Angus MacLise (1938-1979) was, as the Velvet Underground’s original drummer, an essential element of their early free-form sound, particularly on songs like “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs” and “Black Angel’s Death Song”. Because he left the band before they released an album, he was overlooked in earlier accounts of the pre-punk scene (and, like Nico and Doug Yule, not included when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996). But he nonetheless left quite a legacy behind.
If, as Brian Eno once observed, every person who bought a Velvet Underground album started a rock band, it stands to reason that the musicians who shaped that revolutionary sound would be household names. And yet, beyond Lou Reed, John Cale and Andy Warhol—who only lent the band the imprimatur of his name as “manager”—an essential ingredient got short shrift. He was Angus MacLise (1938-1979) of Scotland, where his roots lay; Nepal, India and the Middle East, where he traveled extensively; and Bridgeport, Conn., where he was born and partly grew up.
Think of MacLise as the Pete Best of the Velvet Underground. Like Best, MacLise was the legendary band’s original drummer. But, unlike Best, he was an essential part of their sound. He brought a unique hybrid of musical influences to the table, playing bongos, tablas, hand drums and all sorts of other exotic gizmos, and excelled at extended improvisations, pushing Cale, Reed, and Sterling Morrison to new levels of frenzy while unquestionably helping to shape early and now seminal VU songs like “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs,” “Waiting for My Man,” and “Black Angel’s Death Song.”
He also played on some of the VU’s early demo versions of the songs the band circulated to record executives and anyone who they thought might be able to help them get a record contract (including Marianne Faithfull). And, among the legends about how the Velvet Underground got its name, MacLise has been credited with bringing to their attention a paperback about illicit sex in the suburbs by that title found on a Bowery sidewalk by mutual friend, Tony Conrad. And, on an even more basic level, MacLise provided the band its electricity, literally. That is, he lived next door to the unheated Lower East Side flat where Reed, Cale and Tony Conrad were periodically squatting in 1964 (56 Ludlow Street, near Delancey Street); because his apartment had juice, they used it as a rehearsal space.
In Transformer, his biography of Lou Reed, Victor Bockris wrote that, as a drummer, MacLise was “intuitive and complex, pounding out an amazing variety of textures and licks culled from cultures around the world.” He “believed in listening to the essence of sound and relating it to one’s inner being.”
Silent footage of the Velvet Underground’s first TV appearance, with Angus MacLise on hand drums:
MacLise, like John Cale, had a downtown art scene pedigree, having played extensively with experimental composer La Monte Young in his Theater of Eternal Music along with Tony Conrad, Marian Zazeela and Terry Riley. It was through MacLise’s connections that the earliest incarnation of the Velvets (then known at the Warlocks) began playing live soundtrack music to screenings of experimental films by such avant-garde legends as Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, Barbara Rubin and Pietro Heliczer. Indeed, this was how they came to the notice of Warhol, who did little more than transfer what they were already doing to his multimedia event at The Factory that he called “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”
This is an excerpt from tape recordings of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable that were, in recent years, exhumed by Gerard Malanga. The improvisation is driven along at breakneck speed by MacLise’s speedy fingers.
Here is how John Cale described a session in his memoir What’s Welsh for Zen: “At Tony Conrad’s apartment at 56 Ludlow Street, he, Jack Smith and I toiled over the tape machines late into the night forging the soundtracks to Jack’s classic avant-garde films Flaming Creatures and Normal Love…We would sit around Ludlow Street with Angus MacLise, at loose ends but not really, slowly inching up to the point when we could record something. It seemed there was always a magical moment when Angus, who had been wordless since entering the room, would pick up his tom-toms and start flicking away at a rhythm, then Tony would get a level, on bowed guitar, I would strum another guitar or play viola, Jack would have a coughing fit when the tape was running or else he would get the giggles, we would try to control ourselves, and then he would start to speak in that thin, whiny, nasal tone of his, barely audible but nevertheless presented as complementary to the noises coming from us, and suitably twisted, too.”
La Monte Young went further in his praise for MacLise. In a New York Times interview on the occasion of “Dreamweapon: The Art and Life of Angus MacLise (1938-1979)”, a May 2011 exhibition at New York’s Boo-Hooray Gallery, he claimed, “Angus was one of the greatest drummers of all time and one of the greatest poets of all time.”
A preview of the exhibition, “Dreamweapon: The Art and Life of Angus MacLise”
For those who were not able to make the pilgrimage to Greenwich Village more than ten years ago to pay homage to MacLise, the Boo-Hooray Gallery has continued to kindly post a plethora of treats from the exhibit at this link:
This trove includes films by and about MacLise, snippets of recordings and many of the artifacts from the exhibition. And excerpts from MacLise’s notebooks of poetry and art and composition.
Now, for the tragic part of the story.
Of MacLise, Bockris wrote, “He was a lovely, whimsical, gnomelike man inspired, inspirational and a serious methedrine addict.” He, according to Bockris, introduced Reed to meth. The two speed freaks even collaborated on a 1964 essay called “Concerning the Rumor that Red China Has Cornered the Methedrine Market and Is Busy Adding Paranoia Drops to Upset the Mental Balance of the United States.”
While drugs were nearly the undoing of Reed, they hastened MacLise to an early death. After he left New York, MacLise settled in Nepal, where he continued to compose and play music…and take drugs. The Nepalese sojourn had some good news: he and his wife Hetty had a son, Ossian Kennard MacLise, who became a Buddhist monk at age 4. And some bad news: MacLise was enamored of Alistair Crowley, even writing a film script for Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend.
Years of drug use, however, took its toll. In 1979, Angus MacLise died in Kathmandu of a combination of hypoglycemia, tuberculosis and malnutrition.
The reason he quit the Velvet Underground in 1965 (and was replaced by Maureen Tucker) is telling: Like Maynard G. Krebs, MacLise was beholden to artistic purity and, thus, considered anything that smacked of work for hire to be selling out. On the eve of the Velvets’ first paying gig, Bockris said that MacLise asked, ‘Do you mean we have to show up at a certain time—and start playing—and then end?’” When the answer came back “yes,” he quit the band.
“Angus was too idealistic for Lou Reed,” said Gerard Malanga, although years later, Reed would refer to MacLise as “a dream percussionist” and a “dream person.”
Still, Angus MacLise was behind the drum kit in the summer of 1965, when the Velvet Underground gave their first public performance. As Cale described it, “We extemporized soundtracks, playing in front of, beside or behind screens on which silent black and white movies by Jack Smith, Piero Heliczer, Barbara Rubin, Andy Warhol and many others were show. Thus we became something of a presence as one of the three New York bands that came out of the Lower East Side. The others were the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders.”
Since MacLise’s death some mesmerizing tape recordings that he made with Tony Conrad and his wife, Hetty, have surfaced and been given proper releases. They reveal, among other things, that as early as 1965, MacLise was laying down an aural blueprint for experimental music that is still reverberating today, incorporating the lengthy sustained drone that he’d learned from La Monte Young’s downtown collective, trance music, narrations, poetry, electronica, etc. The recordings were given titles like The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, Brain Damage in Oklahoma City, The Cloud Doctrine, and Astral Collapse.
This recording, Dreamscape II, made with Hetty MacLise, is a good example of the power of his music. It opens as a haunting drone with choral bells, sounding like a Mass held inside a pitch-black cathedral, then moves outward toward the galaxies, like a pod expelled from Sun Ra’s rocket ship.
In addition to his music, MacLise was an experimental writer, founding Dead Language Press in Paris in 1958 with his high school friend Piero Heliczer, who later became associated with the New American Cinema as an underground filmmaker (MacLise appeared in two of Heliczer’s 1965 films, Venus in Furs and Satisfaction, along with Barbara Rubin, John Cale and Lou Reed). He and Heliczer published early work by the Beat poet Gregory Corso and the filmmaker Jack Smith, as well as MacLise’s pamphlet Year (1960), which created a new type of calendar that included new names for every day (“day of the smoking plain,” “diedricsday”).
Angus MacLise appears in Piero Heliczir’s Dirt (1965):
When the final accounting of the roots of punk are compiled, the name of Angus MacLise must be included. Based on the artifacts that have survived from his musical and literary legacy, his death in 1979 has to be included among the major losses.
CODA: When the Velvet Underground was inducted in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, MacLise was not included in the citation, nor were Nico and Doug Yule, essential parts of VU’s 1st, 3rd and 4th albums. These are major oversights, if not slights, by the ‘Hall’ that need to be rectified retroactively. Admit you made a mistake and rewrite the induction documentation, for crying out loud!