Sterling Morrison: Reflections In A Lone Star Beer
by Nick Modern, et al
The complete transcript of this interview originally appeared in SLUGGO magazine. It was reprinted in NYROCKER July/August 1980.
SLUGGO: What do you think of this music compared to what you used to play? Or what you’re playing now?
STERLING MORRISON: What I play now is different. But this is very close to what we used to play. What I’m doing now is a diddling homage to old rock ‘n’ roll.
S: Do you think New Wave is new, or is it just a rehashing of old stuff?
SM: I’m afraid to say what I think about New Wave.
S: Don’t be. Go ahead. Please.
SM: I’m worried a whole lot about it. People that have known me know that the major bitch in my life has been between rock ‘n’ roll and folk singers. That’s it.
S: Is New Wave rock ‘n’ roll or is it folk?
SM: I’m afraid it’s folk singing and this pains me.
S: What do you mean, it’s folk singing?
SM: Well, let’s drag Lou Reed into this. (Not to embellish me or diminish him.) Lou and I had some of the shittiest bands that ever were. They were shitty because we were playing authentic rock ‘n’ roll. If you were playing authentic rock ‘n’ roll in 1963 that meant you were playing the stuff that people think it’s very fashionable to revive now… Old Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed.
S: Why do you say that New Wave music is folk music?
SM: Maybe I’m trapped by certain beliefs, but in the early ’60s, on college campuses, you went one of two ways. Either you were a very sensitive young person, who cared about air pollution and civil rights and anti-Vietnam or you were a very unsensitive young person, who didn’t care about civil rights because all the blacks he knew were playing in his band or in his audience. I was a very unsensitive young person and played very unsensitive, uncaring music. Which is Wham, Bam, Pow! Let’s Rock Out! What I expected my audience to do was tear the house down, beat me up, whatever. Lou and I came from the identical environment of Long Island rock ‘n’ roll bars, where you can drink anything at 18, everybody had phony proof at 16; I was a night crawler in high school and played some of the sleaziest bars. You can’t quite imagine them in Texas – people didn’t carry guns, that’s the only difference. In the ’60s, I had King Hatreds. I was a biker type and hung around with nasty black people and nasty white people and black rock ‘n’ roll music. On the other hand, you had very sensitive and responsible young people suddenly attuned to certain cosmic questions that beckon us all, and expressing these concerns through acoustic guitars and lilting harmonies and pale melodies. I hate these people.
S: Do you think we should go back to the basics?
SM: Yeah. When I talked with Joe Nick Patoski, he said, what do I think the future of rock ‘n’ roll music is? And I said, “Whatever’s being played in garage band today.” And I believe that! It excludes so much. What does a garage band do with ELO? Nothing. ELO doesn’t exist. What do they do with Fleetwood Mac? Nothing. the whole joy of rock ‘n’ roll music was anybody could play it if they wanted to.
But the ’60s fouled that whole thing up. Everybody decided to get good and they pursued virtuosity. The thing that ruined music was virtuosity – competence – as an end in itself. It means nothing. It was a very terrible thing.
S: But what were you trying to accomplish with the Velvet Underground? Just play music?
SM: It was self indulgence. We wanted to play a certain kind of music. However far we could carry it, more power to us.
We were fired from our first gig as the Velvet Underground. We played “Black Angel’s Death Song” and the owner came up to us on a break and said, “You play that song one more time and you’re fired.” So we opened with it next set. The best version of it perhaps ever played. We just wanted to do whatever we wanted to do. And some people came up and said, “Hey, would you like to have a record contract?” We said, “Might as well.”
S: Who in New Wave makes you “afraid” of it being folk music?
SM: Look at a recent Rolling Stone – it’s happening to Elvis Costello: “You’re rocking to Elvis Costello, but did you ever sit down, Jack, and listen to the lyrics?” Well, no Jack, I never sit down and listen to lyrics, because rock ‘n’ roll is not sit-down-and-listen-to-lyrics music! Why is it that the Velvet Underground’s celebrated lyricsmiths never published a lyrics sheet? Was that to make you strain to hear the lyrics that you could never hear? No. It’s because they were saying, “Fuck you. If you wanna listen to lyrics, then read the New York Times.” It has nothing to do with the intellectual apprehension of content.
S: Everything I’ve heard about the Velvet Underground made them seem very gloomy…
SM: We used to play the Whisky A Go Go all the time, so how gloomy could we have been?
S: Well, “Sister Ray” still seems to me like a really perverse song…
SM: It’s a good dance song! I presume that nobody can hear the lyrics – I did my best to drown them out!
S: Why do you have such an aversion toward people who talk to you?
SM: ‘Cause I read books!
S: You don’t believe you can get the same stuff through music?
SM: Anybody who needs Bob Dylan to tell him which way the wind is blowing is a serious mental defective. See, I go back to: How well can you hear the words in a rock ‘n’ roll song? Listen to Rolling Stones records. The words are mixed so far back… they are non-important. If you’re going to rock music to learn something verbally rather than physically or viscerally, then you’re in a sad shape, baby. Death to me – and one of the reasons I wanted to stop playing – was when when we had start doing these giant sit-down things – where you stood on the edge of the stage and you’d look at people sitting down, gazing up reverently.