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33 at 33: Lou Reed & John Cale’s Songs For Drella

It’s the ‘friends’ reunited filling. The middle one of the monochrome masterpieces that firmly established Lou Reed’s return to eminence in the early ’90s – a trilogy that started with New York in 1989 and ended up with Magic And Loss three years later. Released the second week of April 1990, this is Songs For Drella, an often thorny collaboration with his fellow Velvet Underground founder John Cale.

The most famous quote about The Velvet Underground and their influence is generally attributed to Brian Eno, talking to Billboard in 1997. You will see it worded differently to get to its conceptual core, but here’s the gist:

“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”

With the troupe‘s reputation ever growing and selling well in excess of half a million in the US since 1991, if The Velvet Underground & Nico grandfathered proto-punk, then White Light/White Heat stapled it to a rocket and shot it at the sun.

January 2023 marked the 55th anniversary of the band’s sophomore set, a recorded-in-twelve-days-statement that would become the last Velvet Underground album that co-founder and Welsh wonder John Cale played on, before tensions between himself and fellow originator Lou Reed became so intolerable he was given the jackboot, for hilariously, being “too avant-garde.”

Though it might not have seemed like an obvious destiny over half a century ago, Cale went on to sculpt the bedrock of proto-punk even further by producing The Stooges’ eponymous debut record a year later, followed by myriad notables like Patti Smith and The Modern Lovers. It’s fair to say that he has spent over half a century with his finger so perfectly on the pulse of what sounds might push the envelope enough to ruffle the feathers of contemporary pop.

Indeed, the most amusing quote about VU (as they are colloquially called) comes from a clearly ruffled Cher. After seeing the visiting New Yorkers play their first gig in Los Angeles in 1966, the I Got You Babe songstress stated, “The Velvet Underground won’t replace anything… except maybe suicide.”

Songs For Drella — the great reunion with Reed — isn’t about suicide but it is about death, specifically the Velvets’ mentor Andy Warhol, who had passed away in 1987. 

Neither of them had much charitable to say about one other in the intervening years, and the pair seemed to share only one significant area of agreement — they both maintained a great respect and admiration for the pop culture icon whose patronage of the group helped them reach their first significant audience. So it was fitting that after Warhol’s death, Reed and Cale worked through their resentment and began collaborating together for the first time* since White Light/White Heat on a performance piece — a 15-track song suite about the artist’s life and times, his rise to fame, and his troubled years in the limelight. 

Drella — a mix of Cinderella and Dracula – was a nickname Andy didn’t much care for, but the duality of the moniker works to full effect. What emerges is a solemn, fragmented and contradictory picture of a soul sometimes at odds with himself, his circle and the world at large, sometimes tormented and sometimes burning with an ebullient, creative spirit.

Starkly constructed around Cale’s keyboards and viola, Reed’s guitar, and their voices, the friends or foes take turns on vocals, sometimes singing in character as Warhol and elsewhere offering their observations on the man they knew. On a roll after New York regained him acclaim, Lou’s songs are strong and pithy, and display a great feel for the unknowable icon. He gets to grind several shades of distortion from his beloved axe on Work and Images — jagged atonal pieces so fashioned one suspects because they capture Warhol’s determinedly ambitious side. 

Reed’s own raging Old Testament fundamentalism burns on I Believe – an eye-for-an-eye potshot at Drella’s would-be assassin, the SCUMmy Valerie Solanas.

And while Cale brought fewer tunes to the table, they’re all uniformly excellent, especially Style It Takes and A Dream, a spoken word piece inspired by the posthumously published Andy Warhol Diaries. In it, they make Drella — tired, lonely, near the end of his life — talk about them. He hates Lou, he says; as Lou got famous, he started to snub his mentor. With delicious catty irony, it’s Cale who speaks this reminiscence, and though the music behind him is nothing more than wavery atmosphere, his voice unforgettably conjures the chill of Warhol’s decline.

If Songs For Drella seems modest from a musical standpoint, it’s likely neither Reed nor Cale wanted the music to distract from their story, and here they paint a portrait of Warhol warts ’n all with all the paranoia and pettiness laid bare, resulting in a story, embellished or otherwise (Drella has a get-out clause: it’s subtitled A Fiction), that has far more depth and poignancy than his public image would have led one to expect. 

Arranged as a chronological narrative, Drella delights in irony. The smalltown boy of Slovak** immigrants seeks refuge from alienation in New York but it’s the very values he was raised on that keep him going. He becomes a new American success story but uncertainty, dread and an inevitable sense of mortality stalks him at every turn, making Slip Away (A Warning) the most powerful and beautiful thing here.

After several live try outs throughout 1989, Songs For Drella was finally released by Reed’s label, the Seymour Stein-helmed Sire Records, virtually three years to the day since he and Cale spoke to one another for the first time in years at Warhol’s memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Ultimately, the LP is a burst of invariance and poignancy that tells us a fair amount about where Reed and Cale were in 1990, working though their animosity for each other to create something memorable.

Candid and conversational in presentation, bittersweet but never maudlin, Songs For Drella is a moving remembrance by two now-matured artists with an unlikely father figure. And it’s a pleasure to hear these two comrades-in-arms working together again, even if their renewed collaboration was destined to be short-lived. By the end of recording Cale vowed never to work with Reed again and plans to support the album with a tour were shelved. Nevertheless, the LP would prove to be the prelude to the very final Velvet Underground reunion in 1993. 

Looked a scream.

Steve Pafford

New York City bars: raise a glass to John Cale’s Davud Bowie-inspired single Night Crawling is here

*Though not a recording project, Lou Reed, Cale and Nico did come together to perform in January 1972 at Le Bataclan in Paris, a singular, surprising performance which was broadcast on French TV and eventually released as an official bootleg album in 2004. One of the highlights was an “unplugged” version of Heroin, later used over the credits of Todd Haynes’ 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground. 

Reed plucked the acoustic guitar better than he ever had before, while Cale sat to his left, bowing his viola less jaggedly than on the studio recording five years prior. Behind them, Nico (my father‘s much-removed cousin, in fact) looked on as the guys kept time with each other without ever making eye contact. Just a few minutes, the three collaborators held no vendettas against one another and allowed themselves to, again, be transfixed by the music they so beautifully made together. Beau, oui. 

** The Warhola émigrés hailed from Mikó, a tiny village at the foothills of the Carpathain Mountains that span Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. In fact, in 2019 I could see the borders of the first two from Uzhhorod, my first Ukrainian port of call before going on to Chernobyl. Chernobyl was more fun.

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