The concert was meant to be a celebration. The greatest Rock and Rollers showing off to the world why Rock is the only way to Roll. Yet during the show to end all shows, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert, there was a terribly sad moment which went mostly unnoticed. Before the applause had died down when Lou Reed was introduced, he walked up to the microphone and said "This is for Sterling Morrison." and, with Soul Asylum as his backing band, kicked into the best rendition of Sweet Jane I've heard in years.
I almost lost it as the thought hit me yet again that I would never get to see the Velvet Underground play together. That I wouldn't get that interview with Sterling that I had been trying to set up in the past couple weeks, not knowing that he was dying of Lymphoma.
It's strange. I don't know why it affected me so much. Why I sat stunned in front of my computer reading a piece of email from a fellow Velvets fan, telling me the news, unable to even type out a response. Why I debated taking down my entire Velvets web site in mourning but then decided that it would be best if people could go there and look at pictures, read the lyrics to the songs he played: "Despite all the amputations, you could just dance to a Rock and Roll station..."
But no, it wasn't all right, nor would it ever be. The dancing helped, though, as I threw myself to the Sweet Jane beat.
And there was supposed to be another Velvet Underground reunion of sorts. Right here, in the pages of this very magazine, I was going to interview each of the original Velvets in honor of the forthcoming box set, Peel Slowly and See, and Lou's solo album that he just finished recording. The interviews fell through last minute, as they do sometimes but that didn't bother me.
Until I learned why.
Sterling Morrison, guitarist for one of the greatest rock bands ever, had died.
Sterling could give you an opinion on anything. And not some off the cuff remark but a well thought out, studied idea of the world according to Sterl. Of the members of the Velvet Underground, he was perhaps the most forthcoming, and the most interesting to talk to. And I mean talk, not interview.
Perhaps that has to do with his background, growing up in New York, being part of Warhol's factory scene, playing in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvets. Then going on to work on a tug boat (where he was the only one without a criminal record) and finally Dr. Morrison taught at the University of Texas including a course about J. R. R. Tolkein. He was as comfortable talking about literature as licks.
Sonny Vincent, proto-punker and fellow bandmate of Sterl and Moe Tucker said, "Sterling is really playing the hard core licks now. These licks are based on the musical diagrams that you find in any rock guitar book, but they're a little bit perverted, um, twisted. He really knows how to do some needlepoint and some great sewing. For people that think it's just all guitar playing and drinking milk, you're wrong. There's a lot of needlepoint involved," but then again, that's Sonny talking...
I met them about a year ago when Sterling was playing with Moe on her tour (they opened for Jonathan Richman). After the show, she and Sterl sat at a table in the back and signed the shirts and CDs they were selling. For Sterling, whom Lou called a "guitar hero," this type of scene was the reason he kept it playing.
"Playing clubs is great," Sterling said, "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...
"The real rock 'n' roll experience is not lip-synching on MTV, it's playing clubs. It's not being this little ant in a stadium show that is projected on to some sort of monitor. You play these big shows, you never see the audience. Well you do see them, when you come gliding in on your bus, you see them trooping along like a defeated army, and to me, it always depressed me."
From the onset the Velvet Underground wasn't about commercial gain. They were about art and making music by their own rules. And with Andy Warhol behind them few questioned their actions. Well, except for the audiences who often walked out of a concert confused as to what they had just seen. "The Velvet Underground never set out to be a commercial success," said Sterling. "We had built-in reasons why it was impossible. The only thing you can say to our credit is that it didn't stop us. We kept on going anyway."
I would disagree. There are many more things that can be said to the Velvet's credit. But you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't know that, now would you? Because Sterling was the forgotten Velvet (as opposed to Doug Yule who is the ignored Velvet). His contributions as one of the only founding member who saw the Velvets through to the end, were always overshadowed by Lou and Cale's, and even Moe's. His guitar work was instrumental in creating the Velvet's sound. And his even keel in the face of Lou being impossible, firing Cale, remixing albums, etc., helped keep the band from falling apart even faster than they did.
These conflicts would again surface when the Velvets got back together in '93. "Some people are a little more able to handle democracy than others," said Sterling, clearly among the former category. "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.'
"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."
It pains me too, Sterling. It pains me that you all will never get the chance to give it another go. It pains me how ironic it is that the straightest-seeming Velvet was the first to go. It pains me how few noticed.
I did, though.
It's generally appropriate to have a moment of silence in memory of the dead. But not here. Grab a copy of Sister Ray, or Rock and Roll, or Jesus even and let 'em rip. Crank up the volume to 11, where it belongs, and remember Sterling the way he was. As a rocker through and through.