Record Review (Creem, 1990)
“You know, I hate Lou, I really do, he wouldn’t even hire us for his videos.… I was so proud of him.” So goes the September 20, 1986 entry in The Andy Warhol Diaries—almost. It’s actually a version of same, as intoned by John Cale in “A Dream,” one of the more striking tracks on Songs for ’Drella—A Fiction, a Cale/Lou Reed collaboration in memory of Warhol, the late Pop-Art impresario. Warhol—or “’Drella” (Dracula/Cinderella)—adopted the Velvet Underground in 1966, and thus effectively launched the careers of Cale and Reed, who reunite here for the first time since 1968, when Reed, without ceremony, ejected Cale from the group.
“This is a rock group called the Velvet Underground;/ I show movies on them, do you like the sound?/ Cause they have a style that grates,/ And I have art to make.” So Cale imagines Warhol courting Edie Sedgwick for her money and connections, in a seductively sweet tune called “Style It Takes.” Like eleven other songs on this 15-song serial portrait, “Style It Takes” attempts to recreate Warhol’s voice and his state of mind at various moments in his rise and fall. Thus the “fiction”: Reed and Cale re-create some version of the Warhol they knew, by stringing musical snapshots in chronological order.
Not that even this fictional version of Warhol makes complete sense of his life—which was perhaps more an exercise in style than a real “life.” Cale, for example, puts his particular spin on the subject in “A Dream.” The “I was so proud of him” remark appended to Warhol’s tirade against Reed is nowhere to be found in the last ten years’–worth of diary entries. Cale aims for the bittersweet; Warhol’s paranoia is filtered through a blue lens, leaving the delicate pallor of loneliness and fear.
But this version of Warhol’s world is not exactly Reed’s. Apologetic for the real and imagined snubs Warhol details in the Diaries, Reed admits that “when I saw you last, I turned away” (“Hello It’s Me”). But he’s not entirely repentant. “You hit me where it hurt, I didn’t laugh,” he confesses; “Your Diaries are not a worthy epitaph.” This rebuke perhaps justifies Songs for ’Drella as a substitute, but it puts in question Cale’s “A Dream”—the Diaries in six-minute miniature—and to some extent undercuts the whole album, which from one perspective is the Diaries in 15 songs.
It would be unreasonable to expect Songs for ’Drella to sound like the Cale-era Velvet Underground, but some will expect that anyway. Happily enough, Reed and Cale leap well over this trap, though the saw-tooth electric viola of “Images” recalls “The Black Angel’s Death Song” from the Warhol-produced Velvet Underground & Nico. “Images,” like “Style It Takes” and everything else on the record, attempts to render in sound the phenomenon it describes. Here, the static, repetitive musical track translates Warhol’s mechanical reproduction of Monroes and electric chairs.
Speaking of electric chairs, the turning point in Warhol’s career, according to the fiction, was the day in 1968 when Valerie Solanis, jealous of his “control,” shot him in the spleen. The event is related not by “Andy,” but by Reed, whose conclusions will not comfort opponents of the death penalty (“I believe an eye for an eye is elemental … And I believe I would have pulled the switch on her myself”). Increasingly threatened yet callous before the shooting, Warhol, mortal again, is a frightened man trapped in his cynicism, metaphorically dead. At least, this is Reed’s version; Cale’s “A Dream” and “Forever Changed” depict a wounded Warhol who retreats into nostalgia as his spirit slowly bleeds away, his life “disappearing from view.”
In the end, Cale and Reed avoid summing up their images, leaving the listener to judge among them and to fill in the gaps in the story. But it’s not clear that Warhol, celebrant of surfaces and disdainer of narratives, would have invited these activities. From Czechoslovak traditionalist holding “open house” on 81st Street in New York, to voyeuristic would-be robot, to sentimentally eulogized Thinker, the “Andy” of Songs for ’Drella is consistently deeper and more interesting than the Warhol the rest of us knew and the Warhol that Warhol wanted us to know. As the artist merged his persona with his images, more became less. “Meaning” retreated from the glut of surfaces. “Some say images have no feeling, I think there’s a deeper meaning,” says Reed’s “Andy” in “Images.” “You might think I’m empty,” says Cale’s “Andy” in “Forever Changed”: “depends on your point of view.”
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First published in Creem magazine (August, 1990)