There is only one good thing about small town
There is only one good use for a small town
There is only one good thing about small town
You know that you want to get out
A girl way cooler than I ever was/will be sings this on our school bus in May 1990, Songs For Drella had only been out for a month by then, I know sod all about Warhol*, barely anything of Lou Reed and tits all about John Cale; I knew I liked the girl though.
I’m introduced to a lady called Sam at work a couple of years ago, I say hello and from nowhere into my little brain drops a line from ‘Open House’, ‘I’ve got a lot of cats, here’s my favorite, she’s lady called Sam’. I haven’t listened to Songs For Drella for about 12 years, it takes me two days solid to work out where the line was from**.
A discussion in a pub a couple of weeks back. I was telling a slightly shocked bunch of workmates that I believed really strongly in taking my revenge whenever I felt sufficiently wronged; this was not a popular, or at least a widely admitted-to view. So be it. Another line from a song came to mind, ‘I believe there’s got to be some retribution / I believe an eye for an eye is elemental’. Another link to Songs For Drella, ‘I Believe’.
I picked Songs For Drella up in 1993, at the height of my Velvet Underground phase and after the disappointment of Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss. It took me a good long while to get into, but I persevered^ and good taste won out. There’s a lot to like about this album, I like the mix of narratives – songs from different folks’ perspectives, the quite minimal music*, some great Lou talkie vocals (‘Open House’, particularly) and just some damn good arty rock all round, it’s lovely and noisy too in places.
Jamming together for a possible theatrical project after breaking the ice between them at a memorial for Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella was born; ‘Drella’ being an amalgamation of Cinderella and Dracula, coined by a Factory regular to describe Warhol. John Cale in his book What’s Welsh For Zen? is at pains to point out that it was a pure collaboration between him and Reed, despite some typically ball-breaking intellectual land grab maneuvers by Reed later on in the process and I believe him. Needless to say it all ended in acrimony and discord, before they pulled the Velvet Underground back together^^, but sometimes that tension is the pressure that tells, diamonds form in cratons.
I love the pompous trotting piano of ‘Smalltown’ it meshes with Lou’s deadpan delivery perfectly and the smart ass sentiments that I would guess are shared by all pretentious, egotistical youths the world over, particularly those of us who may have been sold a bit short on the world-changing talent stakes. ‘Open House’, which I know I do keep mentioning, is a deep slice of perfection, Andy’s immigrant background informing his recreation of artistic salons at the Factory, I can hear shades of Lou’s New York LP on this one too, albeit in contemplative mode. I’m also a real sucker for the sweet tune of ‘Nobody But You’, which rather ironically sounds a little like an offcut from Loaded.
The themes of work and style infuse and inform this album colliding beautifully in the back to back of ‘Style It Takes’ and ‘Work’, the former a gorgeous, soft, expressive Cale vocal, the latter an over-caffeinated Reed grouch. Then they bang the two songs together into ‘The Trouble With Classicists’, a pretty high-brow rumination on style over substance in art and life, the sparse instrumentation sounding fleet of foot and heavy simultaneously, I love the sense in all these tracks that the music was written to fit the words every time, rather than vice versa – nicely cerebral stuff. Some top viola-ing on ‘Images’ too, viola fans.
You want something a little more visceral and less arch? then swing by ‘I Believe’, Reed’s exhortation to revenge and anger over Warhol’s shooting by Valerie Solanis. The anger is real and no less so for being partly directed at himself as he obsesses over imagining an injured Andy asking him why he didn’t visit. This is darkness. For me, this is entirely fitting, people think of Warhol as being a light, breezy artist – all soup cans and Marilyn’s, I don’t. I have always thought that he was a very negative artist indeed, a lot of his work deals with nothingness, nihilism and void; but these aren’t the ones that make it onto all the merchandise.
Which brings me to something else I like a lot here, Songs For Drella is a very well-judged attempt to capture everything that was frustrating and great about the protagonists’ relationship with Andy, there’s guilt and regret aplenty as well as joy and celebration in these grooves; it feels honest. I think this essential honesty, whether real or not, is what keeps Mr Pretension at bay, although you can hear him whining and scratching at the door at times here.
As a point of proof take the last three tracks on Songs For Drella. ‘A Dream’ features Cale reading a melange of passages from Warhol’s diaries in a wonderfully matter-of-fact way, artfully rearranged by Reed over some existential guitaring^* and plink-plonking. Cut to the spiky Cale vocal ‘Forever Changed’ and some truly great guitar from Lou Reed to match the disquieting, paranoiac lyrics,
Train entering the city
I lost myself and never come back
Took a trip around the world, and never came back
Black silhouettes, crisscrossed tracks, never came back
Last of all is Reed’s ‘Hello, It’s Me’, a real sweet track and the whole LP in a microcosm, gentle reminiscing shot through with a little lyrical strychnine. It is interesting also to hear Reed being so critical of himself, admitting so much weakness for once, it’s very humanizing all this vulnerability.
Songs For Drella was a better album than I had remembered it being, it is a little poised and arch on occasion, maybe a little too wordy sometimes, but it also has a real charm and humanity about it – not qualities one usually goes to Lou Reed’s catalogue for at all, maybe it was all John’s doing.
*almost, but not quite true, but it spoils my narrative arc, so shhhh.
**I refused to resort to the net on this one, if I was meant to know, it would come to me.
^You gotta love thinking back to an age when I actually had the time, in between writing inconvenient essays, drinking and dancing, to lie around on my bed room playing LPs over and over, in case they grew on me.
^^which, inevitably, all ended up in acrimony and discord.
^*I’m plagiarising myself, but hey.