Voice Columnist Richard Nusser Was There When Lou Reed Wrote "Sunday Morning"
The last time Richard Nusser saw Lou Reed was in 1996 at the 30th anniversary party for Max's Kansas City, the venue where Reed played his last shows with the Velvet Underground.
Reed didn't notice Nusser over in the corner when he walked in, surrounded by a throng of admirers, and started signing autographs. A couple of glasses of wine later, Nusser worked up the nerve to approach him.
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"I walked over and cut into this autograph session of these vampirish-looking, young, very young, Euro-trashy kind of guys -- acolytes to Lou -- and I said, 'Lou, how are you? Long time no see.'" Nusser recalls. "The blood drained out of his face, and he looked at me -- maybe he was a little high; I probably was; I might have smoked a joint or had a couple of glasses of wine, I don't know -- but he looked at me, all of a sudden grew pale, and he said, 'Nusser!' and turned on his heel.
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"You've heard the expression 'turned on his heel'? Well, he literally, really, turned on his heel and -- whoosh -- caught the whole entourage by surprise. And they started, you know, running after him with these careful little mincing steps, but he just charged right out the door. And I thought, what the hell is that all about?"
Back in the day, explains Nusser, he and Reed, John Cale, and the rest of the Velvet Underground had been thick as thieves. They met at the Factory, where a college friend of Nusser's, Gerard Malanga, worked as Andy Warhol's assistant. Nusser -- who started out covering government and politics in Albany -- would go on to chronicle Reed's final shows with the Velvet Underground at Max's ("Brigid Berlin taped the whole thing on a little Sony tape recorder -- you know, one of those things about six inches long and four inches wide?" Cotillion Records would release Live at Max's in 1972), as he would cover Reed's first solo show in The Village Voice's long-running music column "Riffs."
Looking back, Nusser says it might have been any number of things, but it probably had to do with Velvet Underground co-founder Sterling Morrison -- Maybe that Nusser alerted the New York Times when Morrison passed away in '95, or that he'd encouraged Morrison and the Velvets' drummer, Maureen "Moe" Tucker, to insist on a share of ownership of the group's music.
"Lou thought that I had somehow gotten involved in that. It was partially true -- I said to Sterling and Moe Tucker, I said, 'No, listen, get yourself a lawyer,'" Nusser recalls. "Some people said, you know, 'Lou never forgave you for that.'"
Speaking to the Voice on Monday, shortly after reading Reed's obituary in the Times, Nusser says, "Lou would be very happy to know he made the front page, of course. But I'm still kind of in shock. It's brought back a lot of memories."
Memories of the Ukrainian Hall on St. Marks Place that Andy Warhol turned into a music venue dubbed "the Dom," packed full of art students, where the Velvet Underground played.
"The highlight of the performances, of course, was when they would lapse into 'Heroin' with -- oh, God, it gives me chills just thinking about it -- John Cale sawing away on a viola, I think, and Moe Tucker with these mallets, big mallets covered in fur or something like that, on the drums," Nusser says.
"Andy had these strobes going onstage and he had an overhead projector mounted upstairs, pointed at the stage, which gave all these different-color effects on the wall behind them, but they were standing in the way so they were coated with the colors coming from whatever they were manipulating over a glass plate -- vegetable dye or something like that, I don't know."
"And then Gerard, in black leather, and Mary Woronov, in black leather, would be sort of grinding away while the band was playing 'Heroin,'" Nusser goes on. One would have a giant prop hypodermic needle, he remembers, and the other a bullwhip, "doing a pantomime of someone shooting up with a giant needle. I thought, gosh! Half the people here are really going to become junkies or not ever go near it."
It was the morning after one of those performances at the Dom when the whole gang ended up at a friend's apartment. "We were just sitting around her apartment Sunday morning after coming back from a gig, and Lou picked up a guitar, and she had a small antique organ, and Cale sat at the organ, and he started hitting a couple of things and the next thing you know, someone started -- Lou, of course, I think, said, 'Suuunday morning . . .' I had another guitar, and I was doing a little drumming on it."
And so the opening track on the Velvet Underground's debut album was born.
So many memories: Nusser recalls having breakfast with Reed's parents at a diner on the Upper East Side before heading with him to a gay pride rally in Central Park, and Reed teaching him rhythm guitar ("He saw me and he said, 'Ah, no, you're doing it all wrong -- it's all in the wrist. Gimme your guitar'"), and sitting around at Reed's apartment listening to the first pressing of White Light, White Heat.
It all came rushing back when Nusser picked up the Times on Monday morning.
"It's funny," he says. "My instinct was, 'Oh, God, I wish I had had time to settle accounts.' I wish we had time to sit down and say, 'Hey Lou, what was that all about, that night at the 30th anniversary party? What were you thinking?' You know?"
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