Note: The following was originally posted on Monday, October 28th, 2013 — the day after Lou Reed, legendary American songwriter and frontman for the Velvet Underground, died. We repost it today A) because we always loved this one and B) because Philebrity is honored to be a media partner for the Gershman Y's upcoming exhibition and celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in Philadelphia. The program of events will culminate on December 15th with a concert featuring Yo La Tengo and Dean & Britta paying homage to the Velvets, and this most auspicious moment in Philly freak history.
Like so many around the world, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Lou Reed yesterday, and like just as many, this, of course, sent us straight back to the music — that intense, wonderful backlog of music that Reed leaves behind, both as a solo artist and as the leader of The Velvet Underground. We’ll spare you the banalities of “The first time I ever heard The Velvets, I…” because at this point, even Lou is probably puking in the afterlife. Rather, let’s consider what is most likely the first time any Philadelphians heard the Velvets: December 10 and 11, 1966, at the YMHA Auditorium (now the Gershman Y), at 401 S. Broad. VU drummer Maureen Tucker remembers:
I remember one show in particular, at the Jewish YMCA at the Philadelphia Art Festival. Each artist was supposed to bring something representing his art. Everybody brought their two little pictures except Andy – he brought us, these 13 freaks.
As part of the now-defunct Philadelphia Art Festival (where has it gone?), the Velvets were booked into the St. James Hotel for two days, and gigging around the corner as part an Exploding Plastic Inevitable-type happening. The fine print on the ad above reads as follows:
“A mixed-media discotheque complete with Andy Warhol and underground films.
First there’ll be different underground films each night, then Andy Warhol, himself, and his rock group, The Velvet Underground And Nico. Then they flash lights on you and everything and turn you into wallpaper. Then you’re supposed to go out of your mind. The critics aren’t wild about this but only the Arts Council has the nerve to do it”.
They weren’t kidding. As we learn in White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day by Richie Unterberger, the Daily News panned the show. The board of the Y was divided on the topic. But it was then-Assistant D.A. Paul Chalfin who seemed the most offended. As the gig was underway, the Velvets sent Chalfin into a sort of meltdown, apparently running up to the promoter and demanding, “You’ve got to stop this performance right now! Those lights! They’re making the children crazy! They’re going to bad things!” But his cries fell on deaf(ened) ears: There were an estimated 2,000 in attendance that night, and half that the next. Even after the show, Chalfin was thoroughly displeased. He told the board of the Y:
By the end of the program, a couple hundred people were crowded up front — these people were beatniks — the Rittenhouse Square group, college people, many homosexuals, unkempt, dirty. They seemed to be in a trance. Some were shaking their heads — dancing. A few were throwing themselves on the floor, some were doing push-ups, etc. This was frightening.
Their lives, we now know, were saved by rock ‘n’ roll.