In 1982 Kristine McKenna interviewed Brian Eno in the Los Angeles Times, and Eno remarked that Lou Reed had told him that “the first Velvet Underground record sold thirty thousand copies in the first five years…. I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those thirty thousand copies started a band!”

That’s now one of the best-known – and most perspicacious – observations in the history of rock & roll. Eno – and Reed, in all likelihood -- got the facts wrong, but the spirit of that quote couldn’t be truer. The Velvet Underground and Nico, which came out in 1967, in fact sold more than sixty thousand copies in the first two years of its release. Those are far from blockbuster numbers and everyone who had anything to do with the album was disappointed. Especially given how intentionally provocative the album was – Andy Warhol had encouraged Lou Reed not to take out any of the songs’ “dirty words” -- it garnered little media reaction. Warhol’s involvement with the band generated some hubbub; his name appears alone on the album’s original gatefold cover and his “producer” credit on the back is as prominent as the band’s name. The obviously phallic peel-off banana cover, which Warhol designed, is now regarded as a classic. Still, the album seemingly came and went without so much as a shrug.

But for anyone who bothered to listen to the music, The Velvet Underground & Nico was a seminal event, indeed. Immediately, it kicked off the process of aesthetic infiltration that continues to this day. David Bowie began performing “I’m Waiting for the Man” even before the album came out, as did the Yardbirds, who featured Jimmy Page on guitar at the time. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was interested in working with the band, and Mick Jagger cited the Velvets as an Inspiration for the Stones’ nasty “Stray Cat Blues” on Beggars Banquet.

But the impact of The Velvet Underground & Nico extends far beyond its meaning for such boldface names decades ago. The album single-handedly redefined the boundaries of what rock & roll could achieve and express. It invented the very notion of alternative rock, and it laid the blueprint for punk, grunge and every rebellious underground gesture to follow. Before the Velvets, the idea that a band could not have hits and still be important was unthinkable. And by “unthinkable” I don’t mean “far out” or “strange.” I literally mean impossible to conceive of, incapable of being thought. It simply would have made no sense. But as Reed never tired of pointing out, after the Velvets, rock & roll could make an appeal to posterity, could look for recognition beyond the present day, in the same way that poetry, fiction, drama, painting and all the other so-called “high” arts could. If the Velvets had only made this one album, they still would be among the most significant and influential bands in rock history.

For proof of that assertion, look no further than I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico, a spellbinding contemporary version of the Velvets debut, with each of the album’s songs performed by one of the band’s noteworthy artistic descendants. The album was overseen and executive produced by Hal Wilner, Reed’s dear friend and producer who died last year. To call Wilner a “producer” is a misnomer, needless to say; he revealed an artist’s vision and originality in every project he engaged. Wilner became a master of the tribute album, each one both displaying a deep understanding and extending the magnitude of the artist or work under consideration. In particular, he very much viewed himself as a primary curator of Reed’s legacy, and the care and love he felt for his friend’s work is evident in every note on this album. Fittingly – and sadly -- this is the last tribute album he worked on.

Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker were, of course, the four members of the Velvet Underground, with Nico, a German model and actress, joining the band for this one album at Warhol’s insistence in order to add a hint of glamour to the otherwise street-savvy band. Though Reed resented Nico’s usurpation of his role as lead singer on three of the album’s tracks, she and Tucker provided a female presence rare in the rock bands of that era. That aspect of the Velvets is carried forward strongly on I’ll Be Your Mirror, from the raw, stripped-down sincerity of Courtney Barnett’s interpretation of the album’s title track to St. Vincent’s haunting collaboration with keyboardist Thomas Bartlett on “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Warhol’s favorite of the Velvets’ songs. Sharon Van Etten delivers a hypnotic version of “Femme Fatale,” which Reed wrote about Warhol It Girl Edie Sedgwick, with backing vocals by Angel Olsen. And King Princess, characteristically, offers a queer twist on “There She Goes Again,” an unsettling ode to erotic jealousy.

While the Velvets’ avant-art credentials are understandably fully on display on this collection, Kurt Vile & the Violators’ roaring, guitar-charged “Run Run Run” provides a staggering reminder that the Velvets were sometimes just a torrid rock & roll band. Michael Stipe, whose former band R.E.M. played such an important role in reviving the Velvet Underground in the Eighties, takes a cue from Reed’s sweet original vocal on “Sunday Morning” to offer his own heartfelt take on that strangely disturbing ballad. Andrew Bird and Lucius join forces on a droning, rapturous evocation of the Velvets’ S&M hymn “Venus in Furs.” Matt Berninger of the National tones down “I’m Waiting for the Man” to inject the song with a highly appropriate dose of jittery junkie anxiety. Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and alt-rock pioneer Thurston Moore perfectly capture the jarring, mesmerizing dynamics of “Heroin.” And to bring the album to a tumultuous close, Ireland’s Fontaines D.C. blast through “Black Angel’s Death Song,” and Iggy Pop and Matt Sweeney ravage “European Son,” which Reed dedicated to his literary mentor, the poet Delmore Schwartz. Those songs combine anarchic noise and poetic experimentation, a fitting close to an album – and a band -- that embraced both those virtues.

It’s a challenge, no doubt, to approach The Velvet Underground & Nico all these years later, even as a listener. The album has so thoroughly altered and shaped the climate of the musical universe of the past half century that it’s virtually impossible in visceral terms to experience its revolutionary significance. Of course that’s primarily because the Velvet Underground made it possible for the revolutionary to become the stuff of our everyday lives. But it must be borne in mind that a group of artists this adventurous and wild coming together on one album for any reason is itself a realization of the Velvet Underground’s legacy. And presented with the choice of faithfully covering the Velvets or redefining the band in their own modern-day terms – or landing anywhere in between – these artists absorbed and enacted the most important lesson the Velvet Underground had to teach: They did exactly what they wanted to do, and meant it.

Written by Anthony DeCurtis

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