If you were to ask me straight up;
“Brett, Why the glum face chump? Why the pre-occupation with all those melancholy dirges? – Death, loss, growing old?”
I’d take issue with you. I’d tell you, you’re wrong and point you to the Album Index.
“There’s lots of ‘happy’ stuff there” I’d say. “Just follow the crumbs, follow the links”.
But there is also where I’d come undone. A good proportion of that ‘happy’ stuff is other people’s selections and if I’m going to be honest Night outweighs Day by a good margin.
I guess the inclusion of this weeks pick Songs for Drella does nothing to advance my cause. So instead of trying to refute it, I’ll cite in my defense Tom Waits.
In an interview last year he was asked if he thinks much about growing old (he’s 61)
and his reply was –
“Well if you’re not thinking about it … you’re not paying attention are you?” 🙂
There’s no getting away from thinking about death on this Album (It is after all, its reason for being). The idea of composing musical piece, a memoriam to Andy Warhol came about at the suggestion of Julian Schnabel, who along with John Cale & Lou Reed attended Andy’s Memorial Service (he died on the 22nd of Feb, 1997). It was first performed at Saint Anne’s Church in Brooklyn in 1989, some two years after Andy’s death which was surprisingly (or not) quite mundane; the result of complications following Gall bladder surgery. It then took another year before the piece was committed to vinyl and while that’s a long wait, it was certainly worth it. Songs for Drella is amongst Lou Reeds finest work and I say that fully aware that it started life as a collaboration; John Cale acknowledges as much in the liner notes:
“… I must say that although I think he did most of the work, he has allowed me to keep a position of dignity in the process.”
Gracious indeed but there’s more to it then that. Lou Reed has an almost legendary reputation for being difficult to work with, the quintessential
asshole New Yorker. Depending on which version you read he was responsible for easing John Cale out of the Velvet Underground soon after White Light/White Heat (only their 2nd Album but what an Album!) and apparently was just as difficult to work with forty years later. The gossip on the web is that John Cale privately vowed never to collaborate with him again. Though as it turned out he did, the Velvet Underground reforming briefly for a few concerts in the early 90’s.
Songs for Drella bills itself as a fiction. A pastiche of outtakes on Andy Warhol’s life but at its heart it is a goodbye letter. Drella was Warhol’s nickname, a mash-up of Dracula & Cinderella that was coined by Ondine, who was part of the clique of actors, musicians, porn stars, artists and hanger-ons that were drawn to the Factory in the 70’s.
There are 15 tracks on the Album but its first airing was as a performance piece with John and Lou alone on the stage. The only accompaniment being a backdrop of slides and films from both Andy’s body of work and his personal life (which is to say the same thing as they were inseparable, one feeding into the other). Apparently not all the songs on the Album were performed at that initial performance. A Dream in particular came along later finding its way onto the studio release. I’m also not sure how the song writing was divvied up as they are all simply credited Reed/Cale. The vocals are obvious. It’s Cale’s voice on tracks 3, 5, 7 & 9 but that aint’ necessarily an indication of who wrote them.
Style It Takes is a lovely song, almost like a nursery rhyme with its simple melody. I think it’s not only John singing here but was written by him too. I can listen to his piano playing all day. It flows like a river, rolling down from the snow-line and in this song finds an answer in Lou Reeds guitar which provides texture for the rhythm and a counterpoint to the melody:
By contrast Faces and Names is a song I pinged as a Lou Reed piece. It’s a theme that he has pursued in other writings (I hesitate to call them songs, they seem so much more) such as Harry’s Circumcision where he similarly delves into the Construct of Identity, what it means and how easily that timeline can be subverted; Just as an aside, it used to be the message on our answering machine in Chicago which I always thought mildly amusing.
A Dream is the only track not included in the lyric sheets. It’s probably the most ‘visual’ song and I have no idea which of the two wrote it. Hold on let me find out – footsteps – a door opens – disappears into the internet –a short wait – footsteps returning) here we are, apparently it was Lou. It’s a magical song, generous in It’s detail. You can just picture The Factory at night, all of New York silent under a blanket of muffling snow and Andy – lonely, frightened, lost Andy waiting with his thoughts and reminisces for someone to come along. You have to listen right to the end, the last few lines are especially poignant:
They’re coming from two very different places are John Cale & Lou Reed. I know there’s only so much you can read into or extrapolate from an Album; It’s infirm ground that you’re standing on when you do, but for me It’s a large part of the enjoyment of listening. I like trying to figure out who said what or from where something sprung.
For me John Cale’s story is the simpler of the two. I took his songs at face value. They are for the main bio-graphical. Sketches rolled out from snatches of memory. There to serve, to paint a picture, to remember him by. In essence it is as you hear it, a tribute to an important figure and a dear departed friend.
Lou Reeds contributions however are much more convoluted. There was obviously damage done in the past, baggage that got in the way and you get the feeling that for him at least this record is partly about reconciling his own failings, in addition to being a farewell. I imagine Lou is a good hater but in fairness I think he would also be a loyal friend and I have no doubt that Warhol’s unexpected death, denying him the opportunity to put things right, weighed heavily on him.
Hello It’s Me is the final track on the Album. Lou says ‘Goodbye’ to Andy by first saying ‘Hello’. It’s very moving song. John Cale’s haunting Viola fills in the background while Lou’s Reed’s sing-song spoken delivery leads from the front. Then there’s Lou’s instantly recognisable Guitar playing. It’s a very distinct style, hard to describe but in it there is almost a vocal quality. The strumming is measured, deliberate and purposeful. He phrases his guitar like an actor phrases their speech. And they’re beautiful, these sparse phrases, these words and chords that are offered in memory of their mentor and friend, the artist Andy Warhol: