I Guess That I Just Don’t Know
Life with Lou Reed (And a Little Sterling Morrison, Too)
By Bill Bentley
Reading time 102 Minutes
I fell in love with Lou Reed twenty-one years before I ever met him
I fell in love with Lou Reed twenty-one years before I ever met him. It was in a small listening booth at Moses Melody Shop in Houston, Texas. In 1967 you could take the store's records into the booth and listen. For free. Nothing was shrink-wrapped then, so everything was fair game. I would head to the store after school and on Saturdays and spend hours there, lost in the sounds of the universe.
I always bought enough records to never wear out my welcome, but I'm sure the owners got a little tired of seeing me walk through the door. But it didn't matter to me. I had to hear what was new. The first time I went to the record shop was in 1956 when I was six years old to buy Elvis Presley's 45 of "Hound Dog." Something had exploded inside me after seeing Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show, and I realized that I couldn't live without the music. There was no other sure-fire survival fix for me. Without rock ‘n’ roll I was a goner, and I knew it from the start.
I grew up a so-called gimp in Houston. Born in 1950, I'd been hit with polio at birth and quickly realized my place was going to be on the sidelines. No sports, no girls, no swimming parties, no climbing trees, no looking cool, no nothing. Except music. When I heard Elvis, I found my escape and my future in one fell swoop.
Music has always been the great equalizer for me. The only entry fee into that world was a wide-open soul and enough energy to go completely wild. I would throw my life into those songs and shows with such insane abandon, I knew no one could outdo me on that playing field. No one.
So that's exactly what I've done the past 62 years. Jumped in one hundred percent with The Sound, whether it was rock, blues, jazz, soul, country, whatever: anything that hit my monkey nerve. To me, it's all the same: when I hear something that makes my heart race and my head feel like I will live forever, I’m home.
When I heard about a band called Velvet Underground, I sensed a strong strain of psychosis running through their veins and I knew I had to hear it all. Even with all the spiritually-enticing peace and love vibrations emanating from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and bands there like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service, becoming a high school hippie in Houston then was out of the question. Drug laws were Draconian and a majority of the population attacked long-hairs for sport.
So off to Moses Melody I went, searching for the Velvet Underground's first album with the banana on the cover. Even from afar, it seemed to promise a different way of life. In their dark aura and lyrical perversions, maybe there could be a safe place I could land. At that time in life, and pretty much ever since, I became a master of self-delusion, and pretended things could be how I envisioned them and not how they actually were. The Velvets, and especially their leader Lou Reed, offered that gift. It was music aimed at rejects, and that was me.
I needed to find a way into the New York band's world. The album came out in March of 1967, and by May I was working as an orderly at Hermann Hospital. My mornings consisted of giving enemas and sponge baths, changing bedpans, inserting catheters and often wheeling corpses down to the morgue in the basement. Starting work at 6:45 a.m., even for a sixteen-year-old, life felt pretty bleak. But once I found the album and made my way into a listening booth, it was obvious a new approach to living awaited. It would be one that stretched the elastic ethics of human behavior and twisted the notions of modern love. The songs created a place of hope for those without it. More than anything else, the Velvet Underground pulled back the curtain on the forbidden and showed there was no need for fear. With a good dose of courage and a vivid imagination, the possibilities were endless. From now on, anything went.
Lou Reed offered a sensuous despair doubled-up with a powerful danger in all his songs. Together with electric viola player John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen "Moe" Tucker, along with guest vocalist/chanteuse Nico, the band transmitted a whole universe of emotions, from birth to death. Suddenly being a reject had strength. No rock ‘n’ roll band had ever gone to all those places the Velvet Underground did. And being produced and managed by Andy Warhol, at least on paper, put their public persona through the roof. Reed and company opened the door on the real underbelly of America and were promptly hated for it. In so many ways, it killed the chances for their songs to be heard for what they were: the real rock ‘n’ roll future.
Living in Texas then, the chances to see the band live were next to nil. When the Velvets toured there in 1969, I couldn't go to the club they were playing in Austin because the Vulcan Gas Co. was off-limits per the terms of my court deal. I'd already gotten arrested with a small amount of marijuana, but it was classified a felony narcotic then and carried a stiff sentence of five years to life. I bribed the judge and got probation.
It was tough staying away from the Vulcan, because I'd become an over-the-moon acolyte of the VU by then. After the mind-expanding properties of the VU's first two albums, the third release overwhelmed with a softer explosion, one that bounced around the soul with songs like "Candy Says," "Pale Blue Eyes" and "What Goes On." By then, John Cale had departed the fold and his replacement Doug Yule brought more subdued strengths to Lou Reed's songs. Still, I wouldn't risk going to prison to see the band. I've regretted that decision ever since.
Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison quit the band in 1971, a year after Reed's departure, and moved to Austin to start his doctoral studies in English literature. What were the odds of that? As soon as I found out I started the hunt to find Holmes Morrison, as he was using his first name in Austin to keep away the VU curious. One afternoon he was interviewed on stage in the library auditorium by new media maven Dr. Joe Kruppa. But the set-up was strange.
The stage was empty except for a large screen, and Morrison sat in a chair somewhere behind the curtain, his image projected onto the screen. It all had a distinct Warholian feel, somewhat inhuman since the stage was actually empty. And there was no luck on my further search, as his fellow English grad students told me I wouldn't like what I found if I met him and declined to make an introduction. He had clearly alienated some of the laid-back Texas crowd in the English department. Their loss, I figured, and kept looking.
Three years later, I was sitting in Austin’s Cedar Door bar one hot afternoon and heard the man to my left launch into a vicious diatribe against Frank Zappa out of the blue.
As I looked at him, the person talking the trash had a big mustache and was wearing a Dixie beer T-shirt. Still, something said it was Morrison, so I leaned his way to ask, "Are you Sterling?"
He looked a little quizzical and quickly answered, "Who wants to know?"
I introduced myself and told him I'd been trying to meet him for three years. Over the course of a half-dozen beers I asked if I could interview him for the Austin Sun bi-weekly, where I was the music editor. Sterling said he'd think about it and gave me his number to call in a couple of weeks.
From that afternoon started one of the more interesting friendships of my life. As Sterling and I spent time together, I discovered a complicated man of many opinions and a steely view of modern life. He was a tough cookie with a soft heart. Sterling started sharing precise and unlimited memories of life in the Velvet Underground, along with all the trickinations at the Factory with Warhol and New York life in the 1960s.
His stories were stunning, like coming across a winning lottery ticket, for someone who saw the VU as the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll band in history. After a few months, I asked Sterling to join our bar band the Bizarros, and once he agreed the ride went into overdrive fast. Now it was days and nights of terrorizing Austin together, listening to tales of his fascinating life on the forefront of the new cultural frontier in the '60s.
He clearly had ambivalent feelings about Lou Reed, but also a deep-seated affection and admiration. They had parted acrimoniously, but the brotherhood lived on. There was no retirement being a Velvet Underground founder. In fact, Sterling had the honor of being the VU member with the most years, being there at the very start and lasting longer than even Lou Reed. He always held his head high because of it.
When it came time for the Velvet Underground to start recording their fourth and final studio album, they moved to Cotillion, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. The VU were the most critically-acclaimed rock band in the world at one point, but their sales were minuscule at best. No doubt there was a terrible tension in all this, because the group knew what they had accomplished musically, but saw the shore of success slipping further and further from their grasp. Fortunately, the new songs included future Reed classics like "Who Loves the Sun," "Rock ‘n’ Roll," "Head Held High" and "New Age." And, maybe most of all, "Sweet Jane."
Reed would later explain the yin and yang of his relationship with Sterling and it centered around that very song. He had just finished writing the music for "Sweet Jane" in his apartment bedroom and walked into the living room where Sterling sat reading a book.
Knowing the absolute irresistibility of the song's chord structure, Reed told his fellow guitarist he wanted to show it to him. At the end of playing the brand new "Sweet Jane" for the first time to anyone, he looked at Sterling hoping to get a strong positive reaction. How could anyone belittle this music, which would one day become iconic?
Nope, not this time. Sterling just gave Reed a flat look, shook his head slightly and asked, "What's with the fourth chord, Lou?"
By the time the album Loaded was released in November 1970, the VU did not include their center. Lou Reed left the band at the end of a show at Max's Kansas City in the early morning of August 24. His parents had come to take him home. "Sweet Jane" became a brand-new classic, but out on the road, the Velvet Underground played it without him. Reed might’ve not known where he was heading, but he surely knew it would be alone.
Lou Reed went on to become an utterly uncompromising solo artist
Lou Reed went on to become an utterly uncompromising solo artist, capable of following the “Walk on the Wild Side” radio-friendly glam rock of Transformer with the doom and gloom masterpiece of Berlin. I remained enthralled by his albums all through the '70s. I figured if you really have fallen for an artist, it isn't fair to pick and choose what you supported. It was in for a penny and in for a pound, and that was that.
I was also hoping to get a chance to meet him somewhere along the way.
When Reed finally booked an Austin show in '77, I asked Sterling to go. "There is no way I'm buying a ticket," Sterling steadfastly said. "I was in a band with the guy. I shouldn't have to pay to see him." Being the ever-gracious host, I bought Sterling a ticket and off we went to the Texas Opry House to see his old VU pal. Sort of. Once we settled in and Ian Dury and the Blockheads had finished their rousing set, out came Reed in full-tilt leather and, near the end of the set, a stage prop syringe, which he used to mime shooting up during “Heroin.”
Next to me in the audience, Sterling kept patting his stomach and saying "165 here, same as I weighed in the Velvets." Reed had put on weight and was heavier, and his former co-guitarist wouldn't let him off the hook. The last I saw Sterling that evening was after the show sitting on an amplifier case outside Reed's dressing room. He looked like the student waiting his turn to go see the principal because of some bad behavior.
Two days later Sterling resurfaced, and said he and his former bandmate had a civil reunion, though Reed had almost totaled the car he barely knew how to drive going to meet Morrison at a pizza parlor. In his self-centered mind, Sterling drolly explained, "That would have been perfect. Lou gets killed coming to meet me, and I end up with the blame for his death."
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to work at the L.A. Weekly, one of the first interviews I chased was with Lou Reed. He was coming to play the Roxy, so I wrote his publicist Barbara Shelley at Arista Records an impassioned request. It worked, and the day for the call from Reed felt electric.
But when the phone rang, I froze. His new wife Sylvia told me she would put Lou on the phone, and when she did, he said, simply and direct, "Now that you got me what do you want?"
I stammered around with a few inane questions, but in the end I choked, and I knew it. He wasn't in the mood to be interviewed, and I didn't have the goods to turn that reticence around. I beat myself up about that for several years, right up until I became his publicist in 1988 after I went to work at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank.
A few words about Reed and record labels: Lou looked at them as a means to an end. His early dealings with Verve/MGM during the Velvet Underground years were a nightmare. The label was almost in open warfare with the band and couldn't wait to get rid of them. Then, the VU signed with Atlantic, which left the group alone during the recording of the last album Loaded. Then Lou left the band before that album came out, so he didn't have to talk to anyone at the label – which was pure bliss for him.
It seemed like record labels were more than happy when Lou signed with them, but the day-to-day dealings with either the artist or his management took a toll on the relationships. At Sire/Warner Bros. Lou was a big signing because of his unmatchable reputation for being a true artist. Of course, as it got harder to sell his albums Lou would lose his clout with the marketing departments, which led to some testy experiences. But in the end, no one there doubted that Lou Reed was one of a kind, and while the staff was sometimes non-committal, they always respected his music.
When I first met him, Reed had just recorded the album New York, and it was one of his all-time masterpieces. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to be his publicist for the western half of the U.S. (That's how Warner Bros. did press: we split the country, with half of it going to the New York publicist). There was one problem: East Coast publicist Liz Rosenberg’s first phone call with Lou had reduced her to tears. She had booked him on the NBC music show Sunday Night on NBC without asking him. He let her know Lou-style that's not how things were going to work. So I was flown in as the new designated PR hitter.
When I’d first heard New York I wrote a gushing letter to Lou and mentioned I had been close friends with Sterling in Austin, and he had played in our band The Bizarros. So Lou knew who I was, and that I was coming to the studio in NYC to do an interview with him about the New York album that would be distributed to radio and press people. He was waiting for me to arrive, and Sylvia told me he’d liked the letter I’d sent.
That day going to meet him I had the jitters, but I just went back to all my Sterling Morrison stories about the VU days and figured I'd been primed by Morrison the Master. (I used to joke that with Sterling's tutelage I'd gone to grad school at VU.)
Walking into the studio control room in November 1988, Lou took one look at me, crooked his finger and said, "Come with me." In a not-too-welcoming tone. No hello or even introductions.
We went to a back room and he said, point blank, "Sterling remembers everything and I remember nothing. Do we have that clear?"
Lou had to mark his rules. He was like that: he liked to set the boundaries, with no questioning what was outside the lines, so he did that with me. But I didn't overreact. I just said, "Absolutely, Lou."
That night we started a friendship which lasted 25 years, without a harsh moment between us. (Well, maybe one – I’ll get to that.) But it went right up until his death in 2013. Sure, there were highs and lows during Lou's long run at Warner Bros., but I always stayed an ally. I'd like to think he trusted me, but with artists it's best not to flatter yourself. Relationships can turn on a dime, but with Reed it was always deep. He was full of such startling insights, often thrown off as seemingly unimportant asides.
During our first discussions about the songs on New York, he talked a lot about how much rewriting he'd done, and how proud he was of what he accomplished. When I mentioned the song "Halloween Parade," where he sings about the ravaging results of the AIDS epidemic in his crowd, I mentioned the line, "The past keeps knocking on my door," and how devastating it sounded in the song.
Lou gave me a deep look, adding, "I got out just in time." As a person and as a lyricist, Reed could sum it all up in a few blunt, beautiful words. It taught me to keep my ears wide-open at all times, because those thoughts could come in an instant and disappear even quicker.
Lou Reed was a singular person. He always remained committed to the possibility that he could do whatever he wanted. When he couldn't, he would change everything and approach his career from another angle. During a personal dilemma over a recording project he once told me, "Never let anyone tell you anything, or change what you're doing." He lived by those words. In a business where everyone has an opinion and not shy about sharing it, the only one that ultimately mattered to Lou Reed was Lou Reed's.
The day in 1988 I found out that Lou Reed was joining the Warner Bros. fold felt like a massive lightning bolt shot through my entire cerebral cortex. When you work in the music business, there is no finer payoff than getting to represent one of your main inspirations. To get to be Lou Reed's publicist felt like all the various hijinks of my 38 years on planet Earth were worth it. And once I heard the New York album via a nondescript clear plastic advance cassette, I knew the golden road had opened up. There were several serious fans of the man at Warner Bros., but none as psychotic as me. I knew this was a life-changer.
Those adventures with Lou (and Sylvia Reed, his wife and manager at the time) really started around Christmas of 1988. New York was bursting at the seams with holiday spirit, and I was walking on air as well. I'd fly from Los Angeles to New York, check into the Omni Berkshire hotel near Saint Patrick's Cathedral, stop by Colony Records on Broadway to buy Lou an album I thought he might like and then head uptown to their apartment on the 17th floor at 424 West End Ave. I'd buy him a CD every time I went there - O.V. Wright, Bobby Bland, Lee Dorsey. Lou loved classic R&B and soul. One time I found the single of Eddie & Ernie's "Outcast." That flipped him. Sterling had told me once in their early pad on Ludlow Street in '66 that Lou got so excited listening to it he ripped it off the little record player and took a bite out of it!
I knew after first foray out things were going to be different. We headed to a club on Long Island so Lou could sit-in with The Feelies, a band who clearly were influenced strongly by the Velvets. Reed always appreciated the attention and was encouraging to young bands.
Somehow our town car ended up on the tarmac of JFK for one of the freight airlines. The driver had no clue where we were going and I could see Lou getting agitated, but he kept it at a low boil. He would look at Sylvia and send a secret signal he was not happy. Later I'd notice in gridlock Manhattan traffic, stopped at a red light with nowhere to go, he'd turn to his wife in the car and say, "Sylvia, we're not moving." Never mind that there was nothing to be done.
Stuck on the JFK tarmac that night, Lou, like a pro, suggested we go to an arrival area at JFK, then hire a taxicab to drive to the club which our town car would follow. I remember thinking, boy, this guy could have been a Boy Scout.
Once we found the spot, Lou walked onstage, plugged in his guitar and played blistering versions of the Velvets’ "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together," "Sweet Jane," "White Light/White Heat" and, just for kicks, his new song "Dirty Blvd." For about 300 people.
I kept watching the stage and the audience – and my own reactions in a bar mirror. I'm pretty sure I'd levitated a few inches off the ground. I could feel the blood racing through my body, and I experienced it all the way back to Manhattan, when Lou insisted on stopping at Gray's Papaya uptown for double hotdogs.
New York became Reed's third act
New York became Reed's third act, following the Velvet Underground years and the early-‘70s success of "Walk on the Wild Side." Lou knew when he had re-entered that zone. His laugh came more often, his cynical side took a small vacation and Reed almost looked forward to talking to the press about the music he was so proud of creating. Sometimes.
As we first entered the interview sweepstakes with the new album, he insisted I stay in the room with him and the journalists. We figured out a few hand signals when he wanted to pull the plug on the person quizzing him, and if that didn't work he wasn't afraid to go with the nuclear option.
One bright January morning in '89 in Warner’s' Burbank office, the first writer of a long day of press started the conversation by asking Reed what it felt like to be gay in high school. (This was after the journalist agreed to stay away from personal questions.) Lou gave him a withering lethal look. I could tell he was calculating the damage of dropping an interview-ending answer on the writer.
"Well," Reed said, drawing out the word, "It's probably not that much different from being fat and ugly like you so obviously were back then." Then he took a deep drag on his cigarette, a long pull on his Kaliber non-alcoholic beer, and walked out of the room. At least he didn't throw a punch.
And that's what the press vs. Lou Reed escapades were like. It seemed like so many of the writers were gunning for Reed, trying to live in the same light as Lester Bangs' verbal tangles with the artist during the '70s. It was a futile road to walk, because no one got the better of Reed. Ever.
The '90s brought one of the bigger surprises of Lou Reed's long musical life: a reunion with fellow founding member of the Velvet Underground, John Cale. Reed and Cale had a bad end in the VU, with Cale getting pushed out for reasons Reed never explained. It just ended. Now all these years later the two were writing songs in honor of their late mentor Andy Warhol, and having a grand time of it.
So much so the Velvet Underground was reunited, against all odds, and actually toured Europe before the inevitable implosion. Before the tour, though, there was a spontaneous leap onto the stage at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, after the opening of an exhibition in the City of Lights celebrating The Factory.
Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker had traveled to Paris to be part of the opening day, and somehow managed to drop all residual hard feelings from the '60s. Tucker never had any issues, but the three men sure did. In Paris, everything went away, so by the time they took the stage to play an ominous version of "Heroin," it was as if nothing ill had ever happened. All four were absolutely buoyant, with the men's wives and Tucker's daughter Carrie watching.
At dinner that night, with Factory stalwart Billy Name and Nico's grown-up child Ari, everyone acted like it was 1967 and the world lay spread before them. Through the graces of Warner Bros. Records' expense accounts, I managed to pick up the tab, walking home on the dark Paris streets in a dream state. Did it all really happen that day? I got to see the Velvet Underground perform "Heroin" live, and then bought them dinner in Paris. Have mercy.
Things started amping up after Paris, and it wasn't long before an European tour by the Velvet Underground was a reality. Rehearsals were held, the shows started and what had seemed like the perfect idea quickly stumbled. Sterling Morrison said it felt like the VU were now Reed's backing band, and some of the decades-old resentments started to flare up, onstage and off.
By the time the band returned to the States and began talking about a VH1 special, the slippage got so swift the VU was R.I.P. Again. The live double-album from the European shows came and went, and Lou Reed was again a solo artist.
The Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed relationship had been one full of tension and after the '60s, distrust. Both grew up on Long Island, had met in college, but were really worlds apart. Morrison stayed fixed on getting his Ph.D his entire adult life, working on it fourteen years until he finally finished his studies and wrote a dissertation. Reed went the total rock ‘n’ roll route, and never looked back. When the VU reissues started coming out in the '80s, Morrison claimed he'd never signed the contract to allow them, and the lawyers jumped in to try and figure it out.
While those battles progressed, Morrison moved to Houston and became a captain on a tugboat at the Houston Ship Channel, a far cry from The Factory and rock ‘n’ roll infamy. At its deepest level, though, Lou and Sterling were brothers bonded by an insatiable urge to create music at its most original, and were melded together by the determined, obstinate desire to never compromise. Brothers fought, and often drifted apart.
But when Morrison was dying back at his wife Martha's house in Poughkeepsie in 1995, Lou Reed took the train there from Manhattan to hold his hand and tell him he loved him. He wrote a story about Morrison in the New York Times magazine, calling him his "Vulcan warrior," and meant it. The connections formed in a person's twenties are sometimes never surpassed, and both Velvets knew it. Fight? Sure. Fix it? Sometimes. Forgive? Always.
Lou was not looking back after the Velvets' reunion crumbled. One morning we went over to tape an interview with Bryant Gumbel for The Today Show. He was interviewing Lou about Songs for Drella, Warhol and the whole '60s Manhattan smear. Guitarist Mike Rathke was there on camera as well, even though he was never asked a question and didn't say a word the entire interview. It was TV- perfunctory. Gumbel didn't know and didn't really care about any of it but being a pro he tried. At the end of the segment he thanked "Lou Reed and John Cale" for coming in and held up the album like the good sport he was. Walking off the floor, I had to go to Gumbel to tell him John Cale wasn't there, even though he was Lou's partner on the album, but rather it was Mike Rathke on the set. Gumbel kept walking, telling me over his shoulder, "That's okay, everybody knows I make mistakes." End of story. I got a good television lesson that day – facts don't really matter – and Lou didn't seem to mind either.
In 1992 Lou recorded Magic and Loss. He'd lost two close friends – Factory stalwart Rotten Rita and songwriting legend Doc Pomus – and was scrambling to find a way through the pain. While Lou didn't really show those emotions in public very often, it had shook him down deep and he needed a way to respond in song.
Warner Bros. wasn't sure how to cope either, but that was because promoting a whole album about death wasn't what they had in mind to follow New York, the only gold album Reed ever received. But being basically an artist-friendly haven, the label did their best and I raced into the press world to carry the flag and point out the music's amazingness.
When I lost a best friend and told Lou, he just looked at me and said, "Magic and loss, Billy B. Magic and loss." Sure enough, the more I thought about it the clearer it became. When Lou and the band went back to The Today Show to tape the song "Power and Glory" for broadcast the next day, a buzz saw had been fired up and was waiting to be walked into.
Lou told me arriving at the studio that morning at 6:30 a.m. he'd been up all night. "These early shows I approach from the other side. My voice is too scratchy if I've slept." Smart man, and once again, common sense ruled the day.
He'd also added jazz singer Jimmy Scott to the band, which was a genius move that perfectly matched the music. Jimmy had been one of Doc Pomus' dearest friends, and the songwriter had put in his will that when he died, Scott would sing at his funeral, knowing all the record executives who refused to sign Jimmy to a deal for so many years would be marveled by the man's voice and do exactly that. And it worked. Sire Records' Seymour Stein offered Scott a recording contract the day after the funeral, and Lou added him to his group almost as fast.
That morning at The Today Show, though, the song worried the staff from the first note at the sound check. It was clearly about dying, and that plus Scott's otherworldly voice and unique stage demeanor had these hardened stagehands shooting each other looks like, "What the hell is going on? People can't eat their eggs and put on their make-up to this. Death doesn't sell at 8 a.m."
Sure enough, the next day I got a call from the show that the song would not be used. Now what? I got my anger up, wrote a letter to show producer Jeff Zucker pointing out that their talent booker had heard the song and agreed it worked beforehand. He wrote back saying, basically, that's show biz, kid. I tried another letter and turned it up a few degrees, and never got a response. No surprise there. (Zucker went on to become head of NBC and then CNN, and I'm pretty sure I got put on the show's "no fly" list for a while.) Somewhere in NBC's musty vaults that tape of Reed, Scott and "Power and Glory" most likely exists. Here's hoping it shall see daylight in this lifetime.
One of the wonders of Lou Reed was that he did not let obstacles stop him. They just made him stronger. He had grown up leaning into the wind, whether it was his parents' disapprovals or critics insulting his music. It mattered to Lou, but not enough to stop him. And the life-changing moment when he and artist Laurie Anderson joined as a couple in the first half of the '90s set the course for the rest of his life.
In ways that weren't always explainable, it was like their union gave Lou an inspiration to become even bolder, and to explore other sides of his talents like photography with as much passion as he put into music. It supplied Lou with a renewed spirit.
It was pretty apparent at Warner Bros
It was pretty apparent at Warner Bros. that most of the top level of executives who really respected Lou Reed’s artistry had moved on in the housecleaning of the Time/Warner/AOL merger years. By the time Set the Twilight Reeling was released in 1996, a new day had dawned at 3300 Warner Boulevard. Chairman Mo Ostin and President Lenny Waronker were gone, and Reed was concerned how the new crew would promote him.
He asked me to arrange a meeting with one of the label leaders, and then also asked me to come to that meeting. I could feel the sweat start rolling down my back. Things that day started out okay; the meeting was on time and the artist wasn't frowning. Reed and the exec started talking about Greenwich Village, and then Lou popped the question: "So what is the label going to do for an older artist like me?"
I squirmed in my chair an inch and held my breath. The exec's eyes started squinting, knowing he was on the hot seat. "Well," he said, "opportunities come from all kinds of places, not always expected. Take Eric Clapton. When he recently lost his son in an accident, his song 'Tears in Heaven' came out and was a smash."
Oh no. Lou gave me the wise eye, signaling it was time to leave. I was able to get us out of the office without any harsh words, but on the long walk back to my area Lou just looked at me with a certain sadness and said, "Billy B., I thought I was cold."
I sensed the days of peaches and cream were over for Lou at Warner Bros., and I wasn't far wrong. Set the Twilight Reeling came out in 1996, and Lou insisted the first single be "Sex with Your Parents." That was pretty much the end of that album.
The brilliant follow-up, Ecstacy, came out four years later, and the title-song single included an astonishing video made by a Reed friend, who unfortunately did not get releases signed by all the civilians in the streets so it couldn't be officially used.
By now there was no way around it: Lou Reed was damaged goods at Warner Bros. Lou knew it too, but didn't flinch. In fact, he decided to record a double-album titled The Raven, based on the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Really. No one seemed to give it much notice. I could feel the coldness whenever I brought up the album in company meetings. I even got tagged "the King of Lost Causes" in one of them, but inside I knew that was likely the highest honor you could ever receive, and I learned that from Lou.
The Raven had issues before it ever came out. For starters, it was a double album, which often sold less. And it consisted mostly of spoken word performances, with Poe's poems the inspiration and center of every sound on it. Guests ranged from Willem Dafoe and the Blind Boys of Alabama to Steve Buscemi and Ornette Coleman. By then Lou had burned several bridges at the different label departments, and while there were still believers at Warner Bros., they were just a little harder to find and weren't very high in the corporate food chain.
By 2002, business politics at AOL-Time Warner had become a contact sport and everyone was looking out for themselves. It wouldn't be long before a new owner would swoop in and turn things upside down. The latest label chairman was doing his best to bring the troops together, but it wasn't moving as fast as needed to get an album like this the attentive support it needed. It was decided a big executive meeting was necessary to give Reed the confidence he was looking for to even let the album be released.
Lou told me he just couldn't go through watching it die on the vine. I tried to convince him that to let it languish on the recording studio shelves would eat at him the rest of his life. And who knows, maybe someday they'll be teaching it in colleges. He waved me away. "Seeing one of your albums fail," he said, "was like watching someone murder one of your children."
The day of the big meeting of the WB heavyweights came, and they threw in all the way, explaining all the different promotional ideas they had and how it was a chance to show a whole new side of Reed, and the label's commitment to a true rock ’n’ roll original. Not long after, company lay-offs started when new owners moved in, and The Raven barely made a squawk. To his credit, Reed never brought up my lobbying heavily on the side of not shelving the album.
For several years, Lou Reed had become an ardent student of Tai Chi. It gave him a physical and mental focus that almost defied gravity. His three-hour workout with heavy swords led to a continuing relationship with Master Ren, a Chinese champion who not only guided Lou through his studies but also became part of his live concerts.
It wasn't every day at a rock ‘n’ roll show that a Tai Chi master in full-on robes came onstage with the band to participate in the show. There was a bit of skepticism with some of the Reed audience to say the least. But his love of martial arts was heartfelt. When Reed went to Austin to deliver the keynote address at Austin's SXSW music conference in 2008, hours-long tai chi sword workouts were part of his daily regimen.
For that, Lou needed a large empty hotel conference room without carpets. Staying at the Four Seasons in Austin, he asked for my help in getting such a room. Off we go to the concierge in the lobby, and that guy just happened to be an old friend of mine. Lou was standing behind me when I explained his request, and halfway through my spiel the concierge started laughing. Oh no, I instantly thought, this is not going right. So Lou gently moved me aside, stepped up to my friend's desk, and simply stated, "Listen motherfucker, does it look like I'm kidding?!?" Within five minutes Lou had his room and went to get the swords.
Later that night a live film of his performance of Berlin at St. Ann's Warehouse in New York was being screened at the prestigious Paramount Theatre downtown. At the sound check, there were problems with the audio system. It just wasn't up to Lou's expectations, and I could see a dark cloud roll in front of his face. He was horrified that something he'd worked so hard on would be presented under less than optimal circumstances. Once he found the presentation producer Reed pulled the pin on a few verbal grenades and lobbed them in her direction.
I could hear the argument halfway across the empty theatre, and the next thing I saw was the producer in tears. This was definitely turning into a nightmare, with Lou suggesting we pull the plug on the entire event that night and go to dinner instead. Cooler heads prevailed, more sound equipment was brought in, and by the end of the screening there was a five-minute standing ovation for the film. And Lou was even smiling.
On that same trip, Lou chewed me out for the only time. We were at dinner with some of his pals and I related the story of how Lou asked the writer interviewing him if he was fat and ugly in high school. The next day while leaving the hotel Lou did the "come with me" command that he’d done when we first met. He looked at me and said, "Never tell anyone anything that ever happened in the past. Got that?" Yes, Lou.
Lou didn't show much emotion in public, unless he really liked something and then he was the first and the loudest to say so. But I often thought he had a high vulnerability in life, and his way of dealing with it was to be tough and sometimes aloof. That didn't mean he didn't have feelings, but he just chose to keep them to himself. If he was displeased about things, whether it was sound, stage set-up, advertising or – heaven forbid – sound mixes, he said exactly what he thought, and in a way that would get heard. He never settled for less than what he expected things should be.
Once we went to see the play Jersey Boys on Broadway. He was overcome by the sensitivity of the story and I looked over to see him in tears. Show business was something that was his life, in so many ways, and he always stayed open to what others went through and how it affected him deeply. He would talk about the inequities of what blues and soul artists went through and try to help when he could. He tried to get Warner Bros. Records to sign Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons, now known as Anohni), to no avail.
Lou wasn't so much a loner, but someone who preferred only one or two people to be with. He was wary of crowds of people he didn't know. Once someone stopped him on Broadway near his apartment and started laying a long rap on him about how Lou's music saved his life. I tried to be sympathetic listening. Finally, Lou just took hold of my coat collar and steered us away. I learned a lesson that night: never let a stranger get too close.
A few years before the SXSW trip
A few years before the SXSW trip, I’d known it was time to try pulling a large rabbit out of a hat for a new Reed release, so I went back to the playbook and saw that live albums had usually done well for Lou. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal still made waves, so I thought, ‘Why not try it in 2004?’
I scribbled down a sort-of budget of $100,000, which I'd never done before, and attempted to get a meeting with the label chairman for his approval. And tried. And tried. But nothing. No meeting, no call backs, no emails. Radio silence.
It was down to the wire – a week before Reed and company would play Los Angeles' Wiltern Theatre, and my hopes were shrinking. I heard in the back of my mind Lou saying, "Don't quit. Keep trying." But the clock seemed to have run out. It was the day before the show, so I left my office to drive home. I was almost there and got the call from the chairman's assistant to come see the boss. Turning around and racing back, I strolled into his big room, laid out my wrinkled sheet of paper with the figures on it and made my case. He asked me if I could do it for that money. I lied, since I was only guessing, and said, “Without a doubt.”
We were on. The show the next night was incredibly moving. The line-up was a drummer-less band with bassist Fernando Saunders, keyboardist Michael Rathke, cellist Jane Scarpantoni, singer Antony (now Anohni) and Master Ren going through involved Tai Chi movements. My mind melted the moment they walked onstage. When Antony sang the Velvet's "Candy Says," I had to shiver it was so beautiful. And I was reminded a little uncomfortably of a night 15 years ago when I was first getting to know Lou. I was curious so I asked him if the lyric in that song, "Candy says I hate the quiet places, that cause the smallest taste of what will be," reflect the idea of a body's long home in the casket after death. He just looked at me like I was a Martian and laughed. He didn't even say no.
When the invoices started coming in for the album – soon to be called Animal Serenade – I noticed they were getting close to the total of the 100,000 maximum I'd promised it would cost. All of sudden Lou decided it would be a double album, which meant double the mixing time.
Engineer Nick Launay had agreed to mix a single album for $10,000 and because I didn't have any extra cash in the budget. I told Lou we were in a bind. "Call him up and tell him that's all we have. And ask him if he wants to work with the real thing or not. That's it." I did, and Launay was in. And I learned another valuable lesson: never underestimate the power of Lou Reed.
A few weeks later when mixing was finished, Reed called and simply said, "Hello Mr. Executive Producer." He'd given me a credit I'd never have asked for – and did it with such quiet grace I still smile at the memory.
By the time Animal Serenade came out in 2004, there was barely a soul at the label who had an interest in it. Reed's project manager was gone, not to be replaced, and most of the other employees didn't seem to know he was still on the label. One day that year I got called into the HR department and was terminated, as they like to say these days. A week later I got called by the chairman and he asked me if I wanted to stay. "I never wanted to leave," I said, and hadn't even moved out of my office yet.
Years later, after Lou had died, I found out he'd written the chairman a letter then asking I be kept on the staff. Lou had never mentioned it to me. Nor did he mention the utter lack of success of Animal Serenade. It was the last solo album of his life, and I know he was proud of it.
In my job I’ve worked with a lot of famous musicians. Lou was different. He had such a sense of fearlessness about him. He really wasn't afraid of anything or anyone. He'd cut his teeth in the music business recording songs like "Heroin" and "Sister Ray," so what could anyone say to him? Lou didn't ask for favors and wasn't afraid to tell his truth exactly like he saw it. He knew, however, who was on his side and who wasn't.
Also, he possessed the purest sense of loyalty I've ever witnessed in the music business. It was his true test of friendship, and he understood its value better than anyone I've ever known. If you were with him and he was with you, nothing ever changed that. When times are good the artist is all in. But if it changes, they're the first to forget you. Not Lou. He actually cared about the people who helped him and would stand up to anyone.
I spoke with Lou shortly after his last album – Lulu, recorded with Metallica – came out, and he wasn't surprised at all at the poor reviews. He'd been there before, he said, and would be there again. He knew the critics' praise came and went, and even joked, "Sometimes it's good to put out something like Metal Machine Music just to shock everybody."
He also told me it wasn't an easy album to record. During the sessions Lou threatened drummer Lars Ulrich to "step outside to get his ass kicked" during one argument. Now that would have been the perfect music video for "Junior Dad," one of Lou's best songs.
The last time I saw Lou perform was when he came to Los Angeles to sing a song with Gorillaz. Both he and Bobby Womack had appeared as special guests on their latest album, and both were at the Universal Amphitheatre that night to sing with the band. Walking onto the stage, Lou led me to the side before he joined the Gorrillaz, who had started the show. He had walked around the backstage area looking for a chair to move to a place so I could sit and see the band.
It was such a kind, thoughtful gesture, and I recall thinking of all the judgmental comments I'd heard about Reed over the years. Never had anyone made such efforts to make me comfortable during a show. It's usually the smaller things we remember about the past that bring the deepest resonance. It also made me laugh about our lunch that day.
Lou had done a radio interview, and when it finished he was hungry. Really hungry. With his hypoglycemia, if the protein levels dropped it wasn't a good thing, so I asked our driver to head down Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake towards downtown. The area was fairly seedy, and I had no clue what was around. Slightly panicking, I picked a falling-down shack that said "Tacos" on it and told the driver to pull over. I then told Lou this place was known for the best tacos in L.A. (I had to say something.) Of course, I'd never eaten there.
Luckily the food was edible, and every time Lou and I would talk about restaurants in L.A., he would always rave about that taco joint and that he wanted to hit that place again. I didn't have the guts to tell him I'd never stepped foot in it before. Shame on me.
I'd like to think I made it up to him at our next lunch. We were on our way to a photo shoot with his pal Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and once again, Lou was starving. I suggested the Gumbo Pot in Farmer's Market, a place I’d been many times. Lou ordered the gumbo, which had about three shrimp in it the size of tiny worms. I'd never seen any that small. Obviously he needed to jack up the protein content, so I went and got a big bowl of large boiled shrimp and peeled them, tossing them into his gumbo while Lou ate. Now there’s a rock ’n’roll memory.
Not too long after Reed's Gorillaz appearance he came to Los Angeles to give a lecture at the Cal State Long Beach campus. Record producer Bob Ezrin, who'd worked with Lou on Berlin and other projects, led the Q&A. Only ten minutes into the evening a combatant in the audience started yelling at Lou to talk about something besides sound quality and equipment. It got ugly quick, as it often did when spectators started screaming suggestions. Lou told the man "to shut the fuck up" and then demanded he leave, saying he'd get his admission refunded on the way out. The emotional climate had bottomed-out and it was hard to change the dynamic that night. Once more, I realized when Lou Reed made up his mind, that was it.
As I said goodbye backstage after the lecture was over, he looked a bit frail, but there was such a strong strength Reed always projected I pretended not to notice. I was pretty sure he would outlive us all. In fact, I always just figured Lou would live forever.
Then, when I turned on the radio on the Sunday morning of October 27, 2013 and heard the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" playing, their first song on their first album, I just had an instant sinking feeling something was wrong. It felt like I was watching a car barreling towards me at 100 miles an hour and there was nothing I could do to avoid the final crash. I knew Lou was gone.
He had undergone a liver transplant five months earlier, and Reed's recovery seemed sure and strong. We'd been talking about making a new album, but he said he hadn't written anything recently. I suggested he sing a collection of his favorite songs by others, and we had a lot of kicks going back and forth regarding choices.
I'd come up with "Rhythm of the Rain" by the Cascades, which I had hear on the house P.A. system at a Frank Zappa concert in 1973, and thought then, there's a song Lou Reed could cover. At first Lou said there was no way he'd ever do that. Then he'd call back a couple of weeks later and say, "I can sing that." There was also Eddie & Ernie's "Outcast," Garland Jeffreys' "Lon Chaney," T. Rex's "Jeepster," and others.
I thought I'd really fallen into the pudding this time: reasoning with Lou Reed about what he should sing on an album of covers. Then, suddenly, a few weeks before he died, he wrote me an email asking if I would check around for possible record deals for his wife Laurie. So many times when they were together they felt like a single soul, merged at the center. Now the time was turning, and this last message from Lou felt like a coded way of saying goodbye.
There are many moments when Lou Reed's soul still rushes through me
There are many moments when Lou Reed's soul still rushes through me, like a warm wind on a motionless day. It might be a certain chord I hear, or a word spoken with his distinct New York accent, or even just a glancing memory of the way he smiled when he was happy, followed by a restrained cackle which assured all was right in Reed's world. Other times I hear him silently speaking to me, his words of advice echoing across the 25 years we were friends.
His spirit is there, undiminished with a worldly peaceful wisdom he had never quit seeking. He had lived long enough and worked hard enough to have earned that peace, and to be next to it felt like I had entered a secret spot in the cosmos. It's hard to describe, but I know it will never leave me. I will always recall those days and nights of being by his side, whether we were walking the New York streets, laughing about the absurdities of human beings, or listening to music. He had an exacting eye and ear for what was roiling all around him. It was in his blood, and made life sing for him. And when Lou Reed was happy, the world made sense.
One of my most vivid memories is driving away from the Ed Sullivan Theatre on W. 53rd Street after Reed had taped a song for that night's David Letterman show. He was sitting in the backseat of a town car as he looked west towards the Hudson River. The sun was glowing with its last rays of the day, turning the brownstones on the street a shimmering golden hue. The fall air was brisk, something you could almost reach out and touch. Lou, leaning back in his black leather seat, said to himself in a soft voice what felt like a prayer: "God, I love this city." It might’ve been a cliché coming out of another mouth, but not Lou’s. For a moment I could barely breathe, feeling a physical gratitude to have shared so many powerful moments with a man I'd loved for so many years. All I could say was "amen."
As I write tonight it is Lou Reed's birthday, and as I always do on that day I've been listening to his music. And once again, the chorus of "Heroin" keeps coursing through me. Those seven words, "I guess that I just don't know," were the ones I remember most from when I heard the first Velvet Underground in 1967, exactly fifty-two years ago. They were Reed's blueprint for life, the mantra that encouraged him to explore what it actually means to be alive.
Because Lou Reed never looked away, never stopped trying to find the next step to take him forward, never quit rejoicing at the indefinable experience of when worlds collide and the unexpected occurs. For him, his time here was forever a surprise, and it lit up everything around him when the words and the chords and the sunrises and the sunsets would merge into a feeling of reverence for all he had been allowed to see. In that moment, Lou knew.
Sterling Morrison: The Lost Interview
Sterling Morrison: The Lost Interview
The Velvet Underground's Lonesome End
When I turned in my Sterling Morrison interview to Austin Sun editor Jeff Nightbyrd in 1975, he said, "This is too good for Austin," and gave me an impressed expression.
Nightbyrd had been an editor at the underground paper The Rat in New York in the 1960s and knew the territory. We both smiled, and I was floating. When it ran, though, not many readers responded. Nightbyrd was right. I felt like once again the Velvet Underground were ahead of their time, even five years after they'd broken up. Still, I've never been prouder of a story I've written, and think the peek inside the band from someone who was there and truly cared remains a historical kick.
Sterling's words capture his obvious pride in all the Velvet Underground were, and what they accomplished. The beauty of his beliefs was that it wasn't a false pride. The VU really did change rock and roll forever. His answers also capture the complicated emotions of a man who was there at the forefront of music, but ultimately left that world for a much smaller and quieter one. He had made a peace for where he was, but I think he always had a wistfulness for what hadn't happened for the Velvets.
Get him going on any musical subject, and his opinions spilled out without censure. There was a symposium on rock and roll at the University of Texas in 1976, with a lot of big-name writers flown in to talk about the state of the music. Sterling held court that night, espousing suspicions about Bruce Springsteen's authenticity, the lack of style in Austin bands, the quality of life in New York and the causes for it, and any number of other subjects. He pulled no punches. In fact, I was sure if the school leaders got hold of the transcript, he'd lose his position as a graduate student. Luckily that didn't happen, and he had some good laughs about his analysis.
One day, deep in a debate about Lord knows what, he admitted, "I have no idea if I'm right or wrong, and I'm willing to change my opinions at any moment. But for now I speak the truth, so you better get used to it."
I think he called it solipsism, but I never looked up the word to see if it fit. We used to play a party game with Sterling: we'd take him to a gathering where no one knew him, put him a room of strangers and see how long that lasted before the room cleared out., with Sterling holding court solely with himself. And we'd take bets on it. I usually put my money down on 10 minutes, but mostly lost. It typically took about five.
Through those years in the '70s, I was mesmerized by the man, and never grew tired of all his fluctuations. In 1979 our band told him to leave so we could hire another guitarist. I voted to keep Sterling in but was outvoted. For the next ten years Sterling didn't speak to me, no matter where I was living. I'd see him in Austin when I returned home, and he'd turn his back. Finally, when we met up in Paris for a Velvet Underground reunion, he greeted me with, "So, you're a flack now. That's sad." I asked him why he had dropped me as a friend. He said it because he was dismissed from the Bizarros. When I explained I had voted to keep him, Sterling said, "That doesn't matter. You got me in the band, and it was your responsibility to keep me in the band." That was Mr. Morrison, who I once dubbed "The Lonesome End" of the Velvets.
After a few days in Paris, we had patched up our friendship and I was so happy I wanted to cry. Then, a few years later when he was dying in 1995, I called him at his wife's Martha's home in Poughkeepsie. Sterling had been living in Houston for years, but went home to die. I told him how much I loved him, and thanked him for all the wonders he had shared with me. He struggled to say the word "love," or at least that's what I hope he was trying to say. And then dropped the phone. He was gone shortly after. I miss Holmes Sterling Morrison every day.
STERLING MORRISON: UP FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Austin Sun (1975)
Bill Bentley: I once read before the Velvet Underground began, the first bands were called the Falling Spikes, then the Warlocks. What were those?
Sterling Morrison: Those were jokes. We would call ourselves one thing one night and another thing another. Whoever would show up played. Earlier, when Lou and I were at Syracuse University, we would change our name at least once a week. We were playing for fraternities, and they wanted Top Ten music. We didn't know any; all we knew were Jimmy Reed songs and all that. Then the word began to get out, "Don't hire these turkeys." So we would change our name again. Before they knew it, it was too late. L.A. and the Eldorados, Pasha and the Prophets, Moses and His Brothers – it was outrageous.
BB: Where had you met Lou Reed?
SM: At Syracuse. A few of us were playing Lightnin' Hopkins records at four o'clock in the morning, and he lived upstairs and came down and knocked on our door and asked if he could listen. It was an accident.
BB: What happened after Syracuse?
SM: I was there less than a year. Later, I saw Lou and John Cale in the subway in New York. They said they were going to the East Side to listen to records and maybe play some. I went along, got high, and we started making some noise. From there is how I ended up at Pickwick City [aka Pickwick Records].
BB: Pickwick City?
SM: A record company on Long Island. We worked there and were songwriters on occasion. Pickwick did those supermarket albums where you never know who's playing. At one time, they called us Beachy & the Beachnuts. Lou did one notable song called "Cycle Annie," about a girl who had a motorcycle and rode her boyfriend around on the back. Some psychologist heard the thing and wrote a little treatise on it, saying the song showed sexual inversion and role reversal and all that sort of thing. When we finally quit there, that was it. Everyone was retiring, no more music. That's when we started writing "Heroin" and those songs. We decided it we weren't going to play anymore, we could begin to just amuse ourselves. Cale had already given up on serious music. He lasted two weeks at Tanglewood and quit.
BB: Why had Cale come to the U.S.?
SM: He's won a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship. John was voted the Best Young Composer in Europe in 1965. Aaron Copland was his sponsor. So they brought him over, and after two weeks at Tanglewood, he had a big falling out with (Tanglewood Music Director Erich) Leinsdorf and said, "Ah, screw you." Then he worked with John Cage and La Monte Young. He stumbled into Pickwick one day to play a session, and Lou said, "Hey, what's the story? Let's do something."
BB: When the Velvet Underground began, was there a feeling of alienation from the music world?
SM: No, not really. We started out from a condition of retirement, so we just wanted to do the songs that pleased us.
BB: What was your reaction to the early criticism that the band members weren't accomplished musicians?
SM: We thought it was funny. All we had to do was push Cale forward, and he had the best credentials of anybody I ever heard of. "These people have no talent. They aren't musicians They must be some people Warhol found in the street and propped up onstage." What a joke.
BB: Where had you met Warhol?
SM; Andy heard us once, probably by accident, at the Cafe Bizarre. I remember Gerard Malanga had come there with a whip; he was probably on his way to the Factory for a movie. Anyway, he was on the dance floor swinging this huge whip around. I was thinking, "Who is this lunatic?" It turned out to be Gerard. Then, after seeing us, Andy wined and dined us. He had booked two weeks at the Cinematheque and wanted to have dancing and films, and he also wanted a band. He knew we had all these strange songs and a strange name and asked us to be the band. We said, "What do we have to do?" Andy said, "Just play music." Those nights at the Cinematheque I consider our first performances for a real audience, for people who ultimately were the ones we wanted to reach.
BB: What was Warhol's contribution to the band?
SM: He was mainly there with encouragement and reinforcement when we first got the hostile press attacks. We had already retired to begin with, so it would have been easy to go out and get a bad review and go back to what we were doing before: not playing in public. We didn't have that much self-confidence. But Andy said, "Don't worry about it, it's alright. Just keep doing what you are doing. People have their own angles. It doesn't matter what you're doing, they are going to make it into what they want it to be." That really did help. He convinced us to keep doing what we were doing, and also that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
BB: Did he like the music?
SM: Yes, but I don't think he pays that much attention to music. There are things about lyrics that he likes, and things about performance that he likes. He loves excitement, but I don't think he analyzes music. There are other people around who were more than willing to do that – the whole Factory crew. I'd say that of everybody at the Factory, Andy had the least true appreciation of music. He just liked what he liked and didn't pay attention to the rest. His appreciation was of the effect of certain things happening on stage, and the excitement in general.
BB: What were the first performances like? What went on?
SM: Everything. The dancers could do what they liked, the film people could do whatever they liked, and we could do whatever we liked. The first night we played "Heroin" there, two people fainted. That is one of my rock memories. This girl leaped up and started clapping hysterically and, boom, she's out. I wasn't sure if it was drugs or emotion. The audiences then were wild – climbing-the-rafters wild. There was complete spillover from audience to stage. A lot of people came out of the audience to go on to superstardom.
BB: Why was "Heroin" written?
SM: We wanted to write an honest drug song. There was only one drug song we had ever heard, and that was "Cocaine Blues." The lines were, "Cocaine's for horses but not for men/they say it'll kill you, but they don't say when." Big joke: ha, ha, ha, right? What bullshit. Lou wrote the lyrics to "Heroin." He was home, captured by his parents, and that's what he was doing. Then John and I totally changed the song.
BB: How important were drugs to the Velvet Underground?
SM: They were just there; we didn't make a secret about them, that's all. It is part of the everybody experience of millions. Some of my best friends took drugs. Seems like all of them did.
BB: What came next?
SM: Let's see...After we moved to the Factory, we rented the Dom, which was an old Polish dance hall. This was before there was an "East Village." Then, it was just where old people and poor people lived. The Dom can be credited with making St. Mark's Place the sleaze hole that it is today. It was the first "hip" invasion. We wanted to have our own place so nobody could tell us what to do. It was a huge success. Then while we were in California, playing and recording, the notorious criminal Albert Grossman had our landlord tear up the lease and give the hall to him. He renamed it the Balloon Farm; later, it became the Electric Circus.
BB: When you came back from California and the Dom wasn't yours, what did you do?
SM: We went back to the Factory and didn't do anything. Andy said, "Oh, gee, wouldn't it be nice if you were playing somewhere?" We had no agent, and Andy was our manager, but he had no idea at all about how to go about it. We didn't have a record company, either though we had done some recording in California, using money we had made at the Dom.
BB: You felt like you needed to record?
SM: Well, groups are supposed to have records.
BB: Was it odd to be recording songs like "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs" and "I'm Waiting for the Man?"
SM: We knew it was the reason no record company would sign us up front. This was the "two minute-thirty second era." The first album was truly revolutionary, and I knew it at the time. Beyond lyrics, beyond instrumentation, beyond anything – just the fact that the songs did not last two minutes-thirty seconds. "Heroin" lasted over seven minutes, because that is how long it takes to play. That was the first rock album to break out of that format.
BB: How did you end up signed with Verve/MGM?
SM: At first we took our tapes around to everyone. Jac Holzman of Elektra told us we had to clean up the sound, but we wanted the feedback and the drones, so that was no good. Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic said, "No 'Heroin" and no 'Venus in Furs.'" We had to have those songs, so that didn't work. Finally, MGM, who have no conception of rock music, and probably never even listened to our albums – or if they did, it was with very little comprehension – said we could do anything we wanted. After signing, MGM shafted us, too. The first album was complete as a package and ready to go in early '66 but wasn't released until late in the year. It was sabotaged so Zappa and the Mothers' first album FREAK OUT! could be issued before ours. Zappa's was two albums for the price of one, and ours was one album for the price of two, because of the banana. Then there was a lawsuit right after it was released that took it out of circulation.
BB: What the lawsuit about?
SM: Eric Emerson sued MGM. The original jacket had an upside-down picture of Eric in the light show with his arms spread, encircling the band. One day, Eric gets busted with ten thousand doses of acid, needs money, and walks into MGM and says, "You're using my picture illegally, so I'm going to sue you." The company was so fucking stupid, they took the record off the market. In a million years, Eric couldn't have won that lawsuit, but MGM just freaked. Later, another jacket was printed with Eric's image clouded out.
BB: Was Warhol's banana painting on the cover a hindrance to being heard primarily as a rock band?
SM: We had a little trouble getting accepted anyway. Having Andy do the cover was just natural. He went to the Sam Goody record store on Broadway to look at record jackets and decided white was the best color. There were pictures but no promo blurbs or credits or anything on the outside. Plus, the quotes on the inside from the critics were mostly negative. Originally, they were all negative, but MGM included some positive quotes. We gathered the worst things that had been said about us and stuck them in. We thought that any schmuck who is more motivated by reading reviews than by listening to the music, well, here it is, all telling him how bad it is. Someone goes out and buys this thing, God knows motivated by what, and then opens it up and reads how bad it is. We had a good time with that.
BB: How accurate was the drug image?
BB: Do you think it hurt the band?
SM: No, it just happened. You can't control those things – even though we didn't do anything to help it out in those days, either, being sinister and all. I didn't want to be known as a gay band, though. I certainly didn't care for that association, which I guess was absorbed from Warhol. It took a while to dispel that image. A lot of associations come from a lot of different places, not all of them accurate.
BB: Did the associations have any repercussions in your acceptance?
SM: Sure. The thing I'm most pissed about is that we were banned in New York for three years: '66 to '69, inclusive. Right up front, we were excluded from any FM radio play. AM was already out of the question: no music and no advertising. In our home city, the media capital of Earth, the native sons are banned. You compare that to San Francisco, where they mayor is kissing the ass of Big Brother & the Holding Company, and they've become a part of the city life and a tourist attraction and all.
BB: What was the ban about?
SM: Our lyrics were "objectionable." Since the radio refused to play us, we retaliated by refusing all jobs in New York. From '67 to '70, we didn't play in New York, except for private parties, and once at Lincoln Center. And even Pacifica Radio, the supposed non-commercial station, joined in the ban. In the beginning, they were the only FM airway we got. They always told us, "You and the Fugs are the real people – real community bands." Then once they were having a benefit at Tompkins Square Park to raise a bail fund. We were very much known for playing benefits. We always did. Pacifica approached us to play and we thought, "Sure, why not? It's just around the corner from where we live." Then we asked them, "By the way, who's the benefit for?" They said, "The people who get busted for grass and acid." We thought that was kind of curious. We asked them, "What about the people busted for junk and speed?" They said, "Oh, no, those are bad drugs." How idiotic. Bad drugs – all of a sudden there are "bad drugs." We told them either they bail everybody out, or we don't play. Word got back to the head of the Pacifica station, who then said we were horrible people, blah, blah, blah, not supporting community efforts and so on. We told them that our notion of community is evidently more complete than theirs. The result was that the ban was complete: a total blackout in New York City. Our altruism got in the way of our airplay. Any success in New York was through television and newspapers. It had nothing to do with the legitimate outlet, which is radio. The music simply was not heard. To think that some self-righteous creep was saying yes to grass and acid but no to junk and speed really infuriated us. Who knows? It may be that all drugs are bad. But if some people get bailed out, let's bail everybody out.
BB: Why did Cale leave the band?
SM: John was getting very flamboyant. His girlfriend (designer Betsy Johnson) was dressing him, and he was really shaping up as a performer, playing very energetically. Then Lou just got uptight. There was some kind of collision. Lou found me one night and said, "Here's what's happening. The band is dissolved. I'm going to put together another band called the Velvet Underground and you can be in it if you want to be, and Maureen, and we'll find somebody else." I shouldn't have gone for that, but I might have been slightly corrupted at that point. Mainly I wanted to keep playing the songs that I'd worked so hard on.
BB: What kind of person was drummer Maureen?
SM: Clever, enigmatic, feminine – which at that point meant that she was pushed around. She was not the big bull dyke some people thought she was; exactly the opposite. She sort of rolled with the punches and let all the major arguing be done by Lou, John and me.
BB: When Lou left in 1970, was there a major breakdown?
SM: To this day, I can't give you any explanation why Lou left. And he can't either. I thought that he had gone insane – gone insane in a very dull way. I have my own evidence. He suddenly went home to Freeport and decided to become reconciled with his parents. The only conversations they ever had were their threats to have him committed and his counter-threats and what not. Lou usually went home when he had hepatitis or was about to die. When he left in '70, when we were finishing our job at Max's, it was like his parents had come and claimed him and took him away. Lou was unstable in such a tedious way. It wasn't that he was running around crazy in the streets; at times he was incommunicative and remote and content to stay with his parents.
BB: When you quit in '71, what were your reasons?
SM: I have all sorts of reasons, but one is that there were no good places left to play. That was the one thing that was upsetting; it was upsetting all through 1970. All the big old ballrooms were closing. You were left with only two kinds of performances. Either you did small clubs, where you couldn't get any decent sound out of your amplifiers because the place was too small and you'd blow the roof off, or else you had to do stand up/sit down concerts. The band stands up, and the audience sits and watches. I never liked doing those, and we had done enough of them, so I really knew. That was when rock 'n' roll was propelled into theater. By that time, we had divorced ourselves from the theatrical, and had disbanded the Exploding (Plastic) Inevitable. When everybody else had light shows, there was no point in our still doing it. All we were going to do was play music. When you get on a stage or huge concert hall where everybody is sitting down, they're not going to do anything but sit on their ass, so you have to do everything. The scope of it, the height and width and depth of the stage, demands that something fill it up: props, dancing, or whatever. Some zaniness. That is why the size of bands is burgeoning. Something had to fill up that space. This is the reason the Rolling Stones are doing what they're doing. If anybody could stand on just the music, you would think they could, but they can't. They have to build those sets and the phalluses and the whole thing. We had the choice of going back into something that we felt we had already gone beyond: the theatrics. It was nice to be there at the very beginning; we did do it when it was new and creative and exciting, but to go back and do it because you had to, that was different.
BB: Was there a time when the Velvets decided they weren't going to push for commercial success?
SM: We always wanted to be commercially successful, but on our own terms. We wanted to do the music we were doing, and we hoped that tastes would change – or that we could change tastes. That is what everybody felt in the Sixties. That is what the whole psychedelic thing was about: AM vs. FM. We thought, the Grateful Dead thought, the Airplane, everybody thought we could obliterate AM radio. Change it forever. But it didn't happen, it really didn't happen. If anything, it's gone the other way.
BB: In the beginning, was there a single factor that the band shared?
SM: We always took the music seriously. The idea that you could do something on your own terms, I found that facet peculiar. That was strange. I couldn't really anticipate being able to do that.
BB: Was it fun?
SM: Great fun. What could be more fun than that: being able to do exactly what you want to do.
BB: What were the highlights for you?
SM: All the early things that happened impressed me mightily. Highlights to me always turn out to be live performances, places I played. I never felt like the records did what they ought to do; they were never the way I dreamed they should be. I guess the first album is the one I'm most proud of. A few cuts here and there on the others. And Loaded, the last album. Dougie [Yule] and I pretty much had the say on that. One producer went crazy during the recording of Loaded, Adrian Barber. Freedom drove him mad. But live performances are what I loved.
BB: How did you end up at the University of Texas?
SM: I wanted to get my Ph.D. The Velvet Underground for me was like a crusade to get the music played and appreciated. We sort of accomplished that. And even though it was still fun, it wasn't the same.
BB: What did your friends say when you quit the band?
SM: Well, Warhol said it was the right thing to do, that it would be good for me. But most of them said, "Sterling, you know, he went to Texas." And that's it – like I was swallowed up by the armadillos.
The Bizarros’ Twist-Off Diaries
The Bizarros’ Twist-Off Diaries
At the start of the 1970s, Austin, Texas was ready for anything. So much had been tried during the '60s it was like the city needed a reset. Enter the Armadillo World Headquarters, a dozen other live music clubs, and Old Milwaukee beer's bargain price of three quarts for a dollar. How could anything go wrong?
An off-campus rooming spot called College House had always attracted a large quantity of English majors and other misfits. It was like a hippie commune, but without hippies. These were University of Texas students who liked to talk, read, and drink beer. And enjoy an occasional illegal substance. Many also loved music, and a few even knew how to play it.
Jimmy Boone was a guitarist/intellectual. He really was. His personality was a bit like Eeyore's in Winnie the Pooh, but he was attuned to literature and rock n’ roll. Lea Ann Huie was a higher mathematics whiz who also played piano and violin. She understood rock, but definitely loved classical music and the finer arts. Michael "Moondog" Bellamy had been chasing music his whole life, and also had the energy and wits to have been a Dean Morariaty prodigy from Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road. Ted "Bosco" Samsel was a San Antonio native, who crossed conjunto sensibilities with an endless knowledge of all kinds of things. Bob Childs had a set of drums and threatened to learn how to play them. Thus was born Lea Ann & the Bizarros at the start of the '70s. They played continuous College House parties, and then turned band practices into after-hour twist-off parties, which became infamous with the West Campus crowd.
By 1971, I'd been living in Austin for a year, minding my behavior to steer clear of the police so I wouldn't violate my marijuana-bust probation. I was studying psychology and Billboard magazine in the school library. I had brought my set of Ludwig drums to Austin but didn't really have a clue how to find a band to play them with. So, in a fog of confusion, I marched down to Discount Records on the Drag and put up a card to sell the kit. As I was pressing the thumbtack into the bulletin board, I noticed a small notice to my left which said, "Drummer Needed. No Frou-Frous Allowed.” Frou-Frous? I didn't really know what that meant, but it sounded like someone I wanted to meet had written it. I took down the phone number and immediately called when I got back to my pad. The person who answered had a tremendous stutter, so I couldn't get much hard information, but I did get an address, date and time to show up for a band audition. This was getting interesting.
Walking into the Bizarros world on West 23rd Street, three blocks from the UT campus, was an instantaneous welcome home, never mind I’d never been there. Ted “Bosco” Samsel, the gentleman on the phone, sized me up quick and saw I wasn't a narcotics agent. Jimmy Boone squinted as we talked and realized we had a mutual friend in Andy "Monkey Dog" Dean. Lea Ann continued to practice her piano, while Michael “Mondog” Bellamy was in the middle of a 100-mile-per-hour discussion about the novel Catch-22 and a hundred other things. This joint was jumping like a dozen catfish on a single pole, and I wanted in.
The living room was an environmental waste site for empty beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays, but I'd been in Austin over a year and didn't really have a single friend besides some students who were all much more serious than me. I did my best at the rehearsal, and somehow stole the drummer's chair from Childs. (Sorry Bob.) I could tell in a flash I'd found a place to stay. And I’ve never been righter in my life. Once guitarist Isiah "Ike" Ritter wheeled in his Fender amp and extraterrestrial electric guitar, the cosmos opened up on all kinds of sonic possibilities. A band had landed.
As Lea Ann & the Bizarros kept rehearsing and taking free gigs to play parties and the occasional paying job (there is nothing like performing in the parking lot of a Wickes lumber yard in 110-degree heat on a busy Saturday afternoon while shoppers sat in their air-conditioned cars and stared at you like they were at a drive-in movie watching a film), I saw my rock and roll future and its name was Bizarros. Thus started nearly ten years of non-stop joyous shenanigans and the odd instance of musical mayhem whose whole story will someday be told.
As the bass player spot changed from Big Art (likely in prison now) and Sam the Man (likely not alive now) and finally Stan "Rock" Coppinger, Lea Ann & the Bizarros could pass for semi-professional. The live music jive in Austin suddenly exploded, and once Willie Nelson hit town in 1972 amateur hour was over. We played a benefit for Frances "Sissy" Farenthold (she was running for governor) opening for Nelson in June '72 in Zilker Park, and half the audience didn't know who Nelson was, including me. For shame. But once his set was over the mix of labor union Democrats and long-haired communist-leaning students in the audience went berserk, and I recall Nelson asking me as he came off the stage that day, "Who are all these people?" Thinking fast, I answered, "Your future audience." I got lucky on that call.
Lea Ann & the Bizarros kicked into high gear then, which meant we started playing Friday nights for fifty cents at Bevo's Westside Tap Room, and slowly gathered a devoted audience of around 25 people who would all show up at Bevo's to find out where the afterparty was going to be. We'd take our pay in cases of beer, and head to 2106 Pearl Street for an endless evening of listening to tape compilations we'd make on Moondog's big rig, indulge in some hippie dancing of the vaguest origins and just generally cutting up and getting down. It was an innocent time, and also the most fun humans can have. Nothing was at stake, no one was trying to accomplish anything but groove and tomorrow still didn't exist. It was all about enjoying the NOW, and in that way grab a glittering glimpse of eternity. Where oh where is it today?
The Bizarros used as a template for their sound both Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Then they added the ballistic blues of Jimmy Reed and Little Walter, mixed in with a semi-psychedelicized attack via Orange Sunshine LSD and the 13th Floor Elevators. Mixed together as if in a big washtub with blue-colored water for inspiration, the songs came out as both ultra-basic and slightly unhinged. It didn't hurt that most of the band members were disciples of experiments on the psyche. And more often than not, it was all played at a physically-oriented volume geared to inspire the dancers to keep up with a beat inspired by jungle rhythms and basic misbehavior. It sounded like a Texas hillbilly was dropped into New Orleans' Ninth Ward with nothing but a bus pass and a pair of maracas to make his way home. Besides all those artists mentioned above, the Bizarros' ultimate influences were the West Texas winds mashed up with the unending scream of Houston police sirens, producing the sweet cacophony that made American rock and roll totally irresistible.
In 1975, Sterling Morrison had entered our band's universe after I interviewed him for the Austin Sun. Soon after, I had the bright idea to see if he would join the Bizarros. Lea Ann had married Jimmy Boone and they were off into a serious academic pursuit in another town, so Morrison would be a major addition. This man was a founding member of the Velvet Underground, not to mention one of the best monologuists alive. Fascinating is too mild a word for those with the right appetite for Morrison's non-stop thought processes – and he also played guitar. Soon the New Yorker was a new Bizarro, and Austin's club scene took on a different sheen. Our band had moved over to Friday nights at the newly-opened Hole in the Wall, and the club had become our spot.
We owned that joint on Friday nights. Sterling would come three hours early to set up a beautiful black Fender Bassman amp, and then take his rightful seat at the bar to drink with band's discount rate beer until the Bizarros kicked off. The rest of us would show up around 8, quickly throw our gear onstage and then roar off into the next five hours of rock n’ roll that was truly, in the end, the only kind that matters: music meant to drive a drunkish bar room audience into total delirium and outlandish behavior. It was clear to me at the time that nothing would ever be this much 100% fun again.
We all have flashes of destiny, and fortunately this one came with a huge blinking billboard in my mind that screamed: THIS IS IT! And it was. Our band – now officially just tagged the Bizarros – and with new bassist Miller "Speedy" Sparks on the bandstand (Coppinger had run off to Europe to make records and find a wife), our dreams got twisted into going into a studio to record some songs. A faithful friend got us free studio time, and as Sterling once explained how the Velvet Underground's first recordings came to be: "Bands make records."
These recordings were done at two different sessions. The first was at Hole Sound in North Austin, with invaluable pal Jim "Dutch" Groenewegen at the studio control board. He had managed the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco during the '60s for Chet Helms’ Family Dog consortium and accumulated thrilling stories of that scene. Even better, Jim knew how to tell them. He was also a veteran of the Doug Sahm touring extravaganzas in the '70s and earned endless patience from that journey -- which made Jim perfect for working with our band. The living Bizarros (Bellamy, Sparks and myself) can't remember where or when the second mystery session occurred (no big surprise there), but needless to say, it is a thrill to hear them now.
No one ever accused our band of forethought or organization, so these recordings were never heard by anyone but the Bizarros. Maybe that's how it should have been. Not long after the studio dates, Sterling Morrison was unceremoniously relieved of his Bizarro guitar slot, and the band enlisted major league blues guitarist guru Bill Campbell to throw in with us. That lasted about a year before the sheets were torn for good and the Bizarros ended their run on New Year's Eve 1979.
Sterling Morrison went back into academia and earned his Ph.D, along with working on the Houston Ship Channel, eventually becoming a tugboat captain. He, sadly, died in 1995. Ike Ritter also left planet earth years ago, and both are no doubt circling us in outer space. Their spirits were always too huge to disappear forever. I moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to see what could happen there, and found it to be a smart move, once I could find all the freeway entrances. The occasional Bizarro reunions still occur, and yes, it's like 40-plus years haven’t passed. Maybe that's because once something is so searingly branded on your soul, it not only never leaves, it can also never be equaled.
To be in a band and look to my right onstage and see Sterling Morrison playing his electric guitar with an ethereal smile and the most beautiful leather guitar strap known to man is a thrill only ten other Morrison bandmates can claim, and for some reason I'll never truly understand but thank the big sky every day anyway, why I am in that number. Same with all the other Bizarros: we were a small but mighty club of fun seekers who found an eternal spark in the music, and along with those Old Milwaukee quarts and future elixirs, discovered the groove and rode it to the end. Which still hasn't arrived.
Special thanks to Kris Cummings.
Bill Bentley was born in Houston, Texas in 1950 and first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins playing on Dowling Street there when he was eight years-old. He has been a drummer, hospital orderly, short-order cook, writer, record store clerk, Deputy Constable, record label publicist, concert promoter, music producer and A&R director. Bentley’s book Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen was published in 2017. He presently works at Neil Young Archives and is co-producing a film on a mysterious Texas singer-songwriter.