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.

Image

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.

discography_1990_songs-for-drella

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.

Advertisements

Arturo Vega Interview

“I feel almost a sense of duty– not of obligation, but of duty– to the fans just to reciprocate. Because without the fans, what are the bands? Nothing.”

Arturo Vega and the Ramones outside the loft in the 70s

Arturo Vega was never, at least to my knowledge, a member of a band, but considering the two decades he spent as the Ramones’ artistic director and guardian angel,  he has as much right to say that as anyone. Arturo was present at all but two of the pioneering punk rock band’s 2,263 shows, and to put that into perspective, that’s as many as their three primary drummers combined.*

From his loft apartment in the heart of the East Village, fortunately within crawling distance of CBGB, the Mexican-born artist managed to shape the image of the band that would eventually go on to inspire the first wave of Punk and the many who followed in its wake, selling merchandise, painting backdrops, and working as lighting director among other things. He even designed the band’s legendary Presidential seal logo, which is thought to be second best-selling band logo in history, right behind the Rolling Stones’.

Dee Dee Ramone wearing a shirt with Arturo’s legendary logo

But the great fame of Arturo’s logo– he is first to admit– has not been without cost. The phenomenally successful logo, which was inspired by Arturo’s belt buckle, has been ripped off in a multitude of contexts, both respectful and decidedly not. I asked Arturo just how it felt to have created such an iconic and oft-recognized image– was he proud of the way it has gained a life of its own, or annoyed that it might have  lost its original meaning? “It bothers me a lot. It also makes me a little proud…  One thing I really like about the fame of the logo is the way people have adopted it to express something very personal, not just for the pirates and the bootleggers. It became something you adopted; it became something you used for something you wanted to do. I find that flattering. I’ve seen a Christian t-shirt in Mexico; instead of Ramones, it says Romans. And the eagle– exact same font and everything– instead of the names, there’s a phrase from the Letter of St. Paul  to the Romans.”

Arturo told me of one particular day when he was standing outside of the Ramones museum in Germany, where he was confronted by several teenagers who believed the Ramones were an H&M brand. “There’s some betrayal… it just becomes fashion.” What’s more, the great fame of the logo has inspired much of Arturo’s recent work. “There’s a series of art I’ve been working on called ‘Fame Is A Disease,’ which also comes from that concept– the betrayal of art by culture.”

The CBGB exterior to be used in the movie,  Savannah, Georgia

T-shirt talk out of the way, I also asked Arturo what he thought of the upcoming biopic of CBGB founder Hilly Kristal, which is to trace the club’s beginnings as a birthplace of the first wave of Punk in New York City, and will include Alan Rickman, Joel David Moore, Malin Ackerman, Estelle Harris, and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters as well as a cameo appearance from Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome, who will also be portrayed by Rupert Grint. “I am excited because it seems like a quality production. I mean, they have top talent as actors– two guys from Harry Potter. And not only are they good actors, but they don’t come cheap. I’m sure the quality of the script must be good for these people to get involved.”

Arturo’s loft in 1975, in front of the very first Ramones backdrop. Loft and backdrop appear in some very early Ramones footage.

“As a matter of fact, I am meeting on July 1st with the guy who’s playing Dee Dee. We have some common friends and he kept asking people ‘when do I meet Arturo Vega, when do I meet Arturo Vega?’ so finally, we made the connection and we communicated… somehow, and I’m not sure exactly why, this really touches me. The Ramones as a band, as artists, mean a lot to me. Like Dee Dee said himself, ‘to Arty, the Ramones were art,’ but besides that, we were close, we were very very close. Particularly Dee Dee– I loved him, I still love him very much. So something moves me just about the possibility of someone portraying him in a serious movie. I want to make sure I can contribute in any possible way. I really want to meet this guy. I want to help him do the best job he can.”

“Nobody in movies, I think, cares much about accuracy. I’m sure there will be a degree ofexploitation about Dee Dee’s personality– after all, his personality lends itself to exploitation because of the things that were prevalent in Dee Dee’s life. The drugs, the sex, the rock and roll… Dee Dee has it all. But I think the project has very, very good possibilities.”

The logo, with the original lineup of the band and the original “Look Out Below” written on the flags

Arturo was amused when I informed him that I’d had to convince my father that the Ramones were older than he was. He gestured to one of his Ramones paintings behind him, with the band as they appeared around the start of their career. “People will always think of the Ramones like that. It’s part of the magic.”

And that is true. When I came into Arturo’s loft, the band’s 1984 album Too Tough To Die was blaring. While, sadly, this title has gained sobering irony since the record’s release (as of 2004, the entire core of the band has been dead), their music has not lost its steam. And through people like Arturo Vega, the Ramones’ staunch belief in giving back to the fans has outlived them as well.

*If you’d like to check my math, four drummers played with the Ramones– one of them, Clem Burke of Blondie, played with them for only two shows. That leaves the total of shows played by the other three, Tommy, Marky, and Richie, at 2,261. And that, my friends, is how many Ramones shows Arturo attended. You’re welcome.