Sterling Morrison: Velvet Underdog panel (Photo By Gary Miller)
Sterling Morrison: The Velvet Underdog Panel
Austin Convention Center
For John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison's initial qualification for membership in the newly formed Velvet Underground was the fact that he rode the subway barefoot. "He was a tall, filthy-looking character with no shoes," recalled Cale. "That was Sterling." The South by Southwest panel examining Morrison's life from the Velvets' mid-Sixties inception through his death from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1995 was full of similarly heartfelt musings. Moderator Bill Bentley, a former Austinite who's now senior VP of media relations at Warner Bros. Records, did an excellent job of passing the baton from one panelist to another in chronological fashion. Cale called Morrison a "thoughtful" musician who'd work on guitar parts over and over until he created something meaningful. Moreover, Morrison was not above offering Reed brutally honest assessments of his songwriting. "Lou had just finished 'Sweet Jane,'" recalling Bentley, describing an interview he'd done with Reed, "and he asked Sterling, 'What do you think?' Sterling just said, 'What's with the fourth chord, Lou?'" Morrison was no less candid once he moved to Austin in the early Seventies to pursue a doctoral degree in English literature at UT. Professor Joe Kruppa had invited the Velvets to his mixed media class when the band was in town to play at the Vulcan Gas Company in the late Sixties, and was eager to have Morrison in the English department. "His record was good, but it wasn't conventional," he recalled. In order to get around members of the selection committee who might hold unconventionality against him, Kruppa gave Morrison a highly inflated ranking. As it turned out, Morrison was "a very good teacher, but also a very rigorous and demanding teacher," according to Kruppa. Morrison downplayed his roll in the VU while in Austin, but Bentley managed to score an interview in 1975 after agreeing to let him correct the piece "for grammar" before it ran. Morrison and Bentley would eventually be bandmates in the Bizarros. "Sterling was very methodical," said Bentley. "He once told me he still had a list of the people in the Sixties who had wronged him." Morrison quit talking to Bentley for a time after he was kicked out of the Bizarros, but the hatchet was buried at the Velvets' 1993 reunion in Paris. In addition to his roles in music and the academy, Morrison also piloted tugboats in the Houston Ship Channel; it was in Houston that Morrison discovered Austin's early-Nineties punk trio Pork, one of the few modern bands he enjoyed. "At first I thought he was just being nice, but then I realized Sterling would never be nice just to be nice," said former Pork bassist Mary Hattman. Though his acerbic New York wit often seemed out of place in the howdy-ho gentility of Texas, this characteristic dominated the discussion of Morrison's life in a most endearing way. His role in the Velvet Underground was only the beginning of a fascinating story that ended too soon.