How musical history was made in South Deerfield


Published: 8/22/2019 10:57:37 AM
Modified: 8/22/2019 10:57:26 AM

The 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival has occasioned much media coverage and nostalgic remembrances of the event and its many now-legendary performers. Absent was a group later inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But on the weekend after Woodstock, Aug. 22-23, they played before a few hundred people in South Deerfield, in the building on Routes 5&10 now occupied by Douglas Auctioneers.

That group was The Velvet Underground, the most urban of rock bands. They formed in 1965 in the Lower East Side of New York City and were taken under the wing of Andy Warhol after he saw them perform in the Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village. He designed the cover for their first album, with its iconic image of a large banana. On it the band notoriously sang about the New York demimonde, with songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man,” about going uptown to 125th Street in Harlem to score drugs. So why did The Velvet Underground go up Routes 5&10 to the town of South Deerfield?

The place they played was opened in 1931 as the Gables Ballroom, a dance hall hosting the likes of the Robak & Fronc polka orchestra from Springfield, “New England’s Waltz King” McEnelly & His Orchestra, and most famously, Rudy Vallee. In early 1969 some friends and I who worked together at The Boston Tea Party, a famed rock club where I’d been the manager, came to the Pioneer Valley looking for a place to open our own club. We found the Gables, converted to a roller rink in the 1950s but sitting vacant.

At a time when long hair and rock music were still controversial in some quarters, we were not welcomed by the town fathers. But with the building’s prior use as a music venue, they could not stop us from operating. We renamed it The Woodrose Ballroom, to give it a more hippie country vibe. To open the club on March 14-15, we brought in a favorite act from the Tea Party: The J. Geils Band. The following weekend we presented another band popular with Tea Party audiences: The Velvet Underground.

For murky reasons, the Velvets did not perform in New York City for three years after the release of their first album. During that time the Tea Party became their home away from home. After providing music for Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia freak show, they were pleasantly surprised to find the Tea Party audience actually listening to them play. After several appearances there, in December 1968 Lou Reed, the band’s frontman and creative genius, said on stage at a Tea Party show, “This is our favorite place to play in the whole country.”

When I relocated to Western Mass. in 1969, it was only natural to present The Velvet Underground at the Woodrose, having booked them at the Tea Party, and being a friend and fan of the band. Struggling financially, they were glad to get a paying gig, even if it was, to them anyway, in the middle of nowhere. But that obscurity had its advantages. The local audience knew little about Warhol, the New York music and art scene, or the band’s notoriety. They just listened to them as they would any other band at the Woodrose and became fans.

By this time, the Velvets had parted with one of their founding members, John Cale. Their assaultive sound and transgressive lyrics were evolving into a more accessible pop sensibility. At the Woodrose they could develop new material and hone their stage performance away from the media and social pressure in New York, or even Boston for that matter. The ten nights they played in the Woodrose during 1969 were not widely known in the music world, their secret life in the country.

Even as the band’s sound evolved, Lou was still a city boy. He sang of taking a train from Springfield back to New York, metaphorically lamenting the band’s failure to achieve popular success. The song, “Train Round the Bend,” appeared on their fourth album Loaded in November 1970, by which time Lou had quit the band.

That might have been the last anyone knew of The Velvet Underground. But they became an inspiration to punk and indie rock bands for decades, even to this day. Rolling Stone magazine has called them “the most influential American rock band of all time.” Had they broken up when Cale left in 1968, they would have been merely a footnote to the ’60s: daring, experimental, but largely forgotten. But by continuing to develop musically through performances at the Tea Party and lesser-known venues like The Woodrose Ballroom, they became legends.

Steve Nelson, a Washington, Mass., resident, is the author of Gettin’ Home: An Odyssey Through The ’60s.

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