Categories
4 Stars Movies Music

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

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 a Greenpeace benefit compilation popular at the time.

I would shortly discover that these two albums represented a more accessible side of his 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.

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.

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

Lou Reed, Antony, and Julian Schnabel Dance the Rock Minuet in the Concert Film Berlin

Lou Reed‘s 1973 album Berlin is a concept album relating the tale of a doomed woman named Caroline living in the eponymous city. The term “concept album,” then and now, invokes immediate condescension from fans and critics alike, calling to mind the progressive rock excesses of 1970s megabands The Who (Tommy and Quadrophenia), Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), and Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans). The poet and arty downtown Manhattanite Reed might have better served himself by referring to Berlin as something more fancy-sounding, perhaps a “song cycle.”

Reed’s previous album Transformer was a great commercial success, debuting the enduring hits “Satellite of Love”, “Perfect Day”, and “Walk on the Wild Side”. To follow it up with something like Berlin may have been loaded with artistic integrity, but was asking for trouble in terms of making a living. I recall reading that enough material was written and recorded for it to be a double-LP, but it was too much for a single LP, so the work was unsatisfactorily edited down to a single disc before release (I can’t find a source for this factoid online, but I believe it was related in the liner notes of his 1992 retrospective boxed set Between Thought and Expression). Produced by Bob Ezrin (whose concept album credentials also include Pink Floyd’s The Wall), it was a commercial disaster at the time. So, cursed from the beginning, the full studio version has apparently never been released.

Emmanuelle Seigner in Lou Reed's Berlin
Emmanuelle Seigner in Lou Reed’s Berlin

In retrospect, Reed now seems to have been compelled to flee from commercial success, or at the very least was bound and determined not to repeat himself. Reed’s other infamous commercial disaster Metal Machine Music was another deliberate provocation: even the most open minded musicologist might charitably characterize it as earsplitting noise. But Berlin is different, hated more for its intensity and subject matter than its sound. Several of the songs are lovely, but wow is the complete work depressing, full of anger, venom, resentment, death, despair, and guilt. The song “The Kids” is especially harrowing, ending with a tape of children wailing.

Lou Reed's Berlin
“Caroline says / While biting her lip / Life is meant to be more than this”

Over time, the album was eventually rediscovered. One of those reappraising Berlin was no less than artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. So it came to be, that 33 years after its release, Schnabel proposed to Reed that Berlin really ought to be a film. Schnabel is obviously attracted to artists dedicated to their work with utter conviction: revolutionary New York Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the eponymous biopic, the gay poet Reinaldo Arenas in Castro-era Cuba in Before Night Falls, and the paralyzed writer Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The Berlin DVD bonus features include a brief conversation with Reed and Schnabel on Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle, in which Schnabel describes his attraction to the cinema from the perspective of a painter: he reverently refers to the canvas-like movie screen as “The Rectangle.”

Something best appreciated by seeing Reed perform live is that he is a great guitarist. He’s also visibly in surprisingly good shape for a former junkie (sorry, but it’s true). Does he practice yoga? Reed in performance is supremely cool and detached, but some startlingly real emotion comes through in his vocal delivery; he spits out the lines “they took her children away” from the song “The Kids” with real venom.

Antony in Lou Reed's Berlin
Antony dances the rock minuet

Original guitarist Steve Hunter rejoined Reed for the Berlin tour, and can barely contain his pleasure, despite the grim subject matter. Bob Ezrin himself conducts with great enthusiasm, but oddly, he seems to be facing the drummer, away from the choir and woodwinds. One of my favorite bassists, Fernando Saunders, doesn’t really get to shine, but perhaps it was my sound system that couldn’t do him justice. Julian Schnabel’s daughter Lola directed film clips projected during the performance, starring Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline.

So Reed finally got a chance to present Berlin live, as a whole piece. Now the once-denigrated work has become a world tour, a theatrical feature film, a live album, and a DVD. Reed is now considered a New York deity, not the erratic addict he was back in the day. His career is far from over and there’s plenty of time for more drama, but could this be his ultimate revenge?

The encore includes a special treat, a lovely version of “Rock Minuet” sung by Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) in his otherworldly voice. “Rock Minuet” was not from the original album, but a special request from Schnabel, who rightly felt it belonged. But it’s followed by a bummer: a desultory performance of the Velvet Underground standard “Sweet Jane”. It’s a letdown that after the emotionally intense proceedings, that Reed seems truly bored here and just walks through a song he’s probably performed hundreds if not thousands of times.

Categories
Music

26 Albums I’m Told I Should Remove From My Collection

Chalkills, the XTC fansite, wants to help you sift through the detritus of your music collection, pronto: One Hundred Albums You Should Remove from Your Collection Immediately (spotted on DGMLive).

I own (or once owned) a whopping 26% of these overrated (so they say) canonical classics! Hey, Chalkhills, what did I ever do to you? I love XTC (Apple Venus and Wasp Star being two of my all-time favorite albums, hands-down), so my tastes can’t be all bad, can they? But having read your list, I find that for every one of your selections that brings steam out of my ears, there’s another with which I have to begrudgingly agree.

So here’s my annotated list, including, for fun, the format in which I purchased each offending title and whether or not I eventually discarded it:


U2 The Joshua Tree

2. U2 – The Joshua Tree
20th Anniversary Edition boxed set
U2’s true masterpiece Achtung Baby was yet to come, but the complex depth of that record wouldn’t have been possible without the unironic earnestness of The Joshua Tree. And yes, maybe I’m a snob (not to mention old) for upgrading to the remastered anniversary edition, but just the other day I listened to the revived recording of “Mothers of the Disappeared” with my jaw literally hanging open and the proverbial chills running up and down my spine.


Nirvana Nevermind

3. Nirvana – Nevermind
cassette (discarded)
It was a gift, I swear. While I intellectually understand what the mass-market breakthrough of Nirvana did for music (basically, sparking a fresh explosion of so-called “alternative” music comparable to punk’s effect on a stagnant world of disco and stadium rock in the early 1970s), I always preferred the rock ‘n’ roll songcraft of Pearl Jam to the loud ‘n’ sloppy depression of Nirvana.


The Beatles Let it Be

5. The Beatles – Let It Be
cd, The “Naked” version
Any antipathy towards the Beatles seems a bit strange coming from an XTC fansite — surely Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding are acolytes. Do I still have to discard Let It Be if I own the McCartney-approved “Naked” edition, as opposed to the original with Wall-of-Schmaltz orchestral overdubs by Phil Spector? Let it Be is not my favorite Beatles long-player (that would definitely be The White Album), and obviously one the lads tossed off at the tail end of their (actually quite brief) association. But how is that any different, really, from their early quickie LPs recorded in mere hours with the aid of amphetamines?


The Police Synchronicity

7. The Police – Synchronicity
cassette (discarded)
I agree with Chalkhills’ assessment that Synchronicity is a surprisingly dark album for a mainstream platinum hit, but I believe that’s exactly what makes it special. What other band, at the peak of their commercial success, released such a paranoid, neurotic album? OK, maybe Radiohead’s Kid A.


Lou Reed Transformer

8. Lou Reed – Transformer
vinyl
Agreed. “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Satellite of Love” are both masterpieces, but I couldn’t name a single other song from the album. Am I redeemed by owning the vinyl edition? It must be said that it earns extra Cool Points for being produced by David Bowie, but the back cover photograph of Lou with the boner in his tight jeans is just plain gross.


Miles Davis Bitches Brew

9. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
Complete Bitches Brew Sessions boxed set
Yes, I am that poseur that owns the Complete Sessions boxed set. I have to very, very strongly object to Chalkhills’ dismissal here (and I do I detect a strong anti-jazz bias?). Miles changed music forever when he plugged in to rock, fusion, and funk. Trying to pretend Bitches Brew never happened is as fruitless as still complaining about Bob Dylan going rock (or country, or Christian, etc…) or The Sex Pistols giving the world the finger. The difference is that it still sounds fresh and new.


Led Zeppelin Physical Grafitti

12. Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
vinyl
I love me some Zeppelin, but I have to agree that Physical Graffiti isn’t a keeper. It is, however, better than its follow-up Presence (but that’s not saying much).


Beck Midnight Vultures

19. Beck – Midnite Vultures
cd (sold)
Agreed. I listened to it once, and then sold it as quickly as I could. Blech!


Derek and the Dominos Layla

21. Derek and the Dominoes – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
cd (sold)
I could not agree more: two brilliant songs in “Layla” and “Little Wing,” padded out with a forgettable batch of filler. Legend has it the substance-abusing Clapton literally does not recall recording the album.


The Who Tommy

22. The Who – Tommy
vinyl (triple gatefold with lyric booklet)
I don’t disagree that Tommy is loaded down with a lot of silliness and filler, but hey, it’s a rock opera, and the first one at that. What do you expect?


U2 Zooropa

26. U2 – Zooropa
cd
I firmly, absolutely disagree. Zooropa may be a product of its time (the cut ‘n’ paste postmodern media overloaded 1990s), but it includes some of U2’s all-time best songs, including the title track and Stay (Faraway So Close). The multilayered production by Flood and Brian Eno may make the songs “sound weird,” but it also rewards a lifetime of repeat listens.


The Flaming Lips Soft Bulletin

32. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin
cd
I regrettably agree. Give me Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots any day, but I just can’t get into this one.


The Dave Brubeck Quartet Take Five

34. Dave Brubeck – Time Out
cd
Blaspheme! Blaspheme! Again with the jazz hate! I was not aware anybody disliked this album. What’s wrong with you? If you had included Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue on your list, I think I would have had an aneurism.


Wilco Being There

39. Wilco – Being There
cd (sold)
Like the rest of the world, I loved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so I sought out some older Wilco albums. And I suspect like most of those people, I got rid of them.


The Police Zenyatta Mondatta

42. The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta
cd
Disagree! Zenyatta Mondatta is my favorite Police album. Granted, “De Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da” is the epitome of pop silliness (except for maybe “Louie Louie” and R.E.M.’s “Stand”), but the rest of the album is full of classic reggae-inflected new wave pop.


Jane's Addiction Nothing's Shocking

44. Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking
cd
As Perry Farrell himself once sang, “Stop!” Jane’s Addiction’s debut studio album Nothing’s Shocking is a fantastic batch of songs. Perry Farrell’s wild persona and Dave Navarro’s famously louche lifestyle got all the press, but my god, haven’t you listened to the rhythm section? Jane’s Addiction proved that prog could live without shame in a new world after Led Zeppelin, and they got even better in their next album Ritual De Lo Habitual (before self-destructing, alas).


Cocteau Twins Heaven or Las Vegas

50. Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas
cd
I don’t have a really strong opinion about it, but I enjoy listening to it from time to time. I didn’t even know it was especially popular. Sorry, jeez.


Radiohead I Might Be Wrong

51. Radiohead – I Might be Wrong
cd
It’s a fair statement that most live albums begin life as contractual obligations. But what actually does bother me more about I Might Be Wrong is that it’s basically an EP sold at LP prices. That said, the performances are strong, and prove that the weird, arty music on Kid A and Amnesiac can and really do come to life on stage.


Tori Amos Under the Pink

54. Tori Amos – Under the Pink
cd (sold)
I loved Tori’s official solo debut Little Earthquakes, but I suspect my sensitive teenager self may have been crushing on the cute & quirky redhead at the piano.


Arrested Development

55. Arrested Development – 3 Years, 5 Months, & 2 Days In The Life Of…
cd (sold)
“…non-threatening rap-lite for sensitive white liberals who want to “keep it real” and experience hip-hop safely.” Zing! Busted.


Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon

64. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
30th Anniversary SACD
Again, blaspheme! Yes, enough copies of Dark Side of the Moon exist on this planet to form their own continent, but don’t you think there is a reason for that? Mere momentum alone can’t be enough to explain its appeal. If you want to single out one Pink Floyd album for being overrated and overpurchased, please allow me to direct you to The Wall, which unlike most other Floyd albums, appeals to sullen immature teenagers but does not grow in sophistication as they do.


Sarah McLachlan Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

65. Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Surfacing
cds (still on my shelf but I really ought to sell them)
Ouch! You got me here. I once liked both of these, but quickly fell out of love with them. I maintain there are some decent songs underneath the slick adult contemporary overproduction.


U2 War

69. U2 – War
vinyl
U2 charts no less than three times on this haters list, rivaling the Beatles and the entire genre of jazz for raising Chalkhills’ bile. I suggest revisiting “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and tell me if the drums don’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.


R.E.M. Out of Time

80. R.E.M. – Out of Time
cd
OK, maybe it’s not their best, and it is especially disappointing for having come right after the legendary, essential album Green. But “Shiny Happy People” is maybe the best 3/4-time pop song ever, and the whole second half is superb.


Grateful Dead Reckoning

83. Grateful Dead – any album
Reckoning (lp) & Infrared Roses (cd)
Yep, I picked up a secondhand vinyl copy of Reckoning for pennies and it’s pretty loose and rambling, even for the Dead. But I do dig the crazy electronic jams on Infrared Roses, man.


Sting Ten Summoner's Tales

90. Sting – Ten Summoner’s Tales
cd (sold)
I’ll cop to liking “Fields of Gold” back in the day. Oh god, did I just admit that out loud on the internet?


There, done. Finally, I just want to say that yes, I do have a sense of humor and I get the point of Chalkhill’s rant. Responding to their List of Hate was just an excuse for me to scribble out a few words about some of the dustiest old artifacts from my music collection. Thanks!

%d bloggers like this: