Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties: The Velvet Underground Story’

“And where will she go and what shall she do when midnight comes around”

Look, it’s not controversial to say that The Velvet Underground is terrible and wildly overrated – I think that’s pretty much accepted by everyone – but that doesn’t mean their story can’t be interesting, especially when it’s written and drawn by Koren Shadmi, the current king of biographical comics! Humanoids brings us All Tomorrow’s Parties, and I’m going to take a look at it!

As you might expect, Shadmi focuses on the three worst individuals associated with the Velvets – Warhol, Reed, and Cale – which makes this book fascinating, because they’re all horrible in different ways. Warhol is a Svengali, Reed is a spoiled asshole, and Cale is a stupid iconoclast, and it makes their collaborations a heady mix of obnoxious posturing, passive aggression, pretentiousness, and latent misogyny. Shadmi begins with Reed and Cale at Warhol’s funeral in 1987, but quickly zips back to the late 1950s, when they began their musical journeys. Reed gets the worst of it – electroshock therapy – but it’s clear his parents are clueless even as they want the best for him and he’s also kind of an asshole (that’s not an excuse for the electroshock, even if it was more conventionally accepted in 1959, but you can see why his parents are at their wit’s end). Cale, meanwhile, wants nothing more than to escape his Welsh coal town, which he does, but he writes music that’s impossible to perform and calls it genius even though, you know, it’s not. Reed and Cale continue to treat literally everyone horribly, with Reed simply being evil to his girlfriend for no reason (a woman he much later has an affair with even though she’s married) and Cale just trying to piss off everyone (and succeeding, because they’re all squares) until they meet in 1963 at a fly-by-night record label on Long Island. They decide to play together, and music history is made!

Shadmi doesn’t do anything too clever with the storytelling – he leaves that for his non-biographical work – as he simply traces the rise and fall of the band. Reed and Cale have a nice frisson, mainly because they both think they’re the greatest thing that’s ever happened to music and no one can tell them otherwise, and once Warhol enters the picture, it really becomes a Convention of Assholes. It may sound like I hate this book, but I really don’t – Shadmi really likes The Velvet Underground, he tells us in his afterword, so I doubt he meant it this way, but he can’t really cover up how horrible Reed, Cale, and Warhol are, or even – in a comic with no sound – how terrible their music is. It’s an impressive achievement, and he distills perfectly the asshole mentality that all rock stars seem to cultivate, at least a little. Reed and Cale don’t want to sell out, but they always need money. They “sell out” to Warhol because he “gets them,” but Warhol seemed like a dude who knew how to make a buck through exploiting others, and he does here. As the Velvets begin to spiral, Reed and Cale clash, with each other and with Warhol, and the inevitable split occurs. It’s the same story we see all the time on VH1’s Behind the Music, only no one’s interviewing the principals because it’s, you know, a comic. We know the book can’t end well, but it’s still like watching a years-long car wreck, only you don’t care if anyone dies. Shadmi throws in some interesting touches, like how Reed, Mr. I Don’t Give A Shit himself, begins to pattern himself a little after Warhol, presumably to fit in at the Factory. Shadmi’s somewhat dry narration is perfect for this book, because it highlights how these two dudes, who think they’re so cool, are just little boys looking for the approval of a father figure. One thing comics does well is juxtapose writing with art and make the tableau ironic, and with Reed and Cale, irony is all they are sometimes. They’re children, lashing out and smiling when adults look shocked. Warhol indulges them because he can make money off of them, and they don’t see that’s he’s not really on their side until it’s far too late.

Far more interesting are the true outcasts in the book – Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Nico. None of them get too much page time, but when Shadmi does focus on them, it’s very well done. Morrison, obviously, is just another random white guy, but because the band already had two white guy geniuses, he was relegated to a back-up role, and it appears his personality was suited for it. He never makes waves, so Reed and Cale treat him poorly, to the extent that the cowardly Reed gets him to fire Cale from the band. Morrison is there to make Reed and Cale look good, and Shadmi doesn’t need to comment on what a sad existence that is. Tucker also doesn’t get to do much, but there’s a brief scene with her and Nico in a closet that crystallizes almost the entire book:

(The fact that Tucker supported the Tea Party movement and thought Obama was out to destroy the country doesn’t change the fact that she’s treated like shit in this book … it just adds some nice irony to her later life.)

Nico is, of course, the tragic figure in the book, used by Warhol as an accessory and passed from Reed to Cale as a sex toy. The misogyny at the Factory is palpable, with Edie Sedgwick playing a small part in Warhol’s games and Valerie Solanas showing up briefly to take no shit from Warhol, but it’s Nico – who isn’t completely innocent in it all, naturally – who’s the target of these men with “big ideas” that usually involve treating women poorly. Reed hates her, but fucks her anyway, and Cale seems to hook up with her simply because she’s there and he doesn’t know how to talk to women. Look, Nico wasn’t a talented singer, true, but Reed telling her that is kind of the pot calling the kettle black. Again, Shadmi does a good job showing that Reed is just, well, an asshole. He doesn’t judge, he just lets Reed’s actions speak for him. They do not paint a flattering picture.

Shadmi’s art is always interesting, especially when it comes to his basic style in conjunction with this subject matter. Shamdi draws all types of people, but he tends to make the thin people a bit lankier than a “normal” person, which makes them a bit spidery, and there is a good deal that is spidery about his principals, especially Reed. It’s a bit disconcerting. He also tends to give his character slightly larger, more expressive eyes than “real” folk, which makes Reed actually look kind occasionally (more irony) and allows us to see the sadness in Nico as she’s abused by the men in her life. Shadmi’s always been good at drawing likenesses, and he does a nice job here. It’s not as bizarre as he can be, but that’s due to the nature of the comic.

As I noted above, I do like this comic despite hating the band in general and the three driving forces of the band in particular. Shadmi is too good to make this just a hero-worship kind of comic, which means he can’t ignore the terrible behavior of his leads even as he’s trying to lionize their musical output. It makes for a tension-filled book, one that works very well even if you think The Velvet Underground sounds like a cat being killed slowly and painfully (which it does). If you happen to like the band, this might work even better for you, as you can get a glimpse of what drives people to create music that sounds like something Nazis would use to make prisoners go insane. It’s not pretty, but rock music rarely is. And if this gets you to get more of Shadmi’s comics, even better!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆


  1. Eric van Schaik

    The only song I know is Sweet Jane. It’s because it has been played on the Top 2000 in Holland.
    Since 1999 listeners can vote for the 2000 best songs of all time and starting at 12/26 00.01 until 12/31 23.59 the whole list will be played with Bohemiam Rapsody most of the time voted number 1.
    Sweet Jane has been on the list 6 times.
    Do you have something like that at a radiostation in the US?

    1. Greg Burgas

      Eric: I don’t know about the size of the sample, but I know radio stations here do similar things. I just don’t listen to radio stations, so I don’t know how often or the scope of the lists! 🙂

  2. The way Reed is drawn (I assume that’s him in most of the above panels) reminds me of a dark-instead-of-ginger-haired Walter Kovacs. Read into that what you will!
    Because I never got into the VU when I was young I suppose they’ve passed me by. There was no one in my life pushing this band, especially at college, despite being friends with people having varied musical tastes. I’m a Zappa fan and I find it ironic that Reed, who had a mutual loathing of FZ I understand, inducted FZ into the R’n’R Hall of Fame!
    I bought the ‘banana’ album, plus I think their third, as part of a double CD pack. I respect them due to that ‘most of those who bought their records formed a band’ aspect. Otherwise, meh.

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