“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.