Sterling Memories

by Doug Yule

The Velvet Underground fanzine, Volume 5, Winter/Spring 1996
©1996 Fierce Pup Productions, courtesy of Sal Mercuri

The Velvet Underground #5 Sometime in the mid eighties, the phone rings in the wood shop where I am working. It's Sterling. I can sense a certain discomfort in his voice but he is cheerful, spending only a moment on hi-how-are-yous. He invites me to join him, Maureen and John in a law suit to try to collect past royalties from the record company and Lou. I agree to become part of the group again for this purpose. This brief exchange is the last time I will talk to Sterling. The next either one of us makes any attempt to contact the other, it is me, trying to reach him after hearing that he his sick. His phone rings busy every time. He is off at a hospital, receiving treatment. Finally, when someone does answer, it is Martha, Sterling's wife. He is unable to come to the phone. I talk with Martha, and then to Maureen. A few day later, Sterling dies and with him goes the part of me that always assumed I would see him again, that we would play music together one more time and argue about whatever came up.

Sterling was the one who put the bug in Sesnick's head that eventually pulled me into the group. He was the one who wanted me to join the reunion twenty five years later to play the bass. He was a very fair if somewhat cantankerous character that I loved more than I knew.

Lou used to call Sterling Stella, sometimes lengthening it to Stella Stardette. The name was chosen, I think, to zero in on Sterling's reluctant need for recognition and the intent, while joking on the surface, was to control and diminish. Sterling never complained about it, never bitched about being kidded. He had a prodigious memory and an ability to analyze a situation while he was in it, and he always argued from a rational perspective, rarely an emotional one. I remember him in bits and pieces, little still-life moments frozen among the long dreary grayness of life on the road.

Sterling is sitting on the bed, cross-legged, leaning slightly forward with his forearms resting on his knees. The local alternate press is crowded around him, leaning in to catch every word. His eyes sparkle and he wears a sardonic smile; he's in his element. He answers each question as it comes, a note of incredulity lurking constantly in his voice as if to say, I can't believe you people have been fooled by all this bullshit. It is the central issue in his relationship with the leadership of the Velvets. I'm sitting on my bed with the young woman I picked up and shared a bed with but never touched, a rarity on the road but it does happen. I watch Sterling performing the act we have come to call "holding forth". He loves it. He thrives. When Lou or Sesnick is with him, he retreats, becoming quieter and more cautious. Even with them present he will dart forward into the conversation occasionally to correct some inconsistency or misstated fact. Rarely does he get center stage, the place he most wants to be.

Sterlin Morrison, Minneapolis, October 12, 1969 (Sterling Morrison Archives) We are sitting in the dressing room at the Whiskey in LA. Steven is lecturing on whatever subject he feels will be listened to. Lou, Maureen and I are listening, each making preparations for the show. Sterling sits in one corner, head down, intent on his fingers as he plays his sunburst Gibson 330, apparently oblivious to whatever Sesnick is peddling. In a tactic worn thin from so much use, Steven responds to a remark from one of us that "that's true on one level, but on a higher one, it's not...". Without lifting his head or stopping his fingers, Sterling says, "you've got so many levels, Steven, you should have been a carpenter". In and out, just like that; a verbal jab just to let us know he's not allowing any bullshit just because he seems to be otherwise occupied. This is the night we will come face to face with a dark skinned, soft featured guitar player after the first show who will tell us he loved the music and the energy. After he had gone we look at each other and realize it was Jimmy Hendrix and we didn't know what to say. The velvets were always musically inventive but socially unskilled.

In LA, I discover a little boutique with handmade shirt in trendy, flowered prints. Sesnick comes up with some money and I buy two of them. One is a plain cream colored crepe thing with a squared off collar. When I show it around to the rest of the group, it turns out that Sterling has been into the shop and bought the exact same shirt, only one size bigger. From then on, we consult before each show to see who will wear the shirt that night. The last thing we want is to appear as look-alikes. One hot night in Philadelphia or Baltimore, it is Sterling's turn and he wears the crepe shirt in a show where the stage temperature reaches 100 degrees. Sweat rolls off of all of us. At the end of the set, standing in the dressing room, Sterling holds out his hands, laughing in disbelief. The shirt, dripping wet, has shrunk while he played and the cuffs which used to reach beyond his wrist, now barely clear his elbows.

Sterling is standing in the airport in Houston, I think it was Houston. Next to him is an empty suitcase, a fact at that moment known only to himself. He stops the progress of the group towards the gate with the announcement that he will not be returning to New York with us, he is going to Austin in a few days to begin a fellowship there, to return to school and complete his education. We are stunned. I am stunned. How could you do this with no warning, this is like a knife in the back. Why did you wait till now to tell us. Why did you bring your suitcase if your not going? He explains, "I always said I would go back to school", as if this is reason enough for deserting. He wears an embarrassed smile, his head bobs about like a rear deck ornament in a full dress chevy. He looks like a six foot tall child caught with his hands full of forbidden cookies. This is the last time I will ever see Sterling. I will not know until he dies twenty five years later that he acquired a degree in Medieval Studies and picked up a tugboat captain's license. This last time together, he is once again in the position that more than anything else has defined his life, or at least the part of it that I have known; torn between the obligations he lives within and the path his heart wants to follow.
©1996 Fierce Pup Productions, courtesy of Sal Mercuri


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last update: October 25, 2008

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