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Lou Reed and John Cale work through their complex feelings for Andy Warhol in Songs for Drella

Rather than set aside their differences, Reed and Cale meld them together in a theatrical song cycle dedicated to their early patron.

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John Cale and Lou Reed Songs for Drella

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When I was a dumb teenager that didn’t know anything about anything, or could tell The Factory from a factory, I first heard Lou Reed through his Transformer and New York albums — the former via the David Bowie connection, and the latter through one track’s inclusion on Rainbow Warriors, a Greenpeace benefit compilation popular at the time.

I would shortly discover that these two albums represented a more accessible side of Reed’s sometimes challenging or confrontational discography — for my next purchase was Songs for Drella. Good thing I didn’t pick up Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music at that point, or I really would have stopped there. Luckily I think I heard Magic and Loss next, and was back on track.

Lou Reed and John Cale: Songs for Drella
Detail from the Songs for Drella album cover; which really ought to have clued me in that it was not going to be a rock ‘n’ roll album.

I didn’t know what to make about a drumless song cycle, co-credited with a name new to me at the time, John Cale, and all about an artist I was only vaguely aware of, Andy Warhol. You can excuse a rural kid at the beginning of the ’90s for knowing only one fact about Warhol: he was that one weird artist that screen-printed countless images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup cans.

I’ve come to appreciate the Songs for Drella album more over the years, coincident with learning more about Warhol and The Velvet Underground. Warhol had died only a few years earlier, and Reed & Cale’s songs feel very immediate and personal, and not at all hagiographic. They were in a unique position to have known Warhol better than many who might presume to have opinions about him or his work. They evidently retained complex feelings about him, for it’s right there in the title: “Drella” was a derogatory nickname (Dracula + Cinderella) that Warhol didn’t appreciate.

John Cale and Lou Reed: Songs for Drella
Detail from the original VHS/laserdisc cover. “I love images worth repeating and repeating and repeating”.

Many of the songs channel his voice in the first person, about the mundane (perceived slights at an MTV event), to the cataclysmic (his attempted assassination by Valerie Solanis — who herself would be the subject of a dramatic depiction in the film I Shot Andy Warhol a few years later). Lest this all sound too artsy fartsy, some of the tunes are real bangers, like the stomping “Work”.

A live performance in December 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was filmed by Ed Lachman, and a new 4K restoration is currently screening on The Criterion Channel. It was fortunately shot on film, not SD video, so it looks and sounds great. I listened to part of it through headphones, and the audio is notably clear and intimate. You can hear in the stereo mix when Reed or Cale even slightly turn their heads while singing.

“Work”, from Songs for Drella. The full film is available in much better quality on The Criterion Channel.

I strongly recommend the film for anyone with more than a passing interest in Cale, Reed, or Warhol, and who either doesn’t know the Songs for Drella album, or for whom it never clicked. Those with a mental image of Reed from his glam Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal period, or the cool tough guy downtown poet of the New York era, might be a little surprised to see him looking so studious here. The always-dapper Cale, with an excellent haircut, looks in his element. Watching a live performance of the whole song cycle straight through, with the two legendary musicians sitting opposite each other like a proper hoity-toity music recital, really suits the material.


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