On April 1, 1966, the Velvet Underground and Nico began their residency at 19-25 St. Mark’s Place in the space that would become the Electric Circus, as part of Andy Warhol’s ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable.’ It was this month-long series of performances, attended by a who’s who of Downtown’s avant-garde and Uptown’s glitterati, which perhaps more than anything shaped the Velvet Underground’s reputation as the leading edge of the radical rethinking of cultural possibilities emerging from New York at this time.
High-angle interior view of the stage at The Dom (from ‘Polski Dom Narodowy’ or ‘Polish National Home’, 23 St. Marks Place), where the Velvet Underground performed as part of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable series of staged, multimedia events (held primarily in 1966 and 1967), New York, New York, April 1, 1966. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)
In early 1966, Andy Warhol discovered Lou Reed and his collaborator John Cale’s band, The Velvet Underground, playing at the Café Bizarre at 106 West 3rd Street in the South Village (now replaced by an NYU law school dormitory). Taken by their unique sound, Warhol became their manager. Warhol connected them with co-vocalist Nico, who had starred in Warhol’s movie Chelsea Girls. Reed and the Velvet Underground were invited to participate in Warhol’s traveling multimedia show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. That famous “Warhol boost” brought the Velvet Underground into New York City’s avant-garde music world in 1966, and eventually into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 30 years later, in 1996.
Nico performing with the Velvet Underground at Steve Paul’s nightclub, the Scene, New York, New York. © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah. This and other amazing McDarrah images of the era can be found in our historic image archive at www.archive.gvshp.org, with prints for sale benefitting our work.
As we previously noted, Reed was known for his cold stare and gaunt features; he was a cynic and a seeker who seemed to embody downtown Manhattan culture of the time. New York and the East Village of that time was a jaded city of drag queens, drug addicts, and violence, but it was also wondrous. So many of Reed’s and the VU’s songs were explorations of right and wrong and quests for transcendence. Classics such as “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Halloween Parade” exemplify this combination of world-weariness and wonder that Reed reflected back in his songs.
Andy Warhol trying on a marching band uniform in a used clothing store on St. Mark’s Place, New York, New York, December 9, 1966. © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah
Click here to read more about the Velvet Underground. Click here to read more about the fascinating history of 19-25 St. Marks Place.