Making a case for Sterling Morrison is pretty hard going. Unlike his bandmates in The Velvet Underground, Morrison didn’t have an easily identifiable musical persona. Lou Reed was the tortured songwriter. Maureen Tucker was the proto riot-grrrl. John Cale, the experimental prodigy. Morrison, however, was a twee and unassuming guitarist who would fill in as a bassist if the need arose.
Unlike Cale, Tucker and Reed, he didn’t pursue a solo career and always seemed to be waiting for the moment The Velvet Underground would get back together. He was overshadowed from the off and so has, historically, been ignored by music writers and even the band’s most die-hard fans. Many have referred to Morrison as being the ‘tugboat captain’ of The Velvet Underground, a metaphor inspired by the fact that Morrison was an actual deckhand on an actual seafaring vessel.
What people forget, of course, is that Morrison was arguably one of the most important members of The Velvet Underground. Not only was he a diplomatic presence and friend to Maureen Tucker when the band started to collapse, he was also a quietly superb guitarist whose work has been shamefully ignored. So join me as I make a case for one of rock’s most underrated characters: Sterling Morrison.
The first thing to say about Morrison is that he had his work cut out for him. Lou Reed was a temperamental, violent storm of a man. His ego has been well documented, but it’s another thing entirely to have to navigate that ego in a professional setting. The members of the original lineup would frequently fall out and walk out on one another, making anything nearing a cohesive vision seem nearly impossible.
Morrison’s non-confrontational, diplomatic approach allowed the band to discuss things without throwing chairs at one another. Of Morrison, Maureen Tucker said that she’d “never ever thought of Sterling as hard to get along with. We’d argue about politics or whatever, but there was never a time when we were mad at each other. I’ve always said everyone loves Sterling. Not once did I ever have even an argument with Sterling.”
But Sterling’s biggest contribution to The Velvet Underground was his guitar playing. Although understated, Morrison’s guitar lines can be seen to sow the band’s many disparate elements together on closer inspection. ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ is a great example of this. Although the song is one of The Velvet Underground’s earlier recordings, Morrison’s looped guitar line already showcases the clean tone and sleek, summery ambience that would define tracks like ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Lisa Says’. It’s a lead guitar style that would come to characterise all of the albums The Velvet’s made before John Cale’s exit. Without it, tracks like ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ would be without that distinctly American element that Morrison’s intricate surf-guitar style implies.
One of Morrison’s other important traits was that he was something of a jack-of-all-trades. In a slightly backhanded compliment, Lou Reed said of his bandmate: “There is no one who was more perfectly made for being a tugboat captain. There was nothing he couldn’t master.” This allowed Morrison to keep The Velvet Underground together after John Cale was fired from the band in late 1968. During this period, Morrison replaced Cale as the group’s co-lead instrumentalist and became the band’s main soloist in the course of 1969. It was a shift in the band’s dynamic which affected the Velvet’s sound as much as anything John Cale or Lou Reed did. But Of course, because he always shied away from the spotlight, his role in this regard has rarely been acknowledged.
Sterling Morrison’s influence on The Velvet Underground is easily glossed over. But once you notice it, it doesn’t go away. ‘Venus In Furs’, ‘Heroin’, ‘Oh Sweet Nuthin’, these are all tracks which would have been very different without Morrison and, arguably, no way near as good. And yet, the world seems to barely even know his name. It just goes to show that, in rock n roll – as in life – it’s not necessarily the most talented who are remembered, but those who shout the loudest.