An Interview by Johan Kugelberg
Maureen Tucker had a front row seat to punk rock history being conceived before her very eyes. An average high school girl from Levittown, Long Island, her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll when she heard the Rolling Stones on the car radio. From the Velvet Underground to Andy Warhol to Nico, Moe was there—making history herself as the first female drummer in one of the most revolutionary bands of all time. With Lou Reed by her side, they both share precious memories and a very sincere mutual admiration in this interview I chose amongst many others for its sheer authenticity and simplicity.
Lou Reed: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone go through so much trouble for a book about the Velvet Underground. Maureen , have you seen it?
Maureen Tucker: Yes! I have it in front of me!
Lou : Is it a little goldmine of information, tell me?
Moe: Yeah! While I’m thinking about it, It says in it that you and Sterl’ you played together for the first time in 1963-1964 . I think it was earlier than that?
Lou: I got my diploma in ’64.
Moe: Yes, and that’s where you met each other, you and Jim, my big brother, you both went to Syracuse in ’60 . Sterling was there too and you met him roughly a year after, maybe 2 years.
Lou: Yeah, because he lived with Jim!
Johan Kugelberg: Lou, is it true that the first song you ever played was ”It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” from Ike and Tina Turner?
Lou: I don’t know exactly, but it seems to be something we might have done. Many people think that Ike Turner was the first rock guitarist, so it’d be perfectly logical. But you know, me and Sterl ‘ simply adored this song! In fact I do not know anyone who didn’t like it. I’m pretty sure Maureen also loved it.
Johan: How did you discovered all those unbridled rock’n’roll albums that you were listening to before forming the band?
Lou: Well, I don’t know about Moe but in my case it was the radio, the radio or albums I heard because other people had them and were listening to them.
Moe: Yes it was on the radio as well, I lived in Levittown and there was not many … well, in fact, there was no record store apart of the supermarket, but they didn’t have anything interesting. Lou had a great collection of 45s! You remember Lou?
Lou: I remember, yes, I wonder what became of them……
Moe: The burglary on Grand Street! Don’t you remember?
Moe: Damn that was a blow!
Lou: You mean when we lost everything during our first concert at the Dom? While we were playing..
Moe: When the apartment was broken into and someone stole almost all of your 45s.
Lou: The first night we played there, someone knew there would not be anyone in the apartment because we finally had a job and they took everything we had.
Lou: Well, it’s not like we had a job we were getting paid for, but we were performing in an official way. And when we got back, there was nothing. I had ”Stay With Me Baby” by Lorraine Ellison and I had to go up to Harlem to find it because back then, no record shop in the center had that kind of stuff. At the time, John Cale and I were playing as streets musicians in Harlem. It’s amazing enough to imagine myself with my guitar and Cale with his viola da gamba, on 125th Street or St-Nicholas Avenue, or whatnot. God!! For my birthday Moe ”Bill” Bentley had given me the 45 original tower ”Outcast” by Eddie and Ernie.
Moe: Oh my God! It’s true!! Wow!!!
Lou: Yes, and it seems that they were from LA.
Lou: I don’t know which one was first but it probably had a huge influence on Sam & Dave. It came straight out from Eddie and Ernie’ world, who were pioneers, they were the first!
Moe: Yes, Yes! You still have it ??
Lou: Nah! Someone Somewhere, I dunno who, has in his stuff a sacred value.
Johan: There is indeed a little touch of Velvet Underground on that record from Eddie and Ernie. One can only guess to what extend you were immersed in the craziest of black music from the 50’s and early 60’s.
Lou: I personally think that you can take any Velvet track and if you scratch the surface a bit you will find blues and rhythm’n’blues, What do you think Moe?
Lou: Is this Maureen coughing ?
Lou: Well then give her a cigarette! Someone!
Moe: (Both laughing) Will you stop it?!! You’re making fun of me ‘cuz you stopped!?
Lou: I’m not making fun of you! I most sincerely empathize with you!
Lou: But yes, I stopped.
Moe: That’s good. You’re a good boy.
Lou: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that! I envy smokers every God-given day!
Moe: Did you ever play at Cafe Wha?
Moe: Was it not at Cafe Wha when Dick Gregory or was it…. a charity concert… or something like that? It Was Dick Gregory who had organized it all and they told we sounded like shit or something like that?
Lou: WOW!! But how can you remember that?
Moe: I believe that’s the day Dick Gregory said you weren’t worth shit, it was for the April Fool’s Dance and Models Balls with THE FUGZ at the Village Gate in 1956.
Lou: Wow! Yeah, that’s it! We are so shitty Allen Ginsberg himself came to dance around us with cymbals and all!!
Johan:Was it very frustrating for you that the album took so much time for it to be available?
Moe: It broke our heart! It was because if I understand … in fact there are 2 explanations, it depends on who you’re talking to but there is a version in which some Eric Emerson guy was on the photo at the back of the album and he wanted us to pay him 10 000$. So they erased it, and you will see when the album came out, it was no longer in the picture, though on other albums I’ve seen later on there he is again. The other one is that it took a year to find something ”Andy’s banana”.
Johan: We managed to get ahold of a Craig Brown. He was the person in charge of printing those album covers and he told us that it was a real nightmare having to paste the sticker with the banana on the cover of the album and that they had to rent a special customized machine to do it. It was very hard for them to put the bananas where they belonged.
Lou: It’s very funny, see, nowadays, of course, nobody makes bananas we can peel off, so it had to be to be some real technical feat back then!
Johan: Absolutely! It also was a huge cost for the record company!
Lou: Well, we never got anything from it anyway so I’m glad that at least it COST them something. (whom has rifled through the book) Ha! This is going to be a very expensive book!!!! You saw that Moe!! We’re going to be one of those huge coffee-table book filled with huge pictures!
Johan: I hope people will realize that this is the first time we do a huge artist monograph for a rock band, you even can put it next to a book on Marcel Duchamp or Magritte. The idea is to consider a rock band as an example of Great Art from the twentieth century as well as New York Art, because this exactly is how many people see you.
Lou: This wouldn’t hurt ..Right Maureen?
Moe: Yeah! That would be great! It would be fantastic!!!
Lou: A little late…
Moe: (laughing) Yep! Right on time!
Johan: You’ve both been active musicians and artists over the years ever since the time of the Velvet Underground, do you think, looking back, do you consider the V.U. as your debut as musicians?
Moe: No I don’t. I’ve never seen it that way. My debut… I can’t explain why, but no, it just never even occurred to me to see things under that light.
Lou: Well, quite often, in fact, as soon as I left New York! (laughs). Especially in Europe, much more in Europe than here. I think it’s always been the case for almost all types of music, such as jazz for example, that’s for sure. Europeans are simply more receptive to different stuff. I don’t know why. I’ve thought about it a lot and asked myself many questions…
John: I’ve always thought we could compare the way in which the Velvet was received, to the way we treated Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler in the 60s. Back then, they mostly played in France or Scandinavia.
Lou: Yeah, fortunately things have changed. Today Ornette has the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Award, and there’s the Lincoln Center Festival.
Johan: But it has been slow, it is still a common point. You were so ahead of your time it took a while before all these institutions finally wake up.
Moe: Yeah that’s great!
Lou: Yeah it’s been a good thing. It made me truly happy. I think that there should be a wing for the Velvet Underground, known as the ”Velvet Underground University” for those of us who are intellectuals. Personally, I would have liked for all of us, including Sterl’, to keep on doing small experiments. Nobody, no one among us could do alone anything that even comes close to what the Velvet Underground are like.
Moe: Yeah. That is true.
Lou: When you find other musicians and you feel there’s something going on, that something’s really happening, I miss that feeling tremendously.
Johan: I played a guitar solo that you did on ”What Goes On” for a friend of mine who was a jazz guitarist throughout his life and the first thing he said was it sounded like it was Albert Ayler playing guitar.
Lou: Now that was a very nice to say. I take it as a really great compliment.
Johan: And right away, I asked myself : Wow! Were you seeing your guitar solos as some kind of free jazz at the time but…heavier?
Lou: Absolutely! It goes without saying. That’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life! That’s what I was intending to do back then, I’m still doing it today and will always continue to do so . It’s exactly what I have in mind; Albert Ayler, Johan Griffin, they’re fantastic but to be honest it’s mostly Ornette and Don. Period. I always thought that the sound of distorted guitars felt like a sax solo. I could play pieces for brass you know. It was more or less the idea. What I liked is that the note was sustained. I could take a note then modulate it to catch the next or make it an acute and sharp sound and if I could do that, then I could pretend to be Ornette and keep on going. Even today you know, I can sing solos of Ornette such as ”Ramblin’ ” from ”Change of the Century”. That’s the perfect example of Ornette playing the rhythm’n’blues. I learned from the best.
Johan: You also liked this rhythm’ blues’ way of playing the sax that we would hear back then.
Lou: A lot. Very much. Like that sax player character, you know …Mr Lee, Lee Allen …I loved all the Little Richard albums in which he did all these solos. Even today I am in awe of these solos. But this is not what I wanted to do! I wanted to do Ornette! I wanted to do Albert Ayler. That’s what I wanted to I do using all these rhythm ‘blues’ arrangements . It was misleading because we have could have gone right pass next without even realising they are these small rhythm ‘blues’ arrangements but it don’t care..
Johan: You were completely successful and everybody has been trying to catch up to you for 40 years!
Lou: You know Maureen has almost invented all alone the fact of playing the drums standing. A real African drum girl. Still no drummer in the world knows how she does it. Maureen is very talented, and I think it is invariably underestimated by people. They do not understand everything else this way of playing has brought ! But her fellow musicians know! I think they should make a coin bearing the likeness of Maureen or something like that. This way of playing creates its own kind of rhythm and we didn’t even recognize her the credit when it is actually being reused by absolutely everyone, especially the younger bands. When I was at South by Southwest, I saw so many groups which played standing EXACTLY like Moe.
Lou: Absolutely! I imagined you being there and seeing that, roaring with laughter, because it was so cool It was absolutely your style, the way you play drums.
Moe: I’m stoked !!
Lou: And they darn well know where it’s coming from I’m telling you, they know it and they pay you homage! You can hear it non-stop,constantly. It’s a very particular rhythm and she, for certain, is the one who invented it, and she found it thanks to her and all those good things she listened to and I think we do not give her all the credit she totally deserves..
Moe: That’s very nice of you to say so honey!
Moe: I understand.
Lou: It’s just impossible!
Moe: I see what you mean..
Lou: It’s impossible, it’s downright impossible, and once we understand the fact that this is impossible, we understand why some other things are impossible too.
Moe: What makes me very happy in what you’re saying is that now I can be 100% sure you loved the way I was playing and what I was doing back then.
Lou: But how could you even doubt it???
Moe: Well, I never thought you hated it!! It’s just … It makes me so very happy that you thought it was real good.
Lou: Sometimes I happened to put on a Velvet Underground album and say: ”Now, listen very well to what she does, and how she plays ” But people can listen for hours without hearing it. Some people just don’t get it.
Moe: You know, what I was doing … the drummer, Orville..I don’t know if you remember this guy from my band? That’s the only person I’ve ever met who… I took his cymbals away so he wasn’t able to reach/play them.
Lou: You know in these parts of those electronic beat box that we hear today, if you listen well, the first thing that we get rid of are the cymbals. This way, we get rid of that line of barbaric drumming that’s always been played the same way everyone has always been playing them since the beginning… and for one reason or another … I mean I’ve had very good drummers whom I tied one arm behind their back to prevent them from playing this way!
Lou: And when I took their hi-hat they would get very angry and fly into a rage!
Lou: You know there are drummers that are very good at what they do but that should be told: ”Do not play the hi-hat, ever, ever, it is prohibited, it does not exist anymore, it’s just over!”
Moe: Yeah, eight or ten years ago, a friend of mine sent me a compilation he had done when I was about to make this girlie band-like album, you know and there were, oh there must have been 30 songs of girls band he had put in the comp so that I could reflect and see if there was anything I wanted to play and there were plenty that I had never heard and some that, of course, I had already heard and loved and after going through half of the tape or maybe more I’ve realized that I had not heard a single cymbal! It was like a revelation !! Holy shit!! I was right!!!!
Lou: You bet! And you know it eventually got to the point where you didn’t need them at all!
Lou: And it liberates the rhythm!
Moe: Yeah! That’s exactly how I see it. I always had the feeling that the cymbals were too much, like a nuisance. Drummers hit on them every opportunity they get and in a 3-minutes song, it can be done 3000 times!
Lou: Yeah they also blast over the sound of the guitar and there’s no good reason for them to be. It’s not the kind of music we want to play, we don’t need that.
Lou: There are lots of things we can do instead. But you know, to find a drummer who understands that is very, very difficult
Johan: Well, Now we will give Moe all the honors she deserves in our book through your own words. Have you ever played a duo? Just the two of you, guitar and drum?
Moe: Hum No
Lou: Maybe we should. I think it is important to say that Maureen has created a certain way of playing drums that should be called the Maureen Tucker Style. Understand? It didn’t go unnoticed amongst other musicians, they realised what she had accomplished and they are right for it.A friend of mine who happens to be a producer once told me: ”Listen to this beat. You know you should do your own album because you see, it’s you guys who have invented this kind of beat, and you should really do it because everyone is doing the same thing now.” And he made me listen to a load of albums and yes, we could hear it everywhere, the beat from ”I’m waiting for the Man”, basically.
Lou: BAM BAM BAM BAM!… This one. You know you’ve got to have muscles to play it, if you are too weak, you’ll just crumble down…
Moe: (Laughs gently)
Lou: Either way, I’m Lou Reed, President of the Society of Maureen Tucker’s Admirers.
Moe: You’re too cute!
Lou: Yes, my little bunny!
To end this well, I thought of posting a clip of After Hours, a song Lou wrote in 1969 especially for Maureen because as Lou stated himself, the song was “so innocent and pure” that he could not possibly sing it himself. She couldn’t do it at first in the studio with all the other bands member there, joking around. They had to evacuate everyone from the studio, except Lou who helped her to get it right. Tucker’s vocals are accompanied by acoustic and bass guitar. The style of the lyrics and the music is somewhat reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley songs of the 1930s. It is the tenth and final track on their 1969 self-titled album.
- From the NYPL LIVE/THE VELVET UNDERGROUND with Lou Reed, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, Doug Yule, and David Fricke (December 8, 2009)
- Vice/Moe Tucker Snapshots of the Velvet Underground by Legs McNeil
- Modern Drummer/Drumming With the Velvet Underground, Part 2: Maureen Tucker by Adam Budofsky (July 19, 2005)
- Modern Drummer/Drumming With the Velvet Underground, Part 1: Billy Yule by Adam Budofsky (May 19, 2005)
- Riverfront Times/Interview: Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground Sets the Record Straight by Mike Appelstein (Oct 18/ 2010)
- The Velvet Underground Live Performances and rehearsals 1965-66