Obituary: Sterling Morrison

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The Independent Online
As a founder member of the Velvet Underground, the guitarist Sterling Morrison was part of a New York musical scene that brought a vibrant new cultural dimension to rock music at the height of the Sixties. Morrison, who played both bass and lead guitar, helped co-write some of the band's material, and provided stability to a band often torn by conflict between its main protagonists, Lou Reed and John Cale.

Born Holmes Sterling Morrison Jnr in 1942, he joined Reed (vocals), Cale (viola, bass and keyboards) and Maureen Tucker (drums) in 1965 to help form the first "alternative" band. Although met by a mixture of apathy and rejection at the time, and upstaged by Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, the Velvet's unorthodox approach helped liberate rock music and challenge many of its strictures and preconceived ideas.

The band was born out of a meeting between the poet and songwriter Lou Reed and the Welsh-born avant-garde musician John Cale at a party in 1964. Reed played Cale some of his demos but it was some while before they worked together. Reed formed various groups with his friend Sterling Morrison, who lived close by in New York and often went clubbing with him. A former trumpet-player, Morrison studied creative writing with Reed at Syracuse University. After they had played as the Warlocks and the Primitives, Cale joined and the new outfit called themselves "Velvet Underground", taking the name from the title of a pornographic book. Eventually they came to the attention of Andy Warhol and the celebrated artist and film- maker became their manager and featured them in his mixed media show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Warhol also put them together with Nico as guest singer, much to Reed's dissatisfaction. However the group gained a residency at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village and became the house band at Warhol's Factory. Their debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico, officially produced by Warhol, was released in March 1967 by which time Nico and Warhol were no longer involved in the group. Although ignored by radio stations, the album created a sensation among those who understood its significance. Aggressive, sometimes surreal musical textures impelled songs that had a gritty, documentary realism, dealing with such previously taboo subjects as sado-masochism, on "Venus in Furs", and drugs on "Heroin" and "I'm Waiting for the Man."

Reed and Cale were undoubtedly the main musical catalysts. But Morrison also made an important contribution, notably to "Femme Fatale", which was written for Nico at Warhol's behest, by Reed in collaboration with Morrison. Inevitably there was a critical backlash to the Velvet's drug songs, and it was Morrison who defended his friend's work. He stated in an interview, "'Heroin' is a beautiful song, possibly Reed's greatest and a truthful one. It should be pointed out that when Reed sings he's only glamorising heroin for people who want to die. The real damage has been done through the cult of personality. Rock fans have taken heroin, thinking Lou took heroin, forgetting that the character in the song wasn't necessarily Lou Reed."

The band's ground-breaking album also introduced the concept of extended performances. Morrison said: "We figured that, on our first album, it was a novel idea just to have long tracks. People just weren't doing that - everyone's album cuts had to be two minutes. We did 'European Son', which ran for nearly eight minutes." When the album was released, Morrison recalled, "I was never more excited about anything, and used to call up Cashbox to find out our chart position before the magazine hit the stands. I couldn't wait to know."

Subsequent albums included White Light/White Heat (1967), The Velvet Underground (1969) and Loaded (1971).

The Velvet Underground survived the departures of Nico, Cale and finally Lou Reed, who quit in 1970 to launch a highly successful solo career. For a while the old band toured under the aegis of Doug Yule (vocals) and Billy Yule (drums) but in 1971 Sterling Morrison eventually left to take up a post teaching English at the University of Texas, in Austin. He also worked for a while as a tugboat captain in Houston. Morrison continued to work on musical projects with Maureen Tucker and last year was a featured performer with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic.

Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, although the band had long since faded from the scene, Velvet Underground continued to be a major influence on new generations of groups, including the Psychedelic Furs, who were inspired by the Velvet's "Venus in Furs". Songs like "Sweet Jane" and "Rock 'n' Roll" were also much admired by proto-punk rockers. The original band re-formed to play together for the first time since 1969 for an appearance near Paris, France, in 1990. The Velvet Underground reunited for a European tour in 1993 but, after mixed receptions, dissolved due to "internal difficulties" before the band could return to play in America.

Chris Welch

Holmes Sterling Morrison Jnr, guitarist, bass player: born East Meadow, Long Island 29 August 1942; married (one son, one daughter); died Poughkeepsie, New York 30 August 1995.