No Stars in the New York Sky: Songs For Drella

“Are we not men?”

Whether your first association is The Island of Doctor Moreau or “We are Devo,” this simple sentence can be enough to make you shudder if you look closely enough. The to-be verb, thought by English teachers to be weak, instead strengthens and simplifies the negative question. Although the statement would be far more gender-neutral if it were instead, for instance, “are we not people?” the idea is what matters. What makes a person a person? Where does humanity end and everything else begin?

Is celebrity human? Arguably, it’s just another construct, as manufactured and unnatural as a plastic bag. Many of us simply cannot conceive of our idols as people, people who have dreams, fears, secrets, shame, and insecurities just like us groundlings. For some bizarre reason, we colloquially equate some celebrities with celestial objects.They are otherworldly to us, bright, distant, and completely unattainable.

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Personally, I don’t see the resemblance.

Maybe it is the otherworldliness of our icons that makes an honest, almost painfully vulnerable recording like Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs For Drella album equally moving and jarring. A collaboration between the two Velvet Underground veterans released in tribute to Andy Warhol three years after he died on February 22nd, 1987 (yes, 26 years ago today), this minimalistic character study of a record is enough to make you rethink the bitch of a persona that Reed especially has cultivated since his twenties. Cale and Reed’s lyrical study of Andy Warhol’s life and character (from what I understand, the album’s compositions were all collaborative) leaves its listeners with a changed view of the subject—Warhol—and also of the artists themselves.

The Velvet Underground with Nico and Andy Warhol in 1967.

The Velvet Underground with Nico and Andy Warhol

There is disturbingly palpable guilt throughout Songs for Drella. Bad blood between The Velvet Underground and Warhol, following their falling out in 1967, when Reed severed the band’s ties with the artist in order to take them in his own direction, was no secret. And in fact, on Drella, Reed acknowledges the many differences between Warhol and himself in the self-referential “Work,” a frantic track driven by Cale’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”-reminiscent piano, and then his own mistreatment of Warhol in the simple but devastatingly emotive closer, “Hello It’s Me.”

But Songs For Drella becomes far more than just a self-aware tribute album where Cale and Reed’s voices form Andy’s. The bulk of the album, delivered from Warhol’s perspective, forms an incredibly rounded, exquisitely flawed protagonist in Warhol. While historical details must always be taken with a grain of salt when interpreted artistically, the objective facts are less important than the character of Warhol that Reed and Cale have created.

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Songs For Drella, 1990

He has a backstory expressed in the Broadway-worthy leadoff “Small Town,” insecurities especially clear in “Open House” and “Slip Away (A Warning),” and even an unconscious, unforgettably fleshed out in Cale’s meditative spoken-word piece “A Dream.” Andy has a voice as distinctive as any film or book’s protagonist, and by the album’s conclusion, we feel that on some level, we know him. We root for him despite his clear flaws, and as a result, we are at the very least fooled into believing we understand him. Warhol’s obsessions with fame and attention are not presented as smear– they form an undertone of constant unfulfillment, well-disguised, painful loneliness beneath Warhol’s industrious creative brilliance.

The music of Songs For Drella is just as exceptional as its lyrics, minimalistic, chilled, and expressive. Entirely without a drummer, Reed and Cale fashion a spacious, eerie sound with few instruments and simple arrangements.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

I would be personally curious as to what someone unfamiliar with Warhol and the VU story would think of this album. The truth is, my admiration and knowledge of both the artist’s and the band’s bodies of work could well have influenced my assessment of it. But for someone who is a fan of the musicians, the artist, or both, Songs For Drella provides a more vulnerable, human perspective than you are likely to find elsewhere.

Reed and Cale’s tribute to Andy Warhol plucks down Warhol the star to prove to  their audience that he has a face and a past. The historical details are unimportant. What matters is that Reed and Cale have erased the distance between us and the cosmos in order to make Andy Warhol real again.

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Music Must Change: The Who’s “Who Are You”

With all of the attention that has been given to The Who’s Quadrophenia album in the last year or so, it is obvious that modern Who fans need to latch on to some other cultish classic of their career to wave in the faces of the Unenlightened. My suggestion is that the ever-underestimated Who Are You should be the next Who album that fans and music magazines alike rediscover.

The Who Are You album was cursed by what many consider among the greatest losses of rock and roll: released August 18th, 1978, it preceded the death of drummer Keith Moon on September 7th from the lethal combination of a sedative overdose and alcohol by mere weeks. While most conceded that Moon had not been in top form for years, that did not change the fact that with his death at age 32, the band had lost an icon, an immense talent, and a well-known public face. In addition, guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle were somewhat distracted during the recording of the album, both working on solo material of their own.

Although the album had achieved charts positions of #2 and #6 (in the U.S. and U.K. respectively), it was immediately overshadowed by the band’s new headline, and unfortunately, it appears to have largely faded from public memory with the exception of its title track. In their career, The Who have played fewer than half of Who Are You‘s tracklist live.

However, if you are able to get past the album’s sometimes uncharacteristic synth-heavy sound and the enormous amount of drama that surrounded the album’s creation, you will discover an overlooked gem of the band’s career and of late 1970s music in general. The Who’s musicianship, as usual is exceptional, and even though it is clear that Moon was struggling, the perfect alchemy between the band remains intact on this, The Who’s final LP in their classic lineup. This album reunites the group with producer Glyn Johns, who previously worked with them on their 1971 classic Who’s Next. 

However, the casual Who fan should be warned that these are not the same sounds s/he heard before– while Who Are You is undoubtedly different than the the band’s previous albums, Townshend’s brutally honest, bleak views of his society heading full-throttle into our modern era (and Entwistle’s, as he never had as large a songwriting presence on a Who album as he did on this one) come through in some of the most powerful songs of his career.Even just comparing the incisive but somewhat lighthearted “905” with the melancholy desperation of “Love Is Coming Down,” which concerns an individual trying over and over again to commit suicide, we see an incredible range of emotion.  And that is not to say that Townshend’s characteristic bitterness is not still present in the lyrics of the album as well– it is, in abundance.

The Who in May 1978

Just as many of us today speculate about what possible direction modern music could be heading, Townshend speculates too on the direction of music from the late 1970s. From the crisp, synth-driven “Sister Disco” (which half-mourns disco, and half-celebrates its demise) to the strange lyrics and turns of “Music Must Change,” many of Townshend’s lyrics on Who Are You surpass simply accounting his anger at the changing times, and head into a more subtler realm that also encompasses his bewilderment as to where society is going, and what will be rendered obsolete in its next metamorphosis. Townshend’s own fear of becoming obsolete and forgotten is tangible on most of the album’s tracks, and Daltrey’s vocals, at perhaps their strongest and most expressive, not only carry out, but heighten his desperation.

Interestingly, by the time Who Are You was released, Daltrey’s role in the band had changed significantly from what it had been early on. Until 1974’s Who By Numbers album, Pete Townshend was mainly concerned with writing specifically Who songs, but after it and the release of his first solo album (ironically titled Who Came First), he was more concerned with writing Pete Townshend songs. By 1978, Daltrey was not interpreting the same kind of material Townshend had written before– instead, he was doing something much more complex. Some even maintain that Townshend was no longer truly writing for Daltrey, and although that might be true, Daltrey’s interpretations are no less powerful– perhaps, they are even more so.

When The Who recorded Who Are You, the massive supply of songs that Townshend had originally written for the band’s ill-fated Lifehouse project was not yet exhausted. Thus, some songs, including “Music Must Change” and leadoff track “New Song” were remnants of the intended magnum opus that Townshend himself called “a disaster,” doomed to fail because supposedly, no one else could understand it. Dealing with dystopian themes, it is impossible to say whether Townshend knew how much of what he was talking about in Lifehouse (whatever he was talking about in Lifehouse) would still be on the table forty years later.

Keith Moon
1946-1978

To say that Who Are You is still relevant is an understatement, for it is not only still relevant, but it perhaps more relevant than it has ever been. It is an unmistakably modern album, and while it is admittedly bleak, it is also heroic in its utter frustration, honesty, and intensity.

In 2012, we are once again wondering where we are going, and what will remain once we get there. The optimists among us believe we are on the precipice of a new creative revolution while the more cynical of us consider popular music as a whole to be irrevocably damaged, but no matter what the future may bring, many agree that music today is suffering a serious creative slump. Like thousands before us, we are all asking what could possibly be next– and when it will finally surface.

Who Are You may very well be among the least examined and analyzed of The Who’s albums, but as of now, it has shown to be among the most prophetic. Whether or not the dystopia we live in is literal, there is no question that Who Are You manages to capture the forced isolation of modern society as few albums ever have before. A fascinating mass of contradiction, the album manages to balance both the meditative and the visceral, the aggressive and the introverted, the meticulous and the wild, the synthetic and the powerfully organic.  Who Are You deserves another listen from our jaded 21st century ears, and in fact, it would do us a lot of good as well– as emotional and incisive an album as has ever been recorded, we could very well learn something, not only about the 1970s, and not only about The Who, but about our present day predicament, and how the desolation of today could lead to the artwork of tomorrow.

Led Zeppelin II

I’m incredibly fickle towards Led Zeppelin. I would be lying if I said that some of their songs don’t absolutely kill me, or that their musicianship as a whole isn’t some of the best rock n’ roll has ever seen, but in all honesty, I generally fall more on the side of Zeppelin listener than Zeppelin fan. This morning though, I realized that my rather complex opinion of the group can be summed up quite nicely just looking at their 1969 LP, Led Zeppelin II.

One plus: Led Zeppelin mastered a certain kind of rock song that was tricky and simple, balancing the riffy and virtuosic. Some of the best songs on this album, like “Ramble On” get much of their power from their turns– the flawless transitions from a mellow section into a percussive, riffy chorus that don’t break the motion of the song as a whole, staying cohesive while presenting a unique and nuanced song form. “What Is and What Should Never Be” is another great example of this. Out of a floaty verse with shimmering slide guitar and sublimely phased vocals rises a heavier, pumping chorus. In some ways, I suspect this is what I enjoy most about Zeppelin– something that truly did set them apart from other bands of the era, or since.

But then there are the blues songs. Between the so-called “Lemon Song,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Bring It On Home,” we can see some of the most egregious instances of Zeppelin stealing from the bluesmen they claimed to admire. We’ve heard all the stories about their nasty habit of lifting entire songs, nearly word for word– and we’re not talking about something as simple as the Smokestack Lightening riff– on this album alone, we’re talking about the backbones of songs– “I should’ve quit you, baby, long time ago,” and “I’m gonna bring it on home, bring it on home to you.” Even the first lines of “Whole Lotta Love” are paraphrased from Willie Dixon.

Now I haven’t tested this myself, but I would imagine that if you put a sample of people in a room, and played them a little bit of any of these songs, and proceeded to ask who wrote them, they would come up with the names Robert Plant and Jimmy Page a lot sooner than they would come up with Sonny Boy Williamson, Wille Dixon, or Howlin’ Wolf. Zeppelin were (and are) massive stars– their names are more recognizable, especially to the generation they were writing for, and the generations who followed them. But if they claim to be so influenced by these terrific musicians that have become somewhat obscured through the years, why not at least credit them for their own work? I’ve heard Plant and Page cite the tracks I’m talking about as “homage.” That word implies respect and reverence, and frankly, I don’t know if I see either of those in utter plagiarism. At least they got sued.

A third point– Zeppelin’s solos, which in my opinion can be used for good, or for excess in equal capacities. I will begin by saying that I have a large amount of patience for solos. I really do enjoy a solo that adds to a song instead of detracting from it. In my opinion, it is not as much about notes per second as it is about the way the solo fits into and enriches the song. Furthermore, I can say with some confidence that the solo break in “Heartbreaker” is an excellent example of how to make fragmented and sloppy solo stop a powerful driving rhythm dead in its tracks. The incredible momentum built in the song’s first half completely disperses with this forty-second guitar solo, which would not be nearly as annoying if it contained any fraction of the energy present in the rest of the song.

However, it is not as if I believe Zeppelin’s solos are all bad. For instance, “Moby Dick,” which does leave the structure of the song behind during its extensive Bonham drum solo, however, the solo in question does more to retain the song’s energy than Page’s does earlier in the album. Instead of relying on the residual build of the song, Bonham’s solo provides its own build. When the riff comes back at the end, we are led to it– it is not left to the listeners to find the song’s drive again on our own.

Probably my favorite element of Led Zeppelin II is the range of dynamics present within its forty-one minute running time. From the aggressive leadoff of “Whole Lotta Love” to the melty, euphoric “Thank You” (aided in part by bassist John Paul Jones’ delicate Hammond organ),  to the rhythmic intensity of “Moby Dick,” it is not an album that treads lightly, attacking not one, but many genres with vigor. Voted near the top of many a greatest album poll, Led Zeppelin II is clearly a worthwhile listen– not a perfect album, but nothing really is.