"Is the pink banana underneath?” Getting in deep with the Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground classic line-up (L-R): Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker, Lou Reed and John Cale.

Peter Howell

Toronto Star

As a new Todd Haynes' documentary about the Velvet Underground premieres at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, here's my 1993 interview with the band, back when I was rock critic for the Toronto Star. We spoke in a hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, the morning after the first night of their short-lived reunion tour that summer:

EDINBURGH — It's the morning after the Velvet Underground reunion that was never supposed to happen, and Lou Reed is sitting with the other members of the legendary rock 'n' roll band, thinking about pink bananas.

"Is the pink banana underneath?" he asks, glowering through wire steel frames when informed there's a CD novelty reissue out of the first VU album, "The Velvet Underground and Nico," the novelty being the band's famous peel-off banana symbol.

(The original Andy Warhol-designed LP jacket came with a yellow banana sticker and the suggestive advice, "Peel Slowly And See" — and as many nimble-fingered record store vandals discovered, there was a shocking pink banana hidden beneath. But the new CD, which sells for $40, isn't that elaborate. Yes, we have no pink bananas.)

"There's no pink banana?" Reed reacts in surprise, as he sits next to his newly reunited VU bandmates John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker in the Old World elegance of the Caledonian Hotel.

"The whole point of it is that there's a pink banana underneath. What's the point of peeling it off and having nothing? Jeez, they charge more money so you can peel off the banana and find nothing."

Always a stickler for detail, Reed has become even more so with all things Velvets, because the reunion means a lot to him.

"Did you really like the show?" he asks me, anxious to confirm praise expressed when we shook hands earlier.

Reed, who has had the most successful solo musical career of the four, is surprisingly enthusiastic about maintaining the artistic integrity of a long-dead band he swore for years would never regroup.

His bandmates share his devotion.

"We were proud of what we were doing back then, " Cale says, his accent a blend of his native Welsh lilt and acquired New York hardness. "We believed in what we were doing."

The night before, Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker performed the first of two sold-out shows at the Edinburgh Playhouse, reuniting for the first concert in 25 years the founding members of arguably the most influential rock band ever. (Honorary member Nico, the European chanteuse showcased on the first album, died in a bicycle accident in 1988).

The reported 800 cover versions made of Velvets' songs, by artists ranging from David Bowie to R.E.M. to Nirvana, attests to the veracity of an old joke, the one that says that only a few thousand people bought original Velvet Underground albums, but they all went out and formed their own rock groups.

The Velvets are touring Europe through June and early July, including several dates opening for Irish supergroup U2, and although the four are mum about possible Canadian and U.S. dates, the old-pal chumminess between Reed, Cale, Morrison (they're all in their early 50s) and Tucker (she's 48) and their great enthusiasm for playing together again suggests North American shows are likely.

As they munch shortbread and sip coffee in their $330- to $550-per-night hotel near the foot of the famed Edinburgh Castle - a far cry from their New York roots, the decadent dinginess and avant- garde weirdness of Warhol's New York Factory studio of 1965 - they are still basking in the glow of knowing that less than 24 hours before, they successfully confronted their own legend.

It was a legend that makes things like pink bananas seem important. Spawned by the artistic collision of Reed's black-hearted songs about exotic sex ("Venus In Furs") and wild-eyed junkie ravings ("I'm Waiting For The Man", "Heroin"), Morrison's stripped-down electric guitar, Cale's mondo-classical experiments on bass, viola and keyboards and Tucker's primal African drumbeats, the Velvets were the antithesis of a 1960s music scene dominated by the "she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" sweetness of Beatlepop.

And because they were so different from the rest, the Velvets were loathed, feared and shunned by the record-buying masses and by record companies during their 1965-70 heyday, issuing four studio albums that barely crested the bottom of the Billboard Top 200 album chart. Lack of recognition and sales fuelled internal divisions, resulting in a Reed-led ouster of Cale in 1968, Reed's own departure in 1970 (shortly before the band itself collapsed) and songwriting royalty squabbles that continued well into the 1980s.

But the Velvets and their ever-present Ray Ban shades became legends during their absence, because of their ground-breaking mix of noise and melody. They were hailed as the Coolest Band in History by the disciples of glam, punk, post-punk, new wave, grunge and other rock variants that followed them. The headline for a current New Musical Express cover story calls the reunion the "Revival Of The Hippest".

The band members are uncomfortable about all the adoration, because they know that while legends die hard, they are even harder to revive. They're also not used to so much box office action for Velvet Underground shows - the "sold out" sign on the Edinburgh Playhouse marquee is not something they would have seen much before, if at all.

The idea of a reunion "just sort of developed, " Cale says, the result of mended personal fences, straightened business affairs and the thrill of a one-song reunion (they did "Heroin", using borrowed instruments) at a 1990 memorial service in France for the band's late mentor Warhol.

"We never discussed it, " Cale says, to which the soft-spoken Tucker - now a mother of five children - verbally underlines, " Never."

Cale shrugs off talk of the Velvets' vast influence on rock.

"With a lot of those ties to us, I don't see what the categories are that they're talking about, " he says.

"A lot of people, if they're getting a 'grunge' sound, they're not getting it off our records. They might get them off the bootlegs (Reed nods assent at this remark) but I don't know if anyone could really tell you whether they were just (bad) recordings or whether there was bad playing."

No one could tell back in the mid '60s what was going on either, and Morrison - who dropped out of music entirely in the '80s, working as a Texas tugboat pilot and studying medieval literature in university - retains a note of frustration in his voice recalling how success eluded the early Velvets.

"Jimi Hendrix saw us, and he felt we should have been a lot bigger than we were, " he says.

"But, of course, if you don't get played on radio, it's pretty hard to rise above a certain level. It was a case of this is it; this is where we're at."

And as strange as it seems all these years later, it's still more or less where the band is at. Although a live album is planned out of next week's Paris shows, the Velvets don't speak of a future beyond the middle of next month.

"In the old days we never knew where we would play next, " says Morrison, who is writing a book about the band and is thus now its de facto historian.

"The Velvet Underground never had an agent, so there was never anybody actively working to obtain bookings, because we didn't want to play that much, anyway."

Adds Reed: "We just wanted to have fun. We just wanted to have some fun with each other, playing. We'll probably be a month together, and then we'll go back to our various things, and who knows what happens after that?"

Who knows, indeed? But judging from the smiles of satisfaction on the faces of the Coolest Band in History, unless one of them slips on a pink banana peel, we'll be seeing them in concert in North America.

(UPDATE: The North American tour never happened. The band broke up again, this time for good, following a handful of European shows.)


(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm