Pop Goes the Artist

Illustration by Bob AulPaul Frank just made monkeys out of the Velvet Underground, cartooning them as an anonymous “rock N roll” band on his new set of Warhol-style Small Paul kids' pajamas: ambiguously sexual, IV-drug-using nihilists cuted up for the hip mama set as Julius-the-monkey-men (with period Vox Phantom IV bass!), and, well, that's fine. Although it's hiding behind sunglasses and a black T-shirt, the part of me that was most startled by monkey-junkie Lou was actually just an inner Nancy Reagan: “Just say no! Stay in school! Product not suitable for children!” When I realized that, I spent the weekend drinking to kill her, but early learned impressions die so hard—that's probably why I still like the Velvet Underground too.

“The legend of the Velvet Underground fades away,” wrote Ignacio Julia in 1996, long before the world even had the Strokes. “It exists no more. It has totally been exposed to the light.” How true: there is no cult cachet left in liking a band that's been in more car commercials than A Flock of Seagulls. The myths of rock N roll bands like the Velvet Underground (or Bowie or Jim Morrison, if people still care) are long over; dying for Lou Reed—which people used to do—is like dying of smallpox or scurvy: easily prevented and obsolete. The romance is there still, if you want to study and cultivate it as you would any affectation, but as the world shrinks, a band like the Velvet Underground becomes more recognizably and mundanely human just as it becomes classic. “Modern music begins with the Velvets, and the implications and influence of what they did seem to go on forever,” wrote Lester Bangs, who also wrote that he'd happily suck Lou Reed's ding-dong. “The only thing I think would be a mistake in thanking them for this precious gift would be romanticizing them too much.”

What he meant: just say no, stay in school, product not suitable for children. (“Don't die,” as Richard Hell would later say.) Bangs' friend Peter Laughner really did die (“in part,” Bangs qualified) for Lou Reed, passing in his sleep in 1977 due to massive substance-related et ceteras. The Velvet Underground were lethal in their time, an obvious if not a deliberate side effect of the things they sang about and did; though band members saw (and defended) themselves as simply realists, Lou did once or twice say he was sorry if anyone started shooting up because of his songs. Which happened: writer Ellen Willis said that “listening to 'Heroin,' I feel simultaneously impelled to somehow save this man and to reach for the needle”; writer Jeff Schwartz called it the musical equivalent of Freud's death drive; writer Laughner was dead a year after this record review: “When I was younger, the Velvet Underground meant to me what the Stones, Dylan, etc. meant to thousands of other midwestern teen mutants.” Early learned impressions, etc.

But then we sell James Dean T-shirts to anyone who wants one, don't we? Marilyn T-shirts too, pills melting in her veins, her smile sourced illegally off one of Andy Warhol's prints? The death drive finds a way: guys were killing themselves in 1774 when Goethe got famous—they died, at least in part, because they wanted to be young Werther. If it wasn't Lou Reed, it would probably be James Dean or Marilyn or what? Maybe it wasn't Nancy inside me; maybe it's Peter Laughner, looking at monkey-junkie Lou (and sad giraffe Moe and girl-monkey Nico and horse-y Sterling—Lou should have been the horse, but, you know, continuity—and John the dog-man) and saying, “I mean, I didn't really die for that, but still . . .”

Except people have died for everything everywhere, so these things matter only as much as you want them to matter. Once they are out in the world, they do not belong to you no matter how many people die or think they die for them, not even if you die for them. (Then again, I think of Peter Laughner every time I put on “Sister Ray.”) It's Paul's call to cartoon the band, and it looks nice, and it's your call to buy it for your kid and to explain who these people were and what they did and where they are now: Sterling died of cancer and Nico died of a bicycle accident, and the rest lived happily ever after, except Moe who was poorer than the other two. Life goes on, and Lou's lyrics make good parenting advice now: “You shouldn't do that/Don't you know you'll mess the carpet?”

God, how many times I heard that, rattling down the hall in my Spiderman PJs—if you can dress a little kid up like some tortured adolescent mutant who can't relate to girls (as my parents did to me), then surely you can dress a little kid up like an ambiguously sexual, IV-drug-using nihilist, and at bedtime when you close the door, the night can last forever. I mean, it's just some cartoons on the thigh of some pajamas, and honestly there couldn't be any harmful psychological effects, and although I did actually grow up into a tortured adolescent mutant who couldn't relate to girls, that's certainly more coincidence than early learned impressions. And when I heard the Velvet Underground, it fixed me right up. Kids who wear these are gonna have a cute and kitschy story to tell in their later years, while waitin' for their man, suckin' onna ding-dong—you know, they'll understand it all better when they grow up.


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