Songs for Drella (1990, dir. Ed Lachman)

52-week film challenge, film 17

It’s a concert movie, but it’s not a concert movie. There’s no audience, no applause, no between-song banter. It’s two hugely influential musicians who were once in a band together reuniting to pay tribute to the man who helped them launch their careers: Andy Warhol. It’s a requiem and remembrance, entirely in song.

Cale, whose music I have enjoyed enormously, had a complicated relationship with Warhol, while Reed’s feelings

after Warhol’s unexpected death seemed to turn to a softer, more sympathetic side. Reed and Cale themselves, as the songwriting half of the Velvet Underground, also had a complicated relationship, but decided to work together on a song-cycle about Warhol for an album project, which became Songs for Drella. Both men were apparently caught off-guard by Warhol’s sudden death in 1987, and met up at the funeral and spoke to each other for the first time in years. From the suggestion of a mutual friend, they decided to write songs about their memories and perspectives on Warhol.

Some of the songs are based on their own memories and perspectives on Warhol, some are based on direct quotes or recollections from Warhol (either witnessed or drawn from his diary), and some are third-person narratives. As someone who grew up during Warhol’s biggest period of influence and art-world exposure, each and every song provides some fascinating insight.

The film, directed by Edward Lachman, is stark: a simple stage, some visuals on the screen above them, their instruments and microphones. There’s no audience, and it’s mostly harsh cuts between songs.

Lou sits for the whole thing, while Cale stands. Cale stares at Lou nearly continuously when he isn’t himself singing — sometimes quite sinisterly, always very intently — while Lou mostly looks at Cale near the end of songs to signal when to stop. There were public performance prior to the filming, but only a handful.

Following the filmed performance, Cale and Reed worked on the material further, and eventually recorded the album, which came out the following year. Most of the material is by Reed, but Cale’s contributions are, with one exception, my favourites: wistful and delicate, featuring clever piano and synth (complemented nicely by Reed’s guitar), sung in Cale’s trademark artfully-detached style.

Likewise, Reed’s songs are seriously enhanced by Cale’s stalwart keyboard and viola sophistication. Which is not to say Reed’s songs are weaker; they are performed in his own spoken/sung New York street poet style, full of emotion and observation, and he varies up the guitar work and structure of the numbers very nicely.

“Work” is by far my favourite Reed song from the project, and tells the tale of how Warhol pushed Reed to work hard to become a musical success. While Warhol himself fostered a public perception of kind of floating through the “scenes” and “happenings” he fostered, he was in fact a remarkably productive filmmaker, painter, and talent Svengali. We would likely not know of Reed and Cale (and may others) without him.

It’s fascinating watching both men express their complex feelings about “Drella” (the nickname a contraction of Cinderella and Dracula, which should kind of say it all) through their songwriting and style. That said, I’ll admit that I still think the best song about Warhol is Bowie’s whimsical tribute on Hunky Dory, simply named after the man himself.

If you have any interest in Warhol, or how he affected and helped shape these two deeply important but very different musical artists, you should absolutely watch this filmed performance. These two guys were the leaders of one of the most influential bands in the history of rock, came back together to pay tribute to their mentor, after which they vowed never to work together again.

However, they did anyway. In a great metaphor for their own complicated relationship, they did a one-off live show with songs from the Drella album, and then encored with their old VU bandmates Moe Tucker and Sterling Holloway on the song “Heroin.” This lead to a brief VU reunion, after which Cale and Reed vowed never to work together again (again). So far, this time, they’ve stuck to that vow.

“Low” at 45

Guest post by Tony Visconti:

It’s anniversary time for David Bowie’s Low album. I’ve commented on it before, but certain elements of it are worth repeating.

For me it started with a phone call from Switzerland, where David was living at the time. He said that he and Brian Eno were working on a certain concept for a radically new album idea (and it was about time somebody did that). He briefly described the minimalist approach and plans for instrumental tracks, a first for him, but relying heavily on Brian’s great sonic landscape compositions. He asked me to join them in the ‘Honky Chateau’ in the outskirts of Paris, France, and cautioned that as it was experimental I might be wasting a month of my life for nothing.

I replied that spending a month of my life with you and Eno was worth it!!!

We sequestered ourselves for the first two weeks. I ended up not shaving or wearing shoes as my life consisted of dining room three times a day and studio most of the day, then the ‘haunted’ bedroom at night (but that’s another story).

Amazingly all of the tracking was done in two weeks, first with the band of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. In the second week Brian and David laid down the bed of the ‘ambient music’ tracks. My new fangled Eventide Harmonizer 910 had a lot to do with the sonic nature of the tracks, not only the snare drum sound, but in the instrumental compositions too. David and I spent two more weeks with the overdubbing and mixing.

On the day of the final mix David asked for a cassette of all the mixes. He had quite a lot to drink. When I handed the cassette to him he waved it in the air and exclaimed, “We have an album,” considering we were never sure we did have an album until the final days of mixing.

David left the control room very excited, but we quickly heard a rumbling sound immediately afterwards and ran to the staircase. David had fallen down and was lying at the bottom in pain, but holding the cassette over his head. He was fine the next morning.

We never wavered from the decisions to make the album as radical as it sounded, even though critics panned it for the most part. Okay, so it wasn’t Ziggy Stardust II, but the influence it had on musicians, to open up more, gave birth to new genres and Pop music as an Art form.