Sterling Morrison

Reflections In A Lone Star Beer

by Nick Modern, et al

The complete transcript of this interview originally appeared in SLUGGO magazine.
It was reprinted in NYROCKER July/August 1980.

Sterling Morrison
Sterling Morrison (photo: Lee Childers)

SLUGGO: What do you think of this music compared to what you used to play? Or what you're playing now?
STERLING MORRISON: What I play now is different. But this is very close to what we used to play. What I'm doing now is a diddling homage to old rock 'n' roll.

S: Do you think New Wave is new, or is it just a rehashing of old stuff?
SM: I'm afraid to say what I think about New Wave.

S: Don't be. Go ahead. Please.
SM: I'm worried a whole lot about it. People that have known me know that the major bitch in my life has been between rock 'n' roll and folk singers. That's it.

S: Is New Wave rock 'n' roll or is it folk?
SM: I'm afraid it's folk singing and this plains me.

S: What do you mean, it's folk singing?
SM: Well, let's drag Lou Reed into this. (Not to embellish me or diminish him.) Lou and I had some of the shittiest bands that ever were. They were shitty because we were playing authentic rock 'n' roll. If you were playing authentic rock 'n' roll in 1963 that meant you were playing the stuff that people think it's very fashionable to revive now... Old Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed.

S: Why do you say that New Wave music is folk music?
SM: Maybe I'm trapped by certain beliefs, but in the early '60s, on college campuses, you went one of two days. Either you were a very sensitive young person, who cared about air pollution and civil rights and anti-Vietnam or you were a very unsensitive young person, who didn't care about civil rights because all the blacks he knew were playing in his band or in his audience. I was a very unsensitive young person and played very unsensitive, uncaring music. Which is Wham, Bam, Pow! Let's Rock Out! What I expected my audience to do was tear the house down, beat me up, whatever. Lou and I came from the identical environment of Long Island rock 'n' roll bars, where you can drink anything at 18, everybody had phony proof at 16; I was a night crawler in high school and played some of the sleaziest bars. You can't quite imagine them in Texas - people didn't carry guns, that's the only difference.
In the '60s I had King Hatreds. I was a biker type and hung around with nasty black people and nasty white people and black rock 'n' roll music. On the other hand, you had very sensitive and responsible young people suddenly attuned to certain cosmic questions that beckon us all, and expressing these concerns through acoustic guitars and lilting harmonies and pale melodies. I hate these people.

S: Do you think we should go back to the basics?
SM: Yeah. When I talked with Joe Nick Patoski, he said, what do I think the future of rock 'n' roll music is? And I said, "Whatever's being played in garage band today." And I believe that! It excludes so much. What does a garage band do with ELO? Nothing. ELO doesn't exist. What do they do with Fleetwood Mac? Nothing. the whole joy of rock 'n' roll music was anybody could play it if they wanted to.
But the '60s fouled that whole thing up. Everybody decided to get good and they pursued virtuosity. The thing that ruined music was virtuosity - competence - as an end in itself. It means nothing. It was a very terrible thing.

S: But what were you trying to accomplish with the Velvet Underground? Just play music?
SM: It was self indulgence. We wanted to play a certain kind of music. However far we could carry it, more power to us.
We were fired from our first gig as the Velvet Underground. We played "Black Angel's Death Song" and the owner came up to us on a break and said, "You play that song one more time and you're fired." So we opened with it next set. The best version of it perhaps ever played. We just wanted to do whatever we wanted to do. And some people came up and said, "Hey, would you like to have a record contract?" We said, "Might as well."

S: Who in New Wave makes you "afraid" of it being folk music?
SM: Look at a recent Rolling Stone - it's happening to Elvis Costello: "You're rocking to Elvis Costello, but did you ever sit down, Jack, and listen to the lyrics?" Well, no Jack, I never sit down and listen to lyrics, because rock 'n' roll is not sit-down-and-listen-to-lyrics music! Why is it that the Velvet Underground's celebrated lyric-smiths never published a lyrics sheet? Was that to make you strain to hear the lyrics that you could never hear? No. It's because they were saying, "Fuck you. If you wanna listen to lyrics, then read the New York Times." It has nothing to do with the intellectual apprehension of content.

S: Everything I've heard about the Velvet Underground made them seem very gloomy...
SM: We used to play the Whisky A Go Go all the time, so how gloomy could we have been?

S: Well, "Sister Ray" still seems to me like a really perverse song...
SM: It's a good dance song! I presume that nobody can hear the lyrics - I did my best to drown them out!

S: Why do you have such an aversion toward people who talk to you?
SM: 'Cause I read books!

S: You don't believe you can get the same stuff through music?
SM: Anybody who needs Bob Dylan to tell him which way the wind is blowing is a serious mental defective. See, I go back to: How well can you hear the words in a rock 'n' roll song? Listen to Rolling Stones records. The words are mixed so far back... they are non-important. If you're going to rock music to learn something verbally rather than physically or viscerally, then you're in a sad shape, baby. Death to me - and one of the reasons I wanted to stop playing - was when when we had start doing these giant sit-down things - where you stood on the edge of the stage and you'd look at people sitting down, gazing up reverently.

S: So you'd rather have your audience up on its feet dancing?
SM: Yeah! Or else no one there - let's just have a practice. For that reason I like Kiss. If they would turn their flames on the audience, set fire to the first three rows, that might sorta wake them up!
... We had one protest song in the Velvet Underground and that was "Heroin". And we said, "Thank God I just don't care." You know - we don't like anything that you do - let's not get specific!! We don't want any of it, just leave us alone.

S: Do you still want to be left alone?
SM: Me? Oh sure! Solipsism has been the real threat to me in my life. In spite of the fact that I've said a few things lately in public, I've said almost nothing in ten years. Not because I couldn't, but because I didn't want to. I know what I think. It's not important for me to communicate.

S: Why did you start studying English?
SM: 'Cause it was my old major. Same as Lou Reed... that's how we met, in college dining rooms. Also, if you're a solipsist and you wanna live on your own thoughts, then once in a while you have to reload the data banks.

S: How come the Velvets were never played in New York?
SM: 'Cause we were banned! They didn't like our songs there.

S: So what did you do?
SM: We refused to play in New York. Now, anybody that's clear headed would say, "Well, we can't be played on the radio, so we'll redouble our live performances," you know, play every night in New York. We said, "Well, goddamn, if they're not gonna play us on the radio, we're gonna play here at all!" So we just went up to Boston.

S: What happened with the whole thing with Andy Warhol?
SM: Nothing. We just stopped doing it. We were always friends. Once light shows caught on, once they got the message, we said, "Why do we have to keep bringing it all in?" We were never separate from Andy. We didn't have to do it any more. We built the light show in the Fillmore West. Which is why Bill Graham hates us to this day. I could tell Bill Graham stories... I hate him. He's one of the people I really hate. Bob Dylan I hate.

S: Who do you like?
SM: I like the Doors. I like Jim Morrison, but for different reasons probably than you people think you like the Doors. I like Jim Morrison, he's real nice.

S: Yeah, but he's dead.
SM: Yeah, most people I like are dead. I like Jimi Hendrix, he's real nice. I like Mickey Dolenz. He was very far away from it all. he was real interesting. I don't know John Lennon, but I admire him immensely. Oh, I hate Frank Zappa. He's really horrible, but he's a good guitar player.

BYSTANDER: He's got a really shitty attitude. His attitude is similar to yours.
SM: I don't have a shitty attitude at all. He does, but I don't. Because he has an exploitative approach to life and I don't. Mine is just self indulgent. There's a world of difference. If you told Frank Zappa to eat shit in public, he'd do it if it sold records. I would do it if I like to. And if they told me it wouldn't sell records.

S: He came across as pretty Puritan - the lectures about drugs and stuff.
SM: He's purely venal. He thinks that elevates him above his audience. I don't take drugs either, which has nothing to do with religious scruples. I just don't feel like doing it now. I once asked a friend of mine if he took amphetamines, he said, "No, but do you know where I can get some?" That's my attitude about drugs. Lou does that on stage, too. He recoils in horror if people throw lit joints on the stage or whatnot.

S: In Houston somebody threw a syringe at him.
SM: What'd he do?

S: He got really pissed off and kicked it off the stage.
SM: It must have had a blunt point.

S: Whet do you think of how he is no? I think, musically, there's is no comparison between then and now.
SM: How could there be? How could Lou, seriously, be better off without John Cale, and without me, than he was with us? That was the thing in the Rolling Stone interview - "How can you explain the fact that it took your 'creative momentum' nine years to get cranked up as a solo act?" He was talking about record company problems. Well I could name a lot of reasons. How the hell much can he do by myself? There's a limit. With Cale and I, we were a real creative band. Lou really did want to have a whole lot of credit for the songs. So on nearly all the albums we gave it to him. It kept him happy. He got the rights to all the songs on Loaded, so now he's credited with being the absolute and singular genius of the Underground, which is not true.

S: Was Nico as vapid as she seems now?
SM: She speaks about six languages; English is her worst.

S: You can speak a lot of languages and still be a dodo.
SM: Well speak to her in Italian...

S: Did she come up with many musical ideas for the band?
SM: No, none whatsoever. We were together as a band, and then Nico showed up at the Factory. Andy said, "Oh, here we have Nico. Would you like her to sing with you?" We said, "Well, we couldn't dis-like it." That's how we became the Velvet Underground and Nico. She just came kind of creeping in. We knew that it couldn't last, because we didn't have that many songs she could sing. Lou and I cranked out some songs for her. "Femme Fatale" - she always hated that. [nasal voice] Nico, whose native language is minority French, would say, "The name of this song is 'Fahm Fahtahl'." Lou and I would sing it our way. Nico hated that. I said, "Nico, hey, it's my title, I'll pronounce it my way."

S: Did you ever consider pursuing a solo career?
SM: And what - be Jackson Browne? I can write about lost love and "desuetude". It's tedious. Who wants to listen to that stuff?

S: Why did you come to Texas? Why this hole?
SM: The perfect place! I didn't know a single person here, no rock 'n' roll person I ever knew, or was likely to know, ever came here. Nobody saw me for five years, no telephone for two and a half...

S: Why? Did you wanna get away from it all?
SM: Yeah. I was tired. I wanted to go back to school - to fuel my solipsism. I was tired of the lingerie salesmen, of sleazy club owners...

S: Did you ever make any money out of all this?
SM: Oh, yeah, but I spent it all. On loose living, as it's generally described.

S: Did you sell any records?
SM: We actually sold more records than people would lead you to believe. The first week we played with the band, we made like $18,000 - it was all in cash, and it was all in paper bags. So I went from $5 to $15 a day. I just didn't know what to do with all that money, but then we went out to California and spent it all. When we were there, we cut quite a figure.

S: When did you first go out there?
SM: '66. People were afraid to visit us. We were living in this castle up by Mount Wilson Observatory. These weird stories kept drifting down...


By Olivier Landemaine
Last update: October 25, 2008