Monday, April 25, 2022

‘Songs For Drella’: Lou Reed and John Cale’s concert film is an unexpected gift

Riven with frictions and bad blood, the main players of a legendary and influential 1960s rock act sit down facing each other in an on-camera, quasi-studio environment and play their goddamn hearts out until an album appears. Sound familiar? In some ways Songs For Drella – the live concert film of Lou Reed and John Cale’s tribute album to Andy Warhol, long-believed lost and now streaming on MUBI – is like The Velvet Underground’s Get Back. In others it’s far, far more than that.

When the film was first televised in 1990, to this young viewer it was a dark revelation. No other live music performances were this funereal and this furious. Eschewing all showmanship, Reed and Cale faced off over guitar, viola and piano on a pitch-black set. Occasionally backdropped by mournful monochrome photographs from the ‘60s, the weight and dignity of the piece was unlike anything we’d ever seen, even in our teen goth phase. And the surgical insight, cold emotion and brutal honesty the two poured out over the course of its 55 minutes opened a window onto the New York art world of the ’60s. It made the myth feel human – and pop art deeply personal.

It’s a hell of a life story too, all the more fascinating to modern audiences for the additional 30-year remove. Directed by Ed Lachman, Songs For Drella begins Warhol’s journey by inhabiting his outcast youth in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “I hate being odd in a small town, if they stare let them stare in New York City,” goes the faux-jaunty ‘Small Town’, Reed describing Andy as a “pink eyed painting albino” with “bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty”. “My father worked in construction,” Reed deadpans, “it’s not something for which I am suited/Oh, what is something for which you are suited?/Getting out of here”.

As a commercial artist for Glamour magazine in Manhattan in the 1940s, the hospitable nature of his Austro-Hungarian family make him a natural art scene fulcrum in the beautifully brooding ‘Open House’ and his rise through art circles with his Brillo box paintings and movies of street “superstars” projected onto The Velvet Underground is documented in Cale’s ‘Style It Takes’, a sublime portrait of Factory life. This much we knew already; what really draws us in are the personal and artistic glimpses behind a long-guarded arthouse façade. With Cale’s brutalist classic piano clashing with Reed’s firebrand guitar, ‘Trouble With Classicists’ outlines Warhol’s creative mindset (“I think sometimes it hurts you when you’re afraid to be called a fool”), while the raw-boned ‘Work’ details Lou firing Andy as The Velvets manager in ferocious manner, as if the blood is still hot in 1990, three years after Warhol’s death.

The show grows even more engrossing and open-hearted as it goes on. ‘It Wasn’t Me’ finds Andy rebutting accusations that he was somehow responsible for the overdoses and deaths of key factory figures – Edie Sedgewick, Andrea Whips, Jeremy Dixon. There’s real fury to ‘I Believe’, Reed’s retelling of Warhol’s shooting at the hands of paranoid schizophrenic Valeria Solanas in 1968: “I believe being sick is no excuse and I believe I would’ve pulled the switch on her myself”. And there can be few more moving endings to an album or concert than that of ‘Songs For Drella’.

Amid the hypnagogic chimes and clangs of ‘A Dream’, John Cale takes us inside the mind of a lonely, fading Warhol, bereft of new ideas and shunned by old, successful Factory friends. At one point the spotlight falls at Reed’s own failings in Andy’s later years: “Lou Reed got married and didn’t invite me… I hate Lou, I really do, he won’t even hire us for his videos, and I was so proud of him”. It sets up Reed’s belated reply, ‘Hello It’s Me’, one of the most tear-jerking pieces of music ever recorded, laying out everything Lou wished he’d have said to Andy before he died: “Andy, it’s me, haven’t seen you in a while/I wish I’d talked to you more when you were alive”.

It’s a public eulogy, drenched in grief and regret: that Lou misread Andy’s shyness for self-assurance, regretted ignoring him at the 1984 MTV Awards, and allowed age-old misunderstandings to fester into animosity (“When Billy Name was sick… you asked me for some speed, I thought it was for you”). Reed’s outpouring is unfathomably personal, but the closing sentiment will touch anyone who’s ever suffered loss – “I wish someway, somehow, you like this little show/I know this is late in coming, but it’s the only way I know”.

If the emotion of the show wasn’t enough to make ‘Songs For Drella’ one of this writer’s favourite albums overnight, the bewitching subtext of its performance sealed the deal. Having met after years of estrangement at Warhol’s funeral, here were two rock legends putting aside years of resentment to write a memorial piece, and the tangible tension only added to the taut brilliance of the concert. At one point they almost – almost – smile at each other, then think better of it. There are unspoken decades in that moment, every bit as historic as George Harrison telling his bandmates “I’ll see you round the clubs”.

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