Review: Songs For Drella

The skinny on this concert document is that it was lost shortly after it was recorded and broadcast in 1990 and then found in the director’s attic while Todd Haynes was putting together his Velvet Underground documentary. Lou Reed and John Cale, the men who created the Velvet Underground and then parted ways after the group’s second album, reconvene to honor their patron, Andy Warhol, in the wake of his death with a bunch of songs that directly address Warhol’s effect on the New York downtown scene, which launched their own respective careers as professional musicians. Though I have owned the album for almost three decades, I’ve never thought of it as being so emblematic of the two men’s art as I now think it is, having seen them perform the songs live.

Though the music is stark—Reed on guitars, Cale on keyboards and viola—it’s also more expressive than a lot of the music that each man produces on his own. It’s obvious who wrote what by who sings what, and Reed’s songs are more incisive about the kind of man Warhol was. They’re prosaic and direct. He talks about Pittsburgh and gets into personal particulars about Andy’s peccadillos, especially with regard to money and the well-documented obsession with his self-image, something Reed found off-putting. Though there’s a measure of sentimentality in his recitations, there’s also that certain species of New York bitterness, which only sounds half-kidding (about would-be Warhol assassin, Valerie Solanas: “I would have pulled the switch on her myself”). Cale’s songs are more impressionistic and ironic—riffs on the images that Reed treats clinically—but they are also more musically affecting. And, surprisingly, given the two men’s fraught relationship, Cale has the last word. 

Though production notes say that this was performed for an audience, no audience sounds can be heard, thus lending the whole affair a sad finality, as if the songs had been composed for a wake and were never meant to be played again. Director Edward Lachman keeps things simple, honoring the songs as songs rather than performances, and the back projections that illustrate some of the ideas put forth in the lyrics are redundant but not distracting. In any case, I’ll definitely be listening to the album more from now on. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Songs For Drella home page in Japanese

photo (c) 1990 Initial Film and Television/Lou Reed & John Cale

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