LA Weekly, 4/90
by Greg Burk
Lou Reed is a funny guy, funny in a lot of great ways. He looks at you as if he's trying to figure out where a person like you would carry the concealed weapon. He carries something in his right hand so he won't have to greet with it; extends the left six inches upside down in a gesture halfway between pug and archbishop. He talks to you like a shop foreman explaining, real patient, how you don't leave your fingers there when the drill comes down. And without being offensive, at all. Really!
And he's funny in other ways, too. This is the guy who wrote "I Wanna Be Black," who used to tie off onstage in major mock of his druggie image, who fulfilled his RCA recording contract with a double album of screeling noise, saying he wanted to release it out of the classical-music division in an audiophile pressing. You can see him on MTV: in music videos, in motor-scooter commercials or (no kidding) reciting from Macbeth. He's acted in films, he's had goddamn Top 40 hits, for all we know he makes frozen sculptures out of toothpaste. No wonder he's pissed that everybody wants to hear about the Velvet Underground all the time.
Even so, the time has come when Reed doesn't mind digging into the past -- on his own terms, of course, the way he does everything. He has performed and recorded with John Cale for the first time in 20-plus years, which resulted in an album about Andy Warhol, Songs for Drella, and it's excellent.
"I think we touched base at the wake they had for Andy, at St. Patrick's. Someone had suggested to John that he write a Mass for Andy. Meantime, we had run into each other again and had started getting together at a small studio to play just for fun. Not for any record, just for fun. And then John had called me, he wanted an outside opinion about this thing he was writing, could it go this way, go that way, so I sat down with him, and while going over that, it turned into, hey, it would be interesting to write songs about Andy, and I had said, John, why don't you take this piece and divide it up, just for structure's sake -- I'm a big one on structure -- just to make it easier to look at, like, start at the beginning, boom, Pittsburgh. The next section, boom, he's in New York and wants to be a painter. Next section, starts making it as a painter, wants to be a filmmaker. Next section, okay, gets shot, changes, goes into high society, this or that, and dies. Boom. There. And this was just gonna be all instrumental. And then it turned into, oh, gee, why don't we do some songs, and it went on from there."
Oh, gee. And they didn't kill each other, even once. "As long as we're playing music, we're fine," Reed explains. It was probably a little more complicated than that. Reed, not the world's most sentimental dude, nevertheless had his butt kicked by Warhol's death. They hadn't communicated in years: "I have some resentments that can never be unmade," Reed says in the album's final imaginary posthumous phone call, "Hello It's Me." And he had snubbed Warhol when they last met in public. So then, it was too late. "I shouldn't have let it go that far. When someone dies, that's a pretty final thing," Reed understates. "I never expected that. I always thought, well, one of these days . . . but that opportunity was lost." Guilt popped up, and then memory, and the concept of getting together with an old partner didn't look so bad. And they ended up with something real, made for the reason that most good stuff is made: it wouldn't go away. That is, Andy went away, but the idea of him didn't.
"It's a humbling experience knowing a great man. It gives you goals and standards for yourself. I've always considered myself really lucky to have met anyone who is great at what they do, because it's very inspiring, so this record had to reflect that." The reflection comes at a certain distance, which is why Reed subtitled Songs for Drella "A Fiction." "I didn't want to be hemmed in by the idea that certain details were true. In other words, it's immaterial to me if it was 80th Street, or 14th Street, or 45th Street, any street will do. Any city will do. Those kinds of litte details didn't interest me. You should walk away from this thing having felt you met Andy Warhol."
Specific or not, you do get a feeling -- a good feeling, even -- that approaches what Reed intended. Drella is jammed like a cluttered mantelpiece with all kinds of details about the values Warhol got from his Czechoslovakian mother, about his pushy emphasis on the work ethic, about his cats, about his insecurity, about the kind of "nobodies" he chose to be close to. Yes, Reed often carries this too far and gets overliteral, uncomfortable speaking out of Warhol's mouth: "My skin's as pale as the outdoors moon," "I've got a Brillo box and I say it's art," "Movies with real people, what you get is what you see," "I think images are worth repeating." And then he'll come up with something as great as "I'm always staring at someone who hurts, and the one they hurt is me," or "You scared yourself with music, I scared myself with paint." And there's a long, dreamy piece called, uh, "The Dream," narrated by Cale, that sounds exactly like excerpts from Warhol's diaries (though it's a composed narration whose purpose is to paint a picture of Andy alone in his later days).
Even for those not interested in the names of Warhol's cats, there are a few attractions that might make Songs for Drella worth a couple of listens late at night with a glass of aromatic spirits. For one thing, the songs are as carefully crafted as all get-out. It wouldn't be quite right to call the music sensuous -- it's too spare for that -- but the way the instruments and voices balance is an artful reward in itself. And if you like either Reed or Cale at all, this is about the best example you'll find of the two guys' personalities saturating every minute. And, nostalgia aside, they bring out sides of each other that don't show up in their solo work. And, real-life pains in the ass though they probably are, they sound like they mean it, the way no Springsteen ever could.
A lot of this might make it sound as if Reed was the big boss and Cale was some kind of sideman -- and check out this weird statement from Cale in the liner notes: "I must say that although I think he did most of the work, he has allowed me to keep a position of dignity in the process." You mean he didn't kick you very often, John? But it's a real collaboration. There are no drums. Yup, none. "It was bliss to be relieved from the tyranny of the drum, rhapsodizes Reed. "It was wonderful not to have it there. You can hear so much better without it." This left Cale with responsibility for driving the thing. He has had plenty of practice pounding his piano like a railroad spike, and employed the experience in immediately identifiable fashion. He also pops a powerfully percussive bass here and there, in addition to sawing his viola with classic "Black Angel's Death Song" mania, and singing lead on some of the more melodic tunes. (Not that most of `em aren't hummable in one way or another, even though Reed these days is more narrator than singer. "I have a three-note range, so I have to work things out really carefully," he deadpans.)
The sound, by the way, is crystalline and intimate, a tribute to Reed's timegrown jones for studio things technical. Remember "binaural sound"? You should hear him expound on soundboards, tape, effects, DAT, etc. in the digital age. He snorts at being called a perfectionist, but just wait till something's a little . . . off. "My body -- I just feel terribly uncomfortable when anything doesn't sound right. I'm just sitting and I say, oowugh, and we've got to figure out what's making me do that. As long as it's like that, I just can't listen to the track -- now what's the point of putting it out?"
Fine, Lou, okay. Reed might have been spoiled in the early days by Pa Andy's laissez-faire attitude toward the Velvets. "He made it possible. He kept the other people from interfering in it and changing it. Because he was there, they let us kind of go our own way. If he hadn't been there, they probably would have been all over us to make it `right.' But just by virtue of Andy sitting there -- we'd say, `How was that?' And he'd say, `Ooh, that's great.' And as a producer, in fact, that's a great thing to have, the ability to say, `That's great the way it is,' and leave it alone. That's no small thing. People might say, he was just there, he didn't do anything. But by making that first album that way, it made every other album after it possible, because it was established as a real way it could exist. Prior to that, they didn't have stuff like that. I had already been around the studio quite a bit, writing for these budget record companies, and I knew what they could do if they ever got their hooks in us. That didn't happen because Andy was sitting there saying, `Oh, that's fantastic.' Home free. Unscathed. Not a real paw laid on the stuff."
Things are way different now, of course. You could have Gorby, Iacocca, Mandela and the Pope all in the studio saying, "That's great," and still no major record label would release "European Son" or "Sister Ray" today. In '67 he wanted rawness, recording in warehouses and such -- "In the old days, engineers would walk out" -- and now he wants "realness," which, believe it or not, is one of the hardest things to get in an artificial studio situation, and Reed is just the man to squat there and mess with it till it gets real. But he still sounds like a kid when he talks about the guitar.
"That's tube amps, by the way, that I'm using. That's a tube amp sound. You can hear the speaker really being pushed. I mean, that's a loud guitar. That's a really loud guitar. It's not going through a small speaker. That's loud. That is really, really pumping air. There's nothing like pumping air, as far as I'm concerned."
Reed even pumps out two or three crankin', melodic guitar solos, especially on "It Wasn't Me," wherein Andy/Lou absolves himself of blame for the wastedness of his Factory affiliates' lives.
Heavy axwork aside, no one's going to mistake this for metal. "Minimal" is the word, and the word is heard. "You couldn't make a record that's less a candidate for the Top 10," says Reed proudly. "I mean, I know that. The record company knows that."
This is a memorial to a dead friend from two guys who are actually capable of saying something, who can still feel. It's a project that wouldn't leave them alone, it seems, like some spook from Shakespeare. You have to figure, too, that they thought no one else could do it. Yeah, that's right.