On a recent night, I was driving down Broadway when, a few blocks below Fourteenth Street, I spotted a large, showy sign above one of the storefronts. Though I’d never noticed it before, the outsized faces on it—printed in stark white-on-black, in the style of a Pop Art silkscreen—were immediately familiar: Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, Moe Tucker, and Sterling Morrison, of the band the Velvet Underground, along with their impresario, Andy Warhol. A velvet rope was languishing, unpeopled, in front of the store—looking like a cross between the entrance to a club in the Meatpacking District and a teller line in a Bank of America branch. A quick search on my phone, as I waited for a light on Canal Street to turn green, revealed that I had just passed “The Velvet Underground Experience,” an exhibition that was first installed at the Philharmonie de Paris two years ago, and that had now arrived in New York.
The Velvet Underground was established in 1965, and became the house band for Warhol’s Factory and “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” his series of multimedia performances. Initially led by the musical partnership of Reed and Cale, it quickly released two poorly received albums—the first famously bearing a Warhol-designed image of a banana—and went on, after Cale’s departure, to record two more albums, before dissolving in the early seventies. The band’s afterlife has proved much longer-lasting than its relatively brief heyday: it influenced later movements such as punk, no wave, and new wave, and spawned an untold number of late adopters. By the time I became a fan of the band, in the nineties, I was one such devotee: listening to the music on tape rather than on LP, wearing a banana-logo T-shirt likely printed by some subsidiary factory in Bangladesh, seemingly light-years away not just from Lou Reed buying smack in Harlem, but also from the people who were first scandalized when they heard Lou Reed singing about buying smack in Harlem.
The emotions the band aroused in me, though, still felt originary. The Velvet Underground embodied all that was taboo: drugginess, dirtiness, sexual subversion, a scowling death wish. Its members were sexy and mean—rail-thin and mop-topped, with dark sunglasses and tight, pegged pants—a rock-and-roll look as iconic as Elvis’s, but embodying extreme disdain for any kind of healthy impulse, no matter how sense-making. They even professed to hate their era’s more conventional alternative to the establishment, the hippies, with their peace-and-love credo. There is a particular kind of band that is meant to be encountered during one’s miserably hemmed-in teen years, and the Velvets were one of these bands. Their music, however—sweetly melodic and yet undergirded by a profound tension—not only matched their angst-friendly look but transcended it. It was art rock that made you feel things.
There was a certain cognitive dissonance in seeing the dour faces of my angry-ish youth near a Foot Locker and a McDonald’s, and a few doors down from the wholesomely corporate N.Y.U. bookstore, its aisles crowded with purple-toned hoodies and flannel pajamas decorated with the university’s logo. Then again, the dissonance might have been largely self-generated: how strange it was, I reflected, as I made my way over the Manhattan Bridge, to be a forty-two-year-old mom, driving her 2009 Subaru hatchback to her home in Brooklyn, and still, somehow, be struck with the recurring surprise of no longer being a fourteen-year-old, thrilling to the Velvet’s “Heroin” in her childhood bedroom, and wondering nervously if she herself would ever shoot up.
I never did try heroin, and now it’s increasingly likely that I never will. Time passes, and the pop-cultural relics of the twentieth century, no matter how dear to my heart, are being resold as so-called immersive experiences. Recently, the sensationally successful travelling exhibition “David Bowie Is” came to the Brooklyn Museum, where it presented a trove of outfits, images, videos, and interviews culled from Bowie’s personal archive. The show gained the late singer new fans; my seven-year-old daughter, in a development perhaps too New Brooklyn for words, loved it so much that she insisted on seeing it three times. Though she might not have understood everything that she’d witnessed (after one of the trips, she reported that “for some reason, Bowie carried a tiny spoon in his pocket during the recording of ‘Diamond Dogs’ ”), she emerged from the show an ardent admirer of Bowie’s music. (“I want to listen to ‘Aladdin Sane,’ ” she often announces when we get into the car.) As much as I prodded myself, in the end I could only think of this as a boon. Now I wondered whether “The Velvet Underground Experience” would be able to deliver a similar kind of beguiling, meaningful encounter.
A couple of weeks before, I had gone to see Steven Levenson’s play “Days of Rage,” about radicalism in the late sixties, in which snippets of Velvet Underground songs blared before some of the scenes. Each time I heard the first few bars of, say, “Venus in Furs” or “What Goes On,” I felt a jolt, as if I were listening for the first time, discovering something disturbing and seductive about the world, and trying to remake myself in its image, if only in my mind. When I entered “The Velvet Underground Experience” on a recent Tuesday, these familiar feelings once again emerged—at least at first. In the black-and-yellow-toned reception area, where you were given an entrance wristband and a pair of headphones, I was greeted by the agitated, percussive beat of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” and my immediate thought, as visceral as the kick of a leg in response to a physician’s hammer, was, “I’ve been listening to this music for nearly three decades, and it’s still so important to me.”
This feeling faded when I approached the gift shop, oddly located next to the front entrance. I saw a display of smartphone covers (compatible with the iPhone 6/6.5/7/8, a sticker noted), one with a picture of the doomed heiress and Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick and the words “POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL.” Nearby were laptop cases (forty-five dollars) with the band members’ faces, and airbrushed-nylon band T-shirts (sixty-nine dollars). Most of the visitors seemed to be older patrons, in their fifties and sixties, who were, like me, looking for a nostalgia tour. Would they buy an iPhone case with the words “SHINY SHINY LEATHER” on it? The shop, at least when I visited, appeared deserted. Next to it, a mini-display of silver Mylar balloons and a shimmering curtain of silver streamers—recalling the décor of Warhol’s Factory and his “Silver Clouds” installation, from the mid-sixties—hung above a painted logo of one of the show’s sponsors, the streaming service Tidal.
It is a given that contemporary exhibits have gift shops, and cultural fandom is often a good thing; souvenirs such as tote bags and pencils can carry a show’s message into the wider world, and might help solidify a burgeoning sense of self. (Fourteen-year-old me would have likely been happy to receive an Edie iPhone case, had such an object been useful at the time.) Still, looking at the items on sale was killing the vibe of my immersive experience. “David Bowie Is” had the institutional heft of a major museum behind it, and, though it was funded by Spotify and BMW, it had the sense, and perhaps the negotiated leeway, not to push shopping and sponsorships to the forefront. What carried the exhibition was the solidity of the curation—the sense that all the items on display were of a piece, giving a coherent sense of Bowie, in all the multiplicity of his personas. Here, the baldness of the mashup between the Velvet Underground’s grittiness and the overpriced blandness of the goods on sale was jarring.
This sense continued, off and on, as I walked through the show’s three floors. A onetime Superdry store, the cavernous industrial space was now mostly painted black, and jam-packed with objects. These items were, more often than not, gems: Fred McDarrah’s pictures of the New York City squalor and foment from which the band emerged in the sixties; Stephen Shore’s black-and-white photographs of the Velvets practicing at the Factory; experimental films of the era from the Film-Makers’ Cooperative (Robert Cowan’s “Rockflow,” a club bacchanalia from 1968, with go-go-booted revellers writhing on a dance floor, was especially rompish). But the show’s clumsiness made it difficult to remain tethered to the objects. I was often thrown by something small, like the odd phrasing on some the wall labels, awkwardly translated from the French. (An example of one introductory sentence, apropos of nothing: “Edie was the most fascinating.”) But, more often, it was due to the show’s insistence on marrying the sponsored with the obscure, as if presenting the two side by side would make them compatible. On the exhibition’s small third floor, a “vintage shop” sold used books about the Velvet Underground and its circle and old LPs from New York’s avant-rock icons (Patti Smith, Iggy Pop). Next to the shop stood a gleaming “Tidal Booth” in which one could listen to curated Velvet-themed playlists. There is, to be sure, nothing inherently wonderful about old LPs, and nothing especially wrong with streaming services, which most of us now use. What seemed misguided, however, was the pretense that one could easily bridge the gap between the two. The problem was not so much one of ideology, but one of curation.
Not long ago, in the Times, Amanda Hess wrote about the recent spate of pop-up “experience” museums. These spaces—among them the Color Factory, the Museum of Ice Cream, Candytopia, and the Rosé Mansion—flood visitors’ senses with a glut of sight, sound, texture, and taste. In the end, though, they are mere social-media props—visually friendly sites that “are designed to fit the shrunken-down Instagram grid,” since, in our era, Hess asks, “What’s the point of anything else?” “The Velvet Underground Experience” claims to bring us a full immersion in the historical and cultural era it presents, but, in fact, it offers something quite different: not Instagram-friendly tableaus, but discrete flashes of engagement followed by grating returns into the current moment. I suspect that this awkwardness is not what the show’s producers were aiming for, but there is something honest about admitting our inability to truly disconnect from a social climate, in which, in order to exist, a show about a group that in its time stood for all that was marginal and experimental must now be sponsored by Citibank. This, in fact, might be for the better. Maybe, for all the time that has passed, the Velvet Underground is still meant to be passed around more covertly, like your first illicit cigarette: an immersive experience, in its own way, but one you have alone, in your bedroom, or, at most, with a friend, under the bleachers, or in a speeding car, with the windows down.