Monday, October 3, 2011

Velvet Underground Series, #5: Lou Reed & John Cale- Songs for Drella (1990) / Songs for Drella: Live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, 1989 (1990) / Songs for Drella: A Work in Progress, St. Ann's Church, NYC, Jan. 7-8, 1989 (Bootleg) MP3 & FLAC

"My skin's as pale as an outdoors moon, my hair's silver like a Tiffany watch. I like lots of people around me, but don't kiss hello and please don't touch."

Throughout the four and a half decades that Lou Reed and John Cale have known each other, their relationship has had few constants other than its consistently tempestuous nature, something that was evident from the very beginning. When they were initially introduced in 1964, Reed was working as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records (a job he has since likened to being "a poor man's Carole King"), writing commercially-oriented pop songs by day while exploring more experimental forms of songcraft (such as an early version of "Heroin") by night. The classically-trained Cale had recently arrived from London armed with a sponsorship from Aaron Copeland and plans to further his music education with American uber-elite avant-garde composers such as John Cage and La mont Young, and almost immediately, Cale was invited to play viola in Young and Tony Conrad's drone-oriented ensemble Theater of Eternal Music aka the Dream Syndicate. While Cale was none too impressed with Reed's lack of polish as a musician, he both admired and related to Reed's experimentalist tendencies, which took the form of alternate guitar tunings, droning effects, and lyrics that were both graphic and literary. They also discovered a mutual disdain for conventional artistic expression. John Cale on his first impressions of Lou Reed: "He seemed extremely vulnerable and with a very visceral sense of claiming his identity, in that it seemed like his identity was really clear when attacking things. And not that there was an ingrained hostility to everything on Earth, but I guess that's a common trait in many people that they think the best way to define themselves is to really attack, and this unnerving and psychologically disturbing persona was struggling to have an artistic expression, that was being stifled by this confusion between his surroundings and himself. This description could very well apply to myself as well [...] trying to find a role in classical music that really had anything to do with the outside world was certainly not clear in my mind."

John Cale
After recruiting Sterling Morrison, a former college roommate of Reed's, and Angus MacLise (later be replaced by Moe Tucker), an avant-garde percussionist whom Cale had met while playing in Theater of Eternal Music, Reed and Cale briefly formed a band called The Primitives; however, when Tony Conrad turned the band on to a book about the sexual subculture of the early sixties called The Velvet Underground, the band instantly adopted the name, recognizing a thematic continuity with the increasingly dark subject matter of Reed's lyrics (he had just written "Venus in Furs") and feeling that it was also evocative of underground cinema. While Reed and Cale were more than happy to accept the patronage of Andy Warhol after being "discovered" while playing a tourist trap called Cafe Bizarre, their time under Warhol's tutelage saw them become increasingly antagonistic over the direction of the band. Reed, being The Velvet Underground's primary songwriter, kept the band, whether intentionally or not, somewhat grounded in recognizable pop song structures even if they did have a strict "no blues" policy. Cale, as the band's other creative force who, musically, was far more experimental and technically proficient, functioned like a foil to Reed's singer-songwriter approach. This set up a tense intra-band dynamic that was responsible for both their unparalleled sound on the first two albums and, at least to some degree, Cale's exit from The Velvet Underground in fall 1968.

Lou Reed in the Mid-Seventies
Cale's dismissal from The Velvet Underground has been cloaked in mystery for decades, as all parties concerned have steadfastly refused to reveal any particulars about what actually took place; however, a close friend of Robert Quine, Reed's guitarist during much of the eighties, has offered some insight: "Lou told Quine that the reason why he had to get rid of Cale in the band was that Cale's ideas were just too out there [....] Cale had some wacky ideas. He wanted to record the next album with the amplifiers underwater, and [Lou] just couldn't have it. He was trying to make the band more accessible." One of the unfortunate effects of Reed's decision was that for nearly two decades, he and Cale had very little contact, with the 1972 Bataclan concert with Nico as the only notable exception. It wasn't until the untimely deaths of both Warhol and Nico in the late eighties that Reed and Cale renewed their working relationship. It was the artist Julian Schnabel who first suggested that Cale should do some kind of requiem for his former mentor Warhol. In fact, Cale was hard at work on an all-instrumental composition dedicated to Warhol when he and Reed crossed paths again in 1988 and decided to set about working on a Warhol-related project called Songs for Drella, "Drella" (a contraction of Dracula and Cinderella) being a nickname given to Warhol in the mid-sixties by Factory regular Ondine (actor Robert Olivo).

Warhol and his band of Velvets
John Cale in 1989: "When we started playing together last May, it began as just the two of us having fun throwing ideas around [....] Gradually it turned into songwriting. It was a great opportunity to pick up the threads of The Velvet Underground and draw our original ideas about arrangements and subject matter to a conclusion. Obviously we're bringing a lot of baggage to the project, but we are doing it with a lot of love. Andy was an incredibly generous spirit." Lou Reed: "We tape everything we do [...] Musically, we begin with simple chord progressions to which John adds his Welsh riffs. The lyrics are a reflection of everything we talk about. Each of us has a notebook filled with ideas. I'm the official typist." What resulted from this collaboration was a multi-perspective song-cycle exploring many of the events and inter-personal relationships that defined Warhol's life. After playing several unadorned live shows under the title, Songs for Drella: A Work in Progress, the pair entered the studio to record the album, a process that by all accounts revived old animosities and creative tensions, leading Cale to vow that he would never work with Reed again (although he would soon renege on this claim when the original version of The Velvets would briefly reform in 1993).

Upon its release, Songs for Drella was met with a series of tepid critical reviews, most expressing disappointment that the album didn't sound more like The Velvet Underground, but such expectations were missing the point: on Songs for Drella, the narrative takes center stage, while the spartan arrangements, comprised of guitar, piano, keyboards, viola, & vox, though largely modest and unobtrusive, add greatly to the considerable emotional power of the songs, which is one of the reasons that, in the twenty years since its release, the album has come to be considered one the best post-Velvet Underground recordings by either Reed or Cale. One reason for this is that there is an intensely personal feel to many of the songs, something that helps the album, even though it is subtitled A Fiction, avoid any trace of romanticization or idealization in reference to Warhol despite the, at times, theatrical approach, a prime example of which is the opening song, "Smalltown," an ironically bouncy stage number that touches on the origins of Warhol's prodigious sense of ambition. Lou Reed: "'Small Town,' the first number, seemed the way to ease into the show, because we thought, 'people are bringing a lot of notions to this show before we ever play a note. How can we get their toes in the water without smacking them over the head, and before we let the electric instruments go as far as they're going to go?' It seemed like that little cabaret number was the thing that answered that. I think it disarms you a bit; it's not what anyone expected." One of the most beautiful and affecting moments in the song-cycle is "Open House," which features Reed describing, from Warhol's perspective, the bitter loneliness of the artist's early days in NYC before he had made his indelible mark on the New York art scene, a narrative for which Reed's wryly vulnerable, understated vocals are perfectly suited. On Cale's songs, his stately vocal-style tends to portray Warhol, whether by design or accident, in a slightly more glamorous light; thus, when it came to one of the centerpieces of the album, "A Dream," a long spoken-word narrative based on Warhol's diaries, Reed and Cale fought bitterly over which narrative voice to use, Reed favoring the "warts and all" approach. Songs for Drella concludes with one of Reed's finest moments on tape, "Hello It's Me," a painfully honest confession of guilt, anger, and loss that not only reveals his deep admiration and complicated love for Warhol, but also reveals something about what has made Reed so special in his own right: "I really miss you, I really miss your mind. I haven't heard ideas like that in such a long, long time. I loved to watch you draw and watch you paint, but when I saw you last I turned away." Goodnight Andy.

Songs for Drella 
(Sire ~ 1990)

 1. Smalltown  (2:04)
 2. Open House  (4:18)
 3. Style It Takes  (2:54)
 4. Work  (2:38)
 5. Trouble with Classicists  (3:41)
 6. Starlight  (3:28)
 7. Faces and Names  (4:12)
 8. Images  (3:30)
 9. Slip Away (A Warning)  (3:05)
10. It Wasn't Me  (3:30)
11. I Believe  (3:18)
12. Nobody But You  (3:46)
13. A Dream  (6:33)
14. Forever Changed  (4:52)
15. Hello It's Me  (3:04)

Songs for Drella: Live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, 1989
(Warner Video ~ 1990 ~ Laser Disc Audio Rip)

 1. Smalltown  (2:17)
 2. Open House  (4:04)
 3. Style It Takes  (2:51)
 4. Work  (2:43)
 5. Trouble with Classicists  (3:43)
 6. Starlight  (3:25)
 7. Faces and Names  (4:21)
 8. Images  (3:14)
 9. Slip Away (A Warning)  (3:07)
10. It Wasn't Me  (3:26)
11. I Believe  (3:11)
12. Nobody But You  (3:33)
13. A Dream  (6:25)
14. Forever Changed  (5:13)
15. Hello It's Me  (2:52)

Songs for Drella: A Work in Progress, St Ann's Church, NYC, 1989
(Nerve ~ 1990 ~ Bootleg CD)

 1. Pittsburg (aka Smalltown)  (2:31)
 2. Open House  (4:15)
 3. Style It Takes  (3:20)
 4. Work  (3:19)
 5. Trouble with Classicists  (3:56)
 6. Starlight  (4:01)
 7. Faces and Names  (4:42)
 8. Images  (4:16)
 9. Slip Away  (3:35)
10. It wasn't Me  (3:42)
11. I Believe  (3:21)
12. Nobody But You  (4:03)
13. Forever Changed  (5:37)
14. Hello It's Me  (2:54)


  1. Nice post voixautre, i wasn't aware of the bootleg, thanks!
    "Style It Takes" is my favourite - just love Cale's voice on this one
    "This is a rock group called The Velvet Underground
    I show movies on them, do you like their sound?"

  2. bedlam, thanks. Yes, that is definitely one of my favorites too

  3. I am ashamed to say that I left Lou Reed by the late 70's. Thanks voixautre for the second chance.

  4. Very nice. I've never heard of either of these bootlegs. Thanks!

  5. Amazing review! Enjoyed reading it very much.

  6. scurfie, there are many post-seventies Reed gems. They will all appear in the series, so give them a try; I think you'll like many of them

  7. Revan0357, thank you! Such comments help keep me inspired. Much appreciated :)

  8. Brilliant, thanks so much for the live recordings. I've had the LP for >20 years and I still keep coming back to it. The album proper is, I think, my favourite thing from either of them in the last 30 years! That said Reed had a stellar run of form over three short years with this, New York and Magic and Loss.

  9. cakelunch, everything you said equally applies to me. I bought "Songs for Drella" when it was released and it has been a constant for me ever since. Reed did have a nice run i the late eighties-early nineties- I liked "Set the Twilight Reeling" as well though it's not as good as the albums you mentioned. Great comment, thanks!

  10. Have you got the new John Cale EP - Extra Playful

  11. No not yet but hunting, when I get it I will let you know

  12. Liz, I'll keep my eyes peeled as well :)

  13. hey well I found a low bit rate copy of Extra Playful will do until I find better :)


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