“I’m sorry if I doubted your good heart / Things always seem to end before they start.” A ruefully apologetic Lou Reed sings these words to the recently deceased Andy Warhol during “Hello It’s Me,” the final track of Songs for Drella, Reed and John Cale’s song cycle created in tribute to their former collaborator and mentor Warhol. This song also accompanies the emotional final moments of director/cinematographer Ed Lachman’s 1990 concert film, which shares the title of the piece that it documents. Originally shot for British television and assembled from two days of rehearsals and one live performance night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1989, Songs for Drella represents a perfect union of music, performance, and visuals, emphasizing the stripped-down, elemental qualities of the piece. Lachman’s elimination of the presence of an onscreen audience enhances the film’s intimate feel, its close-ups beautifully conveying the deep, fractious history between Reed and Cale, which comes through in their glances at each other as they perform their material.
The Songs for Drella album cover is a portrait of Reed and Cale, with the ghostly presence of Andy Warhol hovering behind them. Appropriately, Warhol is an unseen third participant alongside the corporeal performers in the film, who sing and play their instruments onstage in a dark void, with just a screen projecting images above their heads. As much as the music stylistically recalls Reed and Cale’s work as bandmates in The Velvet Underground, Lachman’s images recall Warhol’s films, which often consisted of simple, minimal set-ups depicting mundane human activities such as eating, sleeping, and kissing. “Style It Takes,” sung by Cale, lyrically charts the intersection between Warhol’s art, his films, and the music of the Velvet Underground: “This is a rock group called The Velvet Underground / I show movies on them, do you like their sound? / Cause they have a style that grates / And I have art to make.” The song concludes with Cale repeating, “You’ve got the style it takes,” while Reed chants titles of Warhol’s films: Kiss, Eat, Couch.
The seeds for Songs for Drella were planted shortly after Warhol’s death in 1987, when Reed and Cale met at Warhol’s funeral, not having performed together or barely even spoken with one another since Cale’s 1968 departure from the Velvet Underground. Soon afterward, they began discussing the possibility of performing together again on a set of songs dedicated to Warhol. The work that resulted was an often affectionate homage, relating stories of Warhol’s life chronologically, covering his escape from his stultifying Pittsburgh origins to the much more accepting environment of New York City, his development as an artist and the creative exploits of his Factory, his shooting by Valerie Solanas, and finally his death following gallbladder surgery. However, this was no sentimental, hagiographic portrait, as evidenced by the title itself: “Drella,” a nickname for Warhol coined by his “superstar” Ondine, was a contraction of Dracula and Cinderella, reflecting Warhol’s perceived dual nature, as a magnetic, attractive personality who lived voyeuristically through others and used others in vampiric fashion. Warhol reportedly did not like this nickname, which gives the title of this homage a very barbed edge; accordingly, Reed and Cale are very open in these songs about their complicated and thorny relationship with Warhol.
Songs for Drella is aesthetically a deeply satisfying experience, the starkly minimalistic music — the only instrumentation is Reed’s guitar and Cale’s keyboards and electric viola — forming an ideal marriage with Lachman’s elemental yet unerringly precise camerawork. In “Images,” Lou Reed sings, “I love multiplicity of screenings / Things born anew display new meanings / I think images are worth repeating and repeating and repeating.” And now that Reed, Cale, and Lachman’s classic work has been born anew with a fantastic 4K restoration, one hopes that Lachman’s wonderful images can be endlessly repeated for appreciative audiences.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.