The Velvet Underground Experience, a new pop-up museum in New York City’s East Village chronicling the iconic band’s history, is sponsored by an organization for live music called Bandsintown and Citibank. It sounds like a joke: Citibank, proudly bringing you the inside story of a musician who famously sung “Heroin / It’s my wife / It’s my life.”
However, this is not a joke. Nor is it incredibly surprising: A good portion of New York cultural experiences are underwritten by capitalists trying to show they care about something other than making money. There are countless examples of this, but here are two: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has the $65 million David H. Koch Plaza, paid for and named for the arch-conservative businessman; Catapult, the indie publishing house beloved by the left-leaning media industry, was founded by his niece.
The Velvet Underground Experience is located in a landmark East Village building mostly used for lofts, where a two-bedroom unit goes for $2.5 million dollars. On the afternoon I visited, a burly security guard opened the door for me. When I purchased my ticket, the cashier handed me a card with a code giving me a 90-day subscription to the streaming service Tidal. A record store in the exhibit sells pricey vinyl by artists related to the Velvets (a pressing of David Bowie’s “Heroes”) and extremely not (a David Guetta remix of Bowie’s “Heroes”). In a separate gift shop, you can purchase black mugs branded with the names of the four members ($19.90), notebooks bearing phrases like “Sunday Morning 6 AM” ($19.90), phone cases ($34.90), laptop cases ($55), tote bags ($49), t-shirts ($49.9)0, a metal cut-out of the iconic Warhol banana from their first record, ($125, or $210 for a larger one), and most inscrutably, a novelty hanger that’s too blocky to properly hold clothing ($14).
It’s somewhat disarming to see the Velvets in this capitalist context, even though most of the great musicians from that era have pushed aside their bohemian ideals and accepted the dominant values their fans used to rebel against; we must pause to remember that Roger Daltrey supports Brexit. On paper, nothing about the way the band is remembered really makes sense. They never had a gold record, never charted a single, barely toured, and briefly reunited in the ‘90s before acrimoniously splitting up again. But their significance is enshrined in the name: The Velvets were the most heralded underground band standing in stark relief to all the flower child, summer-of-love bullshit dominating the culture of their time. The history of music is generally written along two tracks: what most people cared about at the time, and what real heads knew about in secret. Anyone who’s ever “gotten into music” cares about the latter, and the Velvets are the lodestone for this approach to music history.
A brief aside: In high school, there was a beloved course on “independent music,” and each year, during the first session, the teacher would play “Heroin” for the room before asking everyone’s thoughts. If you’d never heard it before, but were in the class because you wanted to learn about some darker, indulgent aspects of culture, it sounded pretty awesome. If you had cool parents and were familiar, you smiled as the first chords resonated in the room, already hip to the inside reference. The Velvets have exemplified the concept of fandom as secret knowledge ever since a nascent Rolling Stone began championing their records as cultural touchstones. As the infamous adage among music geeks goes, “the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.” An updated version of this: The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who streamed one went out and became a Pitchfork reader.
The museum opens, amusingly, with a recording of Allen Ginsburg’s “America” over a collage of boomer-era imagery (Johnny Cash, Playboy covers, Campbell Soup ads, etc). Immediately following is a photo gallery by the Village Voice’s Fred McDarrah consisting of shots of 1960s New York and its related figures: Times Square, the Lower East Side, Jack Kerouac, LeRoi Jones, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, etc. It’s important to understand the grimy, bohemian culture from which the Velvets emerged. Because New York was so cheap and so wild at the time, John Cale could rent a “ghetto” apartment (as he calls it in a short film displayed in the exhibit) on Ludlow Street, and immediately come into close contact with like-minded avant-garde musicians such as La Monte Young and John Cage. It’s how an early incarnation of the band could get a residency at Cafe Bizarre, a hokey West Village tourist trap, and catch the attention of Andy Warhol, who conscripted them into his service.
Each member of the Velvets (they shuffled players, but the classic lineup comprises Reed, Cale, Tucker, and bassist Sterling Morrison) has a placard dedicated to their existence in the museum, accompanied by childhood photos and other related ephemera. (Of amusing note: A 1967 newspaper notice about Tucker, noting how she abandoned a promising career at IBM to play in the band.) A separate room houses similar placards for Warhol and Nico, the German model-turned-singer who played on the Velvet’s first record, along with a wall projection of an exhibit-commissioned movie about her life. Then, further on, there are similar placards for tangential Warhol figures like model Edie Sedgwick and photographer Danny Williams. A basement level houses similar placards for satellite figures in the Velvets universe, like trans actress Candy Darling, La Monte Young, director Jonas Mekas, and many more, alongside salvaged posters, zines, and alternative weeklies from the scene.
Not much here is revelatory. The childhood photos are nice to look at, as are the original printings of the Velvets records, but if you’ve spent $25 to come in you likely know the broad arc of their history. One cool touch is a tented tunnel under which you can curl up on some silver cushions and watch short films from the Factory artists projected on the sides as a Velvets medley plays over the speakers. The museum mostly functions as an homage to the idea of New York fetishized by every city-bound art school freshman — the artistic paradise that dreams are made of.
It doesn’t exactly work like this anymore, though reports of New York City’s bohemian demise are slightly exaggerated. There are still pockets of talented artists doing cool things all over the city, many of which you can find out about on the internet, and even places where one might live for a relatively affordable rent, assuming you’re comfortable with residing in a poorly located shithole (compared with the conveniently located shitholes of scenes past). The city is still great — nobody would be here if it wasn’t — but it will always feel like somewhere that sucks more than it used to, even if your chances of getting mugged on the subway have drastically diminished.
This is just the way everything works now. You’d have to be a college student in their first stage of moral development to find meaningful issue with this, rather than noting it as just another indignity in a stupid world. But it is an indignity, isn’t it? I mean, cool for John Cale, who loaned his imprimatur to the promotion of this museum (which has also been staged in Paris), but if something like this can’t exist without the financial backing of a multinational bank, maybe it shouldn’t.
I’m reminded of how the late rock critic Ellen Willis eloquently praised the Velvets: “Their songs are about the feelings the vocabulary of religion was invented to describe — profound and unspeakable feelings of despair, disgust, isolation, confusion, guilt, longing, relief, peace, clarity, freedom, love — and about the ways we (and they) habitually bury those feelings, deny them, sentimentalize them, mock them, inspect them from a safe, sophisticated distance in order to get along in the hostile, corrupt world. For the Velvets the roots of sin are in this ingrained resistance to facing our deepest, most painful, and most sacred emotions; the essence of grace is the comprehension that our sophistication is a sham, that our deepest, most painful, most sacred desire is to recover a childlike innocence we have never, in our heart of hearts, really lost.”
All of this, yes, now brought to you by Citibank! On my way out of the museum, I noted a paper sign pasted near the coat check informed me that if I was a Citibank member, I was entitled to 10 percent off purchases from the gift shop, as well as a free poster. But I am not, so I left empty handed.
Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly stated the number of bedrooms available in the $2.5 million loft listed in the building where this exhibit takes place.