NOTE: For a podcast interview I did with Rob Norris about seeing the Velvet Underground at Summit High School, his involvement in the band (after Lou Reed left) and The Bongos, among other topics, visit player.fm/series/the-backgrounder.
When was rock ‘n’ roll born? Lots of people have lots of different theories.
When was alternative-rock born? To me, the answer is clear-cut. It was born with the Velvet Underground. And the Velvet Underground played their first show nearly 50 years ago — Dec. 11, 1965 — at the unlikeliest of places: The auditorium of Summit High School.
So in my view, at least, alternative-rock began 50 years ago. In New Jersey.
The Velvet Underground’s original lineup (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker) played together for the first time that night, opening for the garage-rock group, The Myddle Class. There were three songs in their set: “Heroin,” “There She Goes Again” and the S&M-inspired “Venus in Furs.”
“Half the audience loved their different-wierd (sic) sound,” wrote Thom Lynch of The Velvet Underground’s set in the January 1966 edition of The Myddle Class newsletter. “The other half left the theater.”
The Myddle Class came together while its members were attending Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren Township; among them were singer David Palmer, later of Steely Dan, and bassist Charles Larkey, who went on to play with, and marry, Carole King. They had a strong regional following at the time, and were managed by Al Aronowitz, a rock journalist and aspiring manager who lived in Berkeley Heights.
The Velvet Underground was the middle band at the three-band show, which Aronowitz organized, and which also featured the Springfield-based group, The Forty Fingers. Admission was $2.50, and the show sold out.
“It’s hard to really explain how much (The Velvet Underground) stood out in those days,” says bassist Rob Norris, who was a teenager growing up in New Providence at the time, and attended the show. “Nobody looked like that. The Beatles had neat little haircuts. Cale had shoulder-length stuff, with silver jewelry on. They all had shades. They’re all in black. Evil had arrived.”
Norris’ best friend John, whose sister Judy was Aronowitz’s babysitter, was working at the show as an usher. John “called from the payphone at Summit High School in the afternoon,” says Norris, who was an aspiring musician already, playing in various high school bands. (He would later play in a post-Lou Reed lineup of The Velvet Underground, in 1972, as well as in The Bongos, the most important band in the early years of the Hoboken alt-rock scene.) “And he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this band. I’ve never seen anything like them. They’re all dressed in black. They look like they’re really tall. One of them has the longest hair I’ve ever seen in my life. The drummer, you can’t tell if it’s a girl or a boy. And they’re really loud, and really interesting and dark.”
Naturally, Norris was intrigued, and though he was at the show primarily because he was an ardent fan of The Myddle Class, he got there early enough to see The Velvet Underground, too.
“It was just overwhelming,” says Norris, referring to the combination of the band’s volume, its subject matter and its unconventional look. “It pretty much caused a riot. … A lot of parents were just grabbing their kids and heading for the exits.”
“People really didn’t know what to make of it,” says Stephen Philp, who also attended the show. (He was the younger brother of Myddle Class guitarist Rick Philp, who died in 1969.) “They were really … what we would call avant-garde, at the time. They were not at all well received.
“It was a really weird joining of forces. There was no continuity to the opening acts. Nobody, obviously, knew what they were seeing, or who these people were. As I remember, they played a fairly short set, because people were there to see the main act.”
Philp says it was a very special show for the Myddle Class, since the group had just released its first single, “Free As the Wind” (written by Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Palmer and Philp, and co-produced by King and Goffin), and it was rare for them to play in a concert hall-like setting, instead of a nightclub or a dance.
“The release of the single kind of marked a success that was meaningful in the record business, at the time,” says Philp. “To myself, and everybody else there, it was like seeing The Rolling Stones live for the first time. There was so much excitement.
“The thing that I remember most about the show was the fact that Carole King came and picked my sister and me up, and drove us to that show, and we sat with her at the concert. It was very cool, to say the least.”
It was Aronowitz who connected The Myddle Class with Goffin and King.
“He knew everybody, and a lot of people would come out to his little quiet house in the suburbs, to just get away,” says Norris. “We would all hear who was there, ’cause Judy babysat there, and would kind of lurk behind the bushes and try to see John Lennon and Brian Jones and Dylan.”
Aronowitz managed The Velvet Underground briefly, in the group’s early days; that’s how they ended up in Summit. (For the late Aronowitz’s colorful account of how he began working with the band, click here.)
Norris never saw the original Velvet Underground foursome perform together again, but got to know them in 1968, after Doug Yule had replaced Cale. Norris was living in Boston, and was a frequent visitor to the rock venue, the Boston Tea Party, where the Velvet Underground often performed.
He had a friend who worked at the Boston Tea Party. “I was talking to him, and I explained how I had seen these guys three years earlier, at my high school,” says Norris. “And he said, ‘Oh, they probably want to know about that.’ So he brought me in the back room … to meet Lou. Lou was amazed that I had seen that show, and he brought me to meet the rest of the band, and we just started talking, and I started showing up at all the shows, and I would always drop in and say hi, and chat to them.”
Though most people consider Reed’s exit, in 1970, to mark the end of The Velvet Underground, Yule kept the band going for several years, with various different musicians. Norris played guitar for them on a 1972 European tour where, he says, they were treated like rock stars.
Thinking back to 1965, Norris — who lives in Accord, N.Y., and remains an active musician as well as a massage therapist — says The Velvet Underground didn’t change his musical sensibilities immediately, in part because the band’s music was so different from everything else going on then, and because they vanished, in his eyes, until they released their debut album in March 1967.
“It was as if a UFO landed,” he says, “and then took off again. ‘Well, where is it?’ It more planted a seed of what’s possible, but nothing else was even vaguely close to it, so it just kind of germinated later.”