Interview with Sterling Morrison

On the road, Fall 1968 (Sterling Morrison Archives)

This interview conducted by Gregg Barrios was originally printed in Fusion, March 6, 1970.


Sterling Morrison was once described as the most underrated person living. He has been with The Velvet Underground since the dawn of history and hopefully will continue in that capacity forever. He was also called indomitable as well as an astute Italian duke. In any case, he is generally conceded to be a superior musician, as far above in talent as he is distant from the hype of current guitarists. In an interview while on tour in Texas, he spoke with Greg Barrios.


The group originally included Angus MacLise?

You know all kinds of secrets… How did you find that out? Yes, originally we were just jamming around and live in this unheated apartment and Angus lived in the unheated apartment next door. He had just come back from India. He didn’t want to be in a group, though, he thought it was fun to play music now and then whenever he felt like it; so Angus couldn’t be the drummer though we were good friends. At that time, we did some of the absolutely first mixed media things…

…the Exploding Plastic Inevitable?

No, before that. The antecedent of that was done in the old Cinematheque – all done by film people – things which Angus called ritual happenings. “Rites of the Dream Weapon” did you ever see a poster for that? Yes, that was the first one. Before Ken Kesey or anybody. Angus had seen lot of Dervish dancing while he was in India. He had been there for eight years and he came back with his raga scales and assortment of drums and so we used to put on these things and they had films. Piero Heliczer was involved in that.

I’ve seen his Dirt.

Yeah, and his New Jerusalem. Piero just had a showing about a month ago. He’s back in the country. He’s enigmatic.

I gather from some of his poetry…

What was that? Aquarium Productions?

No. Some items in the Film-makers coop catalog and newsletters.

There are really underground personages who have never been transformed by public acclaim. People like Piero, Angus, Tony Conrad, and Walter DeMaria, though Walter is doing somethings in art at present. Underground movies didn’t mean a thing in 1964 in New York. You were just sneaking around with no money.

There are many of them still like that even those who have produced important works like Jack Smith.

Well, yes, and take someone ever more amazing like Harry Smith who should be restrained from destroying his films. He makes those incredible hand-drawn cartoon films. I don’t know how long it takes him, they’re amazing. Have you seen any of those?

I’ve seen the Mirror Animations which is quite short.

They’re really marvelous. And every once in a while Harry flips out and destroys all he can get his hands on.

I met him once at the Chelsea Hotel with Barbara Rubin.

Yes. Barbara is one of the illuminaries.

Getting back to the group. Where did the name Velvet Underground come from? Did Andy…

No, this was before that.

Was the group composed of yourself, Maureen, and John Cale at the time?

Right and Lou Reed. And every group has to have a name so one day we saw the name on a book.

That paperback s&m book?

Yes, and we said, that’s nice. It’s abstract and the word underground meant something, and so we said sure why not – never figuring we would rise above our particular little echelon at the time, so that was fun. It was outrageous, the only people playing in New York City at the time were ourselves and the Fugs. We were lurking around the old Cinematheque and the Bridge and occasional gala underground events at the Village Gate downstairs. It was us and the Fugs – living in the lower East Side with around $25 a month combined (just about).

The first introduction I had to the group was an NET film on television in late 1965. The film was on Andy Warhol and it showed him holding a tryout for a group to use in his EPI.

It wasn’t a tryout at all. They didn’t know what was happening. They came there to do a thing on Andy and found us. We were already working with him.

Part of that film used your music alone. It was very nice.

They (people from NET) didn’t know what to make of it except that it sounded very peaceful and what we were playing was actually an instrumental version of Heroin. The final thing as they were showing the credits and it went droning on, that’s what that was. They didn’t know what was going on. The Factory (Warhol’s studio) in those days was so hectic and they had certain security measures to enforce.

The second time I heard the group was on the soundtrack of Andy’s film Hedy in 1966.

Oh, Hedy. Mrs. Lamarr!

Yes. I thought the music added to the pretentious mood of the film. It was very funny.

The movie was very funny. Almost everyone had a cameo part in the film. I think Jack Smith played the judge.

It was Harvey Tavel. I think Ronnie Tavel wrote the script. How did the group actually become connected with Warhol for a period of time?

He heard us playing in the Village. Barbara Rubin brought Gerard Malanga to hear us and he brought Andy. He thought it would be real nice – he always had the idea to do a media type thing with all types of films, with all possible ways to involve people.

Did that begin at the Dom on St. Marks Place?

Yes. And that wised us up in a hurry about where business begins and that sort of thing. We had the Dom an a three-year lease believe it or not. It really sickens me still when I go to St. Marks Place because more than anyone we invented that street. There was nothing going on there. Absolutely nothing. The Spa at one end and just Polish type stores, and Khadija Design, and the Bridge at the other end. No one had been there very long. Khadija had been there longer than anyone. It was an African clothing store. That was in 1964. Somehow we showed up at the DOM looking for a big room, and we said, ah, Dom (Polish for home), this is it. No one went down to St. Marks Place. No people coming in off the street. There was no point in being there. It appeared to be a disaster.

No concerts in Tompkins Square Park going on at that time?

No. This was way before that. If it was used I don’t know what for. So we got the building for three years and we opened it up and did extremely well. The people came down there and a person who worked in our box office said I’ve got an idea, why don’t we go and play in California. We said sure, why not. So we all went out to California even though we had been at the Dom for about a month.

Was that the trip to California which they said they weren’t ready for?

Yes, we played at the Fillmore and the Trip. We had a great time. I loved it, and when we came back we went back to our room since that was our thing. We owned it for three years, and when we came back we discovered it was now called The Balloon Farm. Actually our lease had been torn up and the director of the Polish home had been bribed and bought off and so our building had been taken away from us and later sold to the Electric Circus for around $300.000.
We did have some valuable property – so I discovered early in life that when you have something valuable someone is going to try and take it away from you unless you go around knowing things. I couldn’t believe something like that could happen and if you bother to sue or do anything like that – by the time it came up in the courts, you’d passed caring.

Were items like The Whip Dance with Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar used all along?

Gerard and Mary (Waronov) though Ingrid did some. They could do anything they wanted. The actual number of people who would travel with us varied. The dances were Gerard’s domain, and the lights Andy’s. We only worried about the music. The way the Whip Dance came about was when someone gave Gerard a bullwhip and one particular night – the night he came down to hear us in the Village, he happened to be carrying it with him and later he started dancing with it. There was no deep dark s&m motivations. Someone gave him the whip just for laughs. He also used flashlights and lifted weights. Gerard is amazing. He was a regular on Allen Freed’s old TV show.

“The Big Beat”? Wasn’t Baby Jane Holzer also on there?

Jane used to be around there, too. When Allen Freed got kicked off the air, his final publicity picture was of him and two regulars. Gerard happened to be one of them.

When did Nico join the group?

Well, she appeared with us at the Dom, so it was right before that.

Was it Andy’s idea that she join the group?

She was around because of Andy, but he couldn’t talk us really into anything. We thought it would be a good idea. I mean that’s how the whole thing was worked on the first album: The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other words, we were a unit with or without her. And she could do some things we really like, so we said do some songs. it was a complicated working arrangement because she said if I don’t sing, I don’t do anything. So it was always a question of how many songs Nico would do, should she do all of them, which we didn’t want, and that was the only cumbersome aspect of it.

Last night as Doug was singing “I’ll Be your Mirror” I detected the Germanic accent…

Oh yeah, we mimic the way she did it. She never said, “I’ll be your mirror,” it was “I be your mirrah.” It’s amazing how those songs are still so good.

What was the reaction to the first “banana” album? I know many people couldn’t get into things like “European Son” and a couple of the other cuts.

“European Son” is very tame now. It happens to be melodic and if anyone actually listens to it, “European Son” turns out to be comprehensible in the light of all that has come since – not just our work but everyone’s. It’s that just for the time it was done it’s amazing. We figured that on our first album it was a novel idea just to have long tracks. I’m not referring to any particular song, but any song running 8 or 9 minutes. People just weren’t doing that – regardless of what the content of the track was – everyone’s album cuts had to be 2:30 or 2:45 minutes.

The three-minute song.

Then here’s “European Son” which ran eight minutes or something. And basically all the songs on the first albums are longish though there are a few short ones. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is rather long.

I have your first single which has an abbreviated version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” on it.

Well don’t lose it. I really liked that record. You can’t get copies of it anymore. I have about two of those singles. There were never that many. “White Light/White Heat” was also a single. I don’t have many of those either.

I heard many rumors as to why Nico left the group. Would you clarify that?

It was all very informal. We stopped working for a while. We used to do that periodically – just refused to do anything. Nico needed money so she went out on her own. She was working downstairs at the Dom (Stanley’s) and we said sure, do anything you want, and so she was doing that. We’d take turns backing her up. I’d do it for one week, then John Cale, Lou, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jackson Browne – everyone was showing up as Nico’s accompanist. When we decided to start work again we told her about it, and she said, oh, I have three more weeks here. So we told her to decide what she wanted to do and she decided that perhaps she could go on her own and be a big star, and we said okay. There never was any ill feelings. For instance, Lou played and composed some of the selections for her first album on Verve.

Didn’t you help compose the song, “Chelsea Girls” for her?

Yes I did some meddling with chords.

I liked the first album she did. It was mostly Jackson Browne but it did have some Dylan on it.

Dylan was always giving her songs.

There have been rumors that he wrote several songs with her in mind?

I don’t know, perhaps. It’s very hard to avoid these people in New York. Dylan was always lurking around.

Didn’t Andy use Dylan in a film?

There was one film with Paul Caruso called, The Bob Dylan Story. I don’t think Andy has ever shown it. It was hysterical. They got Marlowe Dupont to play Al Grossman. Paul Caruso not only looks as Bob Dylan but as a super caricature he makes even Hendrix looks pale by comparison. This was around 1966 when the film was made and his hair was way out here. When he was walking down the street you had to step out of his way. On the eve of the filming, Paul had a change of heart and got his hair cut off – closer to his head – and he must have removed about a foot so everyone was upset about that. Then Dylan had this accident and that was why the film was never shown.

What was the general reaction to The Velvet Underground’s second album?

They were stunned.

To the fact that Nico wasn’t on there?

Oh no. By what the album was – kind of raw electronics (most of it). We liked the album very much. Generally reaction to our albums is late in coming. They just lay around for a year and then people start to pick up on them. There isn’t much you can say about your own albums.

Have you always had the liberty to put on your albums what you wanted?

Yes… it was kind of… we just did it. The company wasn’t especially aware of what we were doing.

The production credit for the first album list Andy Warhol as producer. I assume he doesn’t operate like Phil Spector?

No. This was “producer” in the sense of producing a film. We used some of his money and our money. Whoever had any money that just went all into it. Andy was the producer but we were the “executive producers” too. We made the record ourselves and then brought it around and MGM said they liked it. We just never cared to do it the way most people do.

There has been some bad reactions in critical circles toward narrative things like “The Gift” and “The Murder Mystery.” Last night, Lou said that he wasn’t going to do anymore of the narrative things because of the reaction to them. He felt “The Murder Mystery” succeeded. I do too.

I thought they liked “The Gift”. I don’t know. They might react against “The Murder Mystery” but “The Gift” is more coherent. I thought people liked it.

Do you perform either one on stage?

We used to play the music from “The Gift”, occasionally. We never did perform “The Murder Mystery”, it’s too hard. Anything involving narration is really ridiculous to try and do before a live audience.

Now with the third album you have some people saying, “now they’re on to Jesus.” Can you say that’s a progression?

No. It’s just something that you do.

In other words, they keep looking for another “Heroin,” or “Sister Ray,” and so forth.

I think the third album is a lot more subtle.

Exactly. There doesn’t seem to be anything that really comes out and grabs you like “Sister Ray.” (Excluding “The Murder Mystery” of course).

That’s okay by us. As an album, I think it holds up better than the other ones. The others, when you listen to them, something reaches out and hits you over the head, and something else drops back. The new album is a lot more cohesive. I mean why would we do another “Sister Ray”? For our purposes, we’ve already covered that ground.

Well, since you are now on the MGM label, some people thought you might have toned down because of some pressure.

That was only an administrative change so that we can use a different sales manager or something like that. Also, they have a prettier label, aqua and gold; those were my junior high school colors (laughter).

Which of the three albums do you like best?

I don’t know. It changes. Whichever one I haven’t heard lately. If I have been listening to one… for instance, I didn’t listen to the first album for a year… then I went back and decided I really like it. I’m sure no one plays much of what they do everyday. You just let it sit around for a long time, then you drag them out and listen to them.

It was nice last night when you played “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and later some new songs like “I Can’t Stand It Anymore.”

Yes, there’s all kind of things. We just shuffle them around.

Do you think the group misses John Cale and his presence or not?

Yes… no… it’s hard to answer.

I miss the viola.

Yes, but it wasn’t used that much, and it wasn’t an essential ingredient as far as we were concerned. Everyone thought when we first showed up doing that that it was a gimmick. It wasn’t that at all. You could get a sound out of it that we thought suited the song. It was used only for about three songs.

I think It’s a Beautiful Day makes excellent use of the electric violin.

The electric viola works better than the electric violin. One might say it’s an electric violin but it’s not. The electric viola registers a little deeper, so it has a nicer sound.

Have you heard John Cale’s Stooges album?

No, I haven’t listen to that yet.

Have you heard The Stooges at all?

No.

Have you heard John’s album with Nico, The Marble Index?

Yes I like some of the songs on there. I haven’t heard The Stooges album, I’ll have to do that.

They have some of the early qualities of the Stones way back when Phil Spector would sit in and…

… play zoom bass… (laughter) if they sound that good I’ll have to listen to them.

Which of the current groups do you really like? (Doug Yule interrupting: Taj Mahal)

I do? (Doug Yule: Sure you do. I thought you did.)
I’ve always liked The Byrds. I’ve always liked The Kinks. I like Dr. John’s first album.

Gris-Gris?

Yes.

(Doug Yule: The Rolling Stones.)

Everyone likes them. Let’s see who’s unusual?

(Doug Yule: Creedance Clearwater.)

They get sort of monotonous.

(Doug Yule: But they have some good stuff.)

Yes.

(Doug Yule: Just like us. We all have our ups and downs…)

… and all arounds

Indeed. And Quicksilver, I like them too.

Are there any groups you think have imitated The Velvet Underground’s style? or songs?

Yeah, everybody, kind of. It doesn’t pay to get into it, however, cause people might say, well you’re imitating Josh White, or someone else. If you release records you hope people will listen to them and whatever they do with it you should be happy about it. There isn’t anything to complain about.

What about people like Van Dyke Parks?

I dismiss him summarily. I don’t care what he does. I don’t think he has the credentials. Whatever he’s supposed to be doing – he isn’t good enough.

In the sense of a commercial success?

In any kind of success. If he’s such a great musician then let him go to Tanglewood. His work just sounds like some clever exercises.

He does a creditable job in co-producing Guthrie’s new album.

Oh, as a producer he might be able to do something. It’s that I don’t think classical music, or formal composition, if you will – needs people to release it on the unsuspecting pop world. If you want them to listen to that then go listen to Vivaldi or something Baroque.

But I don’t just sense the classical influence…

Okay, so he’s the great synthesizing mind of the 20th century, well he’s not that either.

Do you consider Zappa more appropriate to that title?

Zappa is incapable of writing lyrics. He is shielding his musical deficiencies by proselytizing all these sundry groups that he appeals to. He just throw enough dribble into those songs, I don’t know, I don’t like their music. I like some of the people in the group. Zappa figures how many opposites can I weld together. I’ll take this phrase from god knows who (i.e. Stockhausen – the magic name!) never heard of him. What is Zappa? I say Frank can I hear a song leaving out the garbage cans? I think that album Freak Out was such a shuck.
For instance, the following is something that would haunt me to the grave. He had this utterance in one of his albums – god knows which one – “I’m not saying I want to be black but there are times I wish I weren’t white.” Now how can anyone come on like that? And he just keeps going on. Now as a satirist, or something, he might be okay. Satirists are capable of knocking things. It’s a label you can hide behind. You might say that I myself am knocking him, well, not really. He’s doing something nobody else is doing. So in that sense he has his little niche.

There have been some comparisons drawn, somewhat outrageously, between The Velvet Underground and the MC5.

That’s a comparison that would drive me to an early retirement.

What do you think of the MC5?

I think seldom of the MC5.

Is there anything we’ve left out?

Well I don’t want it to appear that I’m knocking Zappa because too much has already gone down between us.

I thought his We’re Only in it for the Money was fun. It was a good satire on what they saw in the Beatles’ album.

Yes. But let me see him come out with something as good as Sgt. Pepper. If he comes out with one song that is as good as any song on Sgt. Pepper I revise my opinion. I can make fun of Sgt. Pepper. Everyone can. If anyone thinks that cover was clever, I have no art ability at all, and I can come up with one as funny. I mean here is what The Beatles did and without any stretch of the imagination one can come up with a parody. What Zappa saw in Sgt. Pepper was something good which showed real perception and talent, and lacking these attributes himself, he decided to do something else, and make fun of it. Is there anything on We’re Only in it for the Money that compares even remotely with anything on the original?

Well, the attitude of Zappa on some of the songs toward runaways seems more realistic that the maudlin content of “She’s Leaving Home.”

Yes. But Sgt. Pepper is still a great album. When I think of The Mothers I don’t think of anything they did – I just think of who they’re imitating. Who Zappa is deriving his horn lines from and so forth. The Mothers started out in the early days as essentially an old rock/boogie group. Zappa was doing what he knew best: old rock. There was a real good guitar player on the first album by the name of Elliot. He left because Zappa saw a chink in the social structure and he was going to fill the hole. For better or worse, he did it.

Well, he’s finally disbanded the whole group.

At last. The person Zappa always admired the most was his manager. He wanted to be his manager. Zappa is the kind of person who should be a manager or a publishing representative. He wants to be one of the really sleazy industry types. And he has some need for this too.

What direction do you want The Velvet Underground to go? Are you happy the way it’s going now?

I’d like to see us have a hit single. It’s really important that you do that. Our singles so far are a joke.

I thought some of the new songs you played last night have the potential to be good hits.

Everything, if perhaps not a hit, could be distributed. Most of our singles were never distributed. However where they appeared on jukeboxes, people have really liked them. “White Light/White Heat” as a single is nice. that single was banned every place. When it was banned in San Francisco, we said, the hell with it. That’s as far as it ever got.

You have a single out at present from the third album, “What Goes On.”

That was not a real single. It was just a cut put on a single. There’s a subtle distinction between what is a real release and what is a real real release.

In other words, a single produced for a market different from the album market.

It’s hard to say. It might, it might not. We have all sorts of strange things lying around in the can, as they say. We record them and get tired with them before they’re released. It happens many times. We get demos and we play the demos and get tired of them.

I think there is much humor in your music.

Oh, there is.

Many people, however, tend to emphasize the darker s&m qualities.

Yes, but this is not reflected in fact. We’ve made no attempt to dispel them but if anyone asks us, we say, no, don’t be ridiculous. We owe that legacy to Gerard who in his infinite wisdom did all kind of outrageous things. Suppose that title which we took for our name had been on a detective novel or whatever. It just happened that the book was about that. It was a really dumb book.

Many people consider the light show as an essential part of your image. Now that you are no longer associated with the EPI you no longer have any special lighting effects with your show…

… we got away from that. Actually we built the light show at Fillmore Auditorium. Bill Graham didn’t nor did any San Francisco entrepreneur. When we showed up Graham had a slide projector with a picture of the moon. We said, that’s not a light show, Bill, sorry. That’s one of the reasons that Graham really hates us.

In his recent book on San Francisco rock, Gleason says it (light shows) officially started in SF.

Marshall McLuhan gave us credit for it in his book. He’s the only one.

Right. I remember the photo he used of the EPI and Velvet Underground in The Medium is the Massage. That was quite nice of him.

It was nice. He showed the group that did at all. People like Gleason – he was one of our archenemies. They had the thing sewed up. The reviewer has a piece of the action. Bill Graham has the room, he has apiece of the action, too. San Francisco was rigged. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The fish being the innocent heads prowling around Haight-Ashbury. We came out there as an unshakable entity. I’d never heard of Bill Graham, in fact. I’ve never heard of him since. I don’t know who he is, I just thought he was an insane sob, totally beneath my abilities to observe. He just didn’t exist as far as I was concerned. An absolute nonentity. He knew what we thought of him. The day I arrived at his club, I was thrown out. I just walked in with my guitar and he said, you, get out of here. They told him , you’ve lost your mind, he’s playing here tonight. He said, get out, get out, you s.o.b. I wish I had. If any man really needs a beating, it’s Bill Graham.

He, of course, has his own defense mechanism. He’s currently telling everyone how S.F. will be dead without his Fillmore West.

Well, it was always like that. When we arrived it was an attack against their way of life. Graham made so much money that week-end we played at the Fillmore, that he didn’t believe it. That’s what blew his mind. We arrived, at a time before Jefferson Airplane was known to anyone, they didn’t even have Grace Slick yet. Everyone was nowhere at the time, The Mothers, and of course, ourselves. Warhol was the name at the time that made the impact with the public.

What groups shared the bill with you that night?

The Mothers of Invention, you see. The Mothers were following us around California. they also had an audition group perform. During the show, Zappa would keep putting us down, like on the mike he would say, these guys really suck. But Zappa is really a great guy, if he weighed fifteen more pounds he’d be in a hospital. No, he’s just a jerk. So The Mothers were chasing us around California so we arrived in Bill Graham country. He always had an audition group. The reason for this was he didn’t get any money. He would say, if you’re really good, I’ll let you play. This guy’s an operator. The audition group that night happened to be The Jefferson Airplane, whom he was managing. They wanted publicity and The Mothers wanted publicity because they were so many people capitalizing on our show that night. We were just a neutral party. We were going back to New York to greener pastures, supposedly, but when we got back our club was gone.

I understand you spent much time in Boston after that.

Yes, because we were so furious about New York and a lot of people who should have been behind us at the time but weren’t.

Were you there during the infamous Boston Sound period?

Yeah, Alan Lorber was responsible for that. He just wound up ruining a lot of Boston groups. Boston, however, is a really nice city, we have lots of fun there. It seems to have much more potential than San Francisco. So we played in Boston as opposed to New York City. Last time we played in New York was at the Brooklyn Academy, private parties, that sort of thing, superbenefits like the big NET one.

Have you been back to The Scene?

It’s closed. The Mafia was beating people up. They were having these incredible fights, thugs coming in. So Steve Paul just shut it down. That was going on at Arthur’s, too. The liquor laws work in such a way that if you have a trouble spot your liquor license can be revoked. So organized crime come in and says, I want a piece of the action, and they say, no, you can’t have it. So they just start these giant fights there. And the clubs lose their license. That’s what happened at Arthur’s. The Mafia people will even beat themselves up just so the police will come. That’s what happened at The Scene.

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9 thoughts on “Interview with Sterling Morrison

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