View From The Drummer’s Seat: Moe Tucker Remembers Her Time In The Velvet Underground


Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

The Velvet Underground were far from the most popular band on the block during their short life in the latter portion of the 1960s into the ’70s. But while the music produced by the Lou Reed-led outfit went largely unnoticed by the larger rock-loving world in their time, they came to be cherished and championed by a vociferous and vocal contingent of critics and musicians alike in the years following their demise. As the esteemed artist/producer Brian Eno noted of the band’s first, banana-adorned album, “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

Over the past few years, The Velvet Underground’s current label has expended a lot of time and energy refurbishing the band’s classic records, while also giving fans a peek into some of the material that was left on the cutting room floor, in addition to a bevy of live tracks from venues like the Boston Tea Party and the Matrix in San Francisco. The wealth of latter-day releases has greatly expanded our understanding of this seminal group, while also granting fans deeper insight into their creative processes.

The latest release from Verve Records/UMe is a career-spanning vinyl box set that collects each one of the band’s studio albums, as well as Nico’s solo debut Chelsea Girls and, most tantalizing of all, a reassembled version of their “lost” album between The Velvet Underground and Loaded titled 1969, featuring deep cuts like “Foggy Notion,” “Ride Into The Sun,” and “I Can’t Stand It.” This latest set stands as the most definitive and sonically-meticulous statement from the band yet, and maybe for all-time.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to the Velvet Underground’s drummer Moe Tucker to ask to her about this release, as well as her history in the band, her long, loving relationship with Reed, and her recent onstage reconciliation with John Cale.

Can you remember the first time you played drums?

Yeah, I do. In my room upstairs at home with one snare drum. That’s all I had.

What was it that inspired you to pick up the sticks?

Well, I really was overwhelmed with so much that was coming out at the time, so much of the music. And I wanted to not just listen but participate, which was more fun than just sitting there. So I sat in my room and played my snare drum along with the Stones and the Beatles and whatever. Bo Diddley, for hours and hours.

How did you first met Sterling Morrison?

Well, he and my brother became friends in probably junior high, I guess. I know I was 11 or 12 when he first appeared. They were friends, so of course I got to know him over the years better and better.

Was he playing guitar then?

Well, at the time, he was fooling around with trumpet. Maybe it was a very passing stage, I really don’t know. I don’t think he became great at it or anything, maybe he tried it in high school or when I was young, when we were young. Then, my brother went to Syracuse and Sterling went to Illinois. I think maybe he started trying to play or learning to play, maybe in 12th grade or so. Maybe earlier? I do remember when I was trying to learn to play guitar, I had bought a Beatles music book and Sterling — now, I was about 18, I guess, maybe 19 at the time — Sterling came over and we played one of the songs together. I played the melody ’cause I learned to read the music, and he played the chords. And I remember being so excited that we actually ended together.

Do you remember the Beatles song?

I think it was “This Boy,” ’cause it was a slow song, so I didn’t have to be too speedy. I know it wasn’t like “Good Golly Miss Molly” or something.

So now Sterling is in Illinois, your brother’s in Syracuse. Can you talk about how you first met Lou Reed?

My brother went to Syracuse, and so did Lou. [They] became friends there. And the first time I met him, after that first meeting, it must have been four years or so before I ever even saw him again. He had come over to the house to pick up my brother, probably on Thanksgiving break from college. And they went out somewhere and that’s when I first met him for three minutes of, “Hey Lou, this is my sister.”

How did you come to start playing drums with him and the Velvets?

They were getting a job to play, and they were going to get paid at Summit, New Jersey, that first show I played with them. And Angus, who played bongos with them, felt that it was wrong to take money to play music. So, they needed a drummer real fast, ’cause they wanted to do this first job, this first paying job. Sterling knew I had been fooling around with drums and apparently they were rehearsing or something and discussing the drummer problem, and Sterl said, “Tucker’s sister plays drums.” So, he acted as my agent. Then Lou came out to my house –not my house, my parents’ house, I was on Long Island, and they were in the city — just to see if I could actually keep time, I suppose. It was just supposed to be for that one show.

What was it like for you being in a room and showing Lou off your chops?

I was a little nervous ’cause I really wanted to do it. I hoped they’d say “Okay.”

How did that gig go?

Well! That was at a high school auditorium. We got to play three songs. The main act was a high school group called The Middle Class, and that’s who everybody came to see. They weren’t crazy about us.

At what point did you guys start linking up with Andy Warhol?

After the show in New Jersey, we, they — I wasn’t officially a member at all — they immediately had to start next week a job at the Café Bizarre in the village. So they said, “Oh, come, you play too.” Now at this place, you were only allowed to play tambourine because the neighbors complained about the noise. It was a little coffee house is what it was. Andy, at the time, was looking for a band to have his multimedia show idea. And he wanted something other than just a band, so [Andy’s friend] said, “Oh, you gotta hear these guys,” and she brought him to that club to hear us. And that’s when we first hooked up with him. And then, well, he liked it, apparently.

What was it like for you, being a woman in the rock scene in the ’60s? There certainly weren’t many female drummers pioneering the form like you were. Did you have problems being taken seriously?

Honestly, I can’t remember any problems at all. Ever. I really don’t remember any remarks or anything from anybody.

What do you remember most about the recording sessions for the first album, the banana album? How did the process unfold?

We had been playing those songs for a while. That wasn’t our entire repertoire, but it was pretty much our repertoire at the time. We just blasted through the songs we had been playing for a while.

What was your reaction when Lou brings in a song like “Heroin,” which I think it’s fair to say is pretty out there.

That was one of the songs that we rehearsed. We rehearsed it once for the New Jersey show, and that was one of the songs they had chosen of the three we were going to play, so maybe we did play “Heroin.” Maybe that’s why they didn’t like us? But my brother had been telling me about this guy he met before I met Lou, of course, in Syracuse. My brother’s not big into music, so to have him be really impressed…I was kind of pumped up to hear this “Heroin” song. And I really, I loved playing “Heroin.”

What was your impression of Nico, and how did she come into the band?

Well, the official story that you read, I don’t know for sure, is that Andy suggested that, “Hey, maybe Nico could play, sing a few songs or something.” It wasn’t a command. If we didn’t want that, we would’ve certainly said, “Forget it.” Personally, I think the three or four songs she did sing with us were perfect for her, and I can’t imagine someone else singing them.

The Velvet Underground is identified as a mostly New York band and rightfully so. You’re from New York, Lou is from New York. Most of the group is from New York. But you spent a lot of time in Boston, and specifically the Boston Tea Party, around ’68, ’69, that era. What was it like to play that venue, and why do you gravitate toward Boston during that time?

I don’t know a particular reason other than that the Tea Party was functioning and the guy who ran it liked us, and it was close. We could be there in a couple hours, four hours, I guess it was, about. [It was a] friendly atmosphere, and we started to grow a pretty good fan base there. We didn’t do a lot of touring at all, and when we did, it was usually Philadelphia or Boston. Close. We didn’t go driving around. We took one tour with a bus that we hired, and we drove, but we didn’t tour like they do today.

Do you regret that? Do you wish that you guys had had more of a chance to play live?

Well, we played live quite a lot. But as I said, we’d play in Philadelphia, and I’m trying to think what else was nearby. I don’t remember ever playing in New Jersey, except for that first show, but I may be wrong about that. We played at the Rhode Island School of Design one time. And I’m trying to think …

San Francisco at the Matrix, right?

San Francisco, yeah. When we went out to California, that was a big deal, for me anyway. As a teenager, I always thought I’d love to go to California, wouldn’t that be cool, or whatever. And so that was like a dream come true. We played in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and that’s all.

You kind of adopt a no-frills style. Not many drum rolls or fills, which I’ve read was to give the band room to improvise. What was it like to play some of those long, live versions of like Sister Ray, for example where you didn’t know where Lou or John might go?

Oh, I loved playing “Sister Ray.” “Melody Laughter,” have you ever heard that?

Sure, of course.
Oh my god, that was torture. It was torture. I had to sit and literally count to myself because Lou and John would just do whatever the hell they wanted. Any tempo, any whatever. And Sterling and I were holding down the fort, but I really literally had to count to myself, ’cause when you hear a different rhythm, it’s difficult to ignore it.

How much of what you played on the road or of the improvisation that you guys were doing during those gigs made it onto those records? How did the writing process between John and Lou unfold?

Lou, he wrote the lyrics, as you know. And then he and John and Sterl would get together and fool around with it, ’cause I was working. I lived out on Long Island and I worked. So I could only really go in there, go to the studio on the weekends. And we’d fool around at the Factory often to practice, get the songs somewhat organized to what we thought, yeah, that’s cool for now, let’s do it and see what happens.

Where were you all working at the time?

I worked as a data entry person in the good old days, when they had those IBM cards. The machines punched holes in the cards.

Right, right.

I had a steady job when I first played with them, the first while. And then when we went to California, I quit because we were going to be gone a month. And when I came back, then I signed up with a couple of temporary agencies.

What was it like for you to have your toe in those two worlds of data entry on weekdays, and then playing with the Velvet Underground on weekends and nights?

Yeah, at least my weekends were fun [Laughs].

Yeah, I would think so! So, after White Light, White Heat, obviously John leaves the band and Doug Yule comes in. What was that transition like, and what’d you think of Doug when he came into the band?

Oh, I liked him. He’s a nice, nice guy. We all liked him. And obviously it made quite a difference not have Cale. The sound obviously changed quite a bit.

Less avant-garde.

Yeah. It was a letdown, because I liked John’s crazy playing and his piano, organ pounding. I don’t know how to explain. It was, “Well, John is gone, shit. Now who are we going to get?” And I think obviously, Doug held up his end.

You know, so much gets said about Lou in the media, what is something about Lou that people either don’t know or often get wrong about his personality or the person that he was?

Well, journalists, many journalists who tried to interview Lou came unarmed with any knowledge. They didn’t like him very much, because he didn’t like them, and I don’t blame him, actually. But, my personal opinion, I don’t blame them [either]. I do think that Lou sometimes went a bit overboard in deriding them.

That’s very generous of you.

What didn’t people know about Lou? He became way more of a perfectionist when he went solo. I played with him a few times in the ’80s, late ’80s and early ’90s. And at that point his show was a much, much different thing than we did. Not even musically, but money-wise and roadie-wise. We didn’t have any of that kind of stuff. It was just us blasting along having a good time and being serious for sure, but a vast difference between those two worlds of non-fame and fame. And it depends on how the person who’s the center of attention, how they react to it.

And how did he react to it?

He was always real concerned about the sound. We all were. We wanted the audience to get a good judgment of the song. And he became really obsessed with sound. I remember when we went to Europe in ’93, he drove us crazy. We actually had sound check one time and it went seven hours.

Oh my god.

I swear to god, it was like, are you out of your freaking mind?

What was he doing? What was he trying to get right?

He had four or five guitars, and of course we had to…not tune, but like, tune in the guitar and try two or three songs with each guitar. I’m not bullshitting. It was seven hours.

Did you have anything left for the show?

Well, we had to! I really wished when we went on that tour that we just got some amps like we had when we were poor, no lighting, no bullshit, just get out and play like we used to.

Do you regret that you weren’t able to extend that reunion and bring it to the States?

Yeah, kind of. But I was all for going to Europe first, because since the beginning, Europe has supported us, way more than America and we had never played there. My idea was, “We owe them something. Let’s go there first.”

Going back in time, this new box set has this 1969 album that collects material you guys recorded between the Velvet Underground’s self-titled album in ’68 and the next album after that Loaded. What do you remember about the sessions recording that album?

Well, I’m glad that that stuff finally came out, because, for instance, “Foggy Notion,” I love that. And I do remember Lou showing me “Sticking With You.”

What was that one like, taking the lead vocal?

I was a nervous wreck. In fact, finally, I told Sterling and Doug they had to leave the studio because they were laughing.

Come on! That’s mean!

With love, they were making fun of me. I don’t remember how many times [I sang]. Not even official takes, but just to feel more at ease and be able to actually do my best, ’cause Lou loved it. We all liked it. But I was a nervous wreck.

At what point did you learn that Lou wanted to go solo?

At Max’s [Kansas City, in New York]. I wasn’t playing. They were playing at Max’s, and he said, “Moe, come on outside for a minute.” So we sat on the steps, or maybe the staircase inside Max’s, and he told me. Yeah, that was…that was sad. That was a real shock to me. I don’t know, to this day I don’t know the exact reason. But yeah, that sucked.

You always seemed to have a pretty good relationship with Lou, is that fair to say?

Yeah, yeah. We had a real good relationship.

Did you guys keep in touch in the later years?

Yeah, we always did. We reconnected when I did my first solo album. I was in Arizona, and I sent him the album He was super encouraging. I kept in touch, of course, I saw Sterling all the time. But John was just doing all sorts of different stuff, and we really didn’t keep in touch much. But Lou and I did. Not a monthly phone call or anything, but always cards and a call a few times a year.

Do you remember the last time you got to see him?

I think it must have been when they had that show in the New York Public Library. After I stopped playing and having my own band, things like that would come up and I would go up to New York for them and I’m pretty sure that was the last one.

What was that like, that experience?

It was fun! I’d never been in that library, the one with the lions in the front? It was fun just talking to fans. We had a question and answer type thing, and then after they had a place set up for us to sign that white album, that white box set. I don’t even know what it was called.

You got the chance recently to play on stage with John Cale for the Velvet’s Grammy ceremony. What was that like?

I had no idea that he was going to ask me to play. I thought he might, but he has his own band and all slots are filled, so I just played tambourine. But that was fun, seeing him. I hadn’t seen him in a long, long time. Not since Sterling died [in 1995].

Oh wow.

That was really nice. Whether I played or not, it was really nice to get to do with him again.

What was the reconciliation like between you two? I mean, that’s a long time to go without him.

Oh, we had hugs. It was wonderful to see him, and he seemed very, very happy to see me. It was nice.

So many people have enjoyed and been inspired by your music, what does it mean to you to know that you’ve had such a tremendous impact on music fans and musicians across the last 50 years?

It’s wonderful. And I’ll tell you the truth, I had no idea ’til I started out on my own — this is, God, ’80, ’81, or ’82 or something — I made an album in my house and released it myself just for fun, and anyway, when I started doing that, I thought, “Hmm, maybe I better start reading Rolling Stone,” and whatever else was out at the time, and every magazine I picked up, the Velvets were mentioned at least two or three times. I was like, “Holy shit!” I had no idea that was going on.

How often do people talk to you just to say thank you and just to gush over the work you’ve done?

Not [often] where I live. I’m in Georgia. I came here in ’84, and didn’t expect anybody to have a clue, but then as my kids got a little bit older and were in high school and had friends, they were all listening to music, it slowly came out, and here and there. One of my kids would come home and say, “Oh, my history teacher, Mr. So-and-So. He’s really excited! He couldn’t believe that my mom was in the Velvet Underground!”

That’s amazing!

And then the guy who owned the only pizza place in town, he’s a big music buff, he was very excited.