"The Artist Formerly Unknown as Doug Yule"
by Jennifer Yule
Late in 1993 there was a much publicized reunion of what many critics and music fans alike consider to be one of the most influential bands of the sixties, The Velvet Underground. Articles about the band's history and reunion appeared in music publications, a box set compilation that spanned the gamut of The Velvet Underground experience was issued, a reunion tour was initiated and the band was inducted into the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame. Yet throughout all the fan-fare and critical adulation, one name was often absent, apparent perhaps only to the most observant Velvet Underground fan.
Doug Yule played with the Velvets from 1968 until the band dissolved in the early seventies. Yet he was rarely, if ever, mentioned during the media blitz that surrounded the Velvet's resurgence. Despite the fact that Yule was a contributing member of the band on two of their studio albums, two live albums, toured with them from 1968 through 1972 and accompanied Lou Reed on a solo tour in 1975, he is apparently not considered significant enough in The Velvet Underground history to warrant the mention of him in the chronicles of the band.
In 1968, the Age of Aquarius was sweeping America, and Doug Yule was drafted to join the Velvet Underground. Although their own brand of avant-garde, experimental rhythm and blues was not really part of the "peace & love" scene, they were a part of the growing influence music had on pop culture. This was due in part to their affiliation with Andy Warhol and also through the musically distinct contributions of viola player and founding member John Cale.
In their dealings with Warhol, the darling of the New York pop art scene, the VU found support and appreciation for their music, which Warhol eventually showcased simultaneously with film, light and dance, creating one of the most bizarre and unique artistic "tours" ever offered, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Cale was a child prodigy, a classically trained musical talent, who, with his electric viola, further added to the groundbreaking experimental sound that the Velvets were pioneering in the mid 60's. With the sudden and rather bitter departure of Cale, the Velvet Underground lost some of the cutting edge, aggressive sound that had endeared them to the Warhol crowd.
Yule played music from an early age, learning to play several different instruments before reaching his twenties. Even though he briefly tried his hand at acting school, he says he always loved music and felt most comfortable when playing.
"My reason for being in music was a hunger -- I couldn't have not been in music.", he remembers. "Playing music felt like I was home."
Growing up on Long Island in the late 50's, he remembers the cultural and personal impact of the literary movement, embodied in authors like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In the 60's music grabbed the spotlight and rock and roll became the center of the collective cultural universe. He moved from his familyís home and eventually landed in Boston playing for a band called The Grass Menagerie. It happened that his managers were friendly with the manager for the Velvet Underground, Steve Sesnick. Sometimes the Velvets would stay in the same studio that Yule lived in while they were playing in Boston.
It was during one of those visits, just prior to Cale's exit, that Sterling Morrison, guitarist and alternate bassist for the band, overheard Yule practicing and mentioned to the other band members Yule's improved playing. Once Cale was out, the Velvets began looking for a bassist and Yule's name happened to come up. The Velvet Underground, with their already established following, offered a prime opportunity for Yule to fulfill his rock and roll fantasy. When he was offered the opportunity to play in what was now essentially Lou Reed's band, he accepted without hesitation.
"It all just sort of fell together.", Yule says about joining the band. "And then it all just sort of fell apart."
Maureen "Moe" Tucker, drummer for the Velvets, remembers Doug as a "very good musician and singer" and "a very nice, sweet, even-tempered guy". Much to the contrary, Yule says he was a cocky and gullible young man of 21. Ready and willing to believe he could and would become a rock and roll star. He remembers that when he joined the thrust of the band was fame.
"Today VU is this seminal group, known for breaking new ground, pushing the envelope, but back then it was just a bunch of guys who wanted to be famous.", he says.
Lou Reed, who actually spent the early part of his musical career penning pop hits like "Do The Ostrich", began to write more radio friendly tunes for the Velvets. The music they produced became more melodic, calmer and most notably, more listener friendly than their previous offerings. The final product on the next two albums, the third self-titled album (sometimes called the "Gray" album or the "Couch" album) and Loaded, reflected those changes greatly.
"The songs were so completely different from what was going on at the time [during] the John [Cale] years.", Tucker recalls, referring to the Cale days as their "musically wacky" days.
It's because of this noticeable change that fans associate the more commercially accessible Yule years with artistic demise of the band, especially in the case of Loaded, even though in reality the group achieved little commercial success at all. Reed, who quit before Loaded was even released, distanced himself from the album.
Yet despite all the negative feelings surrounding Loaded, two of the Velvet Underground's most famous and popular songs known today, "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll", were from Loaded, which Yule not only performed on, but also collaborated on with Reed in terms of arrangement and production. Although Yule's musical contribution to the band's posthumous success cannot be disputed, fans and critics alike frequently blame him for the group demise.
Once Reed, one of the founding members, quit in 1970, many thought that the band would be finished as well. It might have happened that way if not for the Velvet's manager, Steve Sesnick. In an attempt to minimize Reed's impact on the album and maximize Yule's, Sesnick chose the back cover photo of Loaded, which featured Yule exclusively, and changed the order of the names of the band, featuring Yule at the top and Reed third. With the rights to The Velvet Underground moniker still in his hands, Sesnick could do just about anything he wanted.
"It was still The Velvet Underground.", Yule says. "It's just that everyone else had quit."
According to Yule, Sesnick was a manipulator, continually using his managerial power to isolate band members and intensify any resentful feelings they might have for each other. Sesnick persuaded a trusting and ambitious Yule that The Velvet Underground could still achieve fame and that Yule was the man to lead them there.
"I do think... that Steve started trying to make Doug the focal point.", Tucker says. "I think he figured he's cute, he's a good singer Öand that more emphasis should be placed on Doug in order to attract the girl fans."
It was this hunger for fame that permeated the recording of the infamous fifth studio album, Squeeze. Never released stateside, it is an album many Velvets fans don't even know about and others wish they didn't. Referred to sometimes as Doug Yule's solo effort, it was actually more of an extension of Sesnick than most people are aware of. Yule says he had wanted Tucker to be a part of the recording of the album, but Sesnick nixed the idea, claiming Tucker would be too expensive to hire. Today Yule interprets Sesnickís choice less as a monetary decision and more as an opportunity to further control the making of the album, seeing as Tucker would not allow herself to be easily manipulated.
"I donít think Moe would have been expensive in money, but too costly in terms of 'management', meaning that she didnít take a lot of bullshit and would have taken a lot of 'handling' on Sesnick's part.", Yule says.
Yule also recalls how receptive Sesnick was to outside ideas regarding the "new" Velvet Underground's work.
"I remember sitting on a plane writing extensive notes on the mixing of the album.", he says. "I sent it to Steve and none of my suggestions were taken, I'm sure he didn't even read it. He mixed it for the best possible commercial success."
Yule says that even some of the lyrics were originally suggestions offered to him by Sesnick which he then expanded on.
"It's really embarrassing.", he says. "I gave what I had at the time. There are parts of it I hate and parts I don't. But if I had to do it over again, it would be a completely different album, with different people and have nothing to do with Sesnick."
After Squeeze bombed, Yule parted ways with Sesnick and worked at Ivy Hill, a lithography plant, until 1975 when Reed contacted him to play on Reed's latest solo effort, Sally Can't Dance. Yule also joined Reed on tour in support of that release. After the tour completed, Yule met with Reed one last time in early 1976.
Yule vaguely recalls their conversation as being "unproductive". Reed was irritated that Yule had been working with Dennis Katz, Reed's former manager, whom Reed wasn't speaking to at the time. Katz was managing Yule's current project, American Flyer, a collaborative group that included Katz's brother, Steve. Reed and Yule haven't spoken since.
After the breakup of American Flyer in 1977, Yule worked for several years as a cabinet maker, moving from New Hampshire to New York and back again, wherever work could be found to help support his family. Then in 1983, while living in New Hampshire, he received a call from Sterling Morrison asking him to join a suit being filed against Reed for performance royalties. Up until that point, the remaining members had received virtually no compensation for their time with the band.
The suit was successful, the royalties were divided into equal shares and The Velvet Underground Partnership, a legal entity that represents The Velvet Underground in its entirety, was formed. Yule continued on with his life, the periodic royalty checks one of the few reminders of what he had been a part of.
Then in late 1993, nearly 30 years after he had joined the band, Yule was surprised when a coworker asked him whether he would be involved in the impending induction of The Velvet Underground into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unbeknownst to Yule, the Velvets had been nominated every year since they were eligible and were finally going to be inducted in a ceremony to be held in January of 1996.
Yule, who had heard nothing from his former bandmates regarding the induction, called the attorney who represents The Velvet Underground Partnership, Chris Whent. Whent told him that only original members were to be inducted and although Yule could attend, it would be as a member of the audience. He wouldn't be featured as a member of the band and would have to pay for everything out of his own pocket. Yule decided not to attend.
Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (or "Hall of Lame" as Tucker calls them) has been openly and often criticized for the arbitrary manner in which they chose who will be inducted, the slight was still a disappointment to Yule.
"I found out I was basically going to be ignored again.", he says.
This subtle exclusion of Yule was also prevalent in the media coverage that surrounded the induction of the band. Rolling Stone, in an article about the reunion that briefly outlined the Velvets career, simply failed to mention that Yule had ever been a member of the band, focusing on the early line up of Reed, Cale, Morrison, Tucker and Nico. Yet they still referred to albums recorded while Yule was member, calling them as "equally important" as The Velvet Underground's first release.
And although Yule was able to obtain a complimentary copy of "Peel Slowly and See", an impressive box set of The Velvet Underground discography which included recordings done while Yule was in the band, he was not interviewed for the liner notes that appeared in the collection. It wasn't until Rhino Records compiled a special reissue of "Loaded" in 1997 that Yule was notably acknowledged as having contributed to the band.
Despite the oversights, Yule has a sense of humor when discussing his time with and after the Velvets. He laughs when he relays a story about the reunion tour he heard from Tucker. Apparently, Morrison wanted Yule to join the rest of the band for the tour, not in the effort of fairness, but because he didn't want to substitute on bass when Cale was playing the viola. Reed and Cale decided against Morrison's suggestion.
The renewed popularity of VU has had some positive results for Yule other than slightly larger royalty checks. He was able to put together some candid photographs from his time on the road with the band into a Velvet Underground collectors dream book. Through Tucker he hooked up with producer Peter Weiss, with whom he worked on some material for a song cycle concept that follows a story he conceived. And at age 50, he began to learn to play the violin, something he has wanted to do since age 10.
"I just hope no one mistakes the violin for a viola and thinks I 'm trying to fill John's [Cale] shoes again.", he says laughing.
In fact, Yule says the only thing he really misses from his days with the band is playing with others on a regular basis.
"For me it's the playing. The only thing I miss about performing is playing with other people."
Perhaps if Yule continues to reacquaint himself with his musical background he will have the opportunity to play with others more regularly. For now, though, he remembers his time with The Velvet Underground fondly, and regards all aspects of that time with a large dose of humility.
"I have this friend who calls me 'The Artist Formerly Unknown as Doug Yule'.", he says. "I love that."
©1998 Jennifer Yule
Created by Olivier Landemaine