WASHINGTON, Mass.— The 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birth is being marked by celebrations around the world, and especially here at his beloved Tanglewood. But little known is how Lenny made possible the formation of a musical group which Rolling Stone magazine called "the most influential American rock band of all time," The Velvet Underground.
In 1963 a young Welsh violist and avant-garde musician, John Cale, was eager to come to the U.S. He wrote to several prominent musical figures, seeking support for furthering his musical education here. Among them was Aaron Copland.
Copland was responsible for selecting recipients of a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study at Tanglewood that summer. He interviewed several candidates in London, among them Cale, who was awarded an all-expenses paid eight-week stay at Tanglewood to study under the renowned avant-garde composer Yannis Xenakis.
"When Cale finally gets an opportunity to perform a piece of his own at Tanglewood he shocks his audience by pulling an axe from a piano and pounding it into the middle of a table. The unexpected blow leads to the tearful departure of the widow of Serge Koussevitzky" (Richie Unterberger, "White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day").
After the summer Cale moved to New York, where he worked with John Cage, La Monte Young and other avant-garde musicians and composers.
Meanwhile, a recent Syracuse University grad from Long Island, Lou Reed, was writing cheesy pop tunes for minor record labels. A record executive, looking to put together a band to perform Reed's material live, met Cale, who was becoming interested in rock `n' roll. He joined Lou's band, The Primitives.
With the addition of guitar and bass player Sterling Morrison, and drummer Angus MacLise from Cale's avant-garde circles, they became The Velvet Underground. When MacLise left the band, he was replaced by Moe Tucker, the sister of a friend of Sterling. She'd been playing the drums at home, influenced by Bo Diddley and the African percussionist Olatunji.
Warhol takes notice
The band played some dates at a Greenwich Village dive. Their music was hardly typical of popular music in 1965, lyrically challenging, and often employing screeching feedback to a relentlessly pounding beat.
When Andy Warhol saw them play, he took them under his wing at his studio, the Factory. Warhol added German model Nico as chanteuse in the VU lineup (she'd had a bit part in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita"). They performed as part of his multimedia extravaganza, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, featuring projected images, strobe lights and dancers with whips.
I first saw The Velvet Underground in the spring of 1966, at a benefit party for the literary magazine The Paris Review. The editor, George Plimpton, was soon to become famous for his book "Paper Lion" and the film adaptation, about his athletic exploits such as running several plays as quarterback at a practice session for the Detroit Lions.
The New York Times reported that over a thousand of New York's literati and glitterati attended the party at the Village Gate, including Sen. Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel. Whether Lenny was there I don't know, but it was his kind of scene.
I do know that Frank Sinatra was. In the wee hours, as I was dancing with my girlfriend to a rock band in the lower level of the club, I saw Sinatra coming down the stairs. He paused midway, a look of shock on his face as he encountered the fury of the band, blinding strobe lights and a sea of writhing bodies. He quickly turned around and went back upstairs. Not his kind of scene.
I didn't know the band's name, but their sound echoed in my head for months. It was only a year later that I learned who they were, when I came across their album at the Harvard Coop. The front cover was designed by Warhol, with a banana whose skin could literally be peeled off to reveal the flesh-colored phallic fruit.
The VU were controversial for the content of their songs on that LP, much of it about the demimonde, and for the often harsh tone of the music. Through a series of coincidences I later became the manager of The Boston Tea Party rock club and owner of The Woodrose Ballroom in South Deerfield, where I booked them regularly.
After a second VU album, tension between Reed and Cale led to John's leaving the band in the fall of 1968. The Lou-led Velvets put out two more LPs before disbanding in 1970. None of them made a dent in the record sales charts. But over time the band's reputation and influence grew, as they became recognized for their pioneering sound and literary approach to rock `n' roll lyrics, inspiring musicians decades later.
And all because Lenny's financial gift brought John Cale to Tanglewood.
Steve Nelson is the author of "Gettin' Home: An Odyssey Through The `60s."