The Velvet Underground – one of the few bands in history that was genuinely a generation ahead of the curve – is the subject of an immersive multi-media exhibit that opens today (Oct. 10) in New York City and runs through Dec. 30.
Bringing together rare photos, new mini-documentaries, vintage avant-garde films, music, interviews, counterculture memorabilia, concert flyers and even a (quite literally underground) performance space, The Velvet Underground Experience is co-presented by Bandsintown and Citi and curated by Christian Fevret and Carole Mirabello.
Fevret — who founded the magazine Les Inrockuptibles at 22 and edited it for 25 years — has had the honor and anxiety of interviewing Lou Reed, and was even present at the band’s 1993 reunion in Paris. His deep knowledge of the NYC arts underground and the Velvets’ origins was readily apparent when he offered Billboard a preview of the Velvet Underground Experience before it opened. You’d be hard pressed to find a more informed or impassioned champion of the avant-rock pioneers.
Whether you’re a VU Stan or someone with a passing interest in New York’s explosive ’60s counterculture, the comprehensive experience has a lot to offer. Here are 5 reasons you should check this out while it’s at 718 Broadway in Manhattan.
Mini-Docs With Illuminating Narrations
One of the exhibit’s unexpected delights is a hilarious interview with a man who saw the first-ever live show from the Velvet Underground in 1965. Paired with a black-and-white animated video that captures every beat of his story, he recounts the tale of the Velvets unleashing three songs (including “Heroin”!) on an audience of disgusted high schoolers when they opened for Jersey garage rockers The Myddle Class.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Lou Reed’s sister Merrill Reed Weiner (for the first time) reads the essay she wrote for The Guardian in 2015 about her parents forcing teenage Lou Reed into electroshock therapy after his nervous breakdown. It’s set to family photos and old-timey footage, and serves as a sobering reminder that much great art comes from deep pain.
’60s Art Films
Thanks in part to the participation of 95-year-old avant-garde filmmaking legend Jonas Mekas (who also contributes a self-recorded video of reflections), the Velvet Underground Experience boasts several experimental shorts from the era — some of which were screened during Velvet Underground performances back in the day. One of the films is Christmas on Earth, a landmark piece of transgressive cinema made by 17-year-old Barbara Rubin in 1963; she, along with Mekas, introduced the VU to Andy Warhol, who brought them to a wider (albeit still niche) audience by executive producing their debut.
From photos of Baby Lou to a copy of Esquire mag with Nico on the cover (not as Nico, mind you – it’s from her pre-music modeling career), there are a number of surprises, along with an extensive collection of shots from Village Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah. In addition to vintage posters and leaflets, you can also view first-editions of the paperback pulps whose names provided inspiration: Venus In Furs and, of course, The Velvet Underground.
Warhol’s Factory Immersion
Part of the Experience encourages you to lie down on angled mats and gaze upon a slanted roof blanketed in footage of the Velvet Underground from 1966 – including a peek into Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the influential counterculture event they played alongside Nico – while recordings of the band improvising play. But if you want an even more immersive experience…
The Bandsintown Studio
Beneath the Velvet Underground Experience is a visually arresting, 100-capacity space called the Bandsintown Studio, which will feature performances from artists whose convention-flaunting work continues in the spirit of the Velvet Underground. Less a chance to stoke nostalgia and more an opportunity to shine light on rising talent, the first announced performer is singer-songwriter Adrian Jean. Additionally, VU co-founder John Cale will be part of a moderated Q&A at the space on Thursday (Oct. 11).