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Friends Reunited: Lou Reed And John Cale's Songs For Drella Revisited
Andrew Holter , August 24th, 2020 06:35

In Songs For Drella, which is reissued this month, Andrew Holter finds a seance for Andy Warhol but also a touching study of friendship regained that can bring a tear even to an atrocity cataracted millennial eye

Deflate the silver pillows and stack the Brillo boxes away in the closet. Shelve all the Campbell’s soup cans and take off those damn sunglasses. And while you’re at it, return the banana to its peel and kindly reinstate the hypodermic to its place in the candy dish.

We'll have no use for such artefacts in these proceedings.

I offer you instead the mullet haircut, the diet soda, and the sensible tobacco cigarette (a “health tool” compared to the hard stuff).

For the year is not 1968, the year of global insurrection and the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat, but 1990, the year of history’s end and Lou Reed and John Cale's Songs For Drella.

It’s here, with former partners Reed and Cale both aged 48 and their patron Andy Warhol’s body three winters a-mouldering in the grave, that we might better discern what the pageant of their youth with the Velvet Underground amounts to after all. Amid 2020's Everests of fresh hell and supernovas of emancipatory energy, Rhino’s reissue of Songs For Drella invites us to pull up a chair at the candlelit table where Reed and Cale hold hands across two decades and the seance begins. Does the platter still float?

You’ll notice on some editions of the album cover an apparition of Warhol circa 1968 - a nod, no doubt, to the watermark of Factory star Joe Spencer’s tattoo on the Warhol-conceived cover of White Light/White Heat. But don’t be fooled by tricks of the light. Drella is at least as much an exorcism of the living participants in this ceremony as a conjuring of the dead one.

The original Reed-Cale collaboration ended in the fall of 1968, over a year after Reed dismissed Andy Warhol from his dubious post as "producer" of The Velvet Underground.

“Lou and I eventually found the group too small for the both of us," Cale told Victor Bockris in the early 80s, "and so I left.” This is characteristic generosity talking. Fairer would be to say that Reed, jealous of his friend’s ascendant glamor and talent, found the group too small for Cale and strong-armed Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker into acquiescence.

And the worst of it is that Cale was only just getting started.

“John was playing great at the time,” Morrison recalled, citing the band’s rehearsals of “What Goes On” before the axing. “If you’d heard us play that in the summer of ’68 with Cale on organ,” he said, "you would have known what it was all about.” (The implications of this are staggering if you accept the contention made recently in these pages that the versions of 'What Goes On' we did get are godsends.)

It took Warhol’s death to bring the three of them back together. The artist died in indignity following gallbladder surgery in February 1987, his body wracked by speed, gangrene, dehydration, herniated muscles, and fear of hospitals. The memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that April found the two musicians “walking on eggshells a bit,” Cale said to Peter Blauner of New York magazine. Julian Schnabel, the director, got them spitballing about a musical tribute to their late benefactor, but it was Cale, embracing the thaw, who dialled Reed and started them back again right away.

Though they each had albums to finish first, by the end of 1989 they had a complete song cycle: a kind of educational record, as Reed first imagined it, that spoke to and through and around Warhol, sometimes all in the same number.

From the first track, 'Smalltown', it’s clear that the listener doesn’t need to know anything about Andy Warhol, or care about his life, for Songs For Drella to impress itself. The charm is all in the incantation, the perilously long barrel of Marlboro ash that is the middle-aged Reed’s sing-song voice (“Where did Pi-cass-o come from?”) and Cale’s rather jaunty piano conspiring to something like vaudeville. A world away from where they had left things on 'Sister Ray'.

The two of them had circled each other since 1968, of course. There was the impromptu old home week with Nico bootlegged as Le Bataclan ’72, and photographs trace their encounters in New York: jamming with David Byrne and Patti Smith, sharing a sloshed Yuletide, even bumping into Warhol out on the town.

Confident and possessed of a healthy if surmountable instinct for self-preservation, Cale had kept one foot outside the carnival funhouse of the Factory in the Velvets days. Not so with Reed, who needed more from Warhol and of whom more was expected. "No matter what I did it never seemed enough/ He said I was lazy, I said I was young,” he recounts on Drella’s 'Work', about the Factory foreman's exacting standards of production. The Reed who wanders into Warhol’s diary entries of the 70s and 80s, published during the writing of Drella, is the errant son who won’t come home, whose choices confound. Their relationship degenerated to a final, unretractable entry from September 1986: “I hate Lou Reed more and more.”

Feelings of betrayal — unfinished business, literally — lay at each vertex of the triangle between them after the Velvets. With each new interview Reed recoronated himself the sovereign of insufferables. Cale, meanwhile, having found a more reliable collaborator in John Barleycorn, took to raving from behind a Voorhesian goalkeeper’s mask and butchering a chicken onstage. There were years of abjection, to be sure.

Not much recommends either of their catalogs between the late 70s and the late 80s (the coincidence of 1982’s The Blue Mask and Music For A New Society perhaps notwithstanding). Choose your own nadir: mine is Reed’s 'The Original Wrapper' from 1986, a song not to be permitted the oxygen of a hyperlink but that includes the following lyrics from the author of 'The Black Angel's Death Song': "Watch out world, comin' at you full throttle/ Better check that sausage, before you put it in the waffle."

But then something changed. After Warhol died, a confluence of maturity, sobriety, and renewed trust in collaboration set each of them on an inspired streak between about 1988 and 1993.

Cale’s Eno-produced Words For The Dying (1989), featuring renditions of 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' and other works by Dylan Thomas, may have baffled somewhat in its response to the Falklands War (no Penny Rimbaud, he), but it showcased a welcome commitment to the material and a sentimental, homeward-looking cast of mind.

Reed, likewise, put himself back on familiar turf with the wry inventory of musings and premonitions that became New York (1989). The Sixties, at once fading and ever-present, are all over New York, from a homeless Vietnam veteran ('Xmas In February'), to all the neighbours Reed had hailed on the wild side lost to AIDS ('Halloween Parade'), to Warhol himself (the portentous 'Dime Store Mystery', featuring Moe Tucker).

“The past keeps knock knock knocking at my door," Reed sings on New York, "and I don’t want to hear it anymore." And yet for Drella he rose to answer, steadied by the man who would later eulogise him as his "school-yard buddy." (To grasp the quality of their relationship look to the fine details of the beginning, to 1965: Cale politely declines a pass from Reed, who takes it in stride as they commence the grand experiment... Prescribed tranquilizers by a psychiatrist, Reed admits to Cale, whom he barely knows, that he fears he's as broken as they say he is. "I told him, 'Fuck, you're not crazy.'")

Having found their gravity individually, they had to find it together again. Jointly produced - could it have been any other way? - Drella is an intimate revue, with little else besides Cale's viola and keyboard, Reed's guitar, and some globs of gauzy, 1990-sounding effects here and there. With Warhol gone they were now their own most famous collaborators; they gave themselves nowhere to hide. The rare duet on 'Open House', for instance, which imagines Warhol the pre-fame bedsitter crooning "Fly me to the moon/ fly me to a star," is one of a few moments of poignancy that give this album its staying power.

For Reed, the writing of Drella demanded a reopening of the cold case of his relationship with Warhol. He described his quandaries to Blauner: "Should I write it from the point of view of how I felt then, or should I be writing from the point of view of how I feel now? Why was he that way? Why was I that way?"

These probings resolved in a curious elision of voices and time periods. On 'It Wasn't Me', Reed, as Warhol, addresses the cast of Factory misfits whose deterioration from substance abuse and mental illness Warhol watched with cool/cruel indifference, letting them bleed out as he moved on to fresh bodies. This was the Dracula, not Cinderella, side of Warhol. "I never said give up control," Reed-as-Warhol says, "I never said stick a needle in your arm and die." Is Reed taking the side of the boss while taking responsibility for his own self-destructive behaviour?

But do you really believe him? Can you? Does he believe himself? This is where Songs For Drella gets interesting.

Take Reed at his most protective: 'I Believe', about the attempt on Warhol's life by Valerie Solanas in June 1968. Solanas, who spent three years in prison for the shooting, died fourteen months after Warhol (and two before Nico) in April 1988. To the refusal of some to read Solanas merely as the Madwoman in the Factory, Reed obstinately, impotently demands "retribution" in the tones of a Stephen Sondheim character and as if she weren't already dead.

Listen to the end, though, and you'll hear it's not Solanas but Warhol - moaning "Visit me, why didn't you visit me" - who haunts Reed from beneath the floorboards. Solanas pulled the trigger, but in the failure of his friendship did Reed recognise his own fingerprints on the gun?

I'll direct the jury also to Exhibit 1a.: a 1975 demo tape unearthed in Warhol's archives and thought to be a remnant of a furtive attempt at collaboration. On one track of this nearly unheard music, Reed regrets that Solanas didn't finish the job in '68 before - what else - apologising to Warhol at the end! The "confusion in his mind as to how to deal with Andy," as Cale put it at the time of Drella, was nothing new. When on the first page of her S.C.U.M. Manifesto Solanas diagnosed "the male" as "trapped inside himself," she had Lou Reed's number.

A far milder drama unfolds along the Cale-Warhol axis.

Cale admitted that during rehearsals of 'Forever Changed', which carries a little Velvets locomotion, he might as well have been singing about himself: "Train entering the city/ I lost myself and never came back." If the affinity between Reed and Warhol was bound up in anxious expectations, Warhol and Cale were just two boys from coal country (Pittsburgh and the Amman Valley) who understood the lives they had dodged by coming to New York. It's no coincidence that Cale narrates the bit of Drella that brings us closest to Warhol's actual voice, 'A Dream', adapted from the mostly Cale-positive Diaries.

In fact, a whole period of distinction belies the understatement of Cale's performance on Drella. His second collaboration of 1990, Wrong Way Up with Brian Eno, is fantastic, but the real eye-opener is Fragments Of A Rainy Season, a compilation of live recordings from his 1992 tour. With no backing band, the bracing, stripped-down versions of 'Buffalo Ballet', 'I Keep A Close Watch', and others force a confrontation with the semi-secret of just how ace a writer of melodies this man is.

And then Drella allowed The Velvet Underground's reunion in 1993, improbability on top of improbability. Picture this: the band dining with Václav Havel, dissident playwright and now head-of-state, who had returned to Prague from New York in the summer of 1968 with a copy of White Light/White Heat in his suitcase. The thunderclap of 60s idealism that rolled across the globe at the end of the 80s, fast subsiding into the neoliberal boondoggle, registered along frequencies as unpredictable as these. The Velvet Revolution put them all as above-ground as it gets.

Before long, though, the old familiar feelings began to surface. A scheduled appearance on MTV Unplugged fell through after Reed doubled down on an asinine demand to produce the recordings. It could never have lasted. But who could say they hadn't earned the right to take a victory lap, now that the world had caught up to them?

The official document of VU '93, Live MCMXCIII, isn't the band's third or fourth most essential live record. Even so, it's exhilarating. For a fleeting moment, a portal opens to an alternate timeline where Cale's viola on 'Pale Blue Eyes' sounds like it was always there.

It's that same viola that ties the bow of 'Hello, It's Me', the last track on Drella, which was "very, very difficult to write," Reed said. How to say goodbye? With a greeting: “I know this is late in coming/ but it’s the only way I know/ Hello, it's me."

I drank my meals and napped through most of 1990, but that final, spoken farewell - "Goodbye, Andy" - nearly brings a tear to my atrocity-cataracted millennial eye. Andy Warhol never meant shit to me. It's the attempt at peace, pathetic and too late to be of much use.

What began as a monument to Andy Warhol now looks like a truer memorial to Lou Reed (truer even than a library card).

The concerns of Songs For Drella are ancient and trivial; we're as far from 1990 as 1968 was from the Munich Agreement and 'Begin The Beguine'. I'm certain that Andrea Long Chu’s 112-page engagement with Valerie Solanas in Females (Verso, 2019) has more to say about the way we live today than the doorstop biography of Andy Warhol published this year by HarperCollins. Anthony DeCurtis's book on Lou Reed is thorough, but younger writers are finding more urgent lessons in the mirror he continues to hold up to the poisons of maleness and the possibilities of its transformation.

Still, there may be something worthwhile in marking the mystery of Drella. It is, if you like, a testament to the possibility of grace between estranged friends. In its messiness, it's proof also of how tentative reconciliation tends to be.

And spare a thought for that beautiful son of Carmarthenshire, John Davies Cale, who perseveres in this dread century and has lived long enough to watch so many of his cohort crack-up and die. Who put his hand on the shoulder of the fellow worker who spurned him as they returned to the dream factory of their apprenticeship, uncertain of what they would find or which of their selves would meet them there. When John Cale goes, let him go gentle if he wishes. As he went here.

Songs For Drella has been reissued by Rhino Records