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All Tomorrow’s Parties (review)

Creator: Koren Shadmi

Humanoids, August 2023

This title is a harsh, embarrassing, wonderful documentary. All Tomorrow’s Parties details the rise and fall of avant-garde 1960s band The Velvet Underground. This is publisher Humanoids’ promotional blurb:

An examination of some of New York rock’n’roll’s most iconic figures—The Velvet Underground & Andy Warhol—and the relationship that distorted their lives and changed pop culture.

Born from the iconic NY art and music scene of the late ’60s and the brilliant, untamed minds of its founding members Lou Reed and John Cale, The Velvet Underground are now considered rock ‘n’ roll royalty…but that wasn’t always so.

From surviving off oatmeal and donating blood for rent money, to the fame of being the de facto house band of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the objects of the socialite’s fleeting affection, to the unraveling of Cale and Reed’s creative partnership in a storm of jealousy and paranoia, the Velvets’ story is as bold, challenging, and fascinating as their music.

Explore the story behind the group NYT called “arguably the most influential American rock band of our time,” through good times and bad, as captured by Eisner-nominated Koren Shadmi.

The Velvet Underground’s story is well-known, and not just to musical aficionados. Less notorious, perhaps, are the dynamics between the band members, their patron Andy Warhol, and their audience. One thing is certain. Lou Reed, creative force and drug addict, emerges from the story as the villain. He is paranoid, narcistic, obsessive-compulsive, and constantly high. Writer and artist Koren Shadmi cleverly establishes Mr Reed early in the story as a sympathetic character, the subject of electro-shock therapy at the hands of his well-meaning but misguided parents. Drooling and damaged, it is hard to imagine that a mother and father would subject their son, no matter how sarcastic and unconventional, to such a horror.

But this first impression of Mr Reid as a victim erodes as the story progresses. He distrusts everyone, including Mr Warhol, and his band members. Drugs distort his personality from acerbic and unpleasant to outright distasteful and abusive. Fellow band member John Cale (and more on him shortly) notes after a punch-up with Mr Reed, “Old Lou was a prick, sure, but he would listen to reason. Now I feel like we are dealing with a complete egomaniac”. Nico, the beautiful German muse provided by Mr Warhol to the band, is the subject of torment at Mr Reid’s hands. She is out-of-tune, a hood ornament, constantly late to rehearsals, incapable of even driving the band’s van without hitting a dog. “You and me, we all are just puppets in Lou’s little game,” says Nico to Mr Cale.

But it is also hard to feel sorry for Nico. She has a brief relationship with Mr Reid, which she ends with words delivered with hooded blue eyes, “I cannot do this. I cannot make love to Jews anymore”. If there is even a spark of truth to this, and we see no reason to doubt Mr Shadmi’s research, then Nico should have been kicked out of the band rather than lingering and withering under Mr Reid’s scorn. “We can get along when you finally learn to sing,” says Mr Reid to Nico, much later, while he is white as a ghost and shaking with the effects of drugs. Mr Reid’s reaction to Nico’s rejection of him is predictable. “Lou does to take to the chanteuse’s rejection too well,” writes Mr Shadmi in a narrative box, and we see Mr Reid passed out on a couch at Mr Warhol’s famous headquarters / studio / menagerie of humans called The Factory: Mr Reid clutches a bottle of pills in his hand and looks dead.

Mr Cale’s talent is unfairly snubbed by history, as Mr Shadmi notes in his afterward: “The other shining star of this book, John Cale, has unfortunately often been overshadowed by Reed’s flamboyance, but he’s just as talented and enigmatic.” And in a narrative box, Mr Shadmi notes during the creation of the album White Light / White Noise, “Tensions between Lou and John are at an all-time high. Each is pulling the music in a different direction.” (Mr Shadmi has a wonderful economy of words: he makes the kaleidoscopic story concise and easy to follow.) Yet Mr Shadmi does not give Mr Cale that much prominence within this story. Well before The Velvet Underground was formed, Mr Reed’s early patron at college, the poet Delmore Schwartz, is depicted as saying to Mr Reed, “I just hate to see you waste your talent away. We’ve only got so much time on this planet”. Mr Reed, even more so than Mr Warhol, was always the bleak star of the show.

One of the quieter characters to the story is New York City. People who did not know New York City in the 1970s would not recognise some of the backdrops. Manhattan nowadays is vastly gentrified and largely unaffordable. But five decades ago, New York City was, in many parts, a dump. It was a Petrie dish for junkies and criminals. Nothing about the environment was going to encourage Mr Reed back to health. Reading this title, it seems to us that it was lucky Mr Reed was not a corpse before his 25th birthday. But even so, the effective ending cleverly crafted by Mr Shadmi is startling. Without warning, either by Mr Shadmi or by Mr Reed within the script, Mr Reed quits everything – the band, an imminent performance, the addict life – and returns to his parents’ care. They have come to collect him from Manhattan. “You did great tonight, son,” says Mr Reed’s mother. “C’mon, let’s go home.” And Mr Reed is then depicted silently staring out the rear window of his parents’ car, past the prostitutes of New York, the strip bars and pornographic film theatres, the distorted neon lights, and then is gone.

A word on the art. Mr Shadmi does not miss a beat with his fine lines, especially of the character’s faces. There is little cross-hatching, with the dark and occasionally crazy colours giving depth and motion to the story. Most of the art is focussed on the individual characters – and fair enough, as the story is intensely character driven – but the art occasionally bursts into half-page or third-page landscapes. This works most effectively with the band’s performances on stages. Mr Shadmi’s depiction of “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” performance in 1966 is wonderous, but it is Mr Shadmi’s psychedelic rendering of the performance at the University of Michigan Auditorium which we most enjoyed. But then, there is not much about this bitter, juicy, lurid story which can’t be savoured.

All Tomorrow’s Parties is available from the Humanoids website: