Vol. 2 (1962–1982). Its entire content is lists of sessions without descriptive notes, but according to that volume, ten Velvet Underground songs were logged between May 12 and 14, 1969. Most of them have been issued (and comprise part of the so-called lost fourth album), but it also lists titles for three songs that haven’t circulated: “Sandy Sex,” “Steve’s Tune” (maybe a reference to Steve Sesnick), and “War-ho.” It also lists “Sad Song,” which has circulated but not in an MGM version.

Mick Farren, who claimed to have heard a copy of the UK-circulated ’65 demo tape, and from it was soon covering “Prominent Men.”

I learned about that when I interviewed Farren, in late 1996, for the Deviants chapter of my book Unknown Legends Of Rock’n’Roll. It’s another of the infrequent times I used material from previous interviews in White Light/White Heat.

Mick Farren
(Getty Images)

Here’s the relevant passage:

As Farren tells it, the Deviants procured their copy [of the VU demo tape] from the U.S.-born record producer Joe Boyd, soon to become famous as manager and producer of Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and others. (Boyd, the author of a recent acclaimed memoir of the period, White Bicycles, has no memory of hearing the Velvet Underground prior to the release of their debut album in 1967.)

“They were pre-first album,” Farren says of the tapes, which, he adds, were promptly stolen from the Deviants by persons unknown. “We performed a song called ‘Prominent Men’ for a while that we took off those tapes. I was almost beginning to think I’d dreamed them. Everybody denied all knowledge of them. And suddenly they resurfaced [on Peel Slowly And See]: three or four versions of ‘Venus In Furs,’ the very strange acoustic version of ‘Waiting For The Man,’ ‘Prominent Men,’ ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties.’”

That would make the Deviants not just the only band to cover “Prominent Men,” but also most likely the first group ever to cover a Velvet Underground song. In his autobiography Give The Anarchist A Cigarette, Farren adds that the VU material “helped open us up to wider potentials with songs about sadomasochism, copping heroin and terminal narcissism, and artistically we robbed them blind. We had their classic ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ down well before their famous Banana album came out and every half-assed, pre-punk, three-chord band — including David Bowie — started playing it.”

This suggests that the tapes he had were the same ones as on Peel Slowly And See. I’m not sure they were, but it seems unlikely we’ll determine this, since he says the tapes were stolen.

I do think there were probably more 1965 demo-type tapes than the ones on the Peel Slowly And See box, though again it’d be very difficult to pin those down now. Often such demo tapes have pretty poor sound, but the ones on Peel Slowly And See have pretty clear fidelity. So if there were extra tapes in even limited circulation that were kept in acceptable storage conditions, they might sound pretty good.

Has the possibility crossed your mind that each copy of the Ludlow Street demo they sent out was a unique recording? I can’t recall who I first heard posit that theory, but the argument rested on the question of whether they would’ve had ready access to tape duplication at that time, coupled with the fact that they were rehearsing those songs pretty regularly, and it therefore made more sense to simply record multiple run-throughs. If true, it’d mean there was no definitive version of the demo, and that the tracks included on Peel Slowly were simply representative of the batch.

I think that’s possible, though that would be very difficult to trace now, unless Cale has more original reels in his possession than he’s let on (or that he’s bothered to look for). I think it’s unlikely they would have sent tapes out to prospective labels or contacts without making copies, though maybe I’m underestimating how poor they were at the time and what kind of access they had to duplicating equipment.

Rosalind Stevenson, a friend of the band whose silent film of Reed and Cale composing “Sunday Morning” in her apartment is available on YouTube.

Still from Rosalind Stevenson’s short film The Velvet Underground / Sunday Morning.

I’m not sure where I first heard about Stevenson’s film, but one of my most interesting accidental discoveries involved her. I was doing research, primarily on the films of Piero Heliczer, at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. While going through a a file cabinet of paper documents I noticed a folder there for Rosalind Stevenson. Inside it was a small poster for a Stevenson film from 1966, Deux Voix, starring Elektrah Lobel [a singer and guitarist who played briefly in the proto-Velvet Underground], with a small picture of her. This poster is reproduced in the book.

That also gave me a bit more to ask Stevenson about in our interview. She recalled that “All Tomorrow’s Parties” was originally conceived by Reed for possible use on the soundtrack of Deux Voix, although it wasn’t ultimately included.

Ben Edmonds, a respected music journalist and A&R exec.

I was already in touch with Ben, who in the late ’90s had asked me for background info and contacts toward a Fred Neil story he was working on for Mojo. I was working on a Neil chapter for my book Urban Spacemen And Wayfaring Strangers. I think the mindset among many journalists in a similar situation would have been, “I’m already working on this for my own purposes, so I’m not going to share any information with you.” But he asked politely, and my feeling was that there’s room for two Fred Neil stories.

Although I’d seen Ben’s writing for many years in various outlets, it was something I read — I think in Peter Doggett’s book Lou Reed: Growing Up In Public — that tipped me off to his having tried to put together a collection of VU film footage. While I was disappointed to learn he didn’t find much of consequence, I appreciated the honesty of his perspective. Instead of saying, “Oh man, this would blow people’s minds” if he came across a scrap of silent footage of the band hovering around the Factory or an outtake from the film where Moe was tied to a chair, he said, “People ooh’d and ah’d at the fabulousness of the footage, but I was hugely disappointed. In the end they only had what we already knew they had; there was not one scrap of anything new.”

I had assisted Ben with that unconsummated VU film project, and wish he’d lived long enough to see Todd Haynes’s documentary; while quite different from what he had in mind, it is still in a way a culmination of Ben’s idea.

Dick Summer, Boston and then New York DJ who made the transition from Top 40 to FM programming.

I contacted him through his website. I think I got the idea to interview him from Ben Edmonds, who remembered Summer playing the VU on his show. While it’s true that the Velvets didn’t sell a huge amount of records or get a ton of airplay, they got played on radio more than has been acknowledged, and maybe more than they realized. After all, they weren’t tuning into stations all over the country all the time, or seeing playlists from them. I uncovered a number of such instances that are mentioned in the book, sometimes with quotes I got from DJs or listeners.

Even in New York, from whose airwaves Sterling Morrison, at least, claimed they had been banned, WPLJ’s Howard Smith interviewed Reed (a tape surviving, though I don’t know if all or part of it was aired on the radio at the time). Scott Kempner, later of the Dictators and Del Lords, remembered a couple of WFMU DJs playing the Banana album “like it was a hit album.” WNEW’s Bill “Rosko” Mercer narrated the radio ad for the third LP, ’though I don’t know if he played the Velvets on his programs. and Dick Summers confirmed to me he played the Velvets on WNEW after he moved there from WBZ in Boston.

I don’t want to minimize the hurt the band must have felt at not getting played as much as they expected or deserved, but I think the perception that they were banned from New York radio has been blown out of proportion, creating the impression they didn’t get played anywhere.

And now, some people you weren’t able to interview.

Steve Sesnick, successor to Warhol/Morrissey as VU manager.

Sesnick was one of the people I most wanted to interview, and most frustrated about not getting to. Back in 2001, long before I got the White Light/White Heat book deal, I was contacted by someone who knew him. She was curious why he had such a bad reputation in rock history. When I started my research, I got back in touch with her to ask if she could help connect me with Sesnick. She did try, but reported that he wasn’t interested. Almost five years after the book came out, a rock journalist friend tried getting an interview with him for another project. He didn’t make headway, either.

The only substantial quotes I’ve seen from Sesnick about the VU are in the Up-Tight book. He’s a pretty unpopular figure among some members, though Tucker had some positive things to say about him in your interview with her, and Martha Morrison said some positive things in my interview with her. I want to give people a chance to air their side of the story. I don’t know why he’s uninterested in doing so.

Hans Onsager, the band’s longest-serving road manager.

I had an e-mail address for him, but he didn’t reply to my interview request. That’s frustrating, since he must have spent more time around the VU than almost anyone. But not everyone is interested in talking to the media, and some stories will never be told.

With all my books, it seems like I only get about half the interviews I’d like. As a general rule the more famous a person is the harder it is to get an interview with them, but many people who aren’t well-known don’t reply to queries either. I seldom get an actual rejection; usually interviews aren’t done because there’s no reply. Sometimes persistence pays off, but not always.

Anyone else you wanted to talk to were unable to?

Obviously, there are a few people with important roles in the story but who were no longer around, like Nico, Andy Warhol and Tom Wilson. In some of those cases, at least, there was useful material from interviews they’d done while they were alive.

I was really frustrated there wasn’t more specific VU material in Wilson’s interviews, even the Music Factory one he did with Cale and Reed. He was never asked about the Velvets in significant depth, and I’m sure he would have had a lot to say if prodded. I would like to have asked him about Paul Morrissey’s claim that the VU was only signed because of Nico; accusations that he didn’t pay much attention to the Velvets (or, for that matter, to other of his artists) in the studio; the chronology of his involvement with the VU; the challenges of recording the loud volume for White Light/White Heat; the perception of the band within MGM; why there was a session for “Sunday Morning” long after the other Banana album tracks were recorded; and his take on the supposed Mothers/Velvets rivalry.

Being interested above all else in their music, I wish I’d been able to find more people involved in their studio sessions, though I did speak with Norman Dolph, Vic Briggs, and Lewis Merenstein, who produced Cale’s Vintage Violence. I couldn’t locate Val Valentin, who engineered some of their MGM sessions. I also couldn’t locate Adrian Barber, who I would’ve liked to ask why he didn’t stay the course as the producer for Loaded, and how other producers became involved.

There were a couple of people who asked to be paid to be interviewed. I didn’t do this, as I don’t think it’s ethical journalism. Also, it’s not fair to the many other people I interviewed, some of whom gave me a great deal of time, who didn’t get paid. For a different project, a very well-known musician asked to be paid, saying that he billed for interviews like a lawyer would bill for the time they give clients.

This leads to another story you might find interesting. I interviewed Doug Yule in person, for about two hours, in the backyard of his Seattle home. He didn’t ask to be paid. He was generous in his time and answering in thoughtful depth. After the book came out, I did an event for it at the main branch of the Seattle library, near where he lives. I invited Yule to come and say a few words. Also, since the library has a modest honorarium for guest speakers, I let him know that I’d ask the library to give him the honorarium. He did appear at the event and was gracious to fans there. He turned down the honorarium, though, saying that he preferred the library to have the money.

You hear so many stories about greedy rock stars, some of whom have a sense of self-importance way out of proportion with their talent. You don’t hear very much about the decent people who not only give generously of their time for interviews without getting paid, but in this case even turn down money for which they have a reasonable claim, feeling that a public service organization should use it. I’m not trying to make Yule out to be a noble hero, but it’s a commendable instance of behavior counter to the stereotype of how rock stars behave.

That brings me to the most obvious people I didn’t speak to for the book: Lou Reed, John Cale and Maureen Tucker. Reed and Cale — or more likely their managers — did not reply to my requests. Tucker, on the other hand, indicated a willingness to answer questions. I e-mailed questions, emphasizing subjects that hadn’t been covered much in interviews, but I never got answers, and I never found out why I didn’t. She friended me on Facebook after the book came out, so I don’t think it was personal. Fortunately there was interview material with each of those three for me to draw upon.

You didn’t bring it up, but: Had I been able to interview Reed, what would I have most liked to ask him? Limiting myself to a baker’s dozen, these questions are important to the Velvet Underground story:

* Why did you fire John Cale? He never answered this with much detail. Asked by ZigZag in 1972, he said, “It’s very private.” In BBC Wales’ John Cale documentary many years later, he said much the same thing: “That’s really personal, and just probably something I wouldn’t talk about.”

* How do you feel now about having Sterling tell John he was out of the band, as opposed to telling him yourself?

* According to Paul Morrissey, Tom Wilson only signed the Velvets because of Nico. Was that ever your impression, and did you, as Morrissey maintains, take the lead vocal for “Sunday Morning” against Wilson’s wishes when it was intended for Nico?

* Morrissey told me you got out of the management contract with Warhol by disbanding the group and saying they were splitting up, and then reforming them. Do you remember anything of that sort happening?

* You’ve expressed in interviews that you envisioned the first three Velvet Underground albums as installments of an unfolding novel. Was the song “Jesus” written for a character in that narrative, or was it more a directly personal expression?

* Had you had in mind a fourth installment of that narrative, and perhaps even additional ones after that?

* Did the unreleased fourth album include songs that might’ve been used for that narrative, and does Loaded have any that would’ve fit it?

* Were the 1969 studio recordings intended for a fourth album?

* How did the Velvets get off MGM and onto Atlantic?

* Looking back, do you wish you’d waited until Tucker was able to play again before recording Loaded?

* Why did you quit the band right before Loaded was released?

* What were the circumstances of how you got the copyrights to the Loaded songs, and the exchange of giving up claim to the name Velvet Underground?

* How important were Lisa and Richard Robinson in helping steer you back into the music business and toward your solo career? Were you writing any songs in the time between leaving the VU and the first solo LP, or did you draw solely on ones you’d already written (and/or performed or recorded) with the Velvets?

Richie Unterberger at Alcatraz in 2015, attending an exhibit of work by Ai Wei Wei.
Photo by Catherine Lee

One thought on “Richie Unterberger on the Making of White Light/White Heat *

  1. Terrific interview, many thanks – now I have to get a copy of what is certain to be a fascinating book. Half a century down the line, the signal is further distorted, chinese-whisper like, and it is useful to arrive at as close an approximation of the truth as possible. Think your multiple, individual Ludlow Tape theory very plausible. Racking my brain to remember the book I read recently that said (extreme unstable paraphrasing here) something along lines of: John Cale’s then wife was despatched to UK with Velvets demo tape as an advance guard to try to drum up in interest. I find this a fascinating story in it’s own right – kind of a Johnny Appleseed, and well connected and (supposedly) able to get the attention of the likes of Brian Epstein, Marianne Faithful (and possibly others in the Stones camp (who were early adopters – Mick namechecked Lou Reed in interview in reference to Stray Cat Blues)), and others. Is this where the Yardbirds got Waiting For The Man, or had the LP been released when they added it to their set? Another spurious piece of gossip: it was Tom Wilson himself who was more interested in Nico than the rest of the band and this was an impetus for his producing them. UpTight is a wonderful book (the original edition with all the great pics anyway) – but it is the ‘print the legend’ version – cementing the outlaw status or building it up by making them out to be the antithesis of hippie (clever aesthetic choice to print in black and white), banned by everyone and so forth. It would’ve been suicidal for a company like Pickwick to release ‘Heroin’! Besides which, would Lou waste such an epochal song for a staff writer’s session fee and probably handing over residuals in perpetuity to whichever entity Pickwick Records was owned by? That said, if The Velvets had been a smash chart success and started a craze, maybe they would’ve assembled a cash-in compilation, ’12 Downer Hits’, or suchlike …

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s