David Bowie, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads all owe a big debt to another Rock & Roll Hall of Fame act: the Velvet Underground. And although it’s been five decades since those influential art rockers became the ultimate downtown NYC hipsters, a new exhibit, “The Velvet Underground Experience,” is a multimedia time machine that transports you back to their avant-garde world.
Fittingly, the show, which opened earlier this week and runs through Dec. 30, is housed at 718 Broadway in Greenwich Village, not far from where the Velvets had a mid-’60s residency at Cafe Bizarre. With music, photography, video and a host of vintage memorabilia, “The Velvet Underground Experience” captures the sound and vision of a band that represented a cultural movement in everything from music to film to fashion.
“To be an artist you need to be free, a free thinker,” says Christian Fevret, co-curator of the exhibit, which launched in Paris in 2016 before its updated version arrived in New York. “If you can walk out of this exhibition with this feeling and also the idea of fighting for artistic freedom and freedom of speech, then it would be another wonderful legacy of the Velvets.”
The multilevel exhibition is divided into six sections: First is “Welcome to America,” which leads with a display of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America.” Then it goes into late ’50s and ’60s NYC scenes — in which photos include the beginnings of the Twin Towers construction and a pre-Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay going to a poetry lecture at the Bitter End — shot by the late Village Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah.
Next, the “Childhood of Art, Birth of the Velvet Underground” section details the early days of the band’s co-founders Lou Reed, who died in 2013, and John Cale. There’s a flyer for the Velvets’ first concert: opening for Myddle Class at Summit High School in Summit, NJ. (Admission was $2.50.)
The “Factory Years” section — named after Warhol’s legendary New York studio, the Factory, where the band sometimes played — includes a small but appropriately stylish room dedicated to Nico, the singer, model and actress who was featured on their classic 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico.”
Elsewhere, there’s a vintage newspaper and magazine collection (including the first issue of Rolling Stone), tributes to VU-affiliated filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin (who introduced the band to Warhol, their future producer and manager), and a “Legacy” wall showing the Velvets’ influence on the likes of Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, the Strokes and the White Stripes.
Fevret hopes that “The Velvet Underground Experience” will revive the spirit of the band some 50 years later. “The young generation has to carry on,” he says. “I know that the bloodline is still there.”
“The Velvet Underground Experience,” Tuesday through Sunday at 718 Broadway; VelvetUnderground-Experience.com. Tickets $25 to $50.
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