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The battle of The Warlocks: The origins of Velvet Underground and The Grateful Dead

“Once when we were playing on a bill with the Grateful Dead, some reporter from the Daily News asked me what was the difference between us [The Velvet Underground] and the Dead,” Lou Reed once said in an interview. “With a perfectly straight face, I told him, ‘The difference is that they take the kids backstage and turn them on – but we shoot ‘em up!’ Don’t you know, he actually believed me and printed that,” he added.

While it is hard to believe, at one point, the Velvets and the Dead were rivals, and both had been called The Warlocks. The Velvet Underground were from the seedy New York City underground, where S&M, heroin-chic, and avant-garde drone music all found its physical representation in the dark sunglasses and leather jackets clad in black. 

Meanwhile, born with a similar identity but with starkly contrasting views on how one should experience life through the prism of drug euphoria, The Grateful Dead found its brand of the avant-garde in tie-dye, psychedelics, and ten minute-long live jams. 

Something one may not know about the Velvets is that when they played in the early days, their live material wasn’t all the songs that we have become accustomed to over the years. The Velvet Underground also would do six to ten minute long tracks, experimenting with feedback, loud distortion and drone music as per John Cale’s previous experience with Avant-Gardist Le Monte Young. 

During 1966-1967, The Velvet Underground flew over to California and shared a few bills with the Dead and others like Jefferson Airplane, Fairport Convention, and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. California was not quite ready for the loud and metallic distorted experimentation of the East Coast, and conversely, the Velvets despised the hippie scene. Drummer, Maureen Tucker said: “We had vast objections to the whole San Francisco scene. It’s just tedious, a lie, and untalented. They can’t play, and they certainly can’t write. The Airplane, the Dead, all of them.”

As if twins separated at birth, the two bands derived from the same philosophical and musical iterations but approached music from opposite ends of the spectrum. 

In fact, the Velvets played multiple shows with the Dead; sometimes, the former would open up for the latter and vice versa. Either way, it always became a battle of who could out weird-out or piss off the other first. This battle of the Warlocks was one of cultural significance; it was the East Coast vs the West Coast; hippie-culture vs the New York City art scene. While both groups have a distinct face and leader — Lou Reed for the velvets and Jerry Garcia for the Dead — both also had a secret weapon. John Cale, a classically trained musician who came to New York City from Wales, experimented with drone music with the likes of LaMonte Young and John Cage. The Dead had Phil Lesh, who was classically trained as well.

Strangely enough, the parallels run so deep that the Dead’s equivalent of John Cale, Phil Lesh, started as a violin player and joined the Grateful Dead as a bass player – the same as Cale. It was also Lesh who brought more of a dissident edge to the band.

The Grateful Dead derived a lot of influence from jazz musician John Coltrane. In an interview with The Shepherd Express, Lesh stated, “The improvisation over the drone note derives from ethnic music practices the world over, and helped us figure out how to play longer in new, more interesting ways.” Lesh also went on to say that they thought their music was the logical extension of Coltrane’s. This revealed itself to be true within the live performance realm, as extended instrumental improvisations were a big part of the Dead experience. 

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(Credit: Wikimedia)

Conversely and similarly, the Velvets drew inspiration — although more so from the obscure material — from experimental jazz musician, Ornette Coleman. 

“I had been listening to a lot of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, and wanted to get something like that with a rock & roll feeling,” observed Lou Reed. “And I think we were successful, but I also think we carried that about as far as we could, for our abilities as a basically rock & roll band. Later we continued to play that kind of music, and I was really experimenting a lot with guitar, but most of the audiences in the clubs just weren’t receptive to it at all.”

If the Velvets were opening one night, they’d go into an extended noise set for an hour and delay the Dead’s performance in an attempt to upset the freewheeling jam band. When Velvet Underground played in California in 1966, the hippies were not very receptive to them. Maureen Tucker recalled: “We left California alone for two years because they’re so determined to do their own thing, their own San Francisco music. We were just rocking the boat – they don’t want to know about that. ‘There’s only one music, and we all know what that is…it’s what the Grateful Dead play. That’s the very best rock & roll can ever get…’ We said, ‘You’re full of shit, your city, your state, and everything else.’”

By 1970, Lou Reed had a falling out with John Cale, and Nico parted ways as well. Reed wanted to focus more on presenting the three-minute song, whereas Cale wanted to do more of the avant-garde material, such as ‘Venus in Furs’ and ‘European Son’. Lou Reed grew his hair into an afro, and the band began wearing tie-dye. In contrast, The Grateful Dead, at this point, started experimenting more with noise and louder rock ‘n’ roll, as is evident with their 1969 album, Aoxomoxoa. The San Francisco scene finally caught up with the Velvets, and the latter had already moved on but towards what the San Francisco scene had been doing.

Seemingly, the two groups had inadvertently and perhaps reluctantly influenced one another. By 1970, Garcia had also shaved his face and had been seen numerous times wearing a leather jacket. The tables had turned.

Drugs were a massive part of both bands, which their hardcore cult following had a propensity to take. While there was sure to be some overlap; Deadheads were smoking marijuana and taking acid, while velvet followers were experimenting more with the heavier stuff, the stuff that was more conducive to introspection; Lou Reed had been a known heroin addict. As the music critic Ritchie Unterberger wrote: “Both have made their music heavily associated with the ingestion of drugs, and both were prone to performing lengthy improvisations onstage that are comparable to those of few other bands.”

Part of the Grateful Dead’s entourage consisted of the famous writer, Ken Kesey. Kesey hired the Dead to provide the soundtrack to his famous acid tests. The East Coast equivalent of this, of course, is Andy Warhol and his gang of artsy freaks who all hung out in Warhol’s The Factory. The Velvets would provide the soundtrack to his art films. 

The battle of the Warlocks is a strange phenomenon; the parallels between the two bands is an anomaly and probably one of the most unique stories in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, of which only two bands such as the Velvets and the Dead, with their cultural force, could precipitate.