Songs for Drella by Lou Reed and John Cale

Cover to Songs for Drella

Rock music provocateur Lou Reed passed away this week at age 71. Best known for his work with the proto-punk band The Velvet Underground, Reed supplied tough, gritty lyrics while John Cale offered up a dissonant musical journey unlike any heard at the time. Reed and Cale went on to make some transcendent solo albums as well, but my favorite collaboration of theirs will always be Songs For Drella.

Drella is a nickname for the Velvet's producer and mentor, Andy Warhol. The name is a combination of Dracula and Cinderella, and an apt description of the pop artist's demeanor, sometimes delicate, other times vicious. When Warhol passed away in 1987, Reed and Cale chose to reunite after twenty years of animosity in order to honor their friend.

Songs For Drella almost operates as a musical biography of Warhol's life. It starts with Reed's song "Smalltown," where young Andrew Warhola is tired of feeling like a weird-looking outcast in nowheresville. A jovial piano bounces to the words. 

"Where did Picasso come from? There's no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh. If art is the tip of the iceberg, I'm the part sinking below."

The piano part is especially catchy, and Reed hams up his vocals to sound more like a fawning Warhol. How this has not yet been adapted into a stage musical is anyone's guess.

Cale serves up a graceful masterpiece three songs in with a warm, resonant focus on Warhol's gift of promoting himself and others. "Style It Takes" carries admiration and nostalgia in every fiber of the song.

The two artists alternate throughout the album highlighting aspects of Andy's life, including his artistic influence, his Catholicism, his brush with death at the hands of Valerie Solanas, and his subsequent decision to stop surrounding himself with such extreme personalities.

At times pulsating and catchy, at times melancholy and harrowing. it is a beautiful approximation of the ups and downs of a person's life.

If you enjoy Songs For Drella and would like more work from Reed, we have one other of his albums entitled Rock and Roll Heart. From 1976, it may not be as well-known as his work with the Velvets or his early solo output, but it has a great title track where Reed renounces all aspects of high culture: 

"I don't like opera and I don't like ballet/and New Wave French movies they just drive me away/ I guess that I'm dumb 'cause I knows I ain't smart/but deep down inside I've got a rock n roll heart."

Plain-spoken and street-smart, I can only hope that Lou Reed receives the same sort of musical tribute that he and Cale gave to Warhol.