Moe Tucker may not have set out to be one of rock music's true trailblazers when she joined the Velvet Underground in 1965, but she was. Tucker was one of the first women who was an instrumentalist in a noted rock band — she wasn't the singer or put out front to be eye candy, but was instead an integral part of the band's lineup as their drummer, and an equal with her bandmates. Tucker also approached the drums in a way that set her apart from her peers; she played standing up, rather than using a conventional drum kit, and her primal, minimalist sound was one of the many elements that gave the Velvets a sound like no other band of their time. It was many years after Tucker left the Velvet Underground that she entered into a solo career that saw her making music that reflected the same personality as her drumming — passionate, implacable, and full of heart, whether she was performing low-key interpretations of the Velvets' great songs (her version of "Heroin" on 1982's Playin' Possum), versions of rock & roll classics (the 1997 GRL-GRUP EP), or scrappy rock tunes about the realities of life as a working-class mom (on 1989's Life in Exile After Abdication and 1991's I Spent a Week There the Other Night).
Maureen Ann "Moe" Tucker was born on August 26, 1944 in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. Tucker grew up in Levittown, New York on Long Island, and soaked up her older brother Jim Tucker's interest in rock & roll. Moe was especially fond of Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones, classic girl groups, and Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian percussionist whose album Drums of Passion was an early American success in what would come to be known as world music. In her late teens, Moe (who had already learned a few chords on the guitar) got a small drum kit, and began playing along with records and the radio for fun. Having dropped out of Ithaca College, Tucker was working as a keypunch operator for IBM and playing drums to unwind after work when she briefly joined an all-female trio called the Intruders, who broke up after a single gig. In December 1965, Jim Tucker heard from his friend Sterling Morrison, who was playing guitar in a fledgling rock band called the Velvet Underground with his friends Lou Reed and John Cale. The Velvet Underground had been playing for tips at New York's Cafe Wha? and had been offered a job opening for a teenage rock band called the Myddle Class when the VU's drummer, Angus MacLise, quit the group, declaring he didn't like being confined by a firm time to start and stop playing. Morrison asked Jim if his sister Moe might be interested in drumming in his band, and after a brief audition, Tucker was on board when the Velvet Underground played their first paying gig on December 11, 1965 at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey.
By the end of 1965, the Velvet Underground were playing a steady gig at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village, when they were seen by underground artist and filmmaker Barbara Rubin. Through Rubin, the group came to the attention of Paul Morrissey, an associate of pop artist Andy Warhol. When Warhol was asked to lend his name to a discotheque that was soon to open, Morrissey suggested that Warhol instead take on management of the Velvet Underground and present them to the public. With Warhol acting as the band's mouthpiece and mentor, the Velvets' provocative blend of raw, noisy music and cutting but poetic lyrics of life in the demi-monde began drawing attention and won the group a record deal. Though they attracted little more than a cult following during their existence, the Velvets recorded and performed steadily through the rest of the decade, and Tucker often received notice for her unusual drumming style as well as the novelty of a woman behind the traps. (In September 1967, the Boston Herald Traveler even ran a profile of Tucker with the headline "She Gave Up Computers to Play Drums in a Band.") Moe's skills on guitar also came in handy when Reed was too ill to play an engagement in Chicago in June 1966; Tucker moved over to bass, opening up Cale to play guitar and sing lead, with MacLise briefly returning to the drums.
Tucker played on the Velvet Underground's first three albums (1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1968's White Light/White Heat, and 1969's The Velvet Underground), as well as the sessions that would come to be known as the group's "great lost album" (much of which would later appear on the 1985 collection V.U.). But when the group went into the studio in April 1970 to begin work on their fourth album, Tucker was pregnant with her first child, and was unable to perform on the album or take part in the lengthy residency the Velvets played at Max's Kansas City in New York that was concurrent with the recording sessions. As it happened, Tucker's maternity leave coincided with Lou Reed quitting the band in August 1970, shortly after the album Loaded was completed. While it was widely believed that Reed's departure spelled the end of the Velvet Underground, by November 1970 Tucker, Sterling Morrison, and Doug Yule (who joined after John Cale left the band in 1968) had recruited Walter Powers and continued to tour, taking the group to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands for the first time. However, in August 1971, Morrison left the group to accept a teaching position at the University of Texas, and by the end of that year, Tucker would also quit the VU. (Live recordings of Tucker performing with the post-ReedVelvet Underground would receive belated release in 2001 on the box set Final V.U., 1971-1973.)
After leaving the Velvet Underground, Tucker moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she married and raised five children. Beyond recording a version of the then-unreleased VU tune "I'm Sticking with You" with Jonathan Richman in 1974, Tucker maintained a low profile until 1981, when she returned to music with a solo single, "Around and Around" b/w "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." The single was a preview of Moe's first solo album. Playin' Possum was a set dominated by covers that Tucker cut at home, playing all the instruments herself. In the early '80s, she also performed with the short-lived ensemble Paris 1942, which also featured Alan Bishop and Sir Richard Bishop of the Sun City Girls; a collection of their recordings received a belated release in 1997. By 1987, Tucker had divorced and moved to Douglas, Georgia, where she worked at a distribution center for Walmart. That year, she cut a solo EP, MoeJadKateBarry, in which she was backed by members of Half Japanese, who became mutual admirers when Tucker was introduced to their work. The EP was released by 50 Skidillion Watts Records, a label founded by Jad and David Fair of Half Japanese and bankrolled by Penn Jillette, a longtime VU fan. In 1989, the same label released Tucker's Life in Exile After Abdication, a full-length album that included contributions from Lou Reed, Daniel Johnston, Jad Fair, and all four members of Sonic Youth. That same year, Tucker set out on a European tour with Half Japanese, and it proved successful enough that she was able to quit her job and make music full-time. She also guested on Lou Reed's 1989 New York album and appeared at some of the dates of his subsequent concert tour.
In 1990, the Fondation Cartier in Jouy-En-Josas, France staged a major retrospective of Andy Warhol's work, and Lou Reed and John Cale were invited to perform highlights from their 1987 song cycle Songs for Drella, written in tribute to their former manager and mentor after his death. Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker were also flown in for the event, and after Reed and Cale's performance, they invited Tucker and Morrison to the stage to play the VU classic "Heroin." While the four were completely unrehearsed, those in attendance were stunned by the strength of their performance, and it set in motion a steady buzz that a Velvet Underground reunion was in the works. Speculation was further fueled when Reed, Cale, and Morrison all appeared on Tucker's 1991 solo album, I Spent a Week There the Other Night, which also included appearances from Don Fleming of Gumball and Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes. In 1993, rumors became reality and Reed, Cale, Tucker, and Morrison reunited as the Velvet Underground for a tour of Europe and the U.K. Tensions among the group's members led to the group splitting again after a few months before they could tour North America or record new material, but the reunion did allow Tucker to perform for some of the largest audiences of her career, and helped spark new interest in her work. (A live album recorded during the VU's three-night stand in Paris, Live MCMXCIII, was in stores before the year was out.) And in 1994, Tucker joined Cale and Morrison for a performance of new scores Cale had composed for a pair of Warhol's experimental films of the '60s staged by the Andy Warhol Museum. A recording of the scores, Eat/Kiss: Music for the Films of Andy Warhol, appeared in 1997.
In 2000, percussionist Jonathan Kane and fiddle and banjo player Dave Soldier persuaded Tucker to perform and record with their group the Kropotkins, whose music paid homage to the fife and drum bands of the Deep South. Tucker appeared on the group's 2000 album, 5 Points Crawl. Tucker also appeared at the Terrastock Music Festival in Seattle, Washington in November 2000; her set was recorded and released on the album Moe Rocks Terrastock in 2002. By this time, Tucker was in her mid-sixties and began easing up on recording and performing, though in 2017 she joined John Cale on-stage to perform "I'm Waiting for the Man" for a "Grammy Salute to Music Legends" event; the show was later broadcast on PBS. In 2012, Sundazed Records released a two-CD collection, I Feel So Far Away: Anthology 1974-1998, which skimmed the cream from Tucker's career as a solo artist. Sundazed's affiliated Modern Harmonic label issued an abridged, single-LP variant edition in 2018, I'm Sticking with You: An Introduction to Moe Tucker. ~ Mark Deming