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Lou Reed Papers: The Velvets takes shape

The Hidden Corners of the Lou Reed Papers

The Warlocks

After the dissolution of the commercially-motivated assemblage of avant-garde artists The Primitives, its two pivotal members Lou Reed and John Cale continued on their collaboration. Recognizing in each other an experimental drive, they practiced in John Cale's apartment, and were brought close through music and substances. During this time they would busk in Harlem, Reed on guitar and Cale on Viola, and for a short time they went by the name The Warlocks and, a reference to their drug experimentations, The Falling Spikes. 

Now independent from Pickwick Records, they replaced Tony Conrad and Walter De Maria with Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLise on guitar and drums, respectively.

Sterling Morrison, born August 29, 1942 in East Meadow, Long Island, NY, and went to Division Avenue High School in nearby Levittown. After graduating he attended City College of New York to study English Literature and it was during this time when he traveled up to Syracuse University to visit his high school friend Jim Tucker. Jim Tucker was a classmate of Lou Reed and had been involved in his Lonely Woman's Quarterly publication. Morrison and Reed, by all accounts, got on well in Syracuse but it wasn't until Reed returned to New York City when they reconnected. It turned out to be a timely meeting. Morrison had played guitar since high school and had been influenced by blues and R&B guitar styles, so when Lou Reed and John Cale were looking to put together a band they readily accepted him.

Angus MacLise came to the Velvet Underground from the same avant-garde direction as the others. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he was a percussionist in La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music and at the time he was roommates with John Cale. Thanks to his connection to Cale, MacLise brought to bear his avant-garde roots to the group.

The Angus MacLise Papers are housed in Columbia University Libraries Archival Collections.

Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, and Angus MacLise constituted the first lineup of the Velvet Underground. The name came from the 1963 mass market paperback book by journalist Michael Leigh The Velvet Underground, an investigation of paraphilia in the U.S.A. Reportedly, Tony Conrad had found a copy of the book lying on the sidewalk and it was Angus MacLise who suggested they adopt the name.

The Velvet Underground cut their teeth

The group mostly busked and did odd jobs. Notably they performed soundtracks for screenings of films by Piero Heliczer and Barbara Rubin, even appearing in a Heliczer short film Venus in Furs (1965).

Velvet Underground performing in face makeup

Velvet Underground on set for Piero Heliczer's Venus in Furs (1965), November 1965. Photograph by Adam Ritchie. (Lou Reed Papers)

Barbara Rubin, best known for her landmark 1963 underground film Christmas on Earth, had a very large impact on the future of the Velvet Underground. Rubin had become a devoted fan of the Velvet Underground and was the one who introduced them to their first manager, music critic Al Aronowitz.

Most famous for being the person who introduced Bob Dylan to The Beatles just the year earlier, New York Post columnist-by-day and manager-by-night Al Aronowitz agreed to manage the band. It was a handshake deal, but he got The Velvet Underground their paying concert. They were booked to open for the New Jersey garage rock band Myddle Class, also managed by Aronowitz, at Summit High School, Summit, NJ on December 11, 1965.

The Velvet Underground performance that night, while completely unheralded in the high school auditorium, was new and unique for the teenage crowd. The January 1966 edition of The Myddle Class Newsletter reports:

Half the audience loved their "different-weird" sound. The other half left the theater.

According to Rob Norris in his 1979 Kicks #1 article "I Was A Velveteen" the Velvet Underground set didn't go over well with the Myddle Class.

Backstage after their set, the viola player was seen apologizing profusely to an outraged Myddle Class entourage for scaring away half the audience. Al Aronowitz was philosophical about it, though. He said, "at least you've given them a night to remember.

This lineup would not make it to that first gig, however. Angus MacLise saw it as selling out - characterized by Lou Reed as his reticence to start or stop playing at a pre-prescribed time - so in November, just weeks before their first show date, he left the band.

The classic Velvets 

To replace Angus MacLise on percussion Sterling Morrison & Lou Reed remembered that their old friend Jim Tucker, from their college days, had a younger sister who knew how to drum. She'd never performed live before, was completely self taught, and she drummed in a very unorthodox style - she played standing, didn't use a high hat, and never rode her cymbals. Lou Reed went out to her home in Levittown, NY, auditioned her, and she was in. That's how Maureen Tucker joined the Velvet Underground.

Moe Tucker, as she is known, was born August 26, 1944 and grew up in Levittown, NY. In November 1965 she had just dropped out of Ithaca College and was back home, working for IBM as a keypunch operator. Since the age of 19 she had taught herself drums. Nigerian-born percussionist Babatunde Olatunji was a huge influence on her, along with Bo Diddly and the Rolling Stones. Suffice it to say, Tucker was a large departure from the common expectation of a 1965 Rock drummer. 

Moe Tucker throwing a football

Moe Tucker, Lou Reed. Photographer unknown.

Lou Reed catching a football

(Salvatore Mercuri Velvet Underground collection)