“No, I didn't attend his funeral. I dedicated a song to him from the stage of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – I wanted his name to be heard on TV and to the crowds watching the show. I wanted to play "Sweet Jane" for him one last time.” – Lou Reed, quoted in The Austin Chronicle, 2000
On September 2, 1995, Lou Reed performed “Sweet Jane” onstage at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, in front of a crowd of more than 63,000 and millions more around the world watching the concert broadcast on HBO. The occasion was the Concert for the Hall of Fame, celebrating the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Reed’s fellow guitarist and Velvet Underground bandmate, Sterling Morrison, had passed away from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma just three days before. Reed’s performance, dedicated to Morrison, gently reminded the world of Velvet Underground’s impact, and Morrison’s unique contributions to the band. The surviving members of the Velvets would pay tribute to Morrison once more upon their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on January 17, 1996, with a poignant performance of a song especially written for him, “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend.”
Holmes Sterling Morrison was born in East Meadow, Long Island, in 1942. In Up Tight, a history of the Velvet Underground, Morrison is quoted as saying, "I graduated high school with very high numbers and matching low esteem, for just about everything but music.” He founded the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed, John Cale and Maureen Tucker, and the band quickly gained notice. Their music, with its spare, pre-punk arrangements and laissez-faire attitude, had an influence that Brian Eno, cofounder of Roxy Music and producer of U2 and others, described best when he said that while the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many albums, everyone who bought one went on to form a band. A New York Times critic wrote in 1970, "The Velvet Underground plays a hard rock that is powerful and tight as a raised fist; so unified and together that it just rolls itself into a knot and throbs."
Lou Reed told the Austin Chronicle in 2000: “I met Sterl in 1962, I think at college. We shared an interest in rock music and shared the same essential background – Long Island. He was staying on campus with a mutual friend, James Tucker, Maureen's older brother. We became friends almost instantly.” Velvet Underground drummer, Maureen Tucker, said of Morrison: “I have known Sterling since I was 10 and he was 12. He was my brother's friend. By the time I was 12, my brother didn't want to play cards with me anymore, but I became one of his group when I was 17 or so. I remember Sterling then, those big long legs sticking out across the living room floor and having to step over him to walk by.”
After the Velvet Underground split up in 1971, Morrison resumed his studies and earned a doctorate in medieval studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He had left the band in Texas, meeting them at the Houston airport with an empty suitcase and telling them at the last minute that he wasn’t coming back to New York City. Tucker recalled: “The story of him with an empty suitcase is true. 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.’"
Pictured: 1967 Gibson ES-335TD played by Sterling Morrison during much of his time in the Velvet Underground, from the Rock Hall's New York collection.
Velvet Underground multi-instrumentalist John Cale recalled of Morrison: “Sterling's relationship with Austin is a mystery to me. But I appreciate it because he went right back into academia and was well-suited for it. One of the things I said at his funeral was that I didn't realize how much I really depended on him to spill the beans intellectually. He was someone you could call up with the craziest theory, and he'd come back with a rational response that was better thought-out.”
By the end of the 1980s, Morrison resumed his music career, touring with Maureen Tucker's band and participating in the summer of 1993 in a Velvet Underground reunion tour of Europe during the summer of 1993. He collaborated with John Cale on the score for the film Antarctica. In 1994, Morrison was a featured performer with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic.
Lou Reed, as usual, had the final word: “Sterl could do almost anything. His guitar style was unique and mirrored the innate talents of this wondrous man. I loved him deeply, and the nobility during his illness – his massive strength and dignity – will stay with me forever. I'm so glad the Velvet Underground reunited, so I had a last chance to play with Sterling. I miss him dearly still. I want more than memories and recordings, but these are the things that make up life. I want to be as strong as he was when faced with the final adversary. The older I am, the more amazing Holmes Sterling Morrison becomes.”
WATCH: The Velvet Underground perform “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend" live