Credit: Farm Aid

How Lou Reed ruined a lucrative Velvet Underground reunion

The Velvet Underground remains one of the most crucial acts that helped determine alternative music’s landscape. Although the Velvet Underground’s sales and billboard numbers were not astonishingly high during their tenure — in fact, they were pretty embarrassing — their impact on rock music planted a foundation during the 1960s, inadvertently inspiring others and eventually becoming one of the most influential rock bands of all time. With such a wealth of talent following in the band’s footsteps, the calls for reunion tours were deafening. Their stop-start reunions decades later would end because of Lou Reed’s behaviour.

David Bowie once perfectly summarised the influence of Velvet Underground: “It influenced what I was trying to do, I don’t think I ever felt that I was in a position to become a Velvet’s clone but there were elements of what I thought Lou was doing that were unavoidably right for both the times and where music was going. One of them was the use of cacophony as background noise and to create an ambience that had been unknown in rock I think.”

He then added: “The other thing was the nature of his lyric writing which for me just smacked of things like Hubert Selby Jr, The Last Exit from Brooklyn and also John Rechy’s book City of the Night. Both books of which have made a huge impact on me, and Lou’s writing was right in that ballpark. It was Dylan who brought a new kind of intelligence to pop songwriting but then it was Lou who had taken it even further and into the avant-garde.”

The entirety of the band had been estranged for some years. Ever since Lou Reed fired John Cale back in 1968, the group had never really worked together in earnest again. Then in 1987, Lou Reed and John Cale spoke to one another for the first time in decades at Andy Warhol’s memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. This meeting would rekindle their friendship, and the two of them eventually recorded the album Songs For Drella as a duo. A beautiful tribute to Warhol, the album was shared back in 1990 to wild acclaim.

Cale and Reed would take the album on a very small tour in promotion of the record, and when former VU drummer Maureen Tucker joined the pair on stage for a performance of their song ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ at a special Brooklyn show, the scene was then set for a full-scale reunion. Everybody expected this to be the catalyst for The Velvet Underground to burst into action once more and make up for the lost time, but the democratic nature that a band needs to adopt to operate would prove to be a hard-stretch for Reed.

When they announced the album, the idea of the Velvet Underground touring again was far from Reed’s mind, “You’ll never get the four of us together on one stage again,” he said at a press conference for the event. “Ever. The Velvet Underground is history.”

Despite that comment, The Velvet Underground finally buried the hatchet, and in 1993, the Reed–Cale–Morrison–Tucker lineup officially reunited without Doug Yule. They set sail on a European tour commencing activities with a European tour which began in Edinburgh on June 1, 1993 and even saw the band perform on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.

This tour of Europe was designed to road-test if The Velvet Underground could take this show around the States and perform in vast venues on a lucrative tour. Sadly, tensions between the band soured on this run, and it saw them disperse once again when they returned to America. They had not only a US tour lined up but also an MTV Unplugged session, and there was even talk of the band heading back to the studio. However, Cale and Reed fell-out in a dramatic fashion, which brought the Velvet Underground journey to an end, bar a one-off appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

According to Reed’s biographer Anthony DeCurtis, the short-lived reunion resulted in disaster due to Reed’s power struggle. “Ever since he kicked Cale out of the Velvets in 1968, Lou had come to think of the Velvets as his band,” he says in his book. “The live reunion album [Live MCMXCIII] reflects that—it’s less a VU album than a set of Velvets songs performed by Lou Reed, with the other members backing him.

“Looking at the big picture, Cale, Sterling, and Mo went along with that, however reluctantly. But when it came time to think about an American tour and the ‘Unplugged’ show. Cale finally couldn’t stand it, and that was the end of that.”

On the one hand, it is frustrating that The Velvet Underground couldn’t patch things up to have a last-hurrah and enjoy an Indian summer. However, one can’t help think that if they did a tour of America playing corporate bowls in every city, it would only be motivated by money rather than a lust for unfinished business. This era of the band could have ruined the charm and romance that surrounds one of the essential bands in history.