Good Times, Bad Times: Moe Tucker

Lou Reed: She isn't a girl.

Ingrid Superstar: Oh, she is too, Louis.

--Circa 1966, from Up Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga

I hear a lot of CDs that I don't put on myself, making it hard to tell where one ends and the next begins, let alone what either is. Last month two female-led groups that I just couldn't pigeonhole caught my ear. The first one did something like protest songs, but better--with abrasive, conversational vocals, starkly monotonous settings, and subjects like not making ends meet, not cleaning house, and other contradictions of capitalism. "Everybody works, some like it, most don't/Some'll do okay, but you know, most won't." The other group worked one trick that made me want to know more about them: not only did they have the nerve to cover Lou Reed's obviously male p.o.v. "I'm Waiting for the Man," suggesting dependencies Lou never had to think about, but they had the wit to do it in a quavery, hollow voice so letter-perfect Maureen Tucker it had to be conscious. As everyone except 99 per cent of the population knows, Maureen Tucker was the legendary minimalist drummer in the legendary Velvet Underground. While leader Reed went on to a solo legend career, Tucker got married and ended up with five kids, a divorce, and a job at Wal-Mart. Anyone smart enough to come up with that very pointed vocal echo must have a pretty rich sensibility, and there at least I had it right. Otherwise, well--this was one album and one group, and it was Maureen Tucker.

Moe Tucker was somebody's little sister who could sort of play drums when she joined the Velvets, developing, between ignorance, an unusual kit, and the ambience of the group, the thumping, unsyncopated, "primitive" style that influenced a generation of punk drummers. She was also the first androgynous female rock star. In short hair, turtlenecks and slacks, she looked like somebody's little brother. At Maxwell's October 4, touring to promote two newly released CDs--I Spent a Week There the Other Night and Dogs Under Stress (Sky)--wearing a neatly pressed denim overshirt and plain dark pants, with jowls and wrinkles that proved Wal-Mart and five kids'll do it faster than heroin and a mansion, she looked like somebody's little grandmother. I have never seen a woman on stage so devoid of personal vanity.

Tucker opened her set with a song called "Spam Again"--from Life in Exile After Abdication, cut in the late '80s with the help of Half Japanese's Jad Fair and indie-rock angels Penn & Teller. Based on a really primitive lullaby concept--repeat two notes--this shows a mother explaining the facts of life to her child. Mama has to go out and work for a man who is "very, very rich,/ But wouldn't you it he wants more, more, more."

Proceeding to I Spent a Week There's "That's B.A.D," a song about a paycheck, she played for an hour and a half. Unless you count "Too Shy," really just an excuse to knock our orthotics off Velvets style, or "(And) Then He Kissed Me," which is more age thinking about youth, or "Blue, All the Way to Canada," about the love affair between the Cheyenne nation and Chrysler Newports ("All that Cheyenne Kaboodle/Rolling along on big underinflated whitewall tires") Tucker eschewed romance; all her love songs are directed at her children.

My one regret was the absent "Lazy," the only rock and roll song, perhaps the only song, about bad housekeeping. The world Tucker delivers unto rock and roll--not so much single mothers as the working poor--has normally been the domain of country singers, who sentimentalize the subject, emphasizing the working man's decency rather than the boss's obscenity. Tucker, like bohemians, outlaws, and kids, has the nerve to question authority, but she's rooted enough to recognize, like 88 per cent of the population, the power of the unpaid bill: she has kids. Yet her pounding, stark, just slightly strange music is the youth music, or bohemian music, she helped invent, and without that setting, her plainstyle--whether dishing the dirt or just fooling around--would mean something different. As it stands, she sounds neither whiny nor embittered, but wry, pissed off, and generally unregenerate.

I Spent a Week There, recorded in 1991, which includes John Cale's viola and "I'm Waiting for the Man," has more striking material, but Dogs Under Stress is stronger than the Penn & Teller records on sound alone. As she's fronted her own bands, Tucker traded drums for rhythm guitar. With former Violent Femme Victor DeLorenzo drumming every way she never did, old Velvet Sterling Morrison bringing in his persistent wavery dissonance, and Sonny Vincent on guitar and John Sluggett on various instruments, the old straightaway Moe Tucker presence--no snares, no chops, good time--has come forward to unadorned vocals, flat rhythm guitar, and well-placed no-frills lyrics. She tells it like she's been there, and she tells it like she's been somewhere else. What more could you ask?

Village Voice, Oct. 16, 1994