The Velvet Underground’s shocking 1993 reunion tour came together very, very slowly. It started in 1987 when Lou Reed and John Cale found themselves face-to-face at Andy Warhol’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. They hadn’t spoken in many years, but their grief over the loss of their mentor was stronger than any ancient grudges, so they began chatting. Not long afterward, they started work on a tribute album to Warhol called Songs for Drella, marking the first time they’d teamed up since White Light/White Heat In 1968.
They promoted it with a brief tour, and on a Brooklyn stop in December of 1989, VU drummer Maureen Tucker joined them for an encore of “Pale Blue Eyes.” This was enough to fuel nonstop rumors that the Velvets were going to reunite, but Reed consistently shot them down. “I don’t believe in high school reunions,” was his standard response. But just a few months later, the four original members of the band were invited to small French town of Jouy-En-Josas for the opening of an Andy Warhol retrospective. Cale and Reed were scheduled to play a set of Songs for Drella tunes, but the presence of Tucker and Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison had everyone thinking about a reunion.
“You’ll never get the four of us together on one stage again,” Reed said at a press conference at the French event. “Ever. The Velvet Underground is history.” Sterling Morrison, who had been the odd man out during this period of reconciliation, was mortified. “What am I supposed to do?” he said. “Stand at the back of the stage and watch them play – paralyzed by bitterness and rage? And what are people going to think? That I can’t play guitar anymore.”
Hours before the Songs for Drella set, Reed agreed to have a meal with Cale, Tucker and Morrison. They hadn’t actually been together like that since Cale was booted out in 1968, and the emotion of the moment finally got to Reed. Ten minutes before showtime, he proposed inviting up Tucker and Morrison for “Pale Blue Eyes.” When someone pointed out that was recorded after Cale left the group, he suggested they do “Heroin.”
They were in the broad daylight, unrehearsed. Sterling didn’t even have a guitar, but he quickly borrowed one. They then played “Heroin” for 10 minutes to the stunned crowd. “Like people who once had great sex,” wrote Victor Bockris in his Lou Reed biography Transformer. “And suddenly realized they could again, they were stunned by playing together.” Thankfully, someone captured the pivotal moment on camera and you can see it right here.
“It will never happen again,” Reed said afterwards. “It was purely a moment in time … I wouldn’t want to give people the impression that there’s any chance that the Velvet Underground could exist again. It won’t.” Three years later, they launched a European tour, but old tensions returned and when they returned to America; Reed vowed they’d never do it again. He broke that vow for the last time in 1996 when the Velvets were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the surviving members honored Sterling Morrison, who passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the previous year, with the new song “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend.” Afterward, Reed said yet again they’d never play again, and that time he finally meant it.