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Pop Pilgrims

Visiting the high-school auditorium that introduced The Velvet Underground

A suburban New Jersey high school was the perfect place to debut “Heroin.”

About This Episode

It’s impossible to fact-check the assertion that the first 10,000 people who bought The Velvet Underground & Nico each started a band—it’s hard enough to figure out who actually made that statement in the first place. But if that number of Velvets-indebted bands was accurate and not just a summation of the band’s influence on the last four decades of pop music, odds are that most of those musical groups (and the ones that followed) were started in the suburbs. For kids who grew up among subdivisions and chain eateries, the Velvets’ music isn’t just a peek into a grimy, protopunk underbelly of Beat-style street reportage and experiments with non-rock sounds—it’s a link to a fantastical version of the decaying urban centers our parents fled, places removed from the safety and predictability of life in the ’burbs.

Funny, then, that the seeds of The Velvet Underground’s legend were sown in the type of place where you might be asked to turn a T-shirt bearing Andy Warhol’s “PEEL SLOWLY AND SEE” banana inside out. In 1965, fresh from dumping their previous moniker, The Falling Spikes, and having recently hired the source of their primal thrum (drummer Maureen Tucker), John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, and Tucker introduced an audience of high-school students and parents in Summit, New Jersey to “Heroin”—as well as “There She Goes Again” and “Venus In Furs.” There’s no telling how many attendees of that gig at Summit High School picked up a guitar after fleeing the venue, but the performance left an impression nonetheless.

There’s no commemoration of Summit High’s intersection with rock history within its auditorium; in fact, the entire school is as unassuming as musical landmarks get. Located off of tree-lined Kent Place Boulevard, the home of the Hilltoppers looks like most American high schools built in the middle of the 20th century. The original building and recent additions sprawl across a campus that includes baseball and soccer facilities, a perfectly nondescript location to tick off the last four years of one’s adolescence. The auditorium where The Velvet Underground played—along with The Forty Fingers and the evening’s headliner, regional favorite The Myddle Class—on December 11, 1965 is the type of wood-paneled performing-arts space where, at any moment, a performance of Guys And Dolls or a state band competition could break out. In fact, on the day The A.V. Club visited Summit, a smattering of percussion instruments sat on the auditorium stage, practically begging for someone to hammer out the galloping beat of “Run Run Run.”

The school was also evacuated twice that day—we arrived to find the parking lot full of students and faculty; near the end of the shoot, a small kitchen fire sent everyone back outside—so I wouldn’t call the place dull. And while the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame has yet to bestow Summit High with the same massive landmark plaque glimpsed in Pop Pilgrims’ visit to the Whisky A Go-Go, the school marked its dalliance with button-pushing hybrids of high art and low culture through ubiquitous fliers advertising a student production of the satirical musical Urinetown. And as Principal Paul Sears told us, the school makes no effort to obscure its brief flirtation with the rock vanguard, a night that aligns the Summit High auditorium with Manhattan haunts like Café Wha?, Café Bizarre, and Max’s Kansas City.

Both the show in Summit and the band’s disastrous residency at the Café Bizarre were orchestrated by Al Aronowitz, a rock critic-cum-manager most famous for orchestrating Bob Dylan’s first, weed-clouded summit with The Beatles. The details of the concert at the Summit auditorium read like alphabet soup for record geeks: The Velvets were being courted by Aronowitz at the behest of Allen Ginsberg associate Barbara Rubin (Warhol eventually beat him out for the band’s management position); Aronowitz did succeed, however, in getting his friends Gerry Goffin and Carole King to offer songwriting and production help to his clients The Myddle Class; that band’s vocalist, David Palmer, later joined Steely Dan—he’s the guy who’s not Donald Fagen who sings “Dirty Work.”

History’s liner notes have been kinder to the concert, which, by all accounts, was a disaster. Morrison recalled scaring off half of the audience; instant convert Rob Norris, however, later recalled the set in more rapturous terms for the fanzine Kicks:

“Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song, which the singer introduced as ‘Heroin,’ the music began to get even more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave which was threatening to engulf us all.”

Forty-seven years after the concert, an electrician working in the back of the auditorium during our Pop Pilgrims shoot was similarly astounded by the Velvets’ audacity. “They played ‘Heroin’ in suburban New Jersey?” he asked with an incredulous laugh.

In 2012, at least, Summit’s corner of suburban New Jersey seems like a fine place for a Velvet Underground-worshipping band to come up. Sears spoke of his school’s commitment to promoting and encouraging the creative arts, and the town’s main drag boasts the last outpost of independent music retailer Scotti’s Record Shops, one of the four places you could buy tickets to the Myddle Class/Forty Fingers/Velvets triple bill (the other three being Adams Haberdashers, Henriksen’s Pharmacy, and The Myddle Class’ P.O. box in nearby Berkeley Heights). The local five-screen cinema sticks to megaplex fare, but what is the star of Katy Perry: Part Of Me 3D if not the ultimate Warhol superstar, ripe for her “Candy Says” close-up from Reed (or, a few years down the line, her own “New Age”)?

In that light, it’s appropriate that one of the last tangible links to the early days of The Velvet Underground exists 20-some miles west of New York City. The place that birthed the band, the one that calls out to all those kids entranced by the pulse of “I’m Waiting For The Man” or the organ-humping grotesqueries of “Sister Ray,” has remade itself in a different image. The building that housed Andy Warhol’s original Factory, where the Velvets refined the songs from their Summit High set amid glamorous people and silver walls, is long gone. Max’s Kansas City lives on as a website—albeit one connected to a “never opened to the public” club underneath the original site of CBGB. The Rosetta stone-like qualities of The Velvet Underground’s four proper LPs (let’s all continue pretending Squeeze doesn’t exist), compiled rarities, and assorted bootlegs hold an allure for New Yorkers, too, but the way those recordings open up and enrich so much of the pop spectrum is a perfect antidote for bedroom-community malaise. We nod along to “Beginning To See The Light” because we, too, are beginning to see the light, a light that began to shine, startling and seductive, at Summit High School. 

Filed Under: Music, Video
  • Pop Pilgrims
  • 67 Episodes
  • Pop Pilgrims is our pop-culture travel show, in which we visit sites that are relevant to movies, music, TV, and more, from The Shawshank Redemption prison to the apartment from Vertigo.