Sterling Morrison: An Oral History With Interviews
On the night of May 17, 1979, Sterling Morrison and John Cale stood in a La Quinta Inn motel room in Austin, Texas, grinning at one another like a couple of streetwise Cheshire cats. It was the second time the former bandmates had gotten to visit with each other in a month; Cale had returned to play the Armadillo World Headquarters less than four weeks after his first Austin show. It was also the second time they were seeing one another since 1969, when Sterling delivered the news to Cale that he was no longer in the band he had co-founded, the Velvet Underground.
Cale eyed Morrison's bright red T-shirt enviously. Emblazoned across it was the phrase "I Kill Moonies," a reference to cult followers of Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Its irreverence made Cale roar with laughter. "I have to have that shirt," he demanded.
"No, no, nope," Morrison folded his arms protectively. "This is mine. Get your own."
"I'll give you mine," Cale shucked the sweaty T-shirt he had worn onstage and wadded it up as an offering. "C'mon. 'I Kill Moonies.' Brilliant."
"Oh, okay," Morrison sighed dramatically, and divested himself of the shirt, handing it over to Cale. Cale put it on and admired it, then handed him a clean T-shirt to wear in place of the dirty one offered. Sterling pulled it over his slim frame, muttering good-naturedly, "I guess I would give you the shirt off my back."
The night I watched that exchange, I knew I would someday write about it. At the time, ex-members of the Velvet Underground were not hanging out together, and in those heady days of punk and New Wave, the VU were gods. Until the night in 1979 when he walked onstage with John Cale's band and played "Pablo Picasso," few Austinites realized that VU guitarist Sterling Morrison lived in town. No account of Austin's musical history would be complete without a chapter on Holmes Sterling Morrison. As a co-founder of the Velvet Underground, Morrison is securely in the pantheon of rock greats, even if he is remembered behind bandmates Cale, Lou Reed, and Maureen Tucker. The VU was the soundtrack to the changing of the avant-garde in the Sixties, a band adopted by Andy Warhol and forever linked with his scene.
Although they continued to make critically acclaimed music, by the late Sixties, Morrison's heart was no longer in the band. During the Velvets 1969 tour of Texas, he applied to graduate school at the University of Texas and left the band. While working on his doctorate in medieval studies, he was a TA and enjoyed the pre-Slacker Austin lifestyle, playing in the local band the Bizarros and hanging out with his pals. There was little about his unassuming demeanor to suggest that only a handful of years before, Sterling Morrison had been in one of the most notorious rock & roll bands ever.
Morrison started patronizing the local punk hangouts in 1979. He loved the spirit of the punks but expressed venomous disdain for the business end. And when Sterling Morrison pontificated -- usually outside's Raul's, backstage at Club Foot, or some other unlikely pulpit -- we listened. After all, this was Sterling Morrison and he had walked away from it all.
Morrison moved to Houston in the early Eighties and became a tugboat captain in the Houston ship channel. He avidly participated in the 1993 Velvet Underground reunion and toured with Maureen Tucker. His last public performance was, fittingly, with Tucker and John Cale at the Warhol Museum in November 1994. He died on August 30, 1995, of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Sterling Morrison was a gentleman and a scholar, a curmudgeon, a sweetheart, a sinner, a saint. Eight of his fellow bandmates and friends recall him with great tenderness, affection, and occasional frustration and mystery. And that's probably just the way he would have liked it.
Lou Reed: I met Sterl in 1962, I think at college. We shared an interest in rock music and shared the same essential background -- Long Island. He was staying on campus with a mutual friend, James Tucker, Maureen's older brother. We became friends almost instantly.
"We Became Friends Almost Instantly"
Maureen Tucker: I have known Sterling since I was 10 and he was 12. He was my brother's friend. By the time I was 12, my brother didn't want to play cards with me anymore, but I became one of his group when I was 17 or so. I remember Sterling then, those big long legs sticking out across the living room floor and having to step over him to walk by.
John Cale: I had often assumed [Sterling] and Lou saw eye-to-eye about things, and that couldn't have been further from the truth. Sterling was very angry about the Velvets. Very bitter, angry with Lou about overseeing the demise of the band.
"I'm Not Going Back to New York"
I don't know whether Sterling was aware of what Lou was doing, but the first part of the plan was when [new VU manager] Stephen Sesnick showed up and got rid of Andy Warhol. Things got worse with Sesnick aboard because he got in the middle of everybody and started turning the screws. He [told] the band, "This is Lou's band, you do what he says."
The games being played were just disgusting. Lou let it happen. Sterling didn't know what to do in all this. The next step in the plan was to say, "Cale's out." Whatever power Moe and Sterling had in the band was completely erased. All they could do was follow, and it went nowhere. It was grinding Sterling's nose in it.
I didn't know what Sterling's feelings were after I got the boot. We lost touch for a while. The next time I saw him was in Austin at the Armadillo. Now that you mention it, yeah, I remember the Moonie T-shirt. [laughs]
Reed: Sterling had talked about [leaving] for so long that it was no surprise when he finally did it.
Tucker: The story of him [going with his bandmates to the Houston airport in 1971] with an empty suitcase is true. I guess he had difficulty facing the moment when he had to say, "I'm not going." He went so far as to get in the cab and go to the airport with a bogus suitcase. We were one step away from the gate ... then he said, "I'm not going back to New York."
Cale: He went to the airport with an empty suitcase? I didn't know that. He must have been stewing for a long time.
Joe Kruppa: When the Velvet Underground played the Vulcan Gas Company [Austin, 1969], I was teaching Literature & Electronic Media [at UT]. I wanted someone from the Velvet Underground, preferably Lou Reed, to come to class [as a guest speaker]. Reed agreed to do it.
The Vulcan & Austin
Lou was in a pissy mood that day. Snarling, he talked about Warhol and the Velvet Underground. This was [at a time when UT regent] Frank Erwin was having protesters ripped out of trees. A student asked [Lou], "What do you think about nature?"
Lou Reed just looked at him in his best New York way and thumped the microphone. "This is my nature." It was quite an afternoon.
Sterling came to the class too. The next year I was sitting on the committee that [decided] teaching assistantships. I was reading through a big stack and came to one that said "Holmes S. Morrison." It didn't register. I started reading it, and where it said "Past Experience" he wrote something like, "for the past six years I've been involved with a professional musical organization touring and recording for Verve Records."
Holy shit. I couldn't believe it was Sterling applying. He had a fairly decent but unconventional academic background. I knew he would not be rated very highly [by the committee], so I gave him the highest rating I could and went to bat for him. He got the TA-ship.
John Craig: I met Sterling in September 1971. I saw the Velvets' show at the Vulcan in 1969. I told Joe Kruppa about [the VU], and he said, "You'll never guess who's at UT." Joe said that Sterling was here to do graduate studies. So I got his address and went to his house and knocked on his door. I was terrified. But he invited me in and we started talking. And never stopped the whole time. We talked about everything, academia, music, sports -- we even played a little golf. Really. He wasn't bad, either.
Kruppa: He wanted to talk as little as possible about the Velvet Underground, so we talked about literary studies. I ended up sitting on the committee that read his dissertation on medieval literature. We became friends and stayed in touch after he left UT and moved to Houston.
Craig: He was looking for some place as far from the East Coast as the West Coast. The [Velvets had] been having trouble with their managers, and it had left a bad taste in his mouth. I think he came to Austin to get out of the spotlight, not that the spotlight was ever all that bright on the Velvets.
Marvin Williams: We met at graduate school at UT, around '72. Our cubicle doors were about 10 feet apart. I don't remember the circumstances, but I am sure there were two Shiner beers involved. We were afternoon drinking buddies. I was extremely popular with graduate students and professor types because I tended bar at the Cedar Door [on 15th Street].
He was an excellent student. Extremely bright. We talked about things graduate students talk about -- school, where's the cheapest beer, and how much money we didn't have.
Bill Bentley: I met him in 1975. I used to go to the Cedar Door. Marvin Williams was working one day when I came in. I overheard this guy at the bar talking about Frank Zappa, and put two and two together: He had to be Sterling. So I asked, "Are you Sterling?" He looked at me bug-eyed and said "Who wants to know?" That's how we met. By accident.
"Are You Sterling?"
After that I asked him to do an interview with me for The Austin Sun, where I was music editor. I thought it was fascinating that no one had heard from him since he came to UT. He liked the story, so we [began] hanging out a bunch. I was playing with the Bizarros and thought Sterling would be the perfect person to join us.
The Bizarros played a kind of twisted blues-based bar rock. We loved old R&B, but since [our guitarist] Ike Ritter was a psychedelic guitar player, not a roots-music guitarist, it got twisted around. Getting Sterling in was strange because as he told me once the VU never played any R&B or blues, that Lou said he would fine the players if he heard any blues licks in the Velvets' music -- [Lou had a] thing about needing only two chords. Sterling came from a whole different side of rock & roll.
Kruppa: There was a reserve about Sterling that was hard to break through. I thought of it as a New York thing, that hip cocoon. He was opinionated, but had a generous and inquisitive mind. He had such a whimsical sense of humor, too, dry, ironic, the way he could veil statements. He often spoke in a curt manner. Again, I saw this as a New York trait. I don't find New Yorkers rude, I find them to be direct and unvarnished. And that's how I saw Sterling.
Craig: He was a great debater. He could argue on any subject [and] absolutely shut people down.
Bentley: He was a Yankee to the bone and proud of it. Austin was love, peace, and understanding, and that's not what Sterling was about.
We'd take Sterling to parties and bet on how quickly he could clear a room. Sterling loved to talk, and he'd start spouting all this stuff. Five minutes later, he'd be talking to himself. He loved to get people going. He was on a rock critics panel at UT once with Richard Meltzer and John Morthland and the stuff he was saying about music horrified people. It was great.
Tucker: I never ever thought of Sterling as hard to get along with. We'd argue about politics or whatever, but there was never a time when we were mad at each other. I've always said everyone loves Sterling. Not once did I ever have even an argument with Sterling.
"A Man of Contradictions"
Reed: All friends have the occasional argument.
Williams: He could be a real asshole. But we never had any falling out. Never. We were good friends until I left to teach in New Orleans in '78. After that, I never saw him or talked to him even when he came to Houston. But he could also be easily offended and imagine slights from every direction. He would write people off, drop people in a heartbeat. When he was done with you, he was done with you.
Bentley: I had a really painful falling out with Sterling. I want to be specific about it so I don't portray him wrong. We were close, and I felt responsible for getting Sterling back into music. But you could only go so far into his feelings, and then there would be a wall.
There came a point in the Bizarros when Ike and Speedy Sparks decided that [guitarist] Bill Campbell's playing was more in tune with the Bizarros. Rightly or wrongly, they decided to get rid of Sterling. We had a band vote, and I lost. He didn't talk to me for five years.
He was a man of contradictions. I don't think he ever figured out his place. If you look at the history of the Velvets, Lou Reed went on to great things, John Cale did, even Moe went on to make records. But besides the Bizarros and a few guest stints, he never found a place in music again. And he wanted to. Look at his English department career, it took him 14 or 15 years to get his Ph.D. and he never became an English professor though I know he wanted to.
Tucker: I find it hard to fathom that Sterling was a bundle of contradictions.
Cale: Sterling's relationship with Austin is a mystery to me. But I appreciate it because he went right back into academia and was well-suited for it. One of the things I said at his funeral was that I didn't realize how much I really depended on him to spill the beans intellectually. He was someone you could call up with the craziest theory and he'd come back with a rational response that was better thought-out.
Bentley: Around '83-84, I did a story for the L.A. Weekly when Another VU was released. He did the interview but wasn't real friendly. I finally got the nerve to ask him, "What happened between us?" He said, "Bill, you got me into the Bizarros, and it was your responsibility to keep me in." I explained to him I was outvoted, but he just said, "You got me in, you keep me in." I think some of those old wounds had come out, from when he had to tell John he was out of the Velvets. Like it was his responsibility to keep John in the band.
Reed: There is no one who was more perfectly made for being a tugboat captain. There was nothing he couldn't master.
"Perfect Tugboat Captain"
Craig: The first year he came down to Houston was 1974 or '75; that's when he got his first job as a deckhand on a tugboat. It was financial. I'm sure the money was better than what he could make teaching in Austin. Throwing lines out under ships in the middle of the night, that was tough work. If there was an appeal to that other than money, it was being anonymous.
Bentley: He ended up working tugboats to make a living because he'd been a TA so long at UT they wouldn't let him do it anymore. He eventually got his captain's license. He knew that's not what he was meant to do with his life but that's how it ended up.
Stewart Wise: I [met Sterling] at that rock critics' panel at UT. Gail Gant1, Alex Chilton, and I showed up stinking drunk; we'd been drinking since the previous day, and we were heckling. Soon after that he and Gail started going out.
She had moved to Houston in the early Eighties. Remember he worked on the tugboat? That was so weird -- working on a tugboat -- it just didn't compute.
When he worked on the tugboat he would spend a day or two at her apartment. For the first couple of years, [Sterling and I] were very uncomfortable and could barely have a conversation. It took us a few years to click.
Tucker: I sure wasn't aware of Gail. What a sad situation for all, very sad. For her, for [Sterling's wife] Martha ... and I just found this out a few days ago. I suspected he had a girlfriend, but I had no suspicion it was a long-term thing at all or even that it was to him terribly serious. I didn't ask him, and he knew better than to tell me, or I'd have given him hell. The suspicion was based only on that when we'd go away on tour he'd be on the phone every seven minutes. That was my sole basis of thinking he had a girlfriend. Only after he died did I find out about her, and only a few days ago did I find out what a serious, long-term relationship it was. And I am totally baffled. I really am. If I hadn't just found this out, I would be saying to you that I could read him like an open book.
Bentley: There was a selfish side to Sterling. He wanted things on his terms, and he got 'em through sheer force of will. He loved Martha, loved his family and having a family, but he kept it to himself. I hung out with Sterling for a year before I knew he was married. He liked being the wild guy who ran around, but he wasn't willing to ever give up his family.
Wise: The first time I remember Sterling treating me with any warmth was after he had been to Paris and the VU had that reunion at the Cartier Foundation in 1991. A few weeks later, I saw him in Dallas at Gail's sister's house. He was bubbly and excited, and after that stayed at my house during South by Southwest the year Johnny Cash played.
"Thank God the Reunion Happened"
Bentley: [The first time I saw Sterling since the interview in the early Eighties was] in Paris when the Velvets played the Warhol celebration in 1991. Sterling sort of acknowledges me, saying, "Oh, what are you now, some sort of flack for a record company?" I took it from him, because one thing I learned over the years is you don't win an argument with Sterling.
We went to dinner one night there in Paris -- the Velvets, me, Billy Name ... and Sterling just said, "It's okay, Bill." He'd absolved me like a Catholic priest. It had been over 10 years since whatever sin I committed [in the Bizarros]. Thank God the reunion happened. Those four people [Lou, John, Sterling, and Moe] rediscovered what they discovered about each other. And even though the plans for America got scuttled, it was like 1966 again. I think it did a lot for Sterling.
Cale: Long ago Lou had sent Sterling to tell me I was out. [Lou didn't] have the guts to do it himself. And Sterling resented that. In the middle of the [reunion] tour in Lausanne, Switzerland, the resentment all burst out again. There was a stage situation where Lou's guitar tech was on Sterling's side of the stage. Whatever Sterling was doing, he had to make room for the tech to run out there and plug in Lou's guitar. There were different guitars for every song practically.
A party was organized by U2 [for whom the Velvet Underground opened in Europe in 1993] on a boat on a lake. It was a steamer; it chugged around the lake and stopped in the middle for everyone to swim in the afternoon. It was fun. But for some reason Lou hadn't gotten up in time and was the last one aboard. The fact that everyone was there ahead of him lit a bomb under him, and he didn't let anyone forget it throughout the day.
Sterling was having a great time. When we got off the boat, Lou didn't talk to the band for the rest of the day. The whole thing started up onstage again. Sterling that night in the bar was livid. Things lurking for years just came out. All the chickens came home to roost.
Wise: Around Thanksgiving of '94 I got a card from Gail saying she had bought Sterling a present, a cane, because he was too feeble to walk without it. Gail has a kooky sense of humor, so I thought it was that. When I got to Houston and saw him, I nearly passed out. He had lost so much weight. I could tell he was dying. "What the fuck?!" I said to Gail. She hadn't been able to get him to go to a doctor.
He knew he was sick. He told me he had made an appointment with a New York City oncologist. I wondered if he had seen a doctor in Houston and was trying to spare Gail. The last time I talked to him, I tracked him down in a hospital in Poughkeepsie -- I had spent three hours calling every hospital in the area.
Sterling told me he wanted to spare Gail the horror of the illness, that she was young and needed to get on with her life without him. It was gallant of him, but it was also mean. Gail was completely devastated: He'd gone home for Christmas, and she never saw him again.
Tucker: We knew something was wrong, but we had no idea it was terminal, for God's sake. I had seen him a month before the museum show, and the difference in his physical appearance was shocking. John and I happened to be having tea together when we saw him across the lobby. Both of us were like, "Oh, God ... ." Just a month.
"We Knew Something Was Wrong"
Cale: After the reunion tour, I was to do some music at the Warhol Museum for Andy Warhol's Eat/Kiss and invited Moe and Sterling to play. While he was in Pittsburgh, he went to Carnegie-Mellon Hospital. He couldn't sit or stand for long.
Martha said he was coming back to Poughkeepsie. I really didn't know what he was doing; I knew he was in Houston. I really didn't [understand] how much of a problem it was until Martha took him to her GP and the tests came back.
I went up to see him after he had some treatments in Buffalo. It was shocking to see. He was very emaciated but determined to get to play the Eat/Kiss music at a festival in Leal. We were focused on getting Sterling in shape to go to it. As soon as I saw him, I knew there was some serious difficulty.
We did the festival without him. When I came back, I got a call that said I better go up and see Sterling. That was the last time I saw him. He was aware of what was around him, but couldn't communicate very well. I wanted him to know what kind of an influence he'd had on me, so I got a chance to tell him.
Tucker: I never contemplated the cause of his cancer, but I thought of the ship channel. He was older and wiser, gave up smoking, jogged ... always popping vitamins. I'd laugh at him and say, "Sterl, put that shit down. Have a cigarette." He was was real proud that he had not become a pot-bellied, dumpy older person. So him getting that sick that quickly was a shock.
Reed: When I found out he was sick, he was already hospitalized. I was truly shocked. Sterl had never been sick a day in his life. I saw him two days before he died. I remember him as funny, confident, large, and brilliant, surely the toughest of us all. A warrior. Sometimes he infuriated me, but he was overall a king.
Craig: Just before Christmas, I called him and asked how he was doing, and he said, "Not very well." When he went home at Christmas he would get a Skycap with a wheelchair to help him.
Tucker: He had to get off the plane in a wheelchair. The last time I saw him was the day before he died. I went up to Poughkeepsie for five or six days, and I had to go home to my kids. While I was on the train that night he died.
Kruppa: The last time I saw him was after the Velvets had gotten back together in Europe. He was excited. He said, "People are wanting us to stay together and tour again." But he was also very self-conscious about how the Velvets were perceived. "People will say we're doing it for the money; I don't want to be an oldies band playing on the past," he said.
I didn't hear from him for a while. One day a colleague called me and said, "Joe, I was just listening to NPR, and I heard that Sterling Morrison died."
I still have a recurring dream. In my dream I see a poster announcing the Velvet Underground, and I head downtown to see him.
Bentley: Maureen called me after they got back from Pittsburgh. I talked to Martha, and she said he was going to hospitals. I wanted to see him, but he was so sick it was almost pointless. Maureen had come to stay with Martha and one day called and said to me, "You better talk to him now."
"You'd Better Talk to Him Now"
I talked to him two days before he died; Martha held the phone up to him. He couldn't form words. I told him I loved him, how sorry I was it had turned out this way for him. "It's okay," he was trying to say. Right up to the end he was a man of strength. Without him, music history would be very different.
Williams: The only time I kept up with him was when I saw Bentley, like at SXSW 95. He told me when Sterling was sick. He'd gone back to Martha to die after leaving her for all those years -- my wife says that's typical man behavior. Bill and I called him just before he died. He couldn't talk; it was right at the end. I had a lovely talk with Martha. I always got along with Martha even when I was corrupting her husband out in the bars.
The way he told those wonderful New York stories: He'd stand at the bar and lean back with a longneck in his hand, shake his head, and he'd always punctuate the story the same way: "I swear to Christ, if you don't believe me, Marvin, ask Martha." She was his last word.
Craig: After the funeral, we gathered in the back yard at Martha's house. John Cale was there, Moe ... We just had a great old time telling Sterling stories.
Bentley: You never met a more physically robust guy than Sterling. He played basketball, ran track. Lou called him the "iron warrior." I have to think it was the toxic Houston ship channel. When he got sick, he just withered away.
After he died, I was talking to Lou, who was very, very upset. We were kind of trading stories on how blunt Sterling was. Lou talked about when he and Sterling were rooming together in '68 or '69 and Lou had just written "Sweet Jane." He went to Sterling and played it for him. Sterling just stared at Lou and said, "So what's with the fourth chord, Lou?" You had to love Sterling for that.
Tucker: I have only wonderful memories of Sterling, we had a lot of fun together bullshitting, drinking beer, playing pool. I am so glad he played with me. He was very happy to be back in music.
Cale: I thought it was the right thing to do, dedicating my book What's Welsh for Zen to Sterling. I think everyone discovers things after a person is gone. In my case, it happened while I was working on [the song that became] "Some Friends."
That realization caught me by surprise. I was writing Walking on Locusts. There was a string piece I'd written for Julian Schnabel's movie, the flattest piece of music I've ever made, no structure or profile. And I kept working it over and over again, and all of a sudden these lyrics started coming out. It was involuntary, but I realized quickly what they were about. It had this solitary effect, suddenly there was something in the back of your mind you weren't talking about but really felt. That was how Sterling's personality affected me. Much later.
Reed: No, I didn't attend his funeral. I dedicated a song to him from the stage of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame -- I wanted his name to be heard on TV and to the crowds watching the show. I wanted to play "Sweet Jane" for him one last time.
Sterl could do almost anything. His guitar style was unique and mirrored the innate talents of this wondrous man. I loved him deeply, and the nobility during his illness -- his massive strength and dignity -- will stay with me forever.
I'm so glad the VU reunited so I had a last chance to play with Sterling. I miss him dearly still. I want more than memories and recordings, but these are the things that make up life. I want to be as strong as he was when faced with the final adversary. The older I am, the more amazing Holmes Sterling Morrison becomes.
Margaret Moser stole the dirty T-shirt John Cale offered Sterling Morrison and lived to write about it.
At the request of Velvet Underground attorney Christopher Whent, Sterling's wife Martha Morrison was not contacted for interview.
1Gail Gant declined to be interviewed.