Early October 1968

Ever since Lou Reed and John Cale formed The Velvet Underground, new members have been recruited on almost whimsical impulse. Sterling Morrison was absorbed into the line-up after running across Reed by chance in the subway; Maureen Tucker got the call largely because Reed and Morrison happened to know her brother; Nico was installed in the group at Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol’s behest. So it goes when the Velvets need someone to take the place of John Cale. Instead of considering one of the musicians who have played informally with the group at the Dom or the Balloon Farm – or even someone who’s already played in an established recording group – they extend the invitation to an unknown that even they barely know.

    The new recruit, Doug Yule (born February 25 1947 in Mineola, New York) was, like Reed, Morrison, and Tucker, raised in Long Island. He grew up in Great Neck, but since his late teens has been playing in bands in Boston, home of the Velvets’ favorite live venue. He played organ in a covers band, The Argonauts (with whom he has made a few unreleased recordings, and who later become known as Argo), and guitar in a few other acts, including, most recently, The Grass Menagerie, a group formed in 1967 by two former members of a fondly regarded mid-60s Boston act, The Lost. (These two men – singer Willie Alexander and multi-instrumentalist Walter Powers – will later play notable roles in the Velvet Underground story, but only after Lou Reed leaves the group.) Yule himself isn’t an original member of The Grass Menagerie, and in fact must only have joined fairly recently, as a December 1967 article in the New England Teen Scene doesn’t list him in the line-up. It’s possible, however, that he played with the group at the Boston Tea Party on February 9–10, on the same bill as singer-songwriter Eric Andersen, and on June 23–24.

    The Velvets have gotten to know Yule while playing in Boston; Morrison and Reed have sometimes stayed at his apartment. Exactly how (and by whom) he is invited to join the group is unclear, however. Some will later suggest that Steve Sesnick extends the invitation, but Sesnick himself claims, in Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, that Morrison brought Yule in. Morrison in turn will later speculate that Yule is brought to the group by VU road manager Hans Onsager (the son of Lars Onsager, the winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), who has invested money in The Grass Menagerie, confirming, in his interview with Ignacio Julia, that Yule doesn’t have to audition, as the Velvets already know he can play.

    “Sterling’s input would have helped to get Lou’s attention,” Yule himself recalls. “I think my own value at that point to Lou was that I was a much more deferential person. I’m much more of a facilitator than I am a leader. I like to take what’s going on and make it work, and that really was helpful to Lou, ’cause he’s not an accomplished musician. He’s a self-taught, self-made, seat of the pants kind of musician, instinctive, intuitive. I think certainly I took away some of the stress that was there between John and Lou.

    “What I wanted from music all along, was just to be making music with people who liked to do it and not have to chase a dream, or be a star. I’m not a performer, I’m really a musician. Lou’s much more a performer than I ever was. Sterling’s like that too. He was very content to be in the background, and just stand at the back of the stage and play his stuff, and not dance around and flirt with chicks. That wasn’t his thing at all.

    “But I think the thing that would have turned it was that Sesnick,” Yule continues. “[He] was firmly in control of everything at that point, [and] felt that I looked like someone he could handle, that he could control pretty well. That’s pretty much what his outlook at that point was – how to keep this just kind of under his thumb, so he could keep it going the way he wanted it to.”

    Morrison has at least heard Yule playing in the living room of his Boston apartment, and told Reed and Sesnick how good his playing is getting, which probably influences the final decision to recruit him. A more unlikely influence that nonetheless helps seal the deal is Yule’s birthday. As he explains in 1995 to Pat Thomas, he gets the job “partly because I was a Pisces and they needed a Pisces to balance it out. John was a Pisces, Lou was a Pisces, Moe and Sterling were Virgos, they wanted to have this astrological balance.”

    Even more bizarrely, Yule tells the author, at the time of him being approached to join the Velvets, “I had never played electric bass. But keep in mind that from fourth grade, my training was in baritone horn and then tuba, so I essentially played bass all from fourth grade through the end of high school, in terms of having sort of intuitive understanding of the lower end of any musical structure. I still find that, when I play electric bass in a rock band, I have a very different kind of outlook than your average garage band bass player. It’s much more harmonic, or a lower melodic structure, than it is just a rhythmic fill.”

    Whichever way the actual invitation arrives, Yule is certainly quick to accept it. By Wednesday October 2 he’s in New York for a meeting with the rest of the band at Max’s Kansas City; a day later, he’s on a two-day crash course of 30 VU songs in Lou Reed’s loft. “It was very intense,” Yule recalls. “Any day with Lou is intense, especially then.”

    Although Yule has only seen the Velvets perform once, the decision to join is probably an easy one. The Grass Menagerie aren’t going anywhere – they won’t ever release a record, despite cutting material for Vanguard and RCA. The Velvet Underground might not have sold too many records, but have at least made two albums for a major label, and are building a solid, cult reputation in several parts of the country. They’re touring more or less constantly, most often in Yule’s Boston base, although he’s set to make his live debut with the group this coming weekend in Cleveland.

    In later years, Yule will sometimes be unfairly characterized as somewhat faceless; an ordinary yet capable musician recruited out of convenience as much as anything else. Some critics will also suggest that he’s chosen in part because, unlike John Cale, he won’t threaten Lou Reed’s leadership of the band.

    In truth, Yule is less experienced than his new band-mates. He’s younger than anyone else in the Velvets – Reed and Morrison are both a good five years or so older – and has never made a commercially released record. But to dismiss him as a mere cipher of sorts is unfair. He will quickly prove himself to be a good multi-instrumentalist, adept not only on bass, but also organ (on which he sometimes plays bass parts with his left hand), guitar, piano, and drums. He also contributes not just backing vocals, but also the occasional lead vocal, both on stage and on record. This in itself is a substantial asset, because Reed doesn’t have the most durable voice – which is part of the reason, according to Morrison, why the Velvets don’t play all that often, at least in comparison to other touring bands. Yule even looks a lot like Reed, so much so that Reed sometimes calls him “my brother Doug” on stage – as he does when introducing the other musicians before ‘Some Kinda Love’ on the 1969 Velvet Underground Live album – lending a certain visual symmetry to the band.

    Yule might lack Cale’s personal flamboyance and musical idiosyncrasies, but he plays both bass and organ well, and in styles that quickly mesh well with the rest of the group, as proven by both live tapes and the two albums he’ll shortly record with the Lou Reed line-up. As Maureen Tucker admits in Victor Bockris’s Up-Tight, “I don’t think [replacing Cale with Yule] hurt the music that much. I don’t think it changed it to weaker music, it just changed it.” And for all the kudos Cale gets as the most important member of The Velvet Underground after Lou Reed, Yule will actually end up playing on more of their commercially released recordings than Cale does. But it’s Cale, not Yule, who’ll be inducted into the
Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with the other Velvets in 1995.

    Yule will also shortly begin to take an active role in helping to arrange and polish Reed’s songs. “In countless hotel rooms and empty clubs, I sat and played guitar with Lou, working the kinks out of new songs,” he writes in 69 On The Road: Velvet Underground Photographs. “I picked up the changes by following his hands and added harmonies over his vocal as we went along, harmonies that came from years in church choir tempered by The Beatles and Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers and The Platters. When he could hear a melody in his head but couldn’t find the chords, he’d sing it without guitar and I’d fill it out for him, make it whole.” (Unfortunately, this will later cause friction when certain parties feel Yule is given more credit than he deserves on the 1970 VU album Loaded.)

    “I think [Yule] brought a kind of musicality to it that wasn’t there before,” notes Steve Nelson, who sees the band perform with both Cale and Yule on more occasions than most between 1966 and 1970. “He could sing and harmonize, he could play a lot of instruments. John was also a brilliant musician, but he was kind of edgier. Doug had more of a pop sensibility. So that whole transition of them becoming more accessible was really partly due to Doug.

    “John’s departure had a huge effect on Sterling,” Nelson adds. “While John was around, you had Lou and John, and pretty much everybody else was just a back line. Sterling pretty much was confined to playing the bass. Sterling really opened up tremendously, because he had an opportunity to step forward, ’cause Doug was brand new, so [Doug] wasn’t going to assert himself. He wasn’t really an assertive kind of guy, anyway. It also freed Lou tremendously, because he became the undisputed leader of the band. That whole question went away, there [was] no conflict over that. He had written most of the material anyway; it wasn’t that he wasn’t really the leader of the band. But I think without John’s personality there – ’cause he was definitely a strong figure – that it was much clearer that Lou was the leader of the band, and everybody knows it
just became more accessible.”

    Steve Nelson also stresses that, contrary to some later critical assessments of the post-Cale era, “the band [wasn’t] Lou Reed’s back-up, because of Sterling stepping forward and the interplay between Sterling and Lou. When they were soloing, the interplay between them was fantastic. Sterling wasn’t there just playing rhythm and backing Lou up by any means. Quite the reverse. He was more often on lead. They used to play those two guitars [on ‘What Goes On’], and the sound completely twisted your head around. I think live sometimes, even though you were looking at them, you weren’t sure who was doing what. Sterling was [a] really fantastic guitar-player. He was sort of underrated, because he was mostly sort of behind the scenes and kind of in Lou’s shadow.

    “And then Doug added so much to it. They could still play the hell out of the stuff like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sister Ray’ – I heard those things live, and they were still great. That’s a tribute to Doug being able to fit in there. It’s a pretty hard thing for somebody to step into, and I think Doug has gotten a bum rap. He was a big part of the band and brought a lot of musicianship to it, and I don’t think he’s gotten fair credit for that.”

The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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