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The Velvet Underground on Most Profound Album: ‘Lou Was a Force of Nature’

Drummer Maureen Tucker and bassist Doug Yule relive two years that rocked their worlds as they, along with Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, redefined what the band could do

Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, Maureen 'Moe' Tucker and Doug Yule of the rock and roll band 'Velvet Underground'

Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, Maureen 'Moe' Tucker and Doug Yule of the rock and roll band 'Velvet Underground'

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

When Maureen Tucker, the refreshingly frank former drummer of the Velvet Underground, looks back on the group’s self-titled third album, released in 1969, she still remembers the trepidation she felt going into it. In late 1968, the band’s moody singer-songwriter Lou Reed had kicked out violist John Cale, a founding member who seemed to act at the time as the band’s artistic conscience. “I wasn’t delighted,” says the drummer, now age 70, with a bluntness that reveals her Long Island roots. “I was just wondering what was gonna happen, what we’d sound like. I was hoping we’d still stick together.”

But where the group had just put out its most violent record – the metallic cacophony it called White Light/White Heat – it was already beginning to work on what would become its most profound album: The Velvet Underground. Each of the band’s LPs, whether exploring the limits of distorted noise or perfecting pop intrigue, is uniquely great. The third record, with all of its mesmerizing restraint on songs like “Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” shows the group at its most vulnerable. No longer was the group a bunch of heroin-spiking, sex-maniac downtown hipsters; Reed’s new batch of songs showed that they were fragile artists, exuding both the confidence of maturity while still struggling with the savagery of modern life. With the arrival of bassist Doug Yule, the mercurial and unpredictable Reed refocused the band’s sound into a more introspective brand of art rock that has resounded in the music of artists, ranging from R.E.M. to Glen Campbell, Beck to Nirvana.

A new, six-disc super deluxe box set of The Velvet Underground presents a comprehensive snapshot of the record by including three different mixes of the album, all of the studio sessions that could have comprised an unreleased fourth album and two discs of live recordings; its booklet contains liner notes by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke and rare photos. It’s the definitive portrait of that time.

Forty-five years after the album’s release, Tucker and Yule are the only surviving musicians to have played on the record; guitarist Sterling Morrison died in 1995, while Reed passed away last year. While nearly five decades have passed since The Velvet Underground came out, they still remember a shared vision for the band that dates back to before Yule’s recruitment.

The Velvet Underground formed in 1964 after Reed met the classically trained, Welsh-born violist John Cale, who had been experimenting with minimalist composer La Monte Young. Reed invited Morrison, whom he knew from Syracuse University, to play guitar with them, and they took adopted their band name from the title of author Michael Leigh’s 1963 book about kinky sex culture in the Sixties. After a stint with another drummer, the band brought in Tucker at Morrison’s suggestion.

“They needed someone fast to bump on a drum for their first show,” she says, recalling the band’s debut in November 1965. Over time, Tucker evolved her style into playing while standing up, which helped her mostly shuck the convention of a rock backbeat. “We did a lot of improvising, and I don’t think it would have worked with a regular drum set, just playing rock & roll drums, ’cause the music was sometimes wild with Cale and Lou. I felt that it worked better to play something other than on the two and four [beat].”

The group’s “wild” sound attracted the attention of Andy Warhol, who promoted them, and helped them put out their explosively subversive debut LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which featured German singer Nico and her thick, Teutonic ah-ksent on three tracks, in March 1967. The group thrived in contrasting dense noise with stripped-down simplicity on the album and laced its music with lyrics about sex, drugs and New York’s underbelly, creating the blueprint for ragged alternative and indie rock for decades to come. A year later, without Nico, they’d taken it even further on the following year’s White Light/White Heat, which found Cale experimenting with electric viola and organ to pulsate the noise right into the turntable stylus.

But it wouldn’t last. Tensions arose between Reed and Cale, and the singer-songwriter kicked the violist out of the band. Cale played his final gig at the time with the group on September 28th, 1968, and the Velvet Underground played their first show with his replacement – bassist Doug Yule, a Long Islander who was playing in Boston with a “local band that never really got off the ground” called the Grass Menagerie – on October 4th. The group went about teaching him songs casually, introducing a new song at soundcheck and playing it that night. It was around this time that Reed began showing him the songs that would become the third record.

“I had a good background in rock & roll,” Yule, now 67, says. “I grew up in the same musical soup that Lou, Maureen and Sterling grew up in. Sterling’s favorite guitar player was Mickey Baker, and that was someone that I had heard from a very young age and knew well. So it made it easy for me to become part of it. If I’d been classically trained and had only played Bach and Mozart, it would’ve been more difficult, but because we had similar experience it was fairly easy.”

Keeping to the ambitious pace, the group entered Hollywood’s T.T.G. Studios with engineer Val Valentin in November 1968 and began recording its third album. Compared to the noisy, pitch-imperfect barbarism that was White Light/White Heat, the songs Reed had written for The Velvet Underground sounded relatively subdued and (gasp!) polite. Morrison once said that the group’s guitar effects pedals had been stolen while en route to California, but Reed had also written a series of songs that were generally quieter and reflective in nature. Without Cale and his viola strung with guitar strings, the band approached most of the songs in a relatively straightforward way – more like a standard rock or folk band, if “standard” ensembles occasionally recorded songs where each member talks over the other, as on “The Murder Mystery.”

For Reed, The Velvet Underground served a larger purpose. Lyrically, he sequenced the songs in a way that told a loose story, like a conversation, about love, sex, infidelity and redemption, which he explained in the 1983 book Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga.

The LP begins with the plaintive and sublime “Candy Says” – about Candy Darling, the transgender Warhol superstar – in which a woman declares that she hates her body and asks questions about life before transitioning into the hyper-masculine “What Goes On,” about a man responding to the woman with confusion. The kinky “Some Kinda Love,” and its “put jelly on your shoulder” line, was about realizing that “all kinds of love [are] the same as long as it’s love,” Reed said, while the hypnotic “Pale Blue Eyes” was about adultery (“another kind of love,” the singer explained.) “Jesus” then ushered in religious love, “Beginning to See the Light” was about reassessing the relationship, which leads to freedom (“I’m Set Free”), rationalization (“That’s the Story of My Life”) and confusion (“The Murder Mystery”). The record concludes with “After Hours,” a song about closing oneself off to the outside world, which Tucker sang because, according to Reed, “people wouldn’t believe me if I sang it.”

“I’d never really been exposed to the gay scene in New York, So, to me, ‘Candy Says’ was about a young girl.”

But while Reed had a clear vision of the album’s songs, he didn’t impress it on his bandmates. When he decided he didn’t want to sing “Candy Says,” he gave it to Yule. “I had no idea what it was about, ’cause I didn’t come from the city, I came from the Island,” the bassist says. “I’d never really been exposed at all to the gay scene in New York. So when I was singing that song, it was about a young girl, that’s all; someone who had issues. It was later on that I found out who Candy Darling was and what that was all about. But one of the things about good songwriting is that it’s universal.”

Yule’s turn at “Candy Says” also marked the first time the singer, who was 21 at the time, had recorded vocals using a high-end microphone. “I didn’t know about how much sound it would pick up, and I licked my lips between singing because I was nervous and my mouth was dry, and it came out on the tapes so loud that they couldn’t get rid of it,” he says with a laugh. “It was just kind of slopping and slurping between singing. So they did another take and I was quieter, and that worked. We used the second take.”

Meanwhile, the next song in sequence, the rough-hewn “What Goes On,” benefited from using multiple takes all at the same time in the case of Reed’s discordant, bagpipe-y guitar solo. The frontman had played three solos but couldn’t decide which worked best. So they played them all simultaneously. “That was my idea,” Tucker says. “How do you like that? I had a musical idea. I was very proud of that moment.” Yule says the solo still fascinates him and whenever he plays an electric set, he closes with that song.

In contrast, one aspect of the quietly hypnotic quality of “Pale Blue Eyes” – one of the album’s standouts, which Reed had supposedly written for his Syracuse University girlfriend, Shelley Albin – came about almost by mistake. Tucker calls it one of her favorites because of its “monotony” and compares it to impressionist composer Maurice Ravel’s Boléro due to the way it repeats the same theme over and over again. “I’m sure upon first hearing ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ everybody expects at some point something is gonna happen with the drums,” she says. “You lose your balance almost thinking, ‘Come on, what’s gonna happen?’ But it doesn’t. I like that idea.” When asked if she approached her drum part on the song that way on purpose, she says no. “I just felt that’s what worked,” she says. “Anything else, doing a roll or some shit, would have been foolish in my opinion.”

One Velvet Underground song that sounds considerably more ornate, “The Murder Mystery,” took two afternoons to record. The nine-minute track finds the band members each reciting existential lyrics, like “Exit the pig/Enter the owl and gorgeous” and “Lust is a must/Shaving my heads made me bolder,” in opposing speakers. As a standalone poem, “The Murder Mystery” was deemed to be artistically significant enough that it was included in the Winter 1972 issue of The Paris Review. “‘Interesting’ is the word I’d use for that one,” Tucker says.

Musically, Yule recalls the tension-inducing, psychedelic track coming together fairly easily. “Maureen was always straightforward and would play what she wanted to,” he says. “Sterling would sort of fish around until he came up with a part he liked, and I was playing bass and just rolled into it.

“‘The Murder Mystery’ sounds complex, but it’s more chaotic than complex,” Yule adds. “The individual parts are really pretty straightforward, but when you lay them one on top of the other, they don’t mesh, and that’s sort of where the chaos comes from. Most of the stuff that the Velvets would ever play was pretty straightforward. A song with four chords was pretty complex for the band. Mostly, it was about groove and rhythm. Rock & roll is a three-chord medium.”

Although Tucker sang alongside her bandmates on “The Murder Mystery,” she took lead for the first time ever on album closer “After Hours,” which featured just her voice and Reed’s acoustic guitar. The frontman had given her the song because, as he said in Up-Tight, she “had a very innocent voice.” But the drummer wasn’t so thrilled about her spotlight moment. “I was very, very nervous,” she recalls. “I wound up making everybody leave except for Lou, ’cause he was playing guitar with me, and the engineer. It took quite a few takes for me to be calmed down enough to do it OK.” Ultimately, she says, “I was surprised that it was decent.”

When the album was done, the group convened at Warhol’s Factory for a casual photo shoot with Billy Name – the man responsible for painting the Factory silver – who has claimed to have had a relationship with Reed and who is allegedly the “Billy” name-checked in the album’s “That’s the Story of My Life.” “I remember Lou at sort of his worst, when he would have temper tantrums and everyone would walk on eggs, tiptoeing around him or you would crack the shells,” Name tells Rolling Stone. “That was really him. But then there are other memories of when he would just walk up and give me a hug. I just adored that and would give him a big hug back. He was such a good friend and would often show me his natural love and that’s how I prefer to think of him.”

The front sleeve depicted a black-and-white image of Reed smiling while displaying an issue of Harper’s Bazaar, as Yule and Tucker stare at him and Morrison looks off. “It was at the end of a session where I had them do various setups like sitting on the floor and then standing up,” the photographer recalls. “The photo they ended up using was a relaxing moment, sitting on the couch; Lou picked up the magazine and I snapped the shot. It was very nonchalant.” The back cover captured a split, mirror image of Reed, looking out of it while holding a cigarette, that Name “gave a cosmological name,” though he forgets what it was.

Ultimately, three mixes of the album came out – a mono mix, Valentin’s standard studio mix and a mix Reed made – all of which are included on the deluxe edition of the album. “We did the album deliberately as anti-production,” Morrison said in Up-Tight. “It sounds like it was done in a closet – it’s flat and that’s the way we wanted it. The songs are all very quiet and it’s kind of insane.” Because of that quote, Reed’s approach to the LP was colloquially nicknamed the “closet mix.”

While three different mixes seems excessive, comparing the songs side-by-side reveals different things about each song. Where Reed would highlight a guitar part, Valentin might have boosted the bass, and, depending on the mix, some songs start more ornately than others. “There’s a little different feel,” Yule says. “I don’t have a favorite.”

“My favorite would be the mono version,” Tucker says. “It annoys me – no matter what band it is – to have someone like Keith Richards coming out of one speaker and Bill Wyman out of the other. I want to hear them coming at you, like, from one stage.”

The album was released in March 1969, the same month Jim Morrison was arrested for indecent exposure at a Doors concert and John Lennon and Yoko Ono got married. But like its poor-selling predecessors, The Velvet Underground didn’t get much attention.

“The Velvets never made any money when I was with them, at least that anyone saw,” Yule says. “The group manager, Steve Sesnick, had all the money go through him and he just took it and doled it out, according to whose rent was due, who needed a couple of beers, so it was constant allowance time. You always had to ask for money to pay the bills. I remember I wanted to buy a stereo, and Lafayette Electronics was around the corner, but I had to go to Steve and ask him for $150 to buy a stereo, which seems very ironic to me. But it was like that.”

Tucker remembers having an apartment in the city only when she could afford it, in four and six months spurts, before she’d run out of money and return home to her mother’s house in Long Island to save up. At the time, she worked in data entry, or “key punchers, as I used to call it.”

Despite the hard times, the Velvet Underground didn’t stop recording. Instead, they participated in occasional studio sessions between May and October at the Record Plant in New York City, where they captured enough incredibly diverse songs to make up a fourth record. Only one of the tracks, “Rock & Roll,” made it onto their fourth official album, Loaded. All those recordings, however, are included in the box set.

“My feeling was that it was like high-quality preproduction [for an album],” Yule says. “We did it in bankers’ hours, because everyone at [the band’s label at the time] MGM would come in at 9 or 10 and work ’til 5 or 6 and go home. It was kind of clean and it had a good level of craft, but not the kind of inspired feeling that happens at 2 o’clock in the morning after you’ve been playing all night and all of the sudden you just break through and things come alive.”

“As I recall, we did that just to sort of shut up MGM,” Tucker says. “We owed them a record and we just wanted to be done with it. We weren’t being lackadaisical or not trying to do our best, but, in our minds, it wasn’t gonna be released. Certainly not by MGM.”

The songs ranged from the R&B rave-ups like the na-na-na-filled “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” and instrumental jam “I’m Gonna Move Right In” to gut-punching rockers (“I Can’t Stand It”) and raucous country experiments (“One of These Days”). Tucker even took another turn behind the mic to sing the cutesy piano ballad “I’m Sticking With You” with Reed. (“I have not one ounce of recollection of recording that,” she says now. “I swear, it’s really weird.”)

The band played a handful of the songs on tour that year, and Reed later recorded some of them during his eventual solo career. Largely, though, the recordings languished in record company vaults for close to two decades after MGM dropped the group, prompting its move to Atlantic to record Loaded. The sessions came out on the mid-Eighties compilations VU and Another View. But even then, the engineers had cloaked many of the recordings in the booming, echoing reverb that was in fashion at the time, something that the deluxe edition of the record corrects by using either the original 1969 mixes of the songs or new, more direct 2014 mixes.

Throughout 1969, when the group wasn’t working on its “lost album,” it toured the United States and Canada, often playing many nights in a row at venues. Although The Velvet Underground cracked the Billboard Top 200, it bowed out at 197. Accordingly, the band struggled to get by on the road, living together in motel rooms. Part of the problem, Tucker remembers, was poor distribution, judging from the number of concertgoers who would tell her they couldn’t get the record.

“It wasn’t like two different people telling us that, a lot of people would mention that over the course of a four-day tour,” she says. “It was just like, ‘Damn, what the hell? Can’t get your records. Can’t get your records.’ And we’d be in cities – not out in the country somewhere. So it was really quite annoying.”

MGM released a single containing “What Goes On,” backed with “Jesus,” to radio but it didn’t make an impact. “Radio stations wouldn’t play our stuff, and the record companies didn’t do much to push them or help us out with touring or doing anything really, even distributing,” Tucker says. “It was an annoyance more than a huge disappointment.”

Despite the hard times, the group continued touring undeterred. Recordings from two of its residencies, made in October at Dallas’ End of Cole Ave. and in November at San Francisco’s the Matrix, comprised the 1974 double-LP, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. The final two discs of the new Velvet Underground box set contain highlights of two concerts at the Matrix, energetic foot stompers that get polite applause when the band finishes; some of these cuts appeared on the live record but many are previously unreleased.

“Oddly enough, i never ever once saw lou high.”

Yule remembers the Matrix shows well, because one of the gig that week was a rare time he ever played “on an intoxicant other than beer,” after a friend came backstage and offered everyone a joint. “That was the only time I’ve seen Lou take a hit on a joint,” the bassist says. “Sterling, I’d seen take a few, and Maureen, she doesn’t smoke anything. I had a hit, and we went onstage, and we’re trying to tune for the second set, and it’s impossible. It can’t be done. We must’ve tuned for, like, 20 or 30 minutes. The people in the club were really nice.”

“You know, oddly enough, I never ever once saw Lou…’high,’ I guess is the word,” Tucker says with a laugh. “I drank beer. I mean, I was naïve to that stuff at the time, but I’m sure when you take heroin, you look a little different or something.” She laughs. “You know what I mean? I’m sounding like a fool, but I never really saw him off kilter. Or maybe he just never did when we were doing music.”

But, regardless of chemicals, the real reason the group was able to get into the groove at the Matrix was because it had given itself enough time to get to know the venue. Yule recalls the band booking week-long engagements so it could get comfortable with a room and enjoy a stress-free gig during which the group could have fun experimenting with some of its more daring compositions. The recordings in the box set include a version of the band’s virulent aggro extravaganza “Sister Ray” – which lasted more than 17 minutes on White Light/White Heat – that lasts for nearly 37 minutes. That song was a favorite of Tucker’s to play live because it was unpredictable. “Sometimes it might only be 20 minutes,” she says. “It would just basically depend on Lou’s mood.”

In the spring of 1970, the Velvet Underground regrouped to record their fourth, more pop-centric studio album, Loaded, which contained two songs (“Rock & Roll” and “Sweet Jane”) that they had woodshed at the Matrix. But it wasn’t the same. Tucker, who was pregnant at the time of the sessions, did not participate. Morrison, by Yule’s estimation, would only come in if he needed to play that day. So group’s newest member found himself playing bass, keyboards, drums and some guitar, and he sang on four of the LP’s songs.

“Sterling was kind of pissed off during it, which I didn’t know ’til it was about three-quarters over,” Yule says. “He felt that the group was being hijacked by me and Lou and he was being left out. But I think what was really happening was [Steve] Sesnick, the manager, was pushing for hits, and Lou was responding to him. So I was really naïve. I was just so happy to be in the studio and doing stuff that I just wanted to do everything all at once.

“Also, recording in New York City was a big mistake, because we all lived in separate places, and we didn’t see each other. When we were recording in L.A., we lived in the same place. We traveled together. We recorded together. In New York, you assemble at the studio at a certain time, and it just has a different experience. It’s like going to work, and it’s less like a band. Loaded was an album that, production-wise, was interesting, but the intimacy you get on the third album was not there.”

“Lou was a force of nature.”

Reed quit the Velvet Underground before the year was up; his final performance with the group was captured on the concert album, Live at Max’s Kansas City, which Warhol associate Brigid Polk had taped at the New York City outpost. The singer-songwriter embarked on a solo career, and went on to record drastically different-sounding versions of songs from the Velvet Underground’s 1969 sessions (“I Can’t Stand It,” “Lisa Says,” “Andy’s Chest”) for his 1972 albums Lou Reed and Transformer.

Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground kept going with new bassist Walter Powers, but Morrison quit in August 1971 and Tucker followed suit that December. Yule spearheaded Squeeze in 1973, the Velvet Underground’s poorly received final LP, with Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice behind the kit, before ending the band that same year.

The John Cale lineup of the Velvet Underground reunited in 1992 and toured Europe the following year. Morrison died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995, a day after his 53rd birthday. The band reunited without the guitarist for a final time in 1996 at its induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where it played a new song, “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend,” in tribute to Morrison. (Yule did not attend.)

“I was good friends with Sterling,” Tucker says. “He was friends with my brother when they were, like, 12, so I knew him since I was 10. He was very funny and he was also very gullible, and he was extremely smart.”

The first time Reed, Tucker and Yule got together again was in 2009, when the book The Velvet Underground: New York Art came out. Yule had reconnected with Reed in the mid Seventies, playing bass on one song on Reed’s 1974 LP Sally Can’t Dance and on sessions for 1976’s Coney Island Baby that came out decades later; he also played guitar on one of Reed’s solo tours. The trio gathered with Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke for a talk at the New York Public Library. They did not play music, and that would be it for public reunions. Four years later, Reed died of liver disease.

“Lou was a fanatic about loyalty,” Yule says. “If you showed any disloyalty at all, he would react pretty strongly and, depending on what he was doing pharmacologically at that point, the reaction could be really violent or just mildly violent…. We were never close friends – not like Maureen was with him.”

“I loved Lou very much,” Tucker says. “We had almost a brother-and-sister relationship. I saw him every few years, and it was always nice. I loved all of the members of the band very much like brothers and worried about them and was happy when anything good happened to them.”

“Lou was a force of nature,” Yule adds. “He was an extremely strong-willed person. At the same time he could be an overbearing tyrant and a warm, fuzzy, puppy-loving person. He just,” the bassist pauses, “he was a human being.”

These days, Yule works as a luthier, building and repairing violins, violas and other orchestral stringed instruments, in Seattle. Tucker is retired and lives in Douglas, Georgia, where she has peppered her home with reminders of the Velvet Underground. “I have pictures of the band around the house, not posed pictures,” she says. “I don’t sit and brood, but I do think about the band.”

Now when Tucker reminisces about The Velvet Underground, she focuses on the positive memories. “We really had good times hanging around together,” she says.

Yule is still grateful for the way it came together. “I’m sort of fond of almost everything on the album,” he says. “And it’s funny, ’cause it just happened.”

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