d.a.levy & the Velvet Underground
from The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle
The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed's legendary rock band, was more notorious than respected in 1967. But d.a.levy, the Cleveland poet and underground newspaper publisher, took them seriously. levy interviewed Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker during one of their many visits to Cleveland to play La Cave, a coffeehouse near University Circle.
Reed was a famously difficult interview, and levy struggled to engage him. Though levy was an avant-garde figure in Cleveland, he sounds naive at times as he tries to get Reed to talk about the influence of drugs on the Velvets' music. Finally, Reed throws levy something: a bunch of ridiculous anecdotes about staying at Howard Johnson's motor lodges across the country. Guitarist Sterling Morrison gives him more, including thoughts about the New York band The Fugs. levy knew The Fugs -- they played at the May 1967 benefit for levy's legal defense against a charge of corrupting minors with poetry.
levy published the interview in the August-September 1967 issue of his newspaper, The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle. Since levy rejected copyright and wanted his work shared widely, we're publishing the interview here on the occasion of Reed's passing and what would've been levy's 71st birthday.
For more on levy, see Erick Trickey's article, "The Epic of d.a.levy," and Cleveland Magazine's d.a.levy page (clevelandmagazine.com/dalevy). The page, recently updated, includes links to levy's best work and audio and video of his spoken-word performance. It also includes our guide to works by and about him.
Lou Reed: Everybody's college. John's from Wales. The rest of us are from New York. Everybody's played in rock bands for a long time. That's about all.
Int: Before I had ever heard of the band, I had heard of the Velvet Underground as a sort of clique of Andy Warhol's similar to the "Merry Pranksters."
Lou: No Andy Warhol questions.
Int: Could I ask you about your relationship to Andy Warhol?
Lou: We're married.
Int: I mean professional relationship outside of the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable"?
Int: He just produced your album and...
Lou: We produced him.
Int: What's your opinion on drugs?
Lou: I'm in favor of any of them. They should be given to people immediately.
Int: There was an article in Evergreen a while ago called "Dragtime or Drugtime" about Andy Warhol's movies claiming that they were an attempt to put the drug experience into art. Do you try to achieve this with your songs?
Int: What about the feedback and special effects?
Lou: I never saw anyone get high off of feedback. Did you?
Int: Have you read Burroughs?
Int: Do you think there could be any sort of valid comparison between what you're doing in music and what Burroughs is doing in writing?
Lou: No. Our music has nothing to do with anybody.
Int: Do you think there's any relation between what you're doing in rock and what other people are doing in other musical forms? Say Coltrane in jazz. Cage in classical....
Lou: No, it's just music. Music is music. That's all.
Int: OK, what about the "present state of society"?
John: We're staying at Howard Johnsons.
Lou: Yes, that's the present state of society.
Int: Don't you think that's rather apocryphal... I mean that a group from the lower east side of New York called the Velvet Underground should be...
Lou: Staying at Howard Johnsons... I think it's fabulous. I think its one of the funniest things we've pulled off. The last time we were at Howard Johnsons our road manager caught on fire. We were... let's see...
The second last time we were picked up by the cops & we got driven to the judge's home...and he was the judge, he was the fire chief, he was the... he was everything....he was fantastic & he saw us and they gave as a ticket for just existing....& when they took us there we had to take a leak & he went in to take a leak & he went in first & I went in & the guy was changing from his--he was painting his house--he had taken his apron off and was changing into his judge's uniform just as I was trying to get in the door and he said, "STOP! You've got to go to the gas station!" And you know ... we were all fined -- for nothing -- & like that was at Howard Johnsons where that started...
At the Howard Johnsons after that our road manager hand been smoking in the car and he wears — he used to have a leather cape and full beard and an earring and he walked into Howard Johnsons on fire -- he didn't notice it at all -- & sat down & the waitress was terrified of him because he's 6'4" and weighs 320 lbs... And he sat down & people were staring at him and he thought it was just normal hate, but it was more than that & finally the waitress couldn't stand it anymore. She said, "Sir, you're on fire."
He looked up and sure enough he was in flames. He looked at her -- & this is true, because you only get a chance like this once in a lifetime -- he looked at her and he said, "Some of us are very concerned about the war in Vietnam." And he got up with as much dignity as he could muster at the time and he split. You know... as soon as he was out of eyesight he put himself out... So we figured once we should stay at Howard Johnsons on the road under genteel circumstances.
Int: Anything else?
Lou: There are 17 of us staying there.
Lou: Yeah, the rest of us.
Int: The rest of the Velvet Underground?
Lou: NO... just some, you know...freaks we take along with us.
Int: You always take 17 people with you?
Lou: More if he can get them to come.
Int: And you pay all their expenses and everything?
Lou: Sure. Because, like dig. $35 for a room for three. They don't know there's 17 because like if you have long hair you all look alike, to them. They don't know who's going in the room. So, you know, we have a mass of people up there... and 17 people paying thirty-five dollars, that's not bad.
Int: What happens when you all go swimming?
Lou: They can't tell.
John: The water gets very dirty.
Int: I mean can't they see you're all together?
Lou: No, we go in sets of four, units, called quazara. See, only 14 of us can swim. The other three make a daisychain in the water and try to float.
Int: Maureen, why aren't you saying anything?
Sterling: She doesn't want to become famous.
Lou: She doesn't talk to men.
Int: What are your impressions of Cleveland?
Ster: Cleveland... we played Masonic Hall once.
Int: Oh yeah... the Plastic... exploding Inevitable.
Ster: THE EXPLODING PLASTIC INEVITABLE. Listen...that name, by the way, was derived from three adjectives on our original poster. It just said, exploding... plastic... inevitable'... it was never intended to be the title of anything. You know, like everybody has 'great,' 'fantastic,' 'extraordinary,' so we picked three incredibly pretentious and ugly words. They come off the Highway 61 Revisited album.
Int: What do you think of Dylan?
Ster: Good question. I like him, he did a lot of good songs.
Int: What about the Fugs?
Ster: Oh, well, we know them, you know, quite well.
Int: I mean musically.
Ster: I don't know. Musically, it's very odd... I preferred them when they were true freaks. Like now they have three, Ed, Tuli and Ken Weaver, but they have people playing instruments for them. You know, they have like three people who can play. In the good old days, no one could do anything.
Int: But they had Steve Weber in those days.
Ster: Yeah, right, well, Steve's a good guitar player, but for some incredible reason you could never tell from the album. But he really is good. But the Fugs in the old days were really incredible... they had some kind of description, "Brawling & Stomping their way around the stage"; and that was pretty literal. They were about the shabbiest people in the world and the music was incredible -- it was about 80% percussion & this terrible off-key chanting and harmony.
Int: But they did it.
Ster: Yeah, they did it, it was tremendous, but the thing is now they've gotten considerably slicker.
Int: Uh... let's see... I have to think of a all inclusive final question.
Ster: The state of things to come.
Int: Ya, right...what's going to happen when...the day of doom comes?
Ster: The day of doom...was about five years ago...
Int: What day was that?
Ster: Kind of essentially when Johnson ran against Goldwater... that was the end of the line... now we have George Romney and uh,...
Int: Do you think things will get worse?
Ster: Oh, of course.
Int: Do you plan to use the Velvet Underground as a base for destroying the current Johnson regime?
Ster: No, I think he's... no, he's really big time.
Int: He's ugly, but he's big time.
Ster: Well, out of proportion -- I looked at a photograph in the newspaper and uh by calculation I noticed that his ear is 2/3 the size of the South Vietnamese ambassador's head. Like they got a picture of him, you know this guy must have been very small -- he was hulking over him with his arm around him and this guy's looking up like a child and I got out my ruler with the ear and it was really funny.
Int: What's going to happen to you on the day of Apocalyptic Doom?
Maureen: I'll go to heaven.
Int: What's it going to be like?
Maureen: Psychedelic... color clouds...
Int: Lou, John, what's going to happen on the day of doom?
12:00 AM EST
October 28, 2013