Houston Music Lore

Velvet Bayou

Sterling Morrison left the Velvet Underground in Houston to captain tugboats on the Ship Channel.

By John Lomax October 1, 2013

Brian Eno's statement has been often-enough repeated, but here we go one more time. While the Velvet Underground's first album only sold about 30,000 copies, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." What's more, their influence only increased in the last decade or so. Along with the Byrds, the Kinks, the Beach Boys (Smile, particularly), Iggy Pop, and David Bowie, few bands are echoed as often or as closely in modern indie rock as the Velvets, Andy Warhol's house band for his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events.

Hard to believe the band was pretty much in a constant state of unraveling almost from the start. Classically-trained multi-instrumentalist John Cale was shepherded out of the band and replaced by Doug Yule before the third album.  Principal singer and songwriter / frontman Lou Reed went solo not long after, leaving Yule to fill his shoes. 

By August 21, 1971, mainstay guitarist Sterling Morrison was burned out, bitter and angry. He'd finally gotten his undergraduate degree in English and was looking for a quieter life. After the second night of the band's two-night engagement at downtown's late, lamented Liberty Hall, Morrison grabbed his suitcase and accompanied the band to the airport to catch the flight back to New York.  At the gate, Morrison told them he wouldn't be getting on the plane. In fact, he was quitting the band, he said. They asked about his suitcase. It was empty, he told them. 

Drummer Moe Tucker took a stab at getting in Morrison's head in a 2000 Austin Chronicle remembrance. (Morrison died in 1995.) "I guess he had difficulty facing the moment when he had to say, 'I'm not going.' He went so far as to get in the cab and go to the airport with a bogus suitcase. We were one step away from the gate ... then he said, 'I'm not going back to New York.'"

Texas would be his new home for a long time to come. His life was oddly bifurcated between the ivory tower in Austin, where he studied and taught medieval studies at UT, and Houston at its hyper-grittiest, where he signed on as a tugboat deckhand on the Ship Channel.  

In 1980, Sluggo magazine tracked him down in Austin. 

Sluggo: Why did you come to Texas? Why this hole?
Morrison: The perfect place! I didn’t know a single person here, no rock ‘n’ roll person I ever knew, or was likely to know, ever came here. Nobody saw me for five years, no telephone for two and a half…

Captain Holmes Sterling Morrison Jr.'s tugboat license.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Morrison lost his job in the medieval studies department at UT and he moved here full-time. Eventually he got his tugboat captain's license -- according to his widow, the other captains called the brainiac ex-rocker "the Professor." (If this site is up-to-date, you can buy Morrison's signed tugboat license for $400 today.)

Though he played with an Austin band called the Bizarros, Morrison evidently did not play often in Houston before or after he moved here full-time. He was spotted around town a fair bit. Former Vatican owner and Butthole Surfers and Toadies manager Tom Bunch ran into him at Rudyard's one night in 1985 and then accompanied him to a legendarily drunken, riotous Replacments show at Lawndale Art Annex.

George Kovacik, then the drummer for cover band the Surrealtors, encountered Morrison at defunct late-night Montrose Tex-Mex joint / part-time venue La Jaliscience in 1990.   After their version of ELO's “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” Morrison approached the band, food hanging out of his mouth, and told them they "really nailed that ELO song." They asked if they could put him on their mailing list, Morrison gave them his name, which sounded familiar...But none of them could quite place it. By the time they figured it out, the eventual Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was already gone.  

"He never did come to a gig, but it was cool to have someone of his stature say 'we nailed' something," wrote Kovacik. "You just never know who is watching." (And what geniuses live here in total anonymity? Some wonder if Thomas Pynchon was once one such.)

Morrison, Cale and Reed patched up their feuds from Warhol's Factory days and along with Tucker, with whom Morrison had frequently played in the intervening years, the Velvets reunited and toured Europe in 1993, sometimes as headliner, sometimes as U2's opening act, but the old wounds reopened and the bandmates fell out all over again. The classic line-up would never play together again.

Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1994, Morrison died on August 30, 1995 in Poughkeepsie, New York. A year later the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Cale, Reed and Tucker performed "Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend" and dedicated it to the man known down on Navigation Street as "the Professor." 

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