What Goes On
The improbable story of how Sterling Morrison left VU for UT.
By Chris O’Connell
In 1971, the Velvet Underground only had one founding member left. Once the brainchild of the ultracool Lou Reed, the proteges of world-famous artist Andy Warhol, and the planet’s foremost avant-garde rock band, the band now consisted of Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, singer/guitarist Doug Yule, and bassist Walter Powers. On Aug. 21, they were headed back to New York after playing a gig in Houston at Liberty Hall.
Morrison had other ideas.
Standing just outside the terminal, he appeared to be someone with that very intention, to get back to New York, maybe record another album. He had a ticket, his suitcase, and he was in the right place to catch a plane. Only his suitcase was a prop; his clothes still hung in his closet at the hotel. Replacing them in his ruse was a stack of Yellow Pages. This way, no one could change his mind. Not even him.
“We rode to the airport, and he got out of the limousine and walked up into the terminal,” says Yule. “And then he said, ‘Actually, I’m not going back with you.’”
The Velvet Underground — or what was left of it — faced Morrison, in awe. Why did he bother to bring his suitcase? Tucker, Morrison’s childhood friend, was furious. Morrison had left the band in the lurch and they had a plane to catch.
“But you have to know Sterling. He was a unique individual in many ways,” Yule says. “He was kind of an oddball, so it wasn’t surprising when he did things you wouldn’t expect other people to do.”
Just days prior, before the final founding member of New York’s most New York band turned the page on the Velvet Underground, UT English professor and member of the TA selection committee Joe Kruppa was thumbing through a large stack of applications when one caught his eye. The name on top, Holmes S. Morrison, seemed somehow familiar, but he couldn’t place it, until he arrived at the “Past Experience” portion.
“For the past six years I’ve been involved with a professional musical organization touring and recording for Verve Records,” it read. “Jesus Christ,” Kruppa remembers thinking. “That’s Sterling. He’s applying!”
Kruppa, who had met Morrison in 1969 when he and Reed stopped by to discuss the Velvet Underground and their collaboration with Andy Warhol with his mixed media class, was a VU devotee. He now had the chance to bring Morrison to the University of Texas, so he slipped the recent City College of New York graduate’s application to the top of the pile. Once it was official, he called Morrison, who happened to be in Texas at the time. Morrison had an important choice to make: Join the nebulous, difficult world of academia in a wholly unfamiliar city, or slog on with the faltering remains of what was once among the greatest rock bands in the world, one that he had founded and nurtured throughout his 20s.
“Things weren’t fun for him anymore, he told me that,” says Martha Morrison, BS ’83, of her then-boyfriend’s willingness to leave the life he knew behind. “He didn’t hesitate but it was very wrenching for him. And it isn’t that he planned to leave them like that — they just called him while he was in the state.” Sterling went straight from Houston to Austin, and Martha followed him a few months later. The couple married later that year, and rented a house down the street from Maudie’s Cafe on Norwalk Lane.
Morrison arrived in Austin in anonymity. He didn’t tell people he helped write the infamous 17-minute-plus “Sister Ray,” that he had Andy Warhol’s phone number, or that his sparse, beautiful guitar playing influenced a myriad of bedroom-noodling would-be — and actual — rock stars. He began his studies, taking Kruppa as a mentor and latching on to fellow English TA Marvin Williams, BA ’70, MA ’72, PhD ’78, whose cubicle in the basement of the English building was a mere 20 feet away. Morrison and Williams became beer-drinking buddies, taking day trips down to the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, hustling games of pool at Deep Eddy Cabaret, and plucking sorority girls’ unfinished slices off tables at Luigi’s when they got hungry.
“It was a multistage circus at all times,” Williams says.
It was during one of his nights out at the Cedar Door in the summer of 1975 that he received his introduction into the Austin music scene. While pontificating one afternoon about Frank Zappa to some friends, Bill Bentley, BA ’75 a fellow student and drummer of the Bizarros, realized who the man holding court in the middle of the bar was. He’d heard Morrison was on campus, and had been trying in vain to meet him for years.
“Are you Sterling Morrison?” he asked the tall mustachioed man.
“Who wants to know?” Morrison replied.
Morrison’s New York attitude stuck out in a sleepy, early ’70s Austin. So did his proclivity to orate and argue with anyone who would listen. “He could do a monologue for hours. He’d walk into a bar and just take over,” Bentley says. “We’d play this game. We would take him to parties, he’d walk into a room full of people, and we’d say, ‘How many minutes will it take to clear the room?’”
“He loved to talk, and he was a great storyteller. About half the time he was full of shit, I’m pretty sure,” Williams laughs.
“But he wasn’t boring for a second,” Martha says. “There was never an ‘um’ or a stupid word when he spoke.”
Bentley, who claims to have “received his degree at VU,” wasn’t put-off by Morrison’s demeanor, and he set up an interview with one of his idols, which ran in the October 19 edition of the Austin Sun. Through that interview, the mythic Sterling Morrison had truly arrived on the burgeoning Austin music scene. He told tales of the Velvet Underground’s split, Warhol’s Factory, and his motivation for coming to the University of Texas.
“Warhol said it was the right thing to do, that it would be good for me,” Morrison said in the interview. But, as much as he didn’t totally assimilate to a then-docile Austin, the big city folk also didn’t quite understand Morrison’s new Southwestern life.
“Most of them said, ‘Sterling, you know, he went to Texas,’” Morrison continued. “And that’s it. Like I was swallowed up by the armadillos.”
A few months after that, Bentley convinced Morrison to sling his Fender Stratocaster back on and join the Bizarros. With Morrison on guitar, the Bizarros set up shop every Friday night at the Hole in the Wall on the Drag. The venue is now famous for live rock music, but up until then it was known only for the occasional performance by a folk singer plucking away on a nylon-stringed acoustic.
Morrison relished the chance to play music without strings attached. It was fun again.
“He knew we weren’t going anywhere. He’d already done it, he told me once. He wasn’t counting on anything from music other than fun — and we had a lot of fun,” Bentley says. “Austin was an incredible time in the ’70s, a continual party.”
But Morrison’s musical rebirth in Austin was short-lived. In 1978, the Bizarros voted to kick Morrison out of the band due to stylistic differences, and the members nominated Bentley to deliver the message.
“It broke my heart. It ruined his pride. He got kicked out of a dumpy bar band in Austin,” Bentley says. For the next 15 years, the two didn’t speak, and Morrison never attended another Bizarros show. He quietly worked on his dissertation and taught technical writing courses, but the financial pressures of supporting a family began to weigh on him, so in the summers he’d commute part-time to Houston to pilot tugboats.
Morrison finished his PhD in 1986, 15 years after the incident at the Houston airport. In that span, he got married, had two children, and eventually moved to Houston to work full-time on the tugboats. Once Morrison had published his dissertation, “Historiographical Perspectives in the Signed Poems of Cynewulf,” he was already a certified tugboat captain. This idiosyncratic third act in Morrison’s life — a famous musician, then an academic, then a man of the sea — was immortalized in the song “Tugboat,” by the band Galaxie 500, a track on the 1988 album Today.
I don’t wanna stay at your party
I don’t wanna talk to your friends
I don’t wanna vote for your President
I just wanna be your tugboat captain
It’s a place I’d like to be
It’s a place I’d be happy
“He enjoyed it,” Martha says, of Morrison’s new life, even further removed from the seemingly glamorous life at the Factory. “I know that he liked the friendship, the guys, fishing off the fan tail. They worked awfully hard.”
Still, Morrison again reignited his music career in the late ’80s and early ’90s, often sitting in with former Velvets John Cale and Lou Reed and joining Maureen Tucker’s touring band.
The Velvet Underground reunited for a six-week European tour in 1993, with the original lineup intact. VU released a live record from the tour, titled, Live MCMXCII, which comprises mostly songs from the The Velvet Underground & Nico and VU’s self-titled third album, though it contains two new tracks, one of which is the brief, playful “Velvet Nursery Rhyme,” an introduction to the band, of sorts. Over an airy piano melody, Reed calls out each band member. Morrison comes second after his childhood friend Tucker. “There is Sterling Morrison,” Reed warbles, the audience almost drowning him out with cheers by the time he reaches the last syllable. “He’s playing the guitar. He’s a guitar hero, kick their asses really far.”
Instead of a finger-mashing solo, one fitting for a conventional guitar hero, Morrison plays a few sparse notes — discordant ones at that — because, after all, why wouldn’t he? Always one to swim upstream, Sterling Morrison the avant-garde guitarist became Holmes S. Morrison the strict academic, and, with the band he created opening for the world’s biggest pop act in U2, he flailed back once more, filling the void with, ultimately, whatever the hell he wanted.
The 1993 VU tour looked like a full-fledged reunion, until old grudges between Cale and Reed came roaring back. Rumors of an MTV Unplugged session and a U.S. tour were finally put to bed when Morrison was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. On August 30, 1995, one day after his 53rd birthday, Morrison died, with Martha by his side at the Morrison home in Poughkeepsie, New York. Tucker had just left, and was on a train home when her oldest friend died.
That December, Reed, who died in October 2013, published a tribute to Morrison in The New York Times. According to Bentley, who eventually patched things up with Morrison once he was hired as Reed’s PR agent in the early ’90s, the founding members of the Velvet Underground had a difficult relationship, but Reed still loved Morrison. The piece ends with Reed describing seeing his old friend on his deathbed, the once-mighty, muscular, unstoppable force of a rock guitarist now too weak to even hold a guitar.
“In these moments that only an artist can capture, I saw my friend Sterling: Sterl, the great guitar-playing, tug-boat-captaining, Ph.D.-ing professor, raconteur supreme, argumentative, funny, brilliant; Sterl as the architect of this monumental effort, possessor of astonishing bravery and dignity. The warrior heart of the Velvet Underground.”