Today is Maureen Tucker’s birthday! She turns 77!
The enigmatic drummer for The Velvet Underground, it always baffles me why Maureen Tucker, belovingly called “Moe” by her friends and fans, is not more celebrated as one of the pioneering women of rock n’ roll. Much is written about Diana Ross, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Ronnie Spector, Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Suzi Quatro, The Runaways and so forth, while Moe Tucker always seems to get neglected and overlooked. But perhaps that’s sort of how she lived, even during her reign as rock n’ roll’s first female drummer.
As part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, Moe Tucker lacked the glamour of the bizarre group of New York artistic misfits. A small woman with a bewildered look in her eyes, her hair cropped short and often dressed like a beatnik throwback, Moe Tucker seemed like a mouse next to statuesque beauties like Edie Sedgwick, Nico and Ingrid Superstar. She was quite and unassuming, making her sort of fade into the background, until she had to keep the Velvet’s beat of course. But while she may not have been the biggest presence at the Factory, she endeared herself to her bandmates, and proved to be a trusted confidant to the often intense members of the group. Even Lou Reed, who has always been famous for being moody and harsh held a sweet spot for Moe. In 1970, during their final gig at Max’s Kansas City, Lou took Moe aside, who was not playing that night due to being pregnant, and had a heart to heart with her about leaving the group. Moe talked Lou through it, and he quit the next day. Meanwhile, in the final few minutes of Todd Haynes fantastic 2021 documentary on the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, in a private conversation caught on tape in the mid 70’s, talks uncharacteristically sweetly about Moe with real affection. A testament of adoration from the Rock n’ Roll Animal.
Moe got the call to meet with the Velvet Underground from bassist Sterling Morrison, who was a high school friend of her brother Jim. It seemed that the original drummer of the band, Agnus Madidse, got angry when Lou Reed and John Cale had accepted money for a gig, saying that they had “sold out.” Sterling had remembered Moe and her unusual drumming style and thought she’d fit into the confines of the group, and best of all, would have no issues with paid gigs.
Bringing a woman drummer into a group made of men was quite unorthodox, but then the Velvet Underground was never very orthodox. I can’t think of another group of the era who had a woman on drums, but I’m sure some obscure garage band had one. But adding to the oddity of having a woman playing drums in their band, Moe had a very strange drumming style. She lacked the creativity or technical expertise of her contemporaries such as Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and John Densmore. Instead, she had a minimalistic style all her own. Moe got into drumming at age 19 when she discovered the music of Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and became fascinated with African drums. Instead of sitting behind a drum kit, Moe chose to stand, and instead of drumsticks, Moe used mallets. You’ll also never hear a cymbal crash in a Velvet Underground song because Moe hated them. This may sound strange for a rock drummer, but for the music the VU was creating it worked. Listen to the droning melodic beat in songs like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin,” or the savage ways she pounds the mallets in “Sister Ray” and you can hear that Moe was doing something right and was in complete sync with the sound and vision of the Velvets.
But endearing her even more to fans is those few moments when Moe sang with the group. With a soft and sweet, but shaky and untrained voice, Moe sang lead in two of the Velvets; songs, “After Hours” and “I’m Sticking with You,” and also added vocals to the strange and nightmarish “Lady Godiva’s Operation.” Her vocal style has a refreshing warmth compared to the cold Germanic monotone of Nico, or the biting cynicism of Lou Reed. Although Moe apparently was never comfortable singing, the Velvet Underground fanbase love her recordings and her songs are fan favorites.
Although The Velvet Underground is one of my all-time favorite bands, even I went unaware that Moe Tucker released any solo material until only about a year ago when on-line friend Jill Davis-LeBlanc pointed it out to me. Moe released a few solo lp’s in the 1980’s, but nothing really hit for her. But in 2018 Modern Harmonic released the brilliant compilation album, “I’m Sticking with You: An Introduction to Maureen Tucker,” featuring Moe taking her own swing at Velvets classics like “Heroin”, “Pale Blue Eyes” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as well as a sensitive cover of the Shirelles “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and an original tribute to Andy Warhol simply titled “Andy.” It’s a wonderful love letter to an often-overlooked rock icon.
Moe Tucker, along with Sterling Morrison, quit the Velvet Underground in 1971, not long after Lou Reed left, and thankfully were not present for Doug Yule’s unfortunate attempt to keep the Velvet Underground going with the much reviled “Squeeze.” She floated around the New York scene for a while, but eventually gave up music to focus on raising her five children. When the Velvet Underground surprised the world by reforming and touring Europe in 1993 Moe was working at a Wal-Mart in Douglas, Georgia. However, by that time she had been getting involved with music again, performing with Half Japanese, Alan Bishop and former bandmate John Cale. Her reunion with the Velvet Underground, albeit cut short due to the death of Sterling Morrison shortly after they reunited, allowed her to quit her job and put her back on the rock n’ roll radar. In 1996 Moe was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame along with the majority of the Velvet Underground.
Today Moe is retired from music officially and helping to raise her grandchildren. She is also one of the last living members of the Velvet Underground, and a survivor of the legendary hedonistic era of Andy Warhol’s Factory.