The Feelies’ Velvet Underground show was a night to remember, in more ways than one

Velvet Underground Lou Reed

The Velvet Underground (from left, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed and John Cale).

“Lou realized early on that all you need to do is touch the other’s cheek and just give them some small recognition and then let them be and maybe record it and thereby perhaps justify their tragedy through art. And all art is an act of love towards the whole human race. Aw, Lou, it’s the best music ever made, the instrumental intro to ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is like watching dawn break over a bank of buildings through the windows of these elegantly hermetic cages, which feels too well spoken, which I suspect is the other knife that cuts through your guts, the continents that divide literature and music and don’t care about either.” — Lester Bangs, from “Untitled Notes on Lou Reed,” 1980

The Feelies played at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City on Oct. 13 and, in connection with the new Velvet Underground exhibit opening in New York City, devoted a full set to Velvet Underground songs. I went and, as a longtime fan of the Velvets (and a somewhat distant admirer of The Feelies), I had high expectations. But I spent much of the show in my head, working out complicated things from my past and trying to come to terms with them.

Sometimes old music can be nostalgic in the simplest way. “Remember this song was playing when we drove to Atlantic City?” “Remember when we saw that guy playing air guitar to this song in Central Park?” And other times, it can be nostalgic in profound ways that remind you of pain, and that can shake you at the most unexpected time.

I started out the evening in a bad frame of mind. While walking down the street towards the venue, I passed an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen in upwards of 20 years. He’s a well-respected guy in the music industry, and we had been friends in the mid-’90’s. More recently, we exchanged a few emails and were friends on Facebook, but that was about it for the last couple decades.

After a mass shooting hit the news a couple years ago, I was feeling distraught and posted on Facebook that I didn’t see this problem in our country changing any time soon. This acquaintance replied, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” and promptly unfriended me. I wrote him to ask why he did that, and he never replied.

Glenn Mercer, left, and Bill Million of The Feelies, at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, Oct. 13.

So, when I saw him going to the show (and when he didn’t see me), I just kept walking. But it brought me back to that, and I was stewing about it as the concert began. Fuck that guy. He has no idea who I am. Or was I wrong? Was my post offensive? Should I be doing more to change things in society that I don’t like? What the fuck does he do, anyway? And we’re not even close friends. Why do I care? Would I care as much if he wasn’t a big shot in the music world? Do I just want his approval?

I thought about this and tried to answer these questions on and off throughout the show. It ruined a lot of it for me. But, the epiphany I had — albeit a minor epiphany — was that Lou Reed must have been in my shoes a million times. He was constantly misunderstood, disliked, and he pissed off more music industry people than I’ll meet in my lifetime. Lou, at least as I imagine him, was comfortable not being liked. Maybe he even thrived on it. That’s not me. I want to be liked, and it can be problematic when I have a conflict with somebody. At first I thought I should be more like Lou, but I realize I’ll never get there. My problem isn’t so much that I want to be liked, but rather that I want to be that person who doesn’t care, but only when it’s convenient for me. Life doesn’t work like that. I’m the type of person who wants approval, and I have to take the good and the bad with that. Lou, or the Lou that exists in my head, didn’t give a shit, and he had to take the good and the bad with that as well. Looking at it this way, I was able to set aside the mental gymnastics I was running through and focus on the show a bit more.

The Feelies opened with “Sunday Morning,” the first track on the first Velvet Underground album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. It sounded weak. The volume was low. The keyboard/bells melody that begins the song sounded wrong. The vocals, when they came in, sounded hesitant. I started feeling angry. This was my album. This was my band. If you’re going to play these songs, you have a lot to live up to, and you better get it right. But my anger was really coming from a more distant and painful memory.

The cover of the album, “The Velvet Underground and Nico.”

When I was 14 or 15, I had a black leather motorcycle jacket that I loved. I had met a guy who could paint, and I paid him to paint the cover of The Velvet Underground and Nico on the back of this jacket. He took it home with him. A couple months later it came back, and I was thrilled. The white cover against the black leather was sharp and stark and it stood out from a mile away. The banana that famously graces that album cover was fantastically out of place on this jacket. In the mid-’80s, kids were either putting metal studs and spikes on these jackets, or painting hardcore band names like The Exploited, Discharge and G.B.H. on them. Nobody — and I mean nobody — had a fucking banana on one. I wore it proudly. Most kids in my high school probably didn’t know what to make of it. Strangers were worse. I was met with plenty of stares, and the occasional “faggot!” yelled out of a passing car as I walked down the sidewalk. Yes, I want to be liked by people I know, but as a teenager in boring and wealthy Ridgewood, N.J., I wore that jacket like a badge of honor, and insults from morons in their Mercedes sedans only made me feel more empowered. They could keep Phil Collins and Ridgewood. I’ll take the Velvet Underground and New York City.

After wearing the jacket every day for under a year, I went into Manhattan to buy some pot with two friends. We went to Washington Square and bought whatever it was we got that night, we drank beer from paper bags, we bought whip-its and did them on a side street off Greenwich Avenue. We had a typical ’80s teenage party for three Jersey kids going into the city. When we were beat and blurry-eyed, we headed for the PATH train on Ninth Street to take us back home.

We stood at the far end of the platform. There’s only one entrance in that station, so the far end is fairly desolate, and we wanted to smoke cigarettes, so we walked down to the end to get away from the other people. There we encountered two guys that asked us for cigarettes when we started smoking. It felt wrong. Something was up. And, within 30 seconds, the guys moved from “Got an extra cigarette?” to “Give me your wallet.”

Now, these guys were much older than us, and they looked tough, but there were three of us, and only two of them. We could’ve taken them. But, when they launched into their routine, the three of us froze. There was no hint of fight in any of us. Granted, the guy doing the talking said “I’ll cut you,” and motioned to his pocket, essentially saying, “I have a knife and I’ll use it.” But we never saw the knife. All they did in reality was talk, and we emptied our pockets. At the last minute, the quieter of the two guys looked at my jacket and said, “Take it off.” I hesitated. He moved in closer and said it again. “Take it off.” I did. He turned around and walked out with it, and I just stood there and watched.

I’ve told that story in a lot of different ways over the years. Upon getting home, I told my mother I left it on a chair in a pizzeria and when I went to the bathroom someone took it. I told others, “We got mugged,” and left it at that. But the truth is, that story for me is just about feeling humiliated. Failing to fight. I’ve run it over in my head so many times. Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I push the guy onto the tracks and run? Why did I freeze up and not fight back? It’s caused me pain over the years.

But, that story and the humiliation that goes with it ties me to The Velvet Underground and Nico even more. My band. My album. I earned it.

The only thing that makes me happy about that story is that the guy who took my jacket didn’t see the back of it before he took it. I was facing him the whole time. So, he walked out of the PATH train and at some point he took a look and saw that his nice, newly acquired leather jacket had a giant fucking banana painted on the back. That makes me laugh even now, as I write this.

The cover of the Velvet Underground album, “Loaded.”

So, here I am at the show, and the band isn’t killing it on the opening song of their set. The opening song of my album. But then they move to “Who Loves the Sun” from Loaded (incidentally, the album I painted on my next leather jacket). The band sounded stronger, and I never thought I’d hear that song played live in any context. I was in. I loved it. The band was great. But I was still in a horrible mood. Thinking about my jacket. Thinking about being humiliated. Thinking about my ex-friend in the room and how he had blown me off with such ease over a post on Facebook. The songs kept coming, but mentally I was in and out of the moment. I couldn’t fully concentrate on the show without thinking about all this baggage. I found myself looking at strangers and judging them. “You don’t know this music,” I thought. “You’re here to drink and talk — you don’t love this band like I do.” It was juvenile and ridiculous, but I was stuck in a dark pit and was having a hard time getting out.

Then came “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” It’s one of my favorite songs. You’ll never hear it on the radio, and it’s probably only well known to people who have lived with The Velvet Underground and Nico. And, as Lester Bangs wrote, it’s the best music ever made. When that epic, powerful intro began, the crowd at White Eagle Hall let out a yelp of recognition and approval. They knew the song instantly. All of a sudden, I was fully involved in the show. I was where I belonged. These are my people. These are people who have shared a part of my life with me, even if they don’t know it. But I suspect they do. That feeling of community, of tribalism, of us against them … That plays out at a rock concert as much as it does at a football game. It’s part of what I love about live music.

The Feelies put on a hell of a show, and a hell of an effort. After about 90 minutes of Velvet Underground music, they took a break and came back for another full set of their own material. They brought up guests Richard Barone and James Mastro from The Bongos, and pulled out five covers at the end of the night. The crowd, in a venue with no seats, remained pressed up against the stage until the end.

As music has done for me so many times in the past, on this night it lifted me out of a bad place and brought me somewhere better. It gave me a better understanding of myself. It gave me joy on what started out as a shitty night. It gave me a place in the world when I felt a little lost. The feeling of being together with people who share your experience. Being with people, both onstage and in the audience, whose lives were saved by rock ‘n’ roll/Yeah, rock ‘n’ roll.


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