This was an article written for art+performance magazine. As far as I know, it's one of the last interviews conducted with Sterling, about a year before he died. Many more quotes from the story are also available. Sterling said a great many things, I wish that I could have fit them all in.
"Cornflakes are not the innocent critters they seem," says Sterling Morrison sagely. He was one of the guitarists for the late Velvet Underground, so he should know these things. We are discussing breakfast cereal. Really. And then the discussion moves on to Wuthering Heights. Sterling says that "Emily (Bronte) was just shooting from the hip." He has a Ph.D. in English, so he should know these things, too.
And Moe Tucker sitting there beside him tells me that she doesn't just sing about buying Spam, she actually likes the stuff.
Moe used to play side-turned drums with mallets, as she stood over them laying down the rhythm that gave the Velvet Underground their drive. She also used to be a keypunch operator, and one of Wal-Mart's more famous employees.
"And most hated," she is not shy to add.
"Because I didn't keep my mouth shut?"
"About what," asks the reporter, coaxing.
"They way they treat their employees and they way they pay them; all the bullshit 'I love Wal-Mart's shit.'."
Now though she tours Europe (a continent where they really respect musicians with talent) and is starting to hit the U.S. more. Which is why I'm sitting here talking her. Allow me to set the scene a little. It'll just take a moment.
The mood of the evening was relaxed to say the least. Campy even. I sat in the dressing room for a while waiting for Moe to arrive for the show, watching Victor Delorenzo (the former Violent Femmes drummer, now playing with Moe) play Hangman with his daughters. He's good by the way. Got the word "peaches" in his first try. `H' first, then the `P.' Several bottles of Special Garten Brau, some Gatorade, and a can of Caffeine Free Diet Coke are chilling in the drink bin. Jonathan Richman is sitting at the table eating diner and chowing on these organic vitamin-looking things. They are green and look gross. But he eats them anyway.
Moe and Sterling show up around the time they are supposed to go on. The carry their own guitars. They say hello to Jonathan, whom they've known forever but haven't seen for a while.
Jonathan was 13 when they met him, or so the story goes. His first gig was opening for the Velvets at age 16. He just asked if he could play a few songs before they went on. And borrow their amps. And Sterling's guitar.
Now Moe and Sterling are opening for him. Times change. "He's better known, I think, than we are," says Moe, matter-of-factly.
Their show was great, for an opening band. A lot of Moe's solo stuff, which tends to focus a lot on blue-collar life, one song from the Velvet's days (Pale Blue Eyes) and a few covers. Moe and Sterling are pretty stoic on stage which really makes you wonder where their sound comes from. Because it is so intense. And so loud. And so crashing. And there they stand, rocking back and forth a little, staring into the distance.
Moe carries on Lou Reed's tradition of simplicity of lyric with guitar overlays. Yet her songs are filled with situations and not character description like Lou's work.
As a band they are quite together, much more so I think than on her albums. Victor comes down from the kit and plays bass for one song. He gets a disapproving look from Moe as he sits on the floor to do it, but explains like a child caught doing something, "I like it here."
And Moe looks like she could be your mom. Which she could. And there is your mom playing the bass for a song. And there is your mom with some shrieking feedback. And there is your mom in a rock band, singing for all she is worth. Not for the money, not for the fame, but because she wants kids to know that real rock music makes you dance.
After the show she and Sterling and the rest of them all talk to the audience. It's not degrading that they are selling their own stuff. It's what rock should really be about. It's what Moe and Sterling are about. "Playing clubs is great," says Sterling "People come up to you and say, 'Hey, you suck' and I say, 'Well, I did my best' They tell you what they think and you get to talk to them."
Which brings me back to the table where Moe, Sterling and I sit. It is a table covered with CD's and T-shirts. Moe and Sterling will sign anything you buy. And they'll talk to you for a while, if you like. We are in a lobby that overlooks the dance floor and the stage where Jonathan is now playing. He interacts well with his audience too, but in a much less personal way. He's still on the stage, you see. I watch him for a while from the distance, as he dances about and talks and sings. But he's not holding my interest. I'm talking to the Velvets.
Now the conversation at the table has turned back to literature. See, there was a University of Wisconsin student who was also helping to sell the shirts, and doing a good job if I may say so. His name was Chad, and Chad had a paper due that Monday so he was having Dr. Morrison help him with it. This is how Moe and Sterl interact with the audience. Off stage. Where they really can just hang out. "Modernism sets out to create things that you still have to call novels and defy every rule that you even thought applied..." lectures Sterling until he is interrupted by bassist John Sluggett (formerly of Half Japanese) asking if Sterl still wants him to play some 8-ball later. Sterl replies that he is going to spend a quiet evening at home and Sluggett asks, "Whose home?"
Moe meanwhile, was trying to deal with some dude who wandered up, talking like Bill and Ted and had a conversation that went like this:
Stoner: "Wait, you like had something to do with the Velvet Underground or something, didn't you"
Moe: "Yeah, I was their roadie,"
Stoner (with impressed disbelief): "No way, you were like a roadie for the band?"
Sterling: "Yeah, she was the roadie we always wanted to fire, but never quite got around to it."
Moe: "Actually, I was the drummer"
Stoner (with impressed disbelief) "No way, for like how long."
Moe (a little confused on that one): "Umm, the life of the band I guess..."
Stoner: "So, you guys like did a lot of drugs and stuff."
Moe kind of shrugs that one off.
Stoner: "So, you like know Lou Reed then."
Moe: "Yeah" [of course she knows Lou, she was in a band with him...]
Stoner: "What's he like?"
Moe: "I love him, but he's a pain in the ass."
And there it is. All cards on the table. Speaking of Lou, one of the biggest questions in everyone's mind tonight, and I'm sure most other nights as well, is why the Velvets got back together in '93, and more importantly, why they fell apart again so fast.
So, of course, I asked.
a+p: What was the best part of being back with the Velvets?
Moe: "Being together."
a+p: The Worst?
Moe: "Not being together. The end. That was the worst."[The sweet innocence with which she said that astounded me -ed]
a+p: How did the Velvets wind up getting back together.
Moe: "We've been getting more friendly the past couple years."
a+p: So how did they fall apart again?
Moe: "Same old shit."
a+p: What kind of same old shit?
Moe: "Arguments. Ego problems. Fax fights."
a+p: Fax Fights?
Moe (smiling): "We had a week-long fax fight. About how we weren't going to do anything. Every time the fax machine would go off my kids would yell 'Fax fight!' and run to see what he had said this time."
The fax fight was over the issue of who would produce the MTV Unplugged episode with the Velvets. An hour of TV which would have been totally strange. Lou wanted to do it, but Moe and John Cale (the original bassist for VU) realized that that would lead to a lot of fights, and they didn't want that. So Lou told them that if he couldn't do that he wouldn't do anything, and that was the end of the Velvet's summer reunion.
a+p (to John Cale last spring):What's it like working with Lou? Is it rough?
Cale: Well, I, I. (laughter)... what's done is done.
And the Velvets are done. No more doubt about that.
The problem, according to Sterling, was that "Some people are a little more able to handle democracy than others. Lou is among the least able. I don't want to make him the heavy, but people evolve or grow or whatever you want to say in different ways. Lou has sort of become very rigid in his thinking. And he would say in his own defense that 'I'm not rigid. I simply know what's right and that's what I'm gonna do.'"
He speaks about his friendship with Lou and Lou's current relationship with Laurie Anderson and then turns back to the Velvets "It sort of pains me, there are a lot of things that we could be doing that we're not doing because of weirdness. Not just Lou's, we're all kind of weird. We always were, and stubborn, and verbal. So some very mean things can get said very glibly."
Guitarist Sonny Vincent wandered through at this point and the subject changed...and changed...and changed. He's too much. A proto-punker who tours with Moe and has his own band called The Dons. He describes the rest of The Dons as, "Two very friendly chaps from Amsterdam who when they're done playing they're soaking wet. They like to eat health food and they smoke hash all day. It's legal over there."
He hands me his CD and wanders off. And slowly the band begins to filter to the motel. Victor has already taken his daughters home. Sonny is going to the bars first. John will probably join him. Sterling and Moe are going to go give a press conference for the 'real' reporters. One of them sees my recorder and asks if I want to come.
I decline. I already have the story.