It’s a hip trinity — Lou Reed, rock’s surest urban poet, joins former Velvet Underground band mate and maestro musician John Cale to exhume and examine Andy Warhol. A skeletal minimusical, Songs for Drella eulogizes the silver-wigged dreamer as a Cinderella who rocketed out of dreary Pittsburgh into the cool void of pop art, underground movies that documented the Zeitgeist and a vision that looked serenely at the commercial world’s alluring surfaces and gasped, “Wow.”
This isn’t a blockbuster like Reed’s New York or Cale’s Paris 1919, but it’s a shining, tense merger of visions. Reed’s edgy guitar, fullness of heart and clipped, journalistic poetry bring into sculptural relief Cale’s elegant keyboards and brainy lyricism. As their subject, Warhol is both immediate and mythic. The idea entrepreneur who produced the Velvets, he provokes an homage that’s romantic yet casual — and Cale and Reed pay their debt with an offhand pop epic.
“There’s no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh/ … /When you’re growing up in a small town/Bad skin, bad eyes — gay and fatty/People look at you funny,” Reed sings in “Smalltown,” encapsulating Warhol’s misfit nature. The Velvet Underground also traded on the furious pathos of those on the outside. When the Sixties turned utopian, Reed, Cale and the other Velvets remained dark, dangerous hipsters — voyeuristic, film noirish, disaffected. Countering the Love Decade, Warhol and the Velvets seem to have prevailed; their equal heeding of trash and beauty proved a prophecy of today’s post-modern cool.
Cale’s “Trouble With Classicists” honors the shocking newness of Warhol the painter, dishing surrealism and abstract expressionism in the lines “And surrealist memories are too amorphous and proud/While those downtown macho painters are just alcoholic.” “Your diaries are not a worthy epitaph,” Reed insists on “Hello It’s Me,” hoping to rescue Warhol from the celeb worship that trivialized Andy but that also helped ravage the lines between pop and high art.
Both nearing fifty, Reed and Cale are the survivors Warhol wasn’t fated to become. In popular music, only bluesmen and country greats have managed the maturity these two display. Fashioning a litany out of Warhol’s off-kilter pantheon — Edie Sedgwick, Billy Name and Valerie Solanis (whose attempted murder of Warhol prefigured the shooting of John Lennon) — Drella memorializes an era the way narrative folk music generally has done. Reed and Cale add rare intelligence to their nostalgia, but it’s on a more soulful level that Drella finally hits. The subtle values of modesty, hesitance and loving observation dignify this sweet and knowing tribute to these men’s mentor, prod — and friend.