Songs For Drella

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After the sudden death of Andy Warhol in 1987, Julian Schnabel reunited John Cale with Lou Reed suggesting that the two musicians, formerly of The Velvet Underground, memorialize Warhol. The result was an album’s worth of new material that told Warhol’s life story as well as offered Reed and Cale’s unique insights and opinions regarding Warhol.

Songs For Drella (1990) records Cale and Reed performing the album of the same name live to an empty Brooklyn Academy Of Music. Cale is positioned at one end of the stage while Reed sits with his guitar at the other end. In true Exploding Plastic Inevitable fashion images, mostly of Warhol’s photography and silkscreens, are projected onto the two musicians as they play.

Ed Lachman, a celebrated cinematographer who most recently contributed to Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground (2021), directed Songs For Drella. Lachman switches from color to black and white photography on instinct; making his selection based on complimenting the tone of the music. Lachman’s lens, though sometimes wide enough to encompass the entire stage, tends to keep close to his subjects. The space in the frame is entirely intimate as the viewer is brought within a few inches of the musicians’ hands as they play their instruments. But what Lachman’s intimate cinematography really captures are the stoic expressions on the faces of Lou Reed and John Cale.

At such a close range one begins to see beyond the carefully manufactured facades of Reed and Cale. Their faces, larger than life on the screen are full of the fragility of mourning. As evidenced by the music they have composed these two men are grieving for their friend “Drella” (a nickname that combines Cinderella with Dracula) after years of contention. This grief finds its ultimate expression at the climax of the film/album with the companion songs A Dream (sung by John Cale) and Hello It’s Me (sung by Lou Reed).

A Dream is written from Warhol’s perspective as if Cale were simply reading from the artist’s diaries. In this piece Reed and Cale mine the emotional wreckage wrought by the dissolution of The Velvet Underground. The two men, using Warhol’s “voice” as a vessel are critical of themselves; their bloated egos and unkind hostilities. Then, as if in response to this chastisement, comes Hello It’s Me. With the closing number of the film/album Cale and Reed make one last posthumous phone call to Warhol. This final song is as much a farewell to a dear friend as it is a heartbreaking apology.

The impact that Warhol had on the lives and the art of John Cale and Lou Reed is immeasurable. Songs For Drella, both the film and album, is a testament to that fact. It’s also the best visual/auditory record available of Cale and Reed’s collaborative process. On full display by either artist are those attributes which the other envied for decades. In the minimal circumstances they created for themselves with this project one is able to see just how organically Cale’s highly structured formalism and Reed’s free wheelin’ rock sensibilities compliment each other. In a way Songs For Drella is as much about coming to terms with Warhol’s death as it is about two artists coming to terms with each other.