©1995 and 2022 By Legs McNeil
[Originally published on pleasekillme.com]
Sterling Morrison (1942-1995) was the guitarist for the Velvet Underground, appearing on all four studio albums that the band made. He left the band in 1971 and moved to Texas to finish graduate school, became both a tugboat captain and a college professor. Legs McNeil interviewed him in New York in early 1995. At the time, Morrison was undergoing chemotherapy. Sadly, he did not live long enough to witness the answer to his very first comment in this interview. He died on August 30, 1995. The Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the following year.
LEGS: So where do you want to start?
MORRISON: So why isn’t the Velvet Underground in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? [Note: This interview was conducted in early 1995; Sterling Morrison died in August 1995; the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996]
L: Yeah. Why aren’t they?
M: I don’t know. Insufficiently commercial, I guess. But, uh . . . the thing is, Duane Eddy was pure commercial and he could never garner enough votes. To me, it’s a subject with its own built-in ironies. Like, if anybody had asked me, “Do you think you’re going into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?”, I would have said, “No.” But then we started appearing on the ballots year after year. And so then I started entertaining the idea, “So let me see now, who else was up for it?” And then I see the people who are in there who shouldn’t be in there and I was thinking, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe, by some reasoning, we ought to be.”
L: Oh, most definitely.
M: But I don’t know. It’s a heavily politicized selection process. I think it’s democratic to the point until you get on the ballot. And then what happens after that is largely determined in smoke-filled back rooms, or whatever.
L: And I think there was some scandal on somebody spending a lot of money…it’s very commercial.
M: I just think it’s ironic because every year we get insider “gibberish” from somebody saying, “Oh yeah, you’re definitely a shoo-in this year.” The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum–you know it’s a Hall of Fame and Museum–contacted me, I guess it was last summer, wanted me to contribute to a Velvet Underground Museum exhibit which is in the foyer of the museum. So I said, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to be out in the midway selling kewpie dolls, you know. I want to be in the big tent, riding my trained horses, or whatever. And, so I just think it’s kind of unseemly that I should be getting stuff for a museum thing and not have been inducted into the Hall. Because the Hall already has enough memorabilia and crap, . . . you know, Pete Townshend’s acoustic guitar and, uh, Keith Moon’s report card. And I have all kinds of report cards, if that’s what they want. (LAUGHS) But it just seemed weird. And their argument is, “Well, any representation is better than none.” And they may be going ahead with this, without my cooperation. I said “well maybe I don’t have anything so much that you would be interested in anyway.” But I do have an extensive poster collection.
L: You do?
M: Oh yeah. So that was what I guess they were after. I lent some of them to Cartier, back in 1990, they had them, some number of them. And then the Institute for Popular Culture, in Germany, someplace outside of Cologne . . . So, I gave them a pile of things. And, that show was the end of September 1992, and I’d given them a bunch of things. And since then, nobody. But the Warhol Museum would like to do something with them. So, I don’t know.
L: How big is the collection?
M: Pretty extensive. Probably the most extensive by anybody who’s a member of the band, of any band. I mean, that’s what they said, because the band people never get to gather this stuff. well, I did. I was always interested in, sort of, decorating my ugly apartments in New York. So, I’d get these things and plaster them on the wall. At least they had color. And after a while they started to look pretty good. You know, cow wallpaper from Andy and, I had all kinds of stuff. Then I thought that, for 20 years, they were gone because my house burned down in 1971. And I had always thought that the posters all burned up in the fire. It turns out they didn’t. And they were rediscovered in an attic, underneath a trunk lying between the rafters where they had been wrapped up since 1971, right before the fire, at my father-in-law’s house. And when anybody asked me about them, I said “oh yeah, boy, I sure had a pile of posters.” And really I had much more than I thought. I didn’t remember how much I had. So, for Cartier, they were a fresh discovery.
L: Can we go back and talk about [Syracuse University]?
M: Yeah. Um, my presence up there . . . I first met Lou [Reed] in ’61, in the fall of ’61, and . . .
L: You were some kind of scholar, right?
M: Yeah. And I lost my scholarship because I went to the University of Illinois as a freshman. I didn’t like it out there, so I came back and enrolled in City College. But I didn’t really have it together to live in New York and Syracuse had really gone after me out of high school . . . you know, they wanted me to be on the crew team and all this stuff, and talked about additional support. And I said “Fine, I think I’ll go up to Syracuse” where Moe’s [Moe Tucker] brother [Jim Tucker] was enrolled. I said, “I’ll crash with him for a while, and go over to the admissions office and see if I can shake them down for some money.” In which case, then I’ll go to Syracuse. My efforts were in vain…but I was up there. I’d go up there for months at a time.
L: How did you know Jim Tucker was there?
M: I went to high school with him. I hung around with him.
L: Oh you did?
L: Where? In Long Island?
M: In Long Island [Division Avenue High School in Levittown]. And, so that was natural enough. And Lou lived right upstairs from him [at Syracuse University]. And when we first met . . .
L: In the dorm?
M: In the dorm, yeah. [Saddler] dorm. The way we first met, Jim Tucker’s roommate, Bob Davidson, great guy, had a huge music collection, blues and jazz and real funky stuff. Lou could hear the stuff coming up through the floor late at night. Which meant there were other people who stayed up late besides him. And he had a radio show but eventually got kicked off. The thing was on some weird time slot, once a week, where he’d play all doo-wop and all the crazy stuff that we loved. When I first met him, I believe it was the first time that Jim had, or Davidson too, officially met him. We knew there was some guy up there making noise on guitar and stuff but we didn’t know who he was. He came down to borrow records. He said he was hearing the stuff and he was looking at rows and rows of albums and we said “yeah, yeah.” He was an English major, creative type (laughs).
L: Did you like him right off?
M: Oh yeah.
L: Was he charming?
M: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean Lou is just as charming now if he wants to be. It’s just that there are other layers there added on, or surfaced. But, um . . . everybody was probably more charming when they were young and innocent and optimistic.
L: Had you entertained any idea of being in a band or, I mean, did that seem outside your realm?
M: Oh no. That was definitely the kind of thing I wanted to do. But it seemed pointless, y’know, to have serious aspirations of making it in pop music, it seemed impossible. You need managers, you need Las Vegas-style routines and matching clothes and all that kind of thing. That seemed impossible. So I just played in my bedroom like everybody else. Now, did I think that I was so precociously gifted as a visionary lyricist or musician? No. I knew I could play well enough to play rock ‘n’ roll without effort. And I did like blues and doo-wop. If I could really have been a good singer, then they would have said, “Oh, you shouldn’t let bad singing hold you back. There’s plenty of bad singers.” But vocalists have an attitude which, you know, I was just more laid-back. Nobody ever asked Steve Cropper to sing, I don’t think. I was just happy playing guitar.
L: Did Lou start coming down and picking up the guitar and you guys just started playing?
M: Yeah. Well, subsequent to my first arrival then, I brought up my guitar and I had it all the other times I was up there. And Lou’s bands would last, literally, one weekend.
M: Well, they’d be so ill-received . . . he was playing these frat parties and trying to get by with John Lee Hooker songs and they didn’t want to hear that.
L: What did they want to hear?
M: Well, the songs of the day.
L: What were the songs of the day?
M: Well . . . certainly something like “Peppermint Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again” and “Sherry”, the Four Seasons were real big . . . the first song I remember coming out of AM radio, well I wouldn’t say the first one, but certainly one of the early ones that suggested to me a change was in the wind in popular radio was “Green Onions”. But here was pretty much a pure funk thing, an instrumental with no hooks to speak of, just real stinging guitar playing. And when that made it, I said, “Well, I don’t know, maybe….” Ray Charles was out there doing his thing. So, that impressed me.
L: Did Lou ask you to play with him in any of his bands?
M: Well, yeah, I would have if I had been around long enough. But, in an attempt to simplify the history of the Velvet Underground in the past, I’d claim “Yeah, Lou and I played in these horrible bands in Syracuse.” But that was only slightly exaggerating because I would have, and then I enrolled in City College again. So, in ’63 in the fall, I was back at City. And I saw Lou, he’d come down with Jeremy . . . you know Freeport is only a few miles from where we were. So the Velvet Underground, looked at one way, in terms of me, Lou, and Maureen, is very much just a Long Island garage band. We were all raised ten miles apart, or twelve at the most. Or, if you want to look at [John] Cale and Nico, we were some sort of, uh, Euro-band that, with only one swing member, would have been mostly a European band. So, you know, we were an oddball outfit for sure.
L: When did you decide to do the band with Lou? How did it happen if you were back at City College?
M: Well I was up there . . . I would go up there in the summers and what-not. So Lou knew that I was still playing and he still wanted to do something. And when he graduated from Syracuse, one step ahead of his expulsion from Syracuse . . . they allowed him to graduate.
L: Why was he going to get expelled?
M: Well, libelous statements made in print. He published a literary magazine and wrote a scathing preface, attacking people by name. And one guy was the head of the Young Americans for Freedom, a big right-winger, and his father was a big-time corporate lawyer. They called up the school and said, “We’re going to shaft this guy.” And they were so nasty that finally the dean came out on Lou’s side and said, “look, just graduate, just go.” So Lou did. He just went. And all that went up in the air. So then when he came down to the city, he was trying to scrape around over at the [Brill] Building and he was working at Pickwick Records. And the summer of ’64, he had graduated and I guess he had started at Pickwick then, I’m not sure if he was in Pickwick then or not. But anyway, Lightnin’ Hopkins was playing someplace in the Village. Jim Tucker and I went in to hear him and who do we find waiting on line but Lou. We said, “Oh, yeah.” So Lou . . . I guess it was late in the summer…. he had an acoustic guitar in the trunk of his mother’s car and . . . I hadn’t seen him for a while. So I said, “I was at City, hanging in there, but most of all I felt like doing was playing guitar. It’s too bad there’s nothing to do,” you know, something along those lines. And that was that. I don’t think I saw him again in ’64. But then in the spring of ’65, I ran into him and [John] Cale on the subway. And he said “So what are you doing?” I said, “The same old thing. City College, and strumming in the old apartment.” And he said, “Well, come on then. We’re just going to go jam at this guy’s place.” So I said “alright.” And down I went. And then from there, that was when I met Cale, for the first time.
Freeport is only a few miles from where we were. So the Velvet Underground, looked at one way, in terms of me, Lou, and Maureen, is very much just a Long Island garage band. We were all raised ten miles apart, or twelve at the most.
L: What did you think?
M: Well, I thought he was a terrific musician who had real radical ideas. See he’d been working with John Cage, and La Monte Young, and all that.
L: Was that impressive to you or were you more impressed with rock &’ roll?
M: No, I was impressed that he was coming from some place outside it, but had enough instrumental skills that he could certainly learn it. See, the beauty of Cale in the beginning was that he really didn’t know very much about rock. In fact, he knew next to nothing. So, if you turned him loose on an instrument, he wasn’t able to play any kind of cliched anything because he didn’t know any of the cliches. It was all original. And we didn’t want, even at that time, to be some kind of conventional band. We couldn’t.
L: Was that talked about from Day One?
M: Yeah, yeah. “What shall we try to do? Should we try to be some sort of pop band” because we knew [Felix Cavaliere] and he was doing really well and always there was the uptown music scene, and there wasn’t really any downtown Village scene except jazz. And a little bit of funk was starting to happen, this sort of grungy, race-rock was happening a little bit downtown. But the early bands . . . I remember Adrien and the Hatreds, a guy named [Adrien Bellory] . . . so I thought that was a great name for a band. I certainly had enough hatreds at that point. But there weren’t really any places to play. And the Fugs were around, and the Seventh Sons, Buzzy Linhart, and then there was us. And basically, no place to play. If you could represent yourself as a jazz band, then you could go to all the jazz clubs. But nobody wanted to hear about rock & roll, especially about weirdo rock & roll. If you were doing conventional stuff, you could play uptown. So there’s no . . .
L: Did you try [The Scene] with [Steve Paul]?
M: Oh we did play [The Scene]. But that was later on…
L: What was uptown, the Peppermint Lounge?
M: Yeah, those places. . . the kind of dance clubs and things. I’d never been to the Peppermint Lounge and I didn’t know anything about Joey Dee except that Eddie [Brigati] played in that band. And then later he hooked up with Felix. I didn’t know what the Rascals…from their inception they were intending to be a show band. They came from Southampton, the barge, wherever that was, Bridgehampton. So they were definitely that kind of slick outfit and, there was Dino Danelli, he was the drummer, he had all the moves, the flying sticks and all the stuff . . .
See, the beauty of Cale in the beginning was that he really didn’t know very much about rock. In fact, he knew next to nothing. So, if you turned him loose on an instrument, he wasn’t able to play any kind of cliched anything because he didn’t know any of the cliches. It was all original.
L: Did you guys hate it?
M: No, I didn’t hate it . . . I couldn’t do it! (laughs) So it just . . . I think Lou would say that we kind of looked ruefully at Felix and the Rascals. If you could do it, your life would be a whole lot simpler. There were things that we really wanted to do instead. We didn’t want to be a cover band, and if you’re going to do your own material, then why are you putting constraints on yourself? So we thought that pretty much anything that we could work into shape was worth performing. Not all of it was going to please everybody but also, it didn’t have to. And who cares? It all pleased us in some way or fashion. And so that’s how we started. Just kind of. . . .
L: Did you start hanging out with Lou and John after that subway ride?
M: Oh yeah. After that, we made a demo tape which Cale took to England with him and showed around and that may or may not appear on the upcoming boxed set that Polygram’s going to do.
L: Have you heard it?
M: I haven’t heard it in however many years it’s been since we made it. But Cale has an edited down copy that he took, and I heard many, many generations removed from that. It’s not terrible.
L: What songs were there?
M: “Heroin”, “Venus in Furs”. But what Polygram has is the unedited master, if you want to call it that, the wool-in-sack master of this thing, because we did a lot of takes of these songs, false starts, false middles, false ends, and so it’s a pretty amusing and interesting thing to hear us wrestling with this material and the tape recorder. It was done in the early summer of ’65. And then we took the best of this tape, edited it down into, “OK, what’s the best version of this, what’s the best version of that.” What Polygram’s got is the original, take after take. So, that would interest me to hear.
L: Was Lou writing songs in Syracuse? I mean, when did you hear “Heroin”?
M: “Heroin”? Hot off the presses in early ’65. That stuff was all pretty fresh and new when it was going on the tape. And, the way Lou presented it, we completely worked it into the strange thing it is now.
L: Well how was it in the beginning?
M: Well it was. . . .
L: More conventional?
M: Well, yeah. I mean, it didn’t have that arrangement, like the viola or anything. And so it really came off . . . if you just heard Lou doing “Heroin”, except for the shock of the subject matter and the very matter-of-fact, clinical detail of shooting-up and all, you might say this was kind of a protest song. You know, it might fit in . . . all you hear is a minstrel and his acoustic guitar who’s just complaining about everything in general and that heroin is a desirable alternative to current life conditions.
We didn’t want to be a cover band, and if you’re going to do your own material, then why are you putting constraints on yourself? So we thought that pretty much anything that we could work into shape was worth performing. Not all of it was going to please everybody but also, it didn’t have to. And who cares? It all pleased us in some way or fashion. And so that’s how we started.
L: Did you like his lyrics when you first heard them?
M: Oh yeah. I read his prose and some of his poetry before that. And I knew when I first met him in Syracuse that he already had a rock & roll record and he wrote the songs. Y’now, that single of his, “So Blue” by the Shades of the Jades or whatever. I think the name of the band is The Shades. One day I saw it at the Hempstead Bus Terminal record store. But I didn’t have any money, I couldn’t buy it. I wish I had bought it.
L: Did you see these bands play?
M: No, I knew the people in them. Never . . . These performances were few and far between due to the reasons mentioned. He wasn’t going to play what they wanted to hear. So, he’d always come up with a new name. “L.A. and the El Dorados” was one of them. “Passion and the Prophets,” that was one, “Moses and his Brothers” . . . that was this guy Moses Williams, a black guy, and his brothers, they were all in the band too. None of it helped.
L: Did any of his poems become songs later in the Velvets?
M: Yeah. I think that some of the stuff was conceived as poetry. Lou could clear that up. But he wasn’t digging around for old undergraduate poems that he could use. I know he was going around reading his songs as poetry. Some of the lyrics are very nice and work somewhat better than others.
L: So, you were impressed with the stuff that you read published in the . . .
M: And heard, too. I always liked Lou’s guitar playing enormously too. We have the same musical tastes, or the same roots, doo-wop, blues, funk, black music, and I keep reading in print where every band, every ’60s band, plays the obligatory homage to black music. I wasn’t aware of that. Maybe that was something the English bands had to do. But I always thought that this was our music. It wasn’t pretending, it’s what I liked. You know, it caused problems. And like I said, if maybe I’d liked mainstream stuff, then maybe I could have been a mainstream type of musician. But I didn’t. I liked the really raw blues. And it annoyed me in the ’60s when John Lee Hooker stopped playing it and was playing on gut strings, You know, folksingers were making all the money, so he says “okay, I’m a folk singer.” Oh, that was terrible. Folk music caused me more grief than commercial rejection. That was an attack on rock & roll. You weren’t supposed to . . . if you were a college student you weren’t supposed to like what we liked, let alone play it. You were supposed to be a folk person dealing with the serious issues of the day, such as the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the WPA, the IWW . . . but to me that was all anthropology and a waste of time. I don’t know any folk songs. Can’t do any. I can’t play “If I Had a Hammer.” I’ve never tried but I assume I can’t. Dreadful, dreadful song. The only version of it I ever liked was at the Riviera at Sheridan Square. Well, the old Riviera had a Scopetone down in the basement.
L: What’s a Scopetone?
M: It was like today’s videos. This was in the early ’60s. And you paid a lot more than you did for a jukebox, but on-camera video. The song played and you had a screen and you watched this filmed version of the song. The trouble was none of them were made in English. So there was a version of “If I Had a Hammer” sung by these two little French girls on a cold day so you could see their breath . . . even that effect had already been exploited by 1963. That was my favorite version of that. My least favorite, well, I would say, I’d like to say Trini Lopez but I won’t. At least he played electric guitar, remember Trini Lopez Live at TJ’s? That was a big seller.
L: So did things progress pretty quickly once you and Cale and Lou started hanging out?
M: Yeah, I would say so.
Folk music caused me more grief than commercial rejection. That was an attack on rock & roll.
L: How long was it from that subway ride to Cafe Bizarre?
M: About eight months, ten months. I think that we probably met in February, remember we played the summer/song in New Jersey in November.
We fooled around all summer, all spring, then did that tape in the summer. By the summer, we really wanted to do something and so at the end of the summer we had these photos taken by Donald Greenhouse, Lou’s next door neighbor in Freeport, the one you see where we’re standing in the doorway, and up on the roof, the first pictures of the band. And we thought we needed to have pictures and so Donald took the pictures, luckily for us he was a great photographer in addition to being Lou’s next door neighbor so, so that was good. And we still see Donald, he’s down in Manhattan, a good guy. Something’s happened to his contact sheet of all that stuff. I don’t know what he’s missing, exactly, he’s missing the doorway picture, which I keep promising to give him my copy which is like the only extant one, a nice matted one, I have two. The other one Gerard Malanga has, even though it’s my picture. But, yes, I would say things went fast and, if we hadn’t met Andy towards Christmas time in ’65, we pretty much decided that maybe we should try our luck in England because our little demo tape had aroused some interest and Cale thought it would be a good idea and he’s from there. He said, “Yeah, I suppose we could do that,” no pressing commitments otherwise, we couldn’t make any less money because we were making zero so that was pretty much what I believe we would have done. And then Andy said, “Well, I have this idea . . . I’m going to have films and dances . . . you can be the band if you want.” I said, “Well alright. Can we play all the stuff we want?” And he said, “Oh yeah, sure. Of course, that’s what I want you to do.” So that was a good thing for us. Andy in 1965 and 1966 wasn’t the idol of everybody that he later became. He was generally considered to be a charlatan and, naturally, anybody associated with him were the same. So he was the phony artist and we were the phony band, drug addicts and homosexuals. There was very little in the way of negatives that wasn’t said about us, yknow, we were the lowest of the low. And we said, “Well, okay, but we’re well-educated, we eat with the right fork at the dinner table”.
L: Do you remember him coming down to Cafe Bizarre the first time?
M: Yeah. I remember it well. And actually I didn’t make any effort to impress him. What did I care? Except that it meant maybe somebody from the art crowd was sort of interested in the songs, enough to come down here and hear them but it wasn’t like a visit from some big producer. It was just, well, here’s an artist in the audience about whom I knew little except in terms of notoriety. And my taste in art at the time wasn’t pop art, it was probably Flemish or, I don’t know.. Impressionism.
L: Were you surprised–
M: No, Pre-Raphaelites, I think I was keen on the Pre-Raphaelites about then, which maybe is a precursor to pop, where things look like they’re supposed to look like, in a sort of improved way. But then, as I got to know Andy, I came to admire his nerve, he did what he wanted and let criticism fall where it may and he was real successful as a commercial artist. Then he decided to go into fine art, so-called, and I guess at the behest of Leo Castelli, who said, “Why don’t you paint some paintings, I’ll put them in my gallery.” So he did and that’s when he was attacked for being a horrible artist and then, just about the time when his art was gaining acceptance, he went into film and here came all the negative criticism all over again. So that was one thing we got from him was just the reassurance that it was okay to do what you felt like at any given moment. Useful advice. And also, don’t feel sorry for yourself, just work harder. We didn’t necessarily take that to heart, we were always pretty lazy, but yeah, that is what he would say, “If you want to succeed, you can’t really control the outside forces, you just have to work harder and you can’t wait for the some big break.” God, yknow, weird things happen, as many negative things as good, in our case weird things certainly happened to us, like the Eric Emerson lawsuit and …just crazy things. But, some good things happened too. We were able to get the albums made and released which to me was always an end in itself. I didn’t care if the Banana [The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967] sold even one single copy as long as I had a boxful that I got from the record company and which eventually I gave away. So then I didn’t have any Bananas but that was an end in itself. I mean that’s what, I could never have anticipated a year before even, that we would have a release on a major label, we’d be out there, and it would be these songs. Ha ha, so that was pretty remarkable and I was always happy. I was happy with White Light, White Heat except what happened when we were mixing it down to vinyl…
M: Well, you really couldn’t do it. The tracks are too hot and it overwhelmed the recording stuff and now in the boxed set version of White Light, White Heat is un-EQed, they just open it up and just let it go. So, this will sound, for the first time, more like what we wanted, what I wanted was the sound I heard in the studio being played back, separate tracks through separate speakers, that’s what I wanted to hear. And I was always dismayed, since we put so many minutes of music on each side then you go back and compare the length of time on the Banana album and White Light, White Heat, the total is, 18, 19, 20 minutes on a side, as compared to like, 16, or 15 or something, on regular albums. So they had to put the tracks close together, jam it in there and that means that the amplitude has to go down. So one of the loudest albums ever recorded, once it got onto vinyl, turned out to be one of the quietest, coming out of your speakers. You put it on with a stack of albums, like The Beatles playing 2 minute and 20 second hits, that thing came blasting out of there, then all of a sudden here comes White Light, White Heat which is way down, just to get it on there, but we didn’t have the heart to leave things out.
And then Andy said, “Well, I have this idea . . . I’m going to have films and dances . . . you can be the band if you want.” I said, “Well alright. Can we play all the stuff we want?” And he said, “Oh yeah, sure. Of course, that’s what I want you to do.” So that was a good thing for us.
L – Were you surprised that Andy wanted to work with you?
M: Errr, well…
L: Suspicious? Given that he was notorious, infamous?
M: Well, slightly. We just didn’t know how we were gonna be used, or what we had to do and yknow just play was what he wanted us to do. And so that’s what we did.
L: Once you understood that…
M: Yeah, plus we hung out with that whole crowd for a bit, and liked them.
L: What did you like about them?
M: Well, there’s a lot going on, a lot of parties, a lot of very witty people, and very creative ones. And the people he attracted were really interesting to be around, so we had the greatest fun, ha I’m sure Maureen has said that in the past and you just could not have more fun than we had in the Factory days, I mean it was a blast.
L: Because everyone was so smart?
M: Yeah, smart and creative and just way out there. Ondine and Billy [Name], yknow, the real cornerstones of the Factory socially are a riot and always were and Ed Hood and all these infamous names…just there was never a dull moment, to use that cliche and what might pass for a dull moment. Stephen Shore has that book of his Factory photos that is coming out, the, what was the thing he did with Lynn Tillman? [The Velvet Years, Andy Warhol’s Factory, 1965–1967] One of the things you notice when you look through all these Factory photos is there’s a lot of repose and tranquility in the pictures, you have people sitting round, yknow, thinking reflectively, opera was most often played, Billy’s a big opera freak and he controlled the record player, opera and pop. But you didn’t have to frantically try to make something happen, you could just go there and sit on the couch and daydream and somebody exciting would find you, the phone would ring and you’d be off on some great adventure. But there was a real tranquility about Factory life and also real frenzy, but mostly Andy would get there in the morning and do his painting all day and then at night go out and we would show up about the time to go out, late afternoon, we’d be awake, he went home earlier than we did and he had to…he was a working artist. That’s why he called it the Factory, that’s where he made his pictures and so he worked at it, day in and day out and we didn’t, we’d play when we felt like, if we didn’t feel like it we didn’t, but we did a lot back at our apartment on Grand Street and then later on 10th Street, the various places we lived.
L: Did you live with Lou and John?
M: Yeah, we were all down there, which made it real easy to get a practice up, just have to see everybody on their feet.
L: How was it living with them?
M: Oh it was fun, oh yeah, as I said you couldn’t beat it for convenience. Later, John and I had a place on 10th Street and Lou was right across First Avenue so we were across the street apart and that worked fine and then we were down on 3rd Street, that was all of us after we started making some money in the band, in fact, that’s probably what happens to everybody once you start having money, then you start getting your own place and start doing your own thing and all the rest of it. But once you got cash, then everybody ran out and started getting nice apartment, which were scattered around, according to their vision. Lou was on the Upper East Side at one time, and I never left the Village, to my credit. I used to boast that I never got north of 23rd Street unless I was going out to the Island and had to go up to the train station or on those dark days when I decided to visit MGM and find out why something wasn’t happening, or what not. But yeah I was completely contained. My northern frontier was Max’s, 18th Street and, well, the Chelsea Hotel. I certainly didn’t go north of 34th Street. Lou got an apartment on 33rd and 7th, actually a loft.
L: Wasn’t the Factory on 47th?
M: Yeah well, except for that, but I was referring to after that, after we were not hanging out at the Factory, then the new Factory was down on Union Square, so yeah the Factory was on 47th, not easy to get to by subway, you had to walk if you come from the West Village. We were in the Lower East Side then.
L: How much a part does Edie [Sedgwick] play in Factory life?
M: Well people took a lot of speed, when we first showed up we were downer, pill people, and mostly I just liked to drink beer and…
L: What kind of downers?
M: Thorazine and all the barbiturates, yeah Seconals, But Thorazine was a big favorite.
L: Where would you buy Thorazine?
M: You could get em from doctors; somebody had a prescription and give you some and yeah you could get scripts.
L: Was it good quality?
M: Yeah, it was pharmaceutical. Drugstore stuff.
L: What kind of high was it?
L: I’ve never taken Thorazine.
M: Oh, I think they use it for dangerous psychotics, yeah, definitely subdues you.
L: What kind of high?
M: Well, kind of a catatonic-like state, ha, ha, ha!
L: Drink it, or pills?
M: Pills. And wash it down with alcohol and see if you’re alive the next morning. I was thin and had a high metabolism so I always woke up the next day. But in my early days in the Factory, I was still enrolled in City College so I had to at least be on top of it enough to show up there once in a while and I left my last day, I should’ve graduated in ‘66 but I was eight credits shy. I didn’t wanna get a low grade so I just withdrew. Because we were out on the West Coast and in fact I made three roundtrips by plane to take finals in the space of a week or ten days or so which kinda wore me out but mentally I was far removed from college life. I remember I was taking a criticism course, history of criticism and I read Aristotle’s Poetics on one of my plane rides while eating one of their plastic sandwiches and trying not to look at Trouble With Angels, the Hayley Mills thing. They showed the same movie see if you fly the same carrier in a short period of time, that was maddening.
L: So Trouble With Angels six times?
M: Well, three roundtrips, I mean it was Trouble With Angels four times, and Bullet, Steve McQueen movie, I think that was the other, the other two times. Aristotle is better than either of those but yeah…I wanted to hang on and graduate and almost did and then the summer of ‘70 when I found out we were gonna be in Manhattan playing Max’s, and recording Loaded, I said well hell I think I can then go back and pick up my missing credits, so I did. And became officially graduated 1970, a ten-year siege of undergraduate institutions. I always like that line in Animal House, hate to see six years go to waste, six years was nothing. Ha ha, we’re talking ten.
L: Can we go back and talk about Maureen [Tucker], when she shows up for the audition, did you know Maureen from her brother?
M: Yeah. I met her brother when I was in eighth grade so Maureen at that time was in about sixth or fourth, yeah, I’ve known Maureen forever.
L: So when she showed up for the audition, it was like “oh, hi Maureen”.
M: Oh yeah. The problem was, did we wanna have a girl drummer?. She’d already been drumming with a girl’s band on Long Island that broke up and we wanted a different drummer, literally, Angus MacLise was certainly different, playing dumb-box and all the rest of it. And Maureen was saying well, she didn’t really know too much technically about drumming and we’d say, “Well, you really don’t need to, these songs are kinda weird”. And one thing that makes all bands sound the same, or so I thought at the time, was that all the drummers play the same. And so the most distinctive thing about the Who at the time, no matter how they try to do “The Kids Are Alright”, that kinda harmony and everything else, there’s always that drumming. Keith Moon, really, was something different, maybe out of control or whatever you might want to say about him but that was something distinctive about them. And at the same time when I heard them, I liked the early Who, I said, “Oh yeah, that’s what you should be trying to do”. And [Peter] Townshend didn’t care what kinda noises he used. You know “Anyway, Anyhow,” that song, what is it [“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”]… I liked the Who and they sort of seemed to me they wanted one hand to be mainstream pop and then in a certain sense they didn’t, and there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t fit in…The Who always had an experimental side but that I liked.
L: What clinched it that Maureen would be the drummer?
M: Her willingness to do what was necessary and not more than that, plus she was great to be around. And it took a lot more courage for her to be the drummer than it did for us to say, “OK, be the drummer,” because then she inherited all the things that I’ve said about us…
L: What was being said about her?
M: Yknow, she obviously had to be gay because everybody else was and why do they have a girl drummer? And just that kinda thing which was an irritant but her drumming fit in really well, which we could perceive, and she had great energy and determination and a good attitude, Moe likes to have fun. So yeah the issue finally wasn’t her drumming, it was just did we wanna have a girl drummer? We said, “Well, why wouldn’t we?”
L: So it wasn’t a big deal.
M: No, we had to have a drummer. If it’s not gonna be Maureen, who is it gonna be? What shall we do, hold an audition? And we never held auditions.
L: Anyone particularly against having a girl for the band?
M: Well John didn’t think it was such a good idea, but he wasn’t all worked up about it. And Moe was never sure in the beginning if she was temporary or full time and after she was there for a while she just concluded that she was full time, and was. So yeah, her minimalist stuff fits in real well and she could wop ‘em hard which, that helps, that’s what I don’t like about jazz drumming, all this tipperty tapperty little hits on triangles and cymbals and thing. Mostly she’d be just be whacking away. Did you read that book about “Louie, Louie”? Have you seen it? [Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock ‘n’ Roll Song by Dave Marsh].
M: It’s a book about “Louie Louie,” and he was talking about how the drumming on “Louie, Louie” influenced Keith Moon, the drumming’s just sort of in its own zone on that song, yknow the whole thing is as weird as can be. An interesting book.
L: Great idea for a book.
M: He thought so, apparently, until he started to get bogged down in the details of doing it because it’s a Byzantine tale, but I learned a lot.
L: Did you like John when you met him?
L: How did he and Lou interact? Were they friends?
M: Oh yeah, friends, we were mates, yeah. We all got along real well and given that there were sort of abrasive personalities and forceful ones, there’d be conflicts but not any major thing.
L: Looks like a good fight too, good combat.
M: Yeah, oh yeah, as witnessed recently. The insults are very articulate and scathing but. ..
L: Seemed like everybody could hold their own.
M: Yeah. I just think it’s unfortunate that we can’t get along well enough or was about to say that Lou and John feel that they can’t do something worthwhile. And by worthwhile, I mean try to make a lot of money…
L: Was that animosity there from the very beginning, or did that gel?
M: No, I’m sort of mystified by what the basis for disagreement is but I was safely in Texas during the Seventies so maybe Lou and John had some fallings out in the Seventies and Eighties or something but I just …
L: So back then they got along pretty well?
M: Yeah and even if we didn’t get along I thought that disagreement sort of stirred the mix, because with disagreement you have to think and actually defend what it is you wanna do or why it is you think a song should be a certain way, and it helps. But we never sat down and said “OK, this is what this song needs, and therefore you play blah blah..” If they didn’t like it, they’d tell you ‘that’s not good’ or ‘it sounds like somebody we don’t like’, that’s how you sound, ‘we don’t like you’, ha ha ha.
L: Could it be pretty vicious?
S: No, it was sincere so therefore it had a certain weight to it. Oh yeah, there were times I was in a frenzy, often during White Light White Heat I thought things were more distorted than they had to be, not that I wanted to clean us up but I wanted to clean us up a little. One instance being “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, where Lou’s amp had about two blown speaker and they’re saying don’t use it, and he did anyway cause that riff is needlessly distorted, two speakers out of four functioning and Lou later said, “You were right, I shoulda used that old Ampeg we had or anything.”
L: How was Nico presented to you?
S: As somebody who had made a record or two and who could sing and now do we think that she could sing some songs with us and we said, “Well, yeah, we think so.” But we never really knew how to have her in the band.
L: Did you want her in the band?
S: Well yeah, we wanted her in the band to the extent that she was in it, to do the songs that she did, naturally, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Femme Fatale,” that sort of thing. But the issue always was “What should she do when she’s not singing?” She wasn’t gonna front the band, certainly, and so we never really could mesh her in or integrate her or whatever word you wanna use. That’s why it’s the Velvet Underground and Nico. So, while she was kind of an addendum or addenda, I’ll say it was a problem, with various suggestions offered, like “we’ll have Nico sing everything” but that wasn’t ever gonna work and “try to write more material for her” but that didn’t seem to work because White Light White Heat-style material was better suited to Lou or John, and so that was all. There was never any official falling out and she treated the band very casually, too. If she had a modelling assignment, then she would go do it and we’d just be the Velvet Underground and no Nico and we did that enough times where we always were ourselves and if we had Nico we had her and if we didn’t we didn’t. When it came out that we didn’t, we felt “OK, we don’t. We’re just back to the Velvet Underground.” But we always stayed friends.
L: Do you remember meeting her for the first time?
S: Vaguely. I guess it was at the Factory. I thought what anybody else thought on looking at her, yknow she’s very beautiful and we heard the single she did with Andrew Oldham and so I said “Yeah, she can sing well enough” and the songs that we had her do, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and all, she did really well.
L: Were Lou and John excited about her being there?
S: No, I think that we all just approached it as well, let’s see what happens. We were willing enough to try something out.
L: Was it casual in the beginning or did you sit down and have a band meeting?
S: We talked it over and nobody could see any real reason not to do it because a number of people in the band seemed irrelevant anyway, you on stage with so many other people dancers, and so it really, it didn’t seem to make that much difference.
L: So, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable…
S: Exploding…EPI yeah and that’s where she came in when we were playing at clubs, well she would just kinda, like in the movies, she’d be onstage for her numbers and then disappear when it wasn’t her number.
L: Did you like the whip dance?
S: Oh yeah I thought that was a riot, yeah, yeah, Gerard [Malanga] is one of my favorites. Yeah, to be out with that entourage was something else. Gerard was a parody of depravity, really comical, and after “Heroin,” he found some kind of gigantic plastic syringe, this thing must have been about two feet long so he would be miming away with that thing, pretty fantastic. As I said, nobody was telling us what to do and we weren’t really exercising any control over anybody else and our attitude was we felt injured and abused by the pop music world even if we knew we didn’t deserve any better because we didn’t make any overtures. Still, we thought that you ought to be able to do what you wanted and people still recognize it as a serious endeavor rather than just try to copy everybody else.
L: So the criticism hurt you?
S: Yeah, they bothered me and people contending that we couldn’t play a note and so even if they thought that of me or Lou, John is certifiably a musician, and Maureen they could put down. But we didn’t spend a whole lot of time polishing up the early stuff especially, multiple tapes and overdubs we just did it, like that. That pretty well captures the essence of it, onward, the next song, because we didn’t have big budgets.
L: Would you have liked to spend more time?
S: Some things I would have maybe but there’s a nice feel certainly about playing things studio live which we always liked we just, everybody play at once and vocal too that was great and I still like to do things that way rather than just overdub to the drum and bass or whatever. I just get a cleaner result but it’s also very clinical. Loaded we used some studio techniques and we were able to… bunch of out-takes on Loaded on the box set that I keep alluding too, if it appears there’s things in there I wanna do so I wish to hell it would come out.
S: I don’t know, October, November, something like that. Now White Light White Heat it sounds as close as you can get to what it sounded like in the studio. That, to me, is exciting. Now, by objective criteria it may sound worse than any other version and I say “well, fine, maybe it’s worse but that’s how I wanted it to sound, that’s what I wanna listen to” and so that’d be nice. And then all these other weirdo outtakes and all recently discovered…there’s one song I’ve been denying for years and years even existed, well that’s recorded in a fairly finished version also, about the “Countess of Hong Kong”.
L: Why deny…?
S: Because people would ask, copyright purposes, and the name would come up and I’d say there is no “Countess Of Hong Kong”, no such song and well there is. I don’t know why I blocked it out. Yeah, there are a few things floating around.
So that was one thing we got from him [Andy Warhol] was just the reassurance that it was okay to do what you felt like at any given moment. Useful advice. And also, don’t feel sorry for yourself, just work harder.
L: Whose idea was it to play the Psychiatrist Convention?
S: That was something that all came about through Andy but I think Barbara Rubin might’ve had a hand in that somehow. Somebody knew somebody on the entertainment committee.
L: Did that appeal to your perverse nature?
S: Yeah, we thought that would be amusing to do that so we just went in and just played, sort of baffled them, and Barbara was shooting a movie of their baffled reactions and, yeah, I would say that Barbara Rubin somehow got that rolling.
L: Were they booing?
S: No, they were too polite to boo. They would just sort of fidget.
L: Ever seen a copy of the tape?
S: Afterwards I did. I saw some if you could say any of Barbara’s films are finished and it’s a handheld and very, very underground film-looking thing.
L: Does it have a soundtrack?
S: No, I think it’s just this video, I don’t think she recorded it all. I would ask Jonas Mekas, I don’t know what happened to Barbara’s stuff. Jonas would know as much as anybody, I would think.
L: Did the psychiatrists come up and try to talk to you guys?
S: Yeah, they talked to us afterwards, some of them liked it, they’re the ones who came up and talked to us.
L: Were any of them outraged?
S: No, if you ever saw the reviews of that, yeah, why are they exposing us to these nuts? I’ve no explanation, I don’t know, somebody said we’re gonna play a psychiatrist convention. I said, “Is that the best we can do?” Now I’m willing to try it but no predictions.
L: Did Lou and John think it was funny?
S: Yeah, we thought it was funny once we were there. Next question.
L: Did Lou talk to you about his background, that he was…troubled kinda ..
S: Yeah, I knew from the beginning, but you can see his parents’ point of view. They would like a nice Jewish boy. Instead, they have this R & B freak and doo wop devotee. To really be into rock & roll was a radical statement in the Fifties, yknow not just do lip service, but to actually to really listen to the stuff obsessively and then try to play it and wanna be in bands and all that, that’s a big leap and..
L: Really it was that ..
S: Yeah, it was associated with all the disagreeable things, like sin and drinking and just a weird lifestyle. There’s something sort of vaguely sordid about being even a respectable musician and well they’re sort of rootless and they travel around a lot, they kind of maybe liked you learning the latest dance to be like everybody else, but they didn’t like you holed up in bedrooms, listening to black stations and making weird guitar noises when your homework was not done…
L: Because there were black people involved?
S: Yeah, I’m sure there’s a racial element in there too. You know, you’re not listening to Pat Boone, you’re listening to something worse, ha, ha, ha! Radio was exciting in the old days but when you go cranking around the dial, AM travels a long, long way and yeah so late at night especially you could drag in these stations from long, long ways off, and all these weird gospel shows, you didn’t even know where they were coming from and so that was great, I mean you can’t do that in FM, right now you’re just stuck with whatever, some computer preprograms and they play, except for a few stations, DST I listen to and, yeah the Woodstock station and they seemed to play pretty much what they want, college stations used to..
L: No, I mean the signal.
S: Yeah. You can’t do anything listening to FM like you used to be able to on AM. Now you go halfway across the country with ease, these things that come in great, then they’d fade out and usually in the best part of some great song but you were definitely making a serious statement if you wanted to be a rock person. To be a folk singer, that was OK, at least that was, that had a sort of a collegiate feel to it but not some greaser, no account.
L: Was Lou bitter about the shock treatment?
S: I don’t know. You should ask Lou. I think it’s not something anybody would want to experience.
L: Did he not want to talk about it?
S: Well, he just said that it’d happened, and it gave him a sort of weird relationship to electricity in general but yeah, he didn’t like it.
L: Was he afraid of electricity?
S: No, he was not afraid of it but he has been wary of it, no, he certainly didn’t like it, but it gave him a Holden Caulfield connection, sort of. I guess Holden didn’t actually get shocked, at least he was inside resting up. Have you talked to Lou?
S: Do you plan to?
L: Yes. Everyone.
S: Have you set it up?
L: Not yet because we’ve been working backwards and the other chapters…
S: Yeah, Billy said that.
L: I talked to Sylvia [Reed], but she comes in later…
S: Yeah, Sylvia doesn’t know anything about the old band stuff.
L: No, but she was there with Anya [Phillips], she comes from Taiwan with Anya and Anya dressed all these …I don’t know if you remember Anya.
S: I know she knows CBGB stuff. Sonny and his old band Testers, they, they played CBGBs…
L: Well, I knew she was, because he called me from Holland and I said get over here.
S: He’s down at Moe’s place now. You should call down there. You have to move fast because they’re taking off on Thursday. Well, you can call Mo tonight and find out when they’re going back to the motel after they’re done practicing because Sonny stays up late and maybe you could do a phoner down there to the because Sonny likes to talk and he’s very articulate and he remembers it all and that was one thing I liked about the Print Helen book was that it praised the punk scene was going in New York before it was going in England. I did a thing years ago in Austin, an interview, I swore I never was gonna do any interviews after I went to graduate school but [journalist] Joe Nick [Patoski] got me in for free to a concert and they said the price was that I had to be interviewed. So I did and it was right at the start of the punk thing, it was right in the mid-Seventies, I can’t remember precisely which year I did it, but I was prattling about one thing or another and talking about “Louie Louie,” and I said that, to me, was the last pure unsullied example of American rock & roll before the British Invasion and I talk about the hot Fender lead and the unintelligible lyrics reputedly obscene and so on and so on and I’ve been so happy that I said it in print first. Then I did a radio show, about three hours of punk music and what I contended at the beginning, was “Well, to me what’s happening, what punk rock is is something that was always there, that the real cutting edge don’t give a shit attitude is really bedrock rock & roll attitude, I’m doing it and you don’t like it, well, go scratch.” And so I played at the beginning my first little set of records, the first thing I played was “Surfin Bird” by the Trashmen and I played “Louie Louie,” not the original, what year did Metallic KO come out?
L: It came out later. What year was it recorded, or what year did it come out?
S: What year did it finally appear?
L: I think 1977.
S: OK, because I had Metallic KO freshly released so I used that version of “Louie Louie,” and what else, I had “96 Tears” and I played Roky Erikson, “Three Headed Dog” and all within one year all of those songs had been covered by punk bands. I said, “Well, I guess I couldn’t have been too far off base.”. They didn’t cover em because they heard me say that. They ought to but, to me, punk was the first interesting thing to come along in all of the Seventies because most of the decade all the schlocky, overproduced, A & R-driven music and all of a sudden you hear people saying, “Look, we don’t give a shit about any of that stuff, we can’t play, we don’t want to. I knew a guy in a band in Austin who wouldn’t play minor chords, said he thought they were wimpy ha, ha, ha! And I said that is a radical stance, but I admired it. And they said, “This is what we’re able to do, and this is what we are gonna do and if you don’t like it, leave or don’t listen to it” and that was all very healthy and then, of course, they got bogged down with image and all the rest of it, a certain amount of image I guess is useful but…
L: Well, we all took it from you. I mean, that look was very much the Velvets…
S: Yeah, but the thing is that’s what we looked like, and I didn’t wear black because I thought it’d be neat. The thing was that it didn’t show dirt, or not as much, and that’s still my favorite. I finally went back onstage, but it’s only now that, I just wear black Lees and a black T-shirt.
L: After the band broke up and John started producing, were you still friendly?
L: When the Stooges came to town, did you go into the studio?
S: No, I didn’t but I knew John was doing that.
L: Are you a fan of the Stooges?
S: Yeah, I liked the idea of the Stooges sometimes more than I liked what was actually happening…
S: I did like the Stooges and I thought John did a good job on that first album and the there was some criticism at the time, I can’t remember if this was spoken or written that John was trying to turn the Stooges into the Velvet Underground. And I said, “No, I thought that was unfair.” Any Velvet Underground influence musically was provided by the Stooges. John wasn’t playing on the tracks and what he generally tried to do is make everybody play together if you can. You know, sort of tighten it up, which is what he did with Patti Smith too.
L: Did you go into the studio?
S: No, I talked to Patti afterwards and she was complaining that John was heavy-handed in the studio. And I said, “Well, I know he’s just trying to get you to play better, a little better anyway, or to realize more directly what you’re trying to do,” and after that I said, “Now John, are you bullying people in the studio?” He said, “No, no. Just have to get everybody moving in the same direction, a little bit anyway.” So John probably is heavy handed in the studio, I don’t know, but I never saw the Stooges as a Velvet Underground clone, there was muttering at the time that John was trying to lead them that way, and I said, “What way would that be?” “Oh the material’s so disparate that er..” I don’t know what they were talking about exactly. But yeah, Iggy had the nerve to do whatever he felt like and I love Metallic KO, it’s just wonderful. When I heard that for the first time, I said, “Oh yeah, that would have been a show to see.” Also, I played it [on the radio show] because he sang the obscene lyrics intelligibly or at least a version of the obscene lyrics and I thought that’d be nice to have on, on the college station, this undisguised filth ha, ha, ha, which I admired. I thought that punk bands choosing naughty names, I thought that was kinda infantile a little bit.
L: Although the Velvet Underground comes with the naughty book.
S: Yeah, that’s naughty but at least it’s something that you can say over the radio. The doom of the Buzzcocks was their name and they played great, a truly good band whose name was unmentionable and therefore don’t bother to play them and we now have the BH Surfers, to use the abbreviation I guess sort of makes it a little more palatable.
L: Do you remember Patti Smith from Max’s?
S: No, see when I was out in Texas I stayed there.
L: What year did you move to Texas?
S: I started graduate school in the fall of 1971 and I came back to New York during the summers through 1974.
L: But Patti was hanging out then.
S: Yeah, she was but I didn’t know her from then or Deborah Harry either, who also was around.
L: Did you realize that you were gonna influence like a whole generation of alienated rock & rollers?
L: Or did you care?
S: No, I didn’t know or I don’t think at the time. Like I said, I was going back to graduate school, I was pretty low morale-wise and my conclusion at that time was, I said, “Well I tried and failed, so to hell with it.” But I succeeded insofar as I got the stuff recorded that I wanted to, and I just wished that we’d gotten more airplay and a few things worked out differently. So the bottom line, so to speak, was that I was in the exact same position as when I started, financially and everything else. And if anybody asked me at the time, “Would you say that the experience was a good thing or a bad thing?” I might’ve been inclined to say bad, say well, “Am I happier at this moment from having done all this, or unhappier?” and it might have been the latter. But it seemed to me I was a lot more carefree and looser before any of this happened. Now, I’m sort of wary and reclusive, so is it a good thing or a bad thing. I would not have been too quick to say it was a good thing, because I really did try and maybe we should’ve done more of what Andy said, you know, practicing harder and all that but it did occupy all my waking moments, scheming, fuming about record deals that didn’t happen and betrayal and all this sort of thing but… You just could not have more fun than we had in the Factory days, I mean it was a blast.
L: Who was the guy you dealt with at Verve?
S: Well, Tom Wilson was our producer and I don’t know who the president was at the time, we didn’t really deal that much with him. But the stuff got released. I mean that was a miracle in itself so that’s really what Tom Wilson offered us, he said, “Well look, you come on over to Verve, we’ll be able to get this stuff out which you’re not gonna be able to do here at Columbia.” And Atlantic and Elektra already said that they wouldn’t…
L: Why didn’t Elektra?
S: Jac Holzman said that we had to clean up the sound, he didn’t like the electric viola much, that was too raw and they were using Dolby upon Dolby. You listen to the Doors’ stuff, it’s all homogenized. Well, we said we didn’t like that. We wanted to get it on there as ragged as could be. And Ahmet [Ertegun] didn’t like the drug songs so they had to go and so we did wind up on Atlantic [Loaded was released on Cotillion, an Atlantic subsidiary], when we were still doing drug songs, they were just better concealed. “Sweet Jane” and that sort of thing. But yeah, that was his principal objection, you know, he liked the sound OK and, and so then Tom Wilson was on Columbia, and he said, “Well, we can probably get you signed but then you’re gonna have problems, but I’m gonna move over to Verve and why don’t you come too?” And so we did and we were able to release two albums the way we wanted them and that was a very good thing.
L: Did you also hate Frank Zappa?
S: I guess you could say I blame Zappa for his business acumen but they, he and Herb Cohen did pull some stunts, not very nice, and the “Banana” album was successfully delayed in release…it had to come out eight months later than it should have, due to some scheming which was probably the work of Herb Collins, really. Herb wanted to manage us, he asked us and I think we refused him so arrogantly that…
L: What did you say?
S: We said no and contemptuously so. We never really had management until Steve Sesnick. We never had an agent, never in the whole history of the band because we didn’t want our name included in some package like the college package thing, you know, “If you’ll take the Loving Spoonful, we’ll throw in the Velvet Underground” or something like that. So you call us up and ask us to play we decide if we wanted to and then we did…
L: Sounds like a nice way to be.
S: Yeah, we played some colleges, the ones that asked us and I always liked that and felt at home.
L: How much could you get for a set?
S : Well thousands and ..
L: Like a grand apiece?
S: Oh yeah. We could make enough to keep going but not megabucks. But we never really wanted to, we just thought if it was gonna happen, it would happen, not based on any scheming on our part. But you know, there are things that, with a little more promotion, maybe something could’ve happened. But it’s nice not to have any regrets beyond that than well maybe you could have made more money, if I had I would have spent it anyway and the fact that stuff sells now, is an unanticipated boon yknow, it’s all out there and people do buy it. So making money now is like deferred money from back then. But a lot of other people were in bands who did sell out and I’m proud of the stuff we did. I’m proud of some of the enemies we made. I’m proud of the fact that we were banned from the radio, even in New York and our response to that was not to play New York for three years. At the height of our notoriety, we didn’t play in New York, we refused to. We played at Lincoln Center once, which probably wasn’t invited and that was a Channel 13 benefit and we played a wedding, Stavos Niacos and Charlotte Ford and that was it.
L: What year did you stop playing New York?
S: Like pretty much early on, we stopped playing New York in 1967 and didn’t play again until Max’s in 1970. At the end of 1967, we played Steve Paul’s Scene and that was about it. Yeah, we were banned, same thing happened to Patti Smith and she organized demonstrations outside the radio stations but we didn’t do that, we just sulked and said, “OK, fine, you don’t want us to play us in our hometown, we’re not gonna play here either.” That’s why we played Boston and Philadelphia all the time. I’m glad we did that, that was funny, because all the West Coast people were permanently based in New York, Mothers and the Doors. And because that was the big market, the Velvet Underground’s living there and refusing to play, ha. I’ll come out, I’ll hang out at the clubs, and all that but we’re not gonna play here now that’s an odd fact of our existence, so our home base really wasn’t.
L: Do you remember Danny Fields showing?
S: Oh sure, yeah, we’re still good friends with Danny. I liked Danny, he was working as a flare for Zany Promotions and he was working for Hit Parader or, no, it was a little girl teen magazine, and he had someone design a subway token and win some Velvet Underground albums or something, it was pretty funny.
L: Did it help?
S: No, I’m sure it didn’t but then Danny was working for Elektra, no if Danny had been working for a label we were on, I think some good might’ve come of it. And he certainly knows how to manage, too. Danny’s a shrewd guy and he helped the Ramones a lot, he knows what’s going on and he’s honest.
L: Why did the Velvets break up?
S: Well, I don’t know, just sort of disillusionment, I guess. I don’t know. Lou packed it in and out of general discouragement I guess and I was certainly, I was doing school work and graduating from City finally, 1970, so I wasn’t hanging out with them and I had no time for anything. And then so he left, and there’s one year lead time to get back in school, graduate school. I hadn’t really thought about it, and then I had to think about where I wanted to go and get my letters out and blah blah blah so that meant I had one year of doing nothing. And so I hung around with Doug [Yule] and Moe and we got [bassist] Walter Powers and played around and that was fun but it was, in fact, it was a lot of fun in the sense that it was pure self-indulgence. It wasn’t doing anything I really cared about anymore so I was free of that sort of withering commitment and doing something that really mattered to me. I always thought being a copy band was great fun and I never wanted to be a copy band of myself. That was the issue that came up for the 1993 tour in Europe. So we’re not gonna sit around and study the record, do we know the structure of the songs? Yes/No. Do we know the words? Yes/No and then from there we just played it. There was no attempt to do it exactly like it used to be done and we didn’t. There’s some question we didn’t know if we could do “All Tomorrow’s Parties” at all cause nobody could remember the modal tuning and Lou figured it out, to his great credit. The first thing he did at our first practice officially once we decided we were gonna do it was he dragged out a guitar and went WAA WAA WAA WANG, aha, there it is, so now we can do “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” I couldn’t imagine doing a tour without playing that, and we knew John could sing it so yeah that was bugging me, couldn’t remember the modal tuning.
L: Why did John leave? Were Lou and him fighting?
S: Yeah, general tensions
L: They have like one point that they couldn’t work together, or was it just personality?
S: Well, I don’t know, maybe it’s some question of personalities or it might be that Lou had more of a pop sensibility as compared to John’s. Avant Garde experimental is really what he likes and John always favored being experimental. I liked it sometimes but I liked playing straightforward things too.
L: So you think ultimately that John, that he didn’t come from rock & roll?
S: Yeah, uhhh, I don’t know. I thought that it shouldn’t have happened and I don’t think Lou should have left either, for that matter. I think they should have gutted it out a bit longer. There are a few things that we could’ve done but we coulda just taken some time off., you know, that might have been useful, that might have helped. You don’t have to quit the band yknow if you just wanna quit playing for a while and…I don’t know, Lou acted impulsively, which is fine.
L: Did he fire John?
S: Well, he just pretty much presented to us that the band was dissolved and if we wanted to stay with him, we could. He, in fact, wanted us to stay but he said the band was not going to include John. So I bitched and moaned about that for a good while and then eventually capitulated which I’ve said. In a manner it was selling John out but I just didn’t feel like not playing the stuff I really cared about and in 1968 at that time, I said, “Well there are things to be done. We could reach a wider audience for example and appeared to be so we should keep going.”
L: Was it hard to stay friends with John?
S: No. Because he knew I wasn’t part of some plot to get rid of him.
L: Was he hurt; do you think?
S: Oh yeah, yeah sure. And indignant. And it was causing some flap that I was hanging out with John, [band manager Steve] Sesnick was complaining to me that I was a frequent visitor to the Cale loft and I said, “Yes, practically every day” but I didn’t see whether he’s in the band or out, I couldn’t be friends with him.
L: Was Sesnick telling Lou that you were seeing John?
S: Well, it was generally known.
L: Because Lou didn’t care?
S: No I don’t think so. Anyway, can we wrap this up, do you think?
S: Do you have enough babble?
L: I’m sorry, I would have gone forever.
S: Yeah, alright.
©2022 By Legs McNeil
INTRODUCTION TO MY COURSE:
ZEN AND THE ART OF THE NARRATIVE ORAL HISTORY
©2021-2022 by Legs McNeil (Based on the techniques developed by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain)
Too long has the Oral History format been thought of as the bastard child of literature; assumed to be a “cut and paste” job for hack writers looking to make an easy buck. In other words, the bottom of the prose barrel. But when the art of the narrative oral history is mastered, it can transform the written spoken word by primary subjects—people who were in the room when the event occurred—into actually experiencing the event being described, with all the human emotion, even more so than the traditional omnipotent narrator.