Gary Comenas (2002/revised 2014)
An earlier photo of "Rick Allmen's Cafe Bizarre" at 106 West 3rd Street taken on 7 June 1959 by Fred McDarrah. (Image from Beat Generation: Glory Days in Greenwich Village)
POPism (1980) gives the impression that Andy Warhol was aware of the Velvet Underground prior to seeing them at the Cafe Bizarre.
Pat Hackett (writing as Andy Warhol in Popism):
"In January, Jonas [Mekas] moved the Film-Makers' Cinemathèque from Lafayette to West 41st Street. He was in the middle of a series called Expanded Cinema where artists like Jack Smith and La Monte Young and Robert Whitman would combine cinema images and projectors with live actions ad music. I remember Oldenburg's piece where he dragged a bicycle down the aisle from the last row of the theater while a movie was being projected, and I remember Rauschenberg where he was a walking light metaphor, so beautiful to look at, electrified and standing on glass bricks holding a live wire and fluorescent tubes - the artist Arman had made glass shoes for him so that the electricity wouldn't be conducted.
We'd met the Velvets through a filmmaker friend of Jonas [Mekas]'s named Barbara Rubin, who was one of the first people to get multimedia interest going around New York. She knew a lot of rock and folk performers, and she'd sometimes bring people like Donovan and the Byrds by the Factory.
The Velvets had done tapes for filmmakers to use while they projected their movies and they'd played live behind the screen during some screenings at the Lafayette Street Cinemathèque. But where we first really became aware of how fabulous and demented their act was was at the Cafe Bizarre on West 3rd Street - 'On Go-Go Street for nine bucks a night,' as Lou Reed, the sort of lead Velvet put it.
When Barbara Rubin asked Gerard to help her make a movie of the Velvets playing at the Bizarre, Gerard asked Paul Morrissey to help, and Paul said why didn't I [Warhol] come along and so we all went down there to see them." (POP143-44)
The entry in POPism is confusing for several reasons. Jonas Mekas moved the Cinematheque from Lafayette Street to 41st. Street in December 1965. The quote also mentions that Mekas "was in the middle of a series called Expanded Cinema." Jonas Mekas never put on a series or festival with the name of "Expanded Cinema." It was actually called the New Cinema Festival I and took place during November and December 1965 - see my essay, "Expanded Cinema?" One of the pieces performed in the New Cinema Festival 1 was Rauschenberg's performance piece, Map Room II, which featured plastic shoes which Warhol apparently thought were glass:
"Separate kinds of images... more or less occur to me divorced from any particular program or piece, like the shoes in Map Room II that are cast in twelve inches of plastic. That was a completely separate image that came to me apparently out of the blue. I had Arman build those shoes, because he works in plastic. I simply told him what the idea was, and he made them for me." (RK87)
The Rauschenberg and Whitman pieces were performed 1-3 December 1965 at Jonas Mekas' Film-Makers' Cinematheque when it was on 41st Street. The La Monte Young piece was performed 4-5 December 1965, also at the 41st Street location. Jack Smith's Rehearsal for the Destruction of Atlantis was performed on 8 November when Mekas' Film-Makers' Cinematheque was still operating from the Astor Place Playhouse on Lafayette Street. All were part of the New Cinema Festival I. (See"Expanded Cinema?")
There is also a reference to multimedia events at the Cinematheque by Tony Conrad in Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story (1983) which probably refers to the same festival.
"It was 1965. They [Angus McLise, Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison] decided to follow Maupassant's dictum to 'Do something beautiful in the form that suits you bet according to your own temperament,' and began composing some of the music that would eventually wind up on their first album. They also continued to evolve within the milieu of the downtown New York art scene which was developing rapidly. Angus had introduced them to Piero Heliczer who had been his classmate at Forest Hills High School in the mid-fifties. Piero had moved from Ludlow to a gigantic fifth floor walk-up at 450 Grand Street and was conducting a series of of multimedia happenings involving films, lights, poetry and music at Jonas Mekas' Film-Makers' Cinematheque in the basement of the Colonnades building, a New York Historical Landmark on Lafayette Street." (UT24-25)
As already mentioned, the New Cinema Festival I took place in November-December 1965. Sterling Morrison recalls that he, Lou Reed, John Cale and Angus MacLise took part in a production that Piero Helcizer and MacLise were organizing in early spring 1965.
"On an early spring day in 1965 John [Cale] and I were strolling through the eastside slums and ran into Angus on the corner of Essex and Delancey. Angus said, 'Let's go over to Piero's,' and we agreed.
It seems that Piero and Angus were organizing a 'ritual happening' at the time - a mixed-media stage presentation to appear in the old Cinematheque. Naturally, this was well before such events became all the rage. It was to be entitled Launching the Dream Weapon, and it got launched tumultuously. In the centre of the stage there was a movie screen and between the screen and audience a number of veils were spread out in different places. These veils were lit variously by lights and slide projectors, as Piero's films shone through them onto the screen. Dancers swirled around, and poetry and song occasionally rose up, while from behind the screen a strange music was being generated by Lou, John, Angus and me." (UT35)
Morrison refers to the production as "Launching the Dream Weapon." Jonas Mekas' New Cinema 1 Festival started on 1 November 1965 and the opening program was Rites of the Dreamweapon/Angus MacLise: The Tremor Rite as shown in the ad below. It's unknown whether "Launching the Dream Weapon" was different than the Rites of the Dreamweapon. It may have been the same production with Morrison remembering a slightly different title.
Ad from The Village Voice, 28 October 1965, p. 28
According to Morrison they also played at screenings of underground films in the summer of 1965:
"In the summer of 1965 we were the anonymous musicians who played at some screenings of 'underground films,' and at other theatrical events, the first of which was for Piero's films (I think that Barbara Rubin showed Christmas on Earth and Kenneth Anger showed a film also). Piero taped the music and later played it at the other screenings of his films - especially for The New Jerusalem." (UT25-6)
According to Mekas, Rubin finished Christmas on Earth in October 1964 (JM174). It isn't amongst the films advertised for the New Cinema Festival in November/December 1965 so Morrison's recollection that they first played at screenings earlier in the summer is fairly dependable. It's backed up by John Cale:
In the summer of 1965, with Sterling and Angus in the band, we gave our first public performances as the Velvet Underground. We extemporized soundtracks, playing in front of, beside or behind screens on which silent black and white movies by Jack Smith, Piero Heliczer, Barbara Rubin, Andy Warhol and many others were shown. Thus we became something of a presence as one of the three New York bands that came out of the Lower East Side. The others were the Fugs and Holy Modal Rounders. (AU80)
By mid-December of the same year they were playing at the Cafe Bizarre where, according to the above quote from Popism, Warhol and his cronies "first really became aware of how fabulous and demented their act was." There are various accounts of how Warhol ended up at the Bizarre. According to Gerard Malanga, Barbra Rubin initially asked Gerard to the Bizarre to dance with his whip while the group played.
"She [Barbara Rubin] asked me to bring my whip and suggested I dance while the group performed, as Barbara knew how much I enjoyed it, having already seen me dance to Martha and The Vandellas in Andy's film Vinyl. On the following day, Barbara and I entered Cafe Bizarre to the glaring sounds of what appeared to be a rock'n'roll group, but there all resemblance ended. The stage was level with the rest of the floor, so the group was right up against the tables and chairs. I waited for about 20 minutes before getting up to dance. I was tentative at first because no one else was on the dance floor at the time and I thought my participating would be an intrusion since the musicians were in such close proximity to the audience. I did, finally, make my way to the front of the audience - a few scattered customers - and was joined minutes later by a young girl who quickly retreated back to her seat. During the intermission, Barbara introduced me to Lou Reed and John Cale. Lou said how much he enjoyed my getting up to dance to the music. I told him I felt a little self-conscious because I was intruding, but he assured me I wasn't, and both he and John said I should come back and dance again. They really wanted people to dance to the music and not just to sit and listen to it. The music was very intimidating." (UP6-7)
Barbara Rubin wanted to film The Velvets performing at the cafe and the next day Gerard Malanga asked Paul Morrissey along to help with the lighting. (UT7) Paul was looking for a band to play at a new nightclub that Warhol and Morrissey had been asked to get involved with by Broadway producer, Michael Myerberg. After seeing the band, Morrissey told Warhol about them the next day and Andy went down to see them that night. (UT7)
A description of the evening appears in Up-tight - The Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga:
"The Cafe Bizarre was a long narrow room with sawdust on the floor and a number of tables with fish-net lamps ranged along the walls. The Warhol party, including Sedgwick, Morrissey, Malanga and Rubin sat at a couple of tables against the wall in front of and to the left of the band. It was a Thursday night. Nobody paid any attention to their arrival. The art and rock worlds were still quite separate and the ten or fifteen people scattered among the tables didn't recognize the new arrivals... As soon as The Velvet Underground started to play however, Andy became quite animated, because he immediately recognized he could work with this band. The music was so loud it was impossible to to talk while they were playing, but in a break between songs he asked Edie what she though about having the band play in front of the movies during her upcoming retrospective. She was understandably unenthusiastic about a suggestion that would clearly have drawn a good deal of attention away from her starring role and got uptight. But when Gerard got up and danced in black leather pants with his whip, eerily mirroring The Velvets' style with his sinuous, mesmeric movements, which resembled a cross between the Frug and an Egyptian belly dance, Andy saw Gerard become a part of The Velvets and even more reason to feel that here was a rock band with whom he could really connect." (UT8)
According to Paul Morrissey, Gerard Malanga had also asked Nico along on the same night and Paul met her at the Cafe Bizarre for the first time. According to Morrissey, he said to her that evening, "Nico, you're a singer. You need somebody to play in back of you. You can maybe sing with this group, if they want to work with us and go in this club and be managed." (UT9)
Andy, Paul and Gerard thought that the Velvet Underground would be a good band to play behind Nico, who is described in Popism as an incredible German beauty whod just arrived in New York from London... Gerard had met her in London that spring and given her the Factory number to call if she ever came to New York. (POP145)
Nico had already done a record called Im Not Sayin in London in 1965. The single was produced by Andrew Oldham, the Rolling Stones producer. She had also appeared in the film, La Dolce Vita, and claimed that she had a young son by Alain Delon.
After being introduced to Lou Reed, Nico had a brief affair with him.
"Lou and Nico had some kind of an affair, both consummated and constipated... Andy brought her into the band, and we nearly always accepted Andy's decisions." (LR107-8)
Nico ended her brief affair with Lou Reed following an appearance at Jonas Mekas' Cinematheque. (LR118)
According to singer Tally Brown who appeared in Andy Warhol's film, Batman Dracula, Warhol also approached her with the opportunity to sing with the Velvet Underground. Although she did attend one rehearsal, she was more interested in jazz and blues than in rock and roll. (PS240)