Lou Reed, John Cale put aside differences to record 1990 tribute album ‘Songs for Drella’
The Velvet Underground was a band of sonic pioneers that emerged from the New York underground scene in the mid-1960s. Featuring Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison, the group provided the city’s disenfranchised masses with a stark, vibrant and drug-fueled new sound to match the cultural transformation occurring during that era.
The band, fronted by Reed but musically informed by Cale, was responsible for such classics as “Sweet Jane,” “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Much to his chagrin, Cale was viewed by the public as a sideman, which led to constant feuding between he and Reed and ultimately resulted in him leaving the fold in 1968.
The Velvet Underground never would have existed, though, without its producer, avant-garde artist and pop-culture icon Andy Warhol. Undeniably one of the most notable social outcasts in modern history, Warhol dabbled in several artistic mediums. His work would go on to influence the nascent glam-rock movement of the early ‘70s that was embodied by the likes of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and the New York Dolls.
Reed and Cale’s breakup was bitter, and neither had too many good things to say about one another. But both harbored a strong admiration for Warhol, who died unexpectedly and tragically after undergoing routine surgery in 1987. After years of silence, Reed and Cale forged a reconciliation of sorts after Warhol’s passing before reuniting in 1990 to memorialize their fallen mentor with “Songs for Drella.” According to the collaborators-turned-adversaries, the album is a fictitious tale recounting Warhol’s flamboyant life. The title is a nod to the artist’s nickname, an amalgam of Dracula and Cinderella.
The two musicians alternate tunes, and the resulting 15-track collection is nothing short of an absolute masterpiece. At the time of its recording, Cale had remained largely out of the limelight, but Reed was riding a crest thanks in large part to his 1989 release, “New York,” a concept album that explored the dark underbelly of his hometown. Cale, meanwhile, that same year had released the cerebral “Words for the Dying,” a mainly spoken-word performance piece written in response to the Falklands War. Influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the LP was recorded in 1982 when the conflict was still fresh but was shelved for nearly a decade.
“Songs for Drella” begins with “Smalltown,” in which Reed chronicles Warhol’s childhood and teenage years. Over the course of the next 14 songs and a runtime approaching an hour, listeners are taken on a journey through Warhol’s life: through his rise to fame, his troubled years and finally his death. The album ends with “Hello it’s Me,” in which Reed and Cale both sing their final goodbyes to Warhol. While Reed was responsible for writing most of the songs, Cale’s contributions, particularly “Style it Takes and “A Dream,” are simply superb.
At times on the album, Reed and Cale sing from the perspective of the honoree; on other occasions, they provide third-person insights into the complicated subject of the recording. While the reconciliation proved to be short-lived, the partnership resulted in this indelible and moving posthumous paean to an art-world legend. The Velvet Underground would come together for a one-off live album in 1993, approximately two years before Morrison’s death, but Tucker’s embrace of extreme right-wing politics in the mid-aughts likely put a kibosh on any future re-gatherings well before Reed’s death in 2013.
While “Songs for Drella” may be a hard find, it’s a must-have record for any die-hard fan of Reed, Cale or The Velvet Underground, as the performers were at their absolute bests. On a sad final note, the album marked a particularly dark period for Reed, who would release “Magic and Loss” a short time later after the deaths of two additional friends.