Art, Advertising and the Myth of the Underground

1.  Andy’s Ghost

Everyone’s biting Andy Warhol. Lou Reed is sitting at the table with his back against the wall in a black leather jacket smoking a long cigarette and talking about songwriting and downloading and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and how Andy was always everywhere at once, like some kind of divine pop conduit. He’s got this raspy, gum-chewing lilt to his voice (rather like Andy’s) suggestive of a very specific type of weathered, urbane wisdom – equal parts godfather, hit man and drag queen. It’s fucking great, because it’s fucking Lou Reed and it doesn’t matter what he says or what he does because it could be anything – like wiping his nose or the drum of his fingers on the wooden table there in the back of that dark bar in the East Village – and you’d still think, “Holy shit, that’s so cool the way Lou Reed wipes his nose and drums his fingers on the wooden table.” And it’s clear that’s what the Strokes are thinking.

Because they’re hanging on his every word (and yes, biting Andy too – though they may not know it yet). Julian Casablancas is kind of laid out over a couple of chairs drinking Red Stripe and smoking Marlboros, and like the rest of the band besides Nick Valensi (whose thoughtful questions and quick, feline gestures contrast sharply with the slack reticence of his peers), generally observing the conversation with a certain guarded, gleeful, aw-shucks, 10-year-old-Yankees-fan-meets-Babe-Ruth kind of vibe. Nikolai Fraiture is leaning forward, concentrating hard with his face in his hands – his stare locked on Lou. Fabrizio Moretti is chain-smoking, his head half-cocked in a thoughtful gaze. Albert Hammond is sitting next to Lou in that red suit he wears everywhere, his face fixed in a wan smile, occasionally shaking his head as if to say to himself, “Duuuude, Lou Reed. Fuuuuuuuck.”

It’s charming, actually. This band which is constantly described as cold or aloof or jaded or disinterested – giggling like school chums, caught up in the giddiness of meeting their idol.

Though it is strange that they say they’ve patterned themselves after the Velvet Underground. They have admitted that they essentially set out to be the Velvet Underground except with better CD sales, more exposure, more money, and more radio airplay. And that’s strange, because it’s somewhat of an oxymoron. (I mean, what, the Velvet Mainstream?) Still, Nick’s asking question about songwriting and production and Julian was wandering around a back room at the bar right after Lou arrived saying, “Man, this iss o fuckin’ surreal,” (to no one in particular) and Fabrizio’s producing then lighting cigarettes for Lou like some kind of mobster sidekick and Mr. Reed is enjoying all the attention these talented, good-looking kids are giving him and though (yawn) the publicists and handlers are standing by and (yawn) it is for a magazine, for some reason there in that dark room in Lit – the bar in the East Village we’ve chosen for our rendezvous – through the shadows, the cigarettes, the leather jackets and the heady discussions of commerce and art, the ghost of Andy Warhol seems to hang over everything.

“Didn’t Andy manage the Velvet Underground in the beginning?” Nick’s facing Lou, arms on the table with hands clasped, looking for all the world focused and researched while the rest of the band watches nervously – just like all those journalists the Strokes always claim to hate. (There was a delicious private moment of poetic justice to this, that I now pass on intact – to you, dear reader – without comment).

Lou kind of scratches his head and throws his chin back in a contemplative gesture, as if to downplay the importance of what he says in rely, “All that meant was that we were affiliated with him. We would stand there onstage, dressed all in black, with black glasses, and he would project movies onto us – slides and films – and we would stand there and play. He was a genius. I often ask myself, when I’m writing something or working on something, ‘What would Andy do?'” The Strokes smile and look around at each other as if to say, “Dude, we say the same thing about you.”

“But he produced your first record,” Nick plays the cloying journalistic role to pedantic perfection. (Heartening, no?) “What did he actually do?”

“All that meant was that he believed in us and he would prevent the engineers from messing with it. Andy would say, ‘Don’t touch it. Leave it alone. Leave it just like that.’ And these engineers would want to add all this other stuff, but he wouldn’t allow it.” He pauses and looks around at his audience, “If I could give you any advice,” he says, rubbing his chin serenely, “it would be to not let anyone: the producer, the label – anyone – don’t let them touch what you do. Just do what you do and leave it alone.”

Which is where we come to the rub. You see, this is the reason the Strokes fired Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich when making their second album, Room on Fire – and it’s the essence of the sound that they recreate on record: leaving it alone. Or rather, sounding that way. In fact, doing lots of stuff to sound that way. As if the music has been captured on the fly in the garage or the basement, with some piece of shitty recording equipment somewhere on the floor. But it is only a re-creation. And the gulf which separates Andy Warhol keeping those engineers away from the Velvet Underground’s first record and the Strokes, 35 years later, making a record that sounds that way (after a bidding war between major labels and an enormous international hype storm), is the abyss of 35 years of fascination with, then the dumbing down of, punk rock; it’s the difference between pursuing art and benefiting from advertising (which may be smaller than you think, just ask Andy), between a band which was punk rock’s progenitor and one which is its offspring; it’s the difference between an ignored and violently-opposed (at times), nearly mythological underground movement of artists and a set of modern images, sounds, stories and ideas meant to evoke this mythical underground for the sake of product sales.

This sounds harsh, I know. And it’s probably unfair. But let’s just start at the beginning…

2 Viscera as Entertainment

It’s hard to overstate what a completely out of control, drug-addled, artistically revolutionary, musically-intact mindfuck of a band the Velvet Underground was. Consider their first show as part of Andy Warhol’s film, music, light, slide, dance, performance art spectacle: Uptight. (The travelling version of which eventually came to be called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable). The show begins with a movie starring Edie Sedgwick (detailing the final hours before the planned and ultimately un-aesthetic suicide of a Mexican film star), overlaid on tiop of the movie image is another film – this one of the Velvet Underground singing and playing instruments – which begins just as the Velvet Underground (in the flesh) start their set onstage while, yep, Edie Sedgwick (also in the flesh) dances and gyrates maniacally in front of them. Their amps are all full-blast. The songs are about drugs, soda-masochism, self-loathing. The music is all drone, bombast and energy, with a deceptively focused (and sweet) folk sub-structure. It’s 1966.

The band on the stage is made up of an androgynous-looking drummer named Maureen Tucker (known to stand up while playing trash cans with mallets) who left her prior band because a guitarist was shot a particularly seedy gig; she had to replace former VU drummer Angus MacLaise before the Velvets first paying gig, because he refused to accept money for art. Next to her is John Cale, playing the bass or the viola – a classically-trained, Welsh, avant-garde musician who turned down a scholarship to study modern composition in Massachusetts to instead go to New York City and work with composers like La Monte Young whose “classical’ scoring included pieces in which a pianist talks to a piano or screams at a plant until it dies. Next to him, dressed head to toe in white (unlike th rest of the band who are head to toe in black) is a strikingly beautiful, tall, Hungarian-born, German-educated chanteuse named Nico who appeared in a Fellini movie at age 15 and has a hauntingly deep and penetrating voice – almost like a man’s.

Strewn throughout the theater are large pieces of fabric on which lights and photographs are projected. At one point, a giant spotlight focuses on the center of the audience as Barbara Rubin (a close friend of Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs) runs down the aisle screaming into the faces of the startled patrons “Is your penis big enough?” or “Does he eat you out?” while filming their reactions with a movie camera. On stage a man if pretending to shoot junk with a pencil while another sings things like, “Ah, when the heroin is in my blood, and that blood is in my head, then thank God that I’m as good as dead.”

The man singing is a 23-year-old Long Island native named Lou Reed who penned his first radio song at age 14 (for which he got royalties of 78 cents), underwent electro-shock treatment at age 18 (because his parents thought his fascination with rock and roll was “alienating”), and while in college at Syracuse was kicked out of ROTC for putting a gun to the head of his commanding officer, kicked off the air of his radio program for making fun of a commercial about muscular dystrophy, and found himself heavily influenced by the paranoid, pill-poping, alcoholic American poet Delmore Schwartz, who admired Reed’s innate talent and once said to him, “You can write – and if you sell out and there’s a heaven from which you can be haunted, I will haunt you.”

There was, uh, no major-label bidding war.
There was, however, a sense that this was an entirely new form of rock and roll. (And though the Velvets never had an album peak higher than 171 on the charts, their influence spread steadily over the years onto countless other artist). It was an overwhelming and dangerous and shocking and uncompromisingly offensive assault on the eyes, the ears, the limbic system, the gut. It was real. The music was about real things. Real pain. Real anguish. Real love. Real obsession. And that’s why Andy liked them. Because like a Campbell’s soup can in the middle of some  gallery, here was a dose of reality. Here was an undoing of convention. Here was something that was about engagement. About removing the line between observer and the observed. The point of Uptight was, rather than to make people relaxed, to make them upset, to make it so (as was famously said) something – as opposed to the perennial nothing – would happen.

This is the essence of punk rock. The sense of being on the edge, one stare away from a fight, or death, or a breakdown, or having it all fall instantly, wildly apart. It’s the appeal of every exciting band from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana – the sense of raw-uncontrolled energy. The gut feeling that you are or may be in some kind of bodily danger. Visceral stimulation as entertainment. Adrenaline instead of popcorn. The point is to offer up a sense of a real event happening to the audience, rather than in front of them. It’s the nature of spectacle for an observer to become involved with the actors, the dancers, the troubadours – to suspend disbelief, to reach catharsis through the emotional upheaval onstage – whether it’s Greek tragedy, Shakespeare or Elvis. But it’s always spectacle, something separate from the observer – an object to be viewed, laughed at, cried over – but ultimately left at the theater. The main character gets shot and the audience is sad. But with the VU, Uptight, and the E.P.I and punk rock, the gun is aimed directly at the audience. It’s no mistake that slam-dancing, moshing, and crowd-surfing sprung from punk rock since the point is this sense of bodily danger. Discomfort. Engagement. Excitement. Sweat. And though the odds are you won’t go home with a broken nose, a broken arm, an STD, a stolen car, a shard of glass stuck in your leg from the department store window pain you fell through while letting a blood-curdling scream in the midst of a frenzied riot, when all was teeth and buzz – the feeling that you might do any of these things, that the night may never be over, that it might bring escape, release, change – that feeling is going to be tonight’s entertainment.

And yes, the idea was eventually co-opted by sinister forces and we all can draw the line from the raw energy present at the beginning of punk rock (through post punk then grunge) to the mind-numbing idiocy of its eventual devolution into the misguided circle jerks of nu-metal and the Warped tour. But if you extend the line a little more, it’s nice to think that you might find those five fresh-faced chaps in that bar in the East Village sitting around the table with Lou Reed. Because the Strokes are next step. Because music is exciting again. Because none of it would have happened without the Velvet Underground. And the Velvet Underground wouldn’t have happened without Warhol. Which brings us back to Andy: everyone’s biting him.

3 “The World’s Hottest Rock Brand”

“By the way, I heard your album,” Lou interrupts the discussion of Andy and the Velvets to redirect attention onto the five young men before him. “We were listening to it in the studio,” he says, flatly, his voice all smoke and gravel, not realizing that he is about to make the day of every person in the room. “It was great. All those great guitar parts. You know, it’s very difficult to play like that. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy to do. I thought it was great that bands are making music like that again.”

Julian is beside himself, and simply cannot contain a smile. He sits up eagerly, abandoning his detached repose and says with meaning, with force. “None of it would have happened without you. We wouldn’t be here without you.” Everyone nods. (It’s a nice moment but what’s he gonna say? I mean, “Hey I heard your album and it sucks.” That’s just not polite).

“Thank you. That’s nice to hear.” There’s calm for a moment while each of the Strokes quietly considers his place in the universe which seems to have shifted a bit in the preceding seconds.

Julian is the first to disrupt the void, a new found confidence to his voice, “Do you ever feel, when you write a song, like you are less attached to it if someone else is singing?”

“No. I prefer it. I wrote some songs just for Nico. And she had that great deep voice. I hate the sound of my voice on tape. When I hear my voice I only hear wrong.”

“I know how you feel.” Pleased with the discovery of common ground, Julian resumes his recumbent slouch, shakes his head and laughs quietly to himself.

“I read somewhere that you were a songwriter for a record company,” Nick interjects, strutting his research. “Is it true or was that just a myth?”

“No, that’s a myth. I wrote penny tunes. They were 99 cents for each record. We imitated the big hits of the day. So if, say, surf music was popular we would make surf songs. Or if they wanted Detroit, we wrote Detroit.”

Again, Julian perks up, surprised, amused, “So… you imitated other people’s songs?”

Lou hands back a verbal head pat and nothing more. “No, it was worse than that. It was just the worst possible thing you could imagine.”

I wonder briefly if he knows his audience, indeed, if he’d even heard of the Strokes before we asked him to meet them. They’re smart guys and just a fuck-all good band, and he seems to get that. But they’re also considered by so many (in the press at least) to be harbingers of something. Lou flicks a cigarette ash onto the ground. Follow it as it passes the table top and floats gently down to the floor where it lands next to a small leather attache case leaning against a chair. Inside the attache case are five different majoy American and British magazine. The five kids at the table with Lou Reed are on the cover of every one.

The articles in those magazine are fascinating reading. Through the gritty photographs and headlines and stories of the life of the New York hipster and the tid-bits of what he was wearing of who he was dating – the chronicling of this band and its life and what makes it tick, filled with anecdotes fawned over with obsessive attention and the very palpable desire to capture something seemingly indefinable (the precious detail a certain jacket choice, the rarefied glimpse of an inside joke) – one impression connects just about all of the stories. They seem like ads.

Read them. (I know it’s an odd request to make in the midst of a story in another magazine – but fuck it, no one’s watching). If you happen to have them laying about the house, take a minute and look at them. Consider the layouts, the catch-phrases (which I am not allowed to reprint here), the suggestive subtitles, the unfettered attempt to capture, (or create) a sense of mystery, enchantment, exclusiveness, cool. They’re ads. And those enigmatic guys pictured in those latrines, dark streets, bars, back rooms (always with drinks, always with smokes, always dressed to the hipster teeth), aren’t the five personable (rather plain, frankly) guys sitting in this bar with Lou Reed. The guys in those magazines aren’t a band. They’re a brand. They’re an idea. They exist (and have from the start) in a world of radio, television and magazines. They’re immersed in it. A product (an elegant, artistic, and exciting product), but a product nonetheless of an information age. And like any good brand, they’ve cornered the market on a few ideas that their name alone signifies in the mind of the music consumer. (And if you think about it, we all know them by now). What are the Strokes? Hipster, youth, artist, underground.

It’s a strokes of genius, actually. Because it’s worked. Because in the modern American mass media world of ubiquitous sound bites and short attention spans, you needn’t be the Velvet Underground to create mystery and intrigue – you simply need to evoke them. The urban underbelly. The kids running wild through the night. If it’s all image and billboards and magazine covers and music videos and celebrity obsession and the complete saturation of advertising and marketing (which it is), you literally are what you pretend to be. And the Strokes pretend to be something that is wickedly compelling.

The press has been nothing short of complicit in the extreme. You can read it anywhere. It’s practically mantra, something that is uttered these days almost without question or justification: The Strokes are the Biggest Band in the World. (Or at least the coolest or the most exciting or compelling). But why? I mean it, honestly, why? Because they’re good? Because they were the first to hit upon this whole retro-garage thing? Because the public demands coverage of them? No. It’s the other way around. The press demand the public pay attention to them. They’re the biggest (or coolest or most compelling) band in the world because 5,000 journalists say they are.

Ever heard of Trapt? Me neither. (Apparently they’re some kind of nu-metal outfit from Northern California with a few minor radio hits). But their debut album has outsold the Strokes debut, Is This It, by over 100,000 copies. (Both are right around a million total). The latest release from Nickelback and Blink 182 have sold three times as many copies as the Strokes latest release, Room on Fire. This, of course, doesn’t even get into the mind-boggling sales of seriously successful bands like Coldplay and Dave Matthews, not to mention the stratospheric numbers of the biggest pop and hip-hop acts. Yet there are the Strokes on the cover of all five of those magazines in that attache case. Why?

Well, the reasons aren’t particularly compelling (or particularly hard to figure out). Wishful thinking. Snobbery. Sheep-like mentality. The fact that no one wants to write about Dave Matthews. The fact that the Strokes sound seems heavily influenced by the sacred rock and roll canon (of, for example Lou Reed and Television) shared by music journalists the world over and that they seemed to have enough innate charisma to be marketable on a grand scale. It also didn’t hurt that they came along at a time when the world was so hopelessly mired in goatees, baseball caps and power chords, that just deciding to be something interesting (like a popular version of the Velvet Underground) was practically revolutionary. Or, at least it was hoped it would be – that the public could be convinced to substitute “garage” for “grunge,” “Strokes” for “Nirvana,” “scarf” for “beanie” – and the glory days would begin again.

The public, for its part, is still on the fence about all of this. Thus, we have those articles that read like advertisements, written by an over-anxious music media trying to convince the populace that this music (and image, and lifestyle) is in its best interest. The subtext is clear: “Better your world.” “Be cool like us.” “Relinquish the baggy pants, and become a Strokes fan.”

4 There is No Mystery

Which brings us back to Lou and the bar and the Biggest Band on Earth sitting there giddy, hanging on his every word.
“When I was younger I had guitar instructors trying to teach me all this stuff.” Nick is clearly intent on taking advantage of his moment with his mentor. The nerves have subsided for the time being and the get-to-know-yah’s are over and his words are now spoken as if with some revelationary intent to flout the fucking world of guitar solos and false idols as they float ominously over the beer bottles and cigarette smoke. “You know, like all those guys that practice their scales a hundred times and then go play the exact same thing in front of people. It doesn’t mean you can play.”

Lou laughs. “Yeah, we used to have a rule. Anyone who plays a blues riff gets fined fine dollars.”

“Sometimes two notes can be more powerful than a thousand. I learned that from you.” Nick Valensi is now six inches from Lou Reed’s face – his hair big and wild, his skinny arms rising and falling with fierce emotion. “Hearing your stuff taught me to hold back. It taught me that it’s about serving the song. I mean, why can’t a guitar solo make you cry?” Mr. Reed nods silently.

“When you write, what does it start with?” Albert has perked up, having decided to throw his thoughts into the fray. “I mean, is it a chord, a lyric, a melody?”

“It could be anything. Even a title. Like ‘Vicious.’ Andy once just told me to write a song called ‘Vicious.’ So I did.”

“Did you write the beginning of ‘I Found a Reason’?” Nick asks. “That’s such a beautiful song.”

Lou smirks, “Yeah I wrote both parts. Rock and roll can go ‘bah bah bah.’ It can’t go ‘la la la.'”

“That song makes me cry. That line about walking down life’s lonely highway.”

“You know when I wrote that part, it was supposed to be a joke…”

And there’s something serendipitous about it. The mysterious band that everyone is trying to “get” is sitting there trying to “get” at the mystery that inspired them. The leader of the alpha art band of 30 years ago, which started a chain reaction of events forcing people to confront the enigma it presented, to consider in doing so, the frenzied, subconscious desires they stirred to be someone else, to be something else (the nature of art, after all?) – talking to a band borne of an advertising age which does the same thing. I mean, what is the most compelling thing about the Strokes is not that they inspire a longing to be like them? To co-opt a look, an expression, a demeanor, and in doing so, a bit of mystery, intrigue. That’s why articles about the Strokes are always about what happened backstage and what so-and-so was wearing and who so-and-so was dating. To imply that there is a rumbling underground somewhere where the people are cooler and you can be too, if you can just get in.

The thing is, it’s a myth. There is no mystery. There are no ghosts in the hall. There’s nothing exciting happening backstage. Andy knew this is it’s why he wanted art to be plain and mass-produced and real – vital only in its connection to reality. The Strokes know it, and it’s the reason they hate journalists. They’re just regular guys. Nick’s kind of antsy. Fab’s a bit insecure. Albert’s a socialite. Nikolai is painfully shy. Julian, up close, is kind of goofy and a little greasy. I know it’s not nice to say (and really, you’re not supposed to say such things. You’re supposed to get along and be polite and write things which are fawning and obsequious – but it’s a fucking lie). We’re all like this. Narcissistic and greedy and shy and goofy and antsy (and totally polite, and quite smart at times, and funny – and in the case of the Strokes, brilliantly talented at the one thing they just want people to focus on: music). We’re all all of these things.

And the primary myth of advertising is that you can be one of these people have have these things too, if you only buy this product. Andy Warhol once said that if you think about it, department stores are like museums. Well, so are record stores. Business is art and art is commerce and in the end it doesn’t matter who or what you want to be – just who you are and what you like.

The final five minutes of the Strokes’ conversation with Lou Reed was not about inspiration or influence or songwriting or something ethereal like that. It was about downloading and the influence of the internet on the business of music. There was a playful exchange about speakers and sound quality and Albert looked at this wizened symbol of a simpler time and asked gamely, “Do you, uh, own an MP3 player?”

Mr. Reed was coy. “Yes. Though, I actually like sound quality. But there’s just something so convenient about downloading songs. All these kids are just downloading music off the internet for free.”

Albert stiffened for a moment in his crushed velvet suit. “How do you feel about all that?”

Speaking like any artist who wants to make a buck off his craft, Lou simply said, “Well, I’m against it.” Everyone laughed.

Andy would be proud.