MUSIC: The Strange Odyssey of Angus MacLise, Original Drummer for the VU

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Anybody who grew up listening to rock music knew of them, even if they didn’t listen to their records.  The Velvet Underground, which was a daring amalgamation of avant-garde drone, aggressive r&b-informed rock, and post-beatnik literary ambition, cast a long shadow, even if they didn’t sell many records during their late-1960’s heyday.  The classic lineups only recorded four studio albums together; John Cale, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker played on the first two, with Doug Yule replacing Cale for the last two.  The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), White Light/White Heat (1968), The Velvet Underground (1969), and Loaded (1970) are routinely included among “Rock’s Greatest Albums” lists and have been cited as major influences by bands as diverse as R.E.M., Galaxie 500, Television, Pavement, and Brian Jonestown Massacre, among thousands of others.  It can be argued, very seriously, that the Velvet Underground has influenced more bands than the Beatles. Alternative rock would be alien to us today without them.

However, the Velvet Underground itself might never have existed had it not been for a peculiar beatnik/percussionist named Angus MacLise.

Maureen Tucker, whose cymbal-less, minimalist drumming was a key component to the Velvet’s overall sound (especially after John Cale left the band) and was at least as important as Sterling Morrison’s guitar, was not the Velvet Underground’s original drummer, as many might assume.  Rock biographies often omit mention of MacLise altogether, as none of his recordings with the band survive to this day.

The classic 1966-1968 lineup: Reed, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker.
The classic 1966-1968 lineup: Reed, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker.

Founding VU member MacLise (1938-1979) held the distinction of original Velvet Underground drummer. MacLise, a multi-instrumentalist, committed avant-gardist, a member of Fluxus, a friend of LaMonte Young, and a beatnik, was an interesting character to say the least, yet he remains almost completely unknown beyond the still smallish world of VU fanatics (many of whom forget about him too) and a half dozen or so ethnic electronic music devotees (we’ll get to this later…)

The Theater of Eternal Music, circa 1965
The Theater of Eternal Music, circa 1965

MacLise formed the Velvet Underground with his roommate John Cale in 1965. The pair had met through the Theater of Eternal Music, established by avant-garde artist and minimalist musician LaMonte Young. The Theater of Eternal Music was primarily focused on the possibilities of drone in music. They played discordant, long notes, based upon Young’s own “twelve tone technique”. Terry Riley was another member, and this group was extremely influential in its own right, shaping much subsequent contemporary classical music and electronic music. It challenged the notion of what music really is, in a serious and important way that was far beyond the reach or scope of pop or rock music. Cale and MacLise brought drones with them to the VU.  Here is an example of what they sounded like; it sounds a lot like the background of a lot of VU songs from the Cale era:

The original Velvet Underground came together as a collision between these two avant types and two young guitarists with rock ambitions (Reed and Sterling Morrison, Reed’s college classmate) Reed had spent time cranking out gimmick dance craze songs in obscurity at Pickwick Records, and was well versed in the rock vernacular. He was also an avid reader. Morrison was a comparatively typical young guitar-playing musician from Long Island who could also play trumpet.

Playing originally as the Warlocks (apparently unaware another largely experimental band, the future-Grateful Dead, was using the same name in an obscure ghetto of San Francisco), the band ultimately owes its name to MacLise, who took it from The Velvet Underground, a sensationalistic pulp sex novel by Michael Leigh.

Angus MacLise, circa 1965
Angus MacLise, circa 1965

MacLise generally played the bongos with the early band, and also contributed some percussion. However, he was able to play the tabla and sarod and other exotic instruments as well (which he had done with the LaMonte Young group as early as 1964). Being the oldest in the group, several years older than Morrison or Reed, he brought with him a certain beatnik sensibility and legitimacy that probably appealed to the young guitarists at first. However, he was also extremely eccentric, often disappearing for days at a time, missing gigs, showing up at the wrong venue or day for a gig, wandering off from rehearsals, and generally being erratic and spacey. This flightiness is one reason why no recorded material of MacLise with the VU exists at all from this era. MacLise’s eccentricities started to get under Reed’s skin, who eventually wanted him gone.

Finally, in November, 1965 the band was ready to unveil itself before a paying audience. However, just hours prior to the band’s first paid gig, MacLise abruptly quit, telling them something along the lines of “Money is for squares, man..” and accusing them of being sell-outs.

Sterling Morrison brought in Maureen Tucker, the sister of another college friend, completing the classic lineup of the band. MacLise was cut loose, free to follow his whims.

In 1966, after the band had recorded its first album and joined up with Andy Warhol, who was promoting them as part of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable, MacLise did come crawling back once. The band let him play a week of gigs in Chicago, but when he asked to rejoin the band on a permanent basis, Reed told him no dice.

Angus and Hetty, 1970's
Angus and Hetty, 1970’s

That ended the Velvet Underground chapter of MacLise’s life, but it was only the start of a great adventure. He and his wife Hetty traveled around the world, through Canada, Europe, and Asia in very 60’s fashion. He became fascinated with Aleister Crowley’s writings, which turned him into a mystic of sorts. He and Hetty eventually settled in Kathmandu. There, they collaborated on an enormous number of home recordings, something they had begun doing as early as 1964 and continued through the 70’s. There really are no words that can express the content of these recordings; some are Buddhist chants, some are cut-up sound collages, some are minimalist drone, some contain poetry and reading, some have an occult element, some are electronic, some are percussive. Much of it was recorded on relatively primitive equipment, and often used electronic instruments that MacLise improvised himself. They recorded hours and hours of this stuff, but never made any effort to release it or do anything with it. A lot of it was eventually released in the 00’s.

MacLise's monk son with the Nepali king.
MacLise’s monk son with the Nepali king.

While MacLise and his family lived in Kathmandu, some local Buddhist monks recognized his four year old son as the reincarnation of a Buddhist saint. The son became a monk at four, and moved into the monastery, although MacLise and his wife remained nearby. In 1979, MacLise was struck down with tuberculosis, from which he ultimately succumbed.

In Velvet Underground lore, MacLise occupies an even more shadowy presence than Stu Sutcliffe does in the Beatles. They share one thing in common however; they contributed some real qualities, albeit not on record, to their bands that became essential elements of the bands’ identities.

It is impossible to pick out a “representative” Angus MacLise recording; he really did have a wide palette.  However, here is one favorite, recorded in Kathmandu during the 1970’s:

Angus MacLise – Blastitude

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