Velvet Youth

Sterling Morrison on how the Velvet Underground found their name.
Doug Yule, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, and Lou Reed (l-r) in Cambridge, MA, 1969.Jeff Albertson Photograph Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Linger On: The Velvet Underground, a compendium of interviews and writings by Ignacio Julià, available in the Pioneer Works store. The book is published by Ecstatic Peace Library and features never-before-seen photographs by James Hamilton. Julià spoke to Sterling Morrison (August 29, 1942–August 30, 1995) in 1987.

Ignacio Julià

Apparently, Syracuse was a very conservative university attended by young boys from wealthy families, the kids that would ‘take over the business someday.’

Sterling Morrison

Syracuse is a very strange university, very bourgeois. The people who go there are there to be accountants and business administrators. That’s why Lou [Reed]’s parents sent him there, to see if they could make a good boy out of him. And it’s an expensive school; it’s a private school for fairly affluent parents. That does produce a certain percentage of pretty wild people. Out of the whole university there might have been only one percent that we considered the lunatic fringe, but it still was a hundred people maybe, and we had a great time, a lot of parties and music. Hellacious people, outstanding lunatics, people whose families had a lot of money and were incorrigible crazies, great people.

We had bands, but we hardly ever played, nobody wanted to hire us. We had to keep changing the name so people didn’t remember who we were. We did rhythm and blues, that’s what we liked. So when the Rolling Stones came over we liked them, but they were doing the things we’d always been doing, just covers [...]. We never treated these as religion, we weren’t trying to do faithful renditions, and we were just trying to do our version of it. But even in the Velvet Underground, if we felt like it we would play ‘Little Queenie’ or some old favourite from days of yore. In the early days with John [Cale], I remember sitting around playing a lot of Smokey Robinson stuff, just for ourselves, ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ or whatever.


You and Lou augmented your fun with the creative literary courses taught by Delmore Schwartz, a writer deeply influenced by James Joyce. Sadly misunderstood in his lifetime, Schwartz was only recognised after his death in 1966. His best known work is a collection of short stories called ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.’


Delmore was a teacher in the English department [of Syracuse], and he taught poetry and Joyce and creative writing even for a time, but he was certifiably a paranoid schizophrenic and drunkard, so that made it very difficult for him to deal with students or to deal with anyone. And he just got crazier and crazier as time went on, partly because of a long business involving why he couldn’t divorce his wife. He thought Nelson Rockefeller was mixed up in it and then he thought that Lou and me, and Maureen Tucker’s brother and all these people, he thought we were all spies for Nelson Rockefeller and was afraid of us and hated us, which wasn’t the way things started out. But Lou was closer to Delmore than I was, he was pretty hard to get close to when you think about it, but he was a good poet. No one needs me, or Lou, to say that.

‘European Son’ is dedicated to him. Delmore despised rock’n’roll lyrics, he thought they were ridiculous and awful, and ‘European Son’ has hardly any lyrics so that meant that was a song that Delmore might like. He didn’t care about the music part of rock’n’roll, he just hated the lyrics, and so we wrote a song that Delmore would like. Twenty seconds of lyrics and seven minutes of noise. I think Delmore was a good poet, but I didn’t treat him as my personal messiah the way Lou did.


But not all the teachers at Syracuse were like Schwartz. The atmosphere on campus was one of rigid morality.


College was a repressive place in the Sixties, that’s why people were trying to burn them down by 1965, like in that movie If. The best way to improve the American university would be to first strap it with machine guns and then set it on fire. It was incredible. They just told you what to do and you did it, or they threw you out on your ass, simple as that. In a way they’re kind of getting back to that.

I don’t think Lou has any fond memories of Syracuse. He got his degree—it was like when they sent Lenin back to Russia in a boxcar—because they told him that if he kept his mouth shut and let nobody see him, just stayed out of sight, then he could show up, get his diploma and get out of there. He had offended a student who was in the Young Americans for Freedom; his father was a big corporation lawyer. They wanted Lou thrown out and the Dean agreed, but when they finally did come in person to talk to the Dean, this guy and his father were so obnoxious, they were so horrible, that the Dean actually sided with Lou. So Lou did graduate, which was incredible. I was down in City College, that’s where I was when I ran into him. I saw him that summer and next time I saw him was in February of ’65 he was with [John] Cale.

Beige book cover with black icons of a heeled boot, a mask, a guitar, a key, and a whip
Courtesy of Ecstatic Peace Library.

The two of them were doing nothing, I was doing nothing, and so they said, ‘Well, why don’t we just jam?’ I said, okay. So that was the Velvet Underground. And we kept doing it. Lou was living with his parents. I was living in the City; I was hip, not like people living in Freeport, Long Island with their parents. That was ridiculous! John was living on Ludlow Street, so when we got together, Lou would drive in from Freeport and I would just take the subway down. We started playing maybe once a week, then twice a week, three times a week, and pretty soon every night we were at it. Then we all moved to the same place, to Grand Street, because Ludlow Street was basically unlivable, had no central heating, had a fireplace in each room, which is illegal in New York. The rent was something like fifteen dollars a month. It was just awful. We used to go out in the winter and find old crates and wooden pallets, and we would be out there tearing them up and taking them upstairs to make some fire in the fireplace. Without exaggeration—this sounds like these romanticised tales—we used to sit with rugs on our shoulders. It was so cold in that place!


A true bohemian image for three guys with a higher education. But there was no creative vision yet, no artistic pretensions.


This is not people practicing with a vision, mind you. We didn’t say, ‘we have a great idea and we’re going to pursue it to great glory.’ That wasn’t what we were doing. We were playing Smokey Robinson and related things, some of our little ideas too, but we were just playing for fun. If it’s fun on that level, it’s fun on any other level. This was music for its own sake. The nice thing about bands is that it’s nice to play music with other people. I never wanted to be a solo artist. I kind of know why John does it, but I don’t know which he actually prefers. John had lots of ideas from La Monte Young and everything. And things got strange musically. On Ludlow Street John wasn’t playing any keyboards at all, ‘cause he didn’t have any, it was all viola and bass, and fooling around on guitar too. We all liked drones and I think you can hear the minimalist leanings of the band.

The guitar players I like are Steve Cropper and people like that, very minimal. A few well chosen notes. A good guitar riff I always thought was worth more than a good guitar solo. There are songs, like ‘The Last Time’ by the Stones, a great riff, beautiful. Having done that they don’t need to play slick solos or anything else. So we tried to put some thinking into that—what the song actually needs.

One advantage with John was that he was always going back and forth to England and Wales to visit. Every six months or so he would take a trip and when he did he’d buy all these records, the things that appealed to him, which were pretty weird, so we were very tuned into the oddest music happening in England. We were very aware of the radical people, which we would not have been if it weren’t for John going there physically and bringing back these records. Lou and I also had a big stack of records, like Eric Burdon or Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, those guys were collectors. In a strange way we were collectors of European weirdness through Cale, and we had a big stack of rhythm and blues records, and a lot of doo-wop, before they got stolen in a succession of burglaries. Lou and I had three piles of 45s, right up to the ceiling, columns, tons of stuff.

A portrait of a man grinning and holding a cigarette
Lou Reed.Photo: James Hamilton.

What were the musical priorities? What kind of musical background did each person bring? What did they have in common musically and what separated you?


It was pretty hard to pry things out of Lou about his childhood, because of his odd relationship with his parents and that sort of thing but it would come out in little pieces. His father was an accountant and always wanted him to work. The first time he tried, the first day Lou made $50,000 worth of errors, so that was the end of Lou’s accounting career. As far as I know, he was trained on piano apparently, because he can play piano some, but he didn’t pursue it at all seriously. But we never got much keyboard playing out of Lou, he didn’t compose on piano, he didn’t write songs on piano. Lou was a songwriter mostly just fiddling around on guitar. Then he had some teeny bands, the way we all did, but Lou went one step further than I did—a step further than almost anybody does—he actually made a record. That was going a long way from the small towns on Long Island.

John’s background is a lot better documented, but John also didn’t want to talk about it, and still doesn’t. When we first met him he was rebelling against his formal training; it used to drive us crazy. In order to copyright a song you have to come up with a lead sheet, which is for a notes and lyrics transcription. For Lou and me it was very difficult to do these things. We had to sit around trying to find out which notes were there. John could do it instantly but refused, we could never get him to do the lead sheets. We’d say ‘John, it will only take you a minute,’ but he didn’t want to hear about it. I know he started piano at three, and viola at five, and played in the BBC when he was eight, he was considered a prodigy. John doesn’t talk about that either; it doesn’t make that much difference to him. But he always could really play. Again, it was very difficult for us to even make him play keyboards, because he was too trained on keyboards and wanted to play instruments he wasn’t trained on, like bass or anything else he could come up with, but keyboards, that was just too easy. He didn’t like that.

For my part, I started out on trumpet, for no apparent reason, if my parents had owned a piano then I would have played piano and lived happily ever after as a keyboardist, because I like polyphonic music. I didn’t like the trumpet for that reason. It might help you think in terms of lines, linear melodies, but that’s all you can do. It might even help minimal thinking. On a trumpet, you can only do one thing in a given moment, what thing should it be? That might have led me to the way I approach the guitar. But as soon as I picked guitar I knew that was what I wanted to play. It’s what you needed to play rock’n’roll, for one thing, but also, I liked it. I liked to be able to play various notes at once and that sort of thing. I was considered very good on trumpet, but then my terrific teacher was drafted and I couldn’t find anyone that I liked, and that was just an excuse for me to switch to guitar. That was never a popular decision at home, even if I brought my own instruments and amps and all that, it was always considered a colossal waste of time, and stupidity, and leading me to juvenile delinquency, but I was already there so I couldn’t blame that on guitar playing.


John’s neighbor, Angus MacLise, became your first drummer.


Angus was a poet and very self-conscious artist and world traveller. He spent years in India and Greece and travelled constantly. He died in Kathmandu. From his travels, Angus was interested in various kinds of percussion and he had heard a whole lot of Eastern music. So when John, Lou and I were playing just casually, which was all it was, Angus liked to sit in playing all these percussion things he had picked up as souvenirs. We liked the way it sounded and we got used to it, so when we started to play behind films on the lower East Side Angus was there too. From the very beginning as the Velvet Underground we never did have standard percussion. We had one theory that all bands tend to sound alike because all the drumming is alike. We said our drumming is not going to be like everybody else's. Think about how much Keith Moon contributed to The Who’s sound. His drumming style was different, he was very busy and very nervous, he wasn’t like Ringo Starr. That really helped The Who, and our ideas about drumming helped us. Maureen Tucker was willing enough to part from the usual procedures, and that was good, and that’s why she was the drummer after Agnus.

Angus quit, incidentally, because the moment that it became apparent that we could make money, he decided it wasn’t art. For him art and money were two separate things. Angus would have stayed in the Velvet Underground forever provided that we never made a cent and kept starving to death at Ludlow Street. The amount of money that caused him to quit was seventy-five dollars, which was going to be split four ways. That was selling out for Angus! But we remained friends and he did in fact sit in with us one other time, when he discovered that he had made a mistake, that in fact you could be free and still be paid, you didn’t have to make any compromises. If you don’t compromise you don’t get to play often. He said then it wasn’t what he thought, but I said, Yeah, but it’s too late Angus, unless Maureen quits, and she remains. That was a sad moment.


After various names for the band, a book found in the street caught your attention. That little exploitation book had a strong, attractive title. The Velvet Underground.


We didn’t have a name for the band and so we’d make up a new one once a week. That goes back to Lou’s practice at Syracuse. All the bands got such a bad reputation so quickly that people would say don’t hire that band again, so we just changed the name of the band, and it turned out to be the same people and the same songs. We were continuing on that tradition: we didn’t have a name and we didn’t care about it. Angus saw the book, The Velvet Underground, and brought it down to Ludlow Street. We thought it was a good name because it had ‘underground’ in it and we were playing for underground films, we considered ourselves part of the underground film community. We had no connections with rock’n’roll as far as we were concerned. Rock’n’roll consisted of Joey Dee and the Starliters, guys who played the uptown clubs and who had matching suits. We didn’t have any of those things, so we had no chance whatsoever of working on the Manhattan club scene. That was beyond us, we just couldn’t do it anymore than we could have gone to Las Vegas to play. There was this incredible gulf between what we were and what we could do, we hardly had any equipment, and what working rock’n’roll bands could do and did. So we said we’re not rock’n’roll anymore, we’re out of it, we’re finished. ♦

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