Thursday, 13 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 83 Songs for Drella

Top 102 Albums. No 83
Songs for Drella - Lou Reed & John Cale

Over on Cathedrals of Sound the selection at No. 84 was Grant McLennan's Horsebreaker Star, an excellent album. Following a trail from it I've been listening to it, then others by McLennan and his on/off songwriting partner Robert Forster. I remember the trepidation when buying the first solo album after The Go-Betweens split. Then I followed the trail to albums by Husker Du's Grant Hart and Bob Mould and then spent a long time listening to John Cale albums before I thought of this and for some reason this spoke to me and said "I'm today's choice." In a tone not to be argued with (I started this post yesterday but something disagreed with my stomach and I had to take to bed. Seems sort of appropriate as this album was made between disagreements.)

It was going to take something exceptional to bring Lou and John back together. The two albums they made together as The Velvet Underground in the late sixties have a claim on being the most influential in rock history. But they had not been friends after Cale left. It took the death of their mentor Andy Warhol to get them back together. The whole process of making this album was fractured and ended by both saying they hated each other and would never work together again. But they did in fact play some gigs as the Velvets after this.  It's clearly a hard itch not to scratch, having been in a group as influential and extraordinary as the Velvets. ( I just realised that The Smiths have been apart for 25 years, the same time as there was between White Light, White Heat and The Velvets reunion tour. Age.)

Excitement and trepidation co-wrote my expectations for this album but I need not have worried. There is a lot of restraint but it manages to be extraordinarily moving. Cale and Reed are paying hommage to their mentor Andy Warhol in what is a funeral oratorio of sorts, for Andy and for their own youth. The stiffness is part of the emotional journey, as after death there are disappointments and guilt  and other uneasy emotions to digest, even "resentments that can never be unmade". It is also quite a fearless album, even if it steps carefully. Here's the first verse of Reed's powerful Hello It's Me.

"Andy it's me, haven't seen you in a while
I wished I talked to you more when you were alive
I thought you were self-assured when you acted shy
Hello it's me
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."

Cale and Reed speak largely in imagined voices of Andy and layer by layer build a picture of the artist, the inspiration, the socialite, the vulnerable dying man. Barring Images the songs do not draw too much on the Velvets legacy but there is certainly a frisson to the music on Images, reminiscent of European Son, which was Reed's tribute to an earlier mentor Delmore Schwartz.

The key song on this, for me is The Dream, narrated rather than sung by Cale (just like The Gift, and like The Gift it ends in death).   Drawing on Warhol's Diaries Cale introduces both himself and Lou through the eyes of an ageing Warhol. He even gets to say "You know I hate Lou / I really do." I'll let the last verse speak for itself:

"I was so scared today
There was blood leaking thought my shirt
from those old scars from being shot
And the corset I wear to keep my insides in was hurting
And I did three sets of fifteen pushups
and four sets of ten setups
But then my insides hurt
and I saw drops of blood on my shirt and I remember
the doctors saying I was dead
And then later they had to take blood out of my hand
'couse they ran out or veins
but then
all this thinking was making me an old grouch
and you can't do anything anyway so
if they wouldn't let me play with them in my own dream
I was just going to have to make another
and another
and another
Gee, wouldn't it be funny if I died in this dream
before I could make another one up

And nobody called

And nobody came"


  1. It is a potent album; have not listened to it in an age.
    I recently watched Woody Allen's latest 'Midnight in Paris' where the main character walks back into the past to experience what he regarded as the golden era, Paris in the 1920s. He gets to meet the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso; the girl he falls in love with there takes him back to her 'belle epoch' Paris in the 1890's where they meet Degas, Monet etc. I guess the point made was that we always yearn for a brighter time; people living in that time do likewise but their seat in the train is always the one looking backwards. I had a crazy dream after that which involved The Beatles, Dylan and The Velvets all ranting about things being better before. It brought me to no conclusion other than to have me listening to Cale's 1929 over the weekend and thinking of the Velvets; how I needed to invest more time in Reed and Cale's past; so this is a perfect reminder...
    Meanwhile, back in the future the coffee pot beckons...

    1. There I am, pogoing at the Roxy; sharing a joint with John Lydon; listening to some righteous dub 'n' reggae spun by Don Letts; breaking a glass on the table as Wire kickstart their angular angst, laughing at the part time punks with Dan Treacy. Ah yes, the past we never had, how attractive it is.

    2. I can see you and you look... great!
      Like you're having the time of your life.

  2. Hi Seamus - this is on my list too for all the reasons you mention (and the fact I'm a bit of a sucker for a concept lp) They also presented the lp live at I think a church somewhere (maybe NY) - if you've not seen it, try and track it down it is a magical bit of film. i think my love of the lp is helped by the fact that I'd read the Warhol diaries so i could play join the dots in my mind. i'd never been a Velvet Underground fan veing born in 67 1980 was my year zero (apart from Bowie)and unlike other earlier bands that didnt change as i got older but this lp got me onto John Cale's work and a little bit of Lou Reed's (even then the only Lou Reed lp i own is from the late 80s - New York)

    I think the clincher for me the fact that the lp is so honest in that it shows relationships for what they are , complex, messy often confusing affairs.

    1. Another refugee from the Summer of Love. Yes, it's the honesty that makes this so compelling, especially given the tensions between the creators.
      If nothing else, you should get Berlin from Reed's back catalogue. It will be appearing later in my list. A magnificent album, if harrowing.
      I pretty much started the musical journey I care to remember with Bowie (although there were borrowings from my elders - -Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, The Dubliners etc before that) I can still remember Starman on Top of the Pops. (We had Five Years)
      I picked up on The Velvets through Bowie and some cooler friends when I was 17 and thought they were the be all for a while. I relegated Bowie to pretender status. He never regained messiah status as gradually I learnt there are no messiahs. But there are plenty of prophets / shamen and Bowie and Reed and Cale are amoung them.

  3. last good album by reed ,channel four showed this when it came out great stuff ,all the best stu

  4. My wife had just finished reading Warhol's journals when I found this gem in a used CD shop. I later found the video of it which is also amazing. The Dream seems to be inspired by the journals. We used to make a three hour drive to Chattanooga, TN, when my inlaws were ailing. This one often found its way into the car CD player. For me it ranks right up there with another Lou Reed autobiographical CD, Magic and Loss.
    Clarksville, TN

    1. Thanks for commenting, Stuart. I must give Magic and Loss another spin. I've never returned to it since I bought it. Death and loss don't get aired in such an open and real way often enough.