“There really wasn’t any sense of novelty about me being a female drummer back then,” recalls Maureen “Moe” Tucker of her days as the legendary Velvet Underground’s rhythm engine. “And I guess that is kinda weird when you sit back and think about it now, but it never really occurred to me to think about it that way until people started posing that question years later during interviews. Of course, one of my theories is that everybody was so drugged back then that they didn’t notice I was a woman.”
It may not have been just the drugs, as there were plenty of other things that plenty of other people weren’t noticing about the Velvets during their five year musical run: the limited fame (or infamy) that Tucker and her bandmates (Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale and Nico in the early days, Doug Yule later) garnered during their heyday came largely through their involvement with Andy Warhol’s notorious Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a primordial precursor to today’s multimedia concert extravaganzas.
After the E.P.I. had run its course, the Velvets soldiered on to release three influential but commercially doomed albums. They didn’t survive making their fourth record without Tucker, however: Reed fled the band shortly after he, Morrison, Yule and stand-in drummer Billy Yule (Doug’s brother) recorded Loaded during a pregnancy-necessitated Tucker sabbatical. While that album spawned two of Reed’s most enduring songs, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”, it suffered immeasurably by replacing Tucker’s unique and influential mallet-driven, cymbal- free, stand-up drum sound with Billy Yule’s stock rock fills. Tucker retired her mallets shortly thereafter.
“When the Velvets were done, it never really occurred to me that I should find some other musicians to play with,” she recalls during a recent phone interview from her south Georgia home. “I was just like ‘Oh well, that was fun, now I gotta get a job’ . . . and I just never thought of playing again, certainly not to make a living or anything. I had a family and it wasn’t even a thought that I could do music while the kids were all little.”
While Tucker may have vanished from the public eye throughout the ’70s, she remained in the music community’s collective consciousness: for every angst-driven singer- songwriter who worked to emulate Reed’s style and every art- driven music auteur who strove to mimic the many moods of Cale, there were dozens of rock-driven bands who built their sounds around the grinding, metronomic support-guitar-on-minimalist-drum axis first mastered by Tucker and Morrison.
Tucker herself finally popped back up on the nation’s musical radar with two home-made albums, 1981’s Playin’ Possum (“cut between diaper changes”, she notes) and 1987’s MoeJadKateBarry, that found her reinventing both classic tunes and her musical craft: she eschewed her drum kit altogether to play guitar and sing. In 1989, MoeJadKateBarry collaborator Jad Fair (of Half Japanese) suggested Tucker field test her new ouvre by joining him on a European tour.
“When Jad called me about the tour, I told him ‘Well . . . see how much I can make ’cause I’m supporting my family and I can’t just go off and play rock n’ roll'”, Tucker explains. “So he did, and I think we figured out that if I did a six week tour I would make as much as I would have if I worked at Wal-Mart for the whole year. And even then I had to think about it, ’cause this isn’t a part of the country where you just go out and get a job whenever you want one, and Wal-Mart wasn’t about to give me the time off. But I did it, and it worked out okay.”
Tucker’s next two solo albums, 1989’s Life in Exile After Abdication and 1991’s I Spent a Week There the Other Night helped foster one of the most unlikely reunions in rock history: the first record featured Reed in a guest role, the second found Reed, Morrison and Cale stopping by help out on the very Velvety number “I’m Not”. By 1993, the original Velvet Underground had been fully reactivated for a European tour.
“When we decided that we’d do that tour it just assumed that we would do Europe, because Europe always was and still is the best fan base for us,” says Tucker. “When we get a royalty check, three-quarters of it is from over there. And we just really wanted to play there since we never had done so. We were going to do something in America before things fell apart [due to the ever volatile Reed-Cale chemistry] . . . but I’m really pleased that we did what we did, ’cause we really had a great time.”
That unexpected reunion gained a heightened sense of poignancy for all involved when Morrison became critically ill while working on and touring behind Tucker’s 1994 album, Dogs Under Stress. “Sterling just wasn’t feeling right when we were touring in October, but he just thought he was having stomach problems,” Tucker recalls. “Then a month later, he and John and I met to do something at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and when Sterling walked into the hotel lobby we were just floored at how horrible he looked. We insisted that he go to the doctor and find out what was wrong, and he went to a medical facility in Pittsburgh where the doctor told him he had just pulled a muscle!”
The doctor was wrong. “A couple of months later Sterling had to go home to Poughkeepsie in a wheelchair, he couldn’t make it on his own steam because he was so far gone to stomach cancer,” Tucker continues. “He did the whole chemotherapy thing and the reports we were getting was that he was doing okay. So I was thinking ‘Okay, he’s very sick, but he’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna take a while, but he is going to be fine.’ And the next thing I knew I was getting a call saying ‘If you want to see Sterling, you better get up here now.’ So even though we knew he was sick for almost a year and fighting it, it was still a surprise when he died. It was a real big shock for me.”
It took a long-time musical pen-pal to help get Tucker musically motivated again after Morrison’s death. Singer- songwriter-guitarist Mark Goodman had sent Tucker demos of his Velvets-influenced songs in 1990, requesting that she consider playing drums whenever his band, Magnet, was able to record them. Last year, Tucker and Goodman finally made it into the studio: the result, an album titled Don’t Be A Penguin, marks the first time Tucker has stood behind her drum kit for a complete studio album since 1969’s The Velvet Underground. Tucker is now touring with a four-piece version of Magnet that will make a stop at QE2 on Tuesday night with (the band) nobody opening.
“I had just been a complete dead ass after Sterling died,” notes Tucker. “I hadn’t had the interest or whatever and just couldn’t get myself going. So I convinced myself to get off my ass and tour after Lou said to me ‘Now, Sterling wouldn’t want you to be doing this to yourself. He’d want you to be working and having fun.’ So I’m making myself do it. And I have to say that it’s fun, particularly not having to be the leader this time out.”
Tucker’s also working these days to develop yet another musical role for herself. “I’d like to get more into producing,” she explains. “I really enjoy it a lot. I’ve done a few records already, and my approach is basically one of ideas: I make sure that a band understands that’s how I work, and that they also understand that it’s their music and if they don’t like my ideas, they have to say no to me. That’s worked out well so far, everyone I’ve worked with has been very receptive and have said that they really liked what we did together.”
While Tucker’s current efforts as singer, guitarist, drummer and producer, may all seem to lie on the fringes of the contemporary music scene, no one knows better than she does that hindsight may someday color it all differently. “I always knew the Velvet Underground were special when we were together,” she notes. “I always thought our music was incredible, but I don’t think any artist thinks, when they’re working on something that ‘Oh, in thirty years people will still like this.’ I don’t do that now. I didn’t do that then. I don’t think anybody thinks that way . . . so the whole way people view the Velvets’ work today has really just been an amazing, surprising development for all of us.”