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“They Didn’t Go Around the Corner for a Beer”: Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella | Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol never leaves, but 35 years after his death he is everywhere. There are “Andy Warhol’s Diaries” and “Andy Warhol’s America” ​​on television, “Collaboration” and “The Pursuit of Andy Warhol” in theaters across the Atlantic, while Christie’s hopes to win a record $ 200 million (£ 152 million). when he sold Marilyn at a 1964 screen printing auction the following month.

Entire forests have been leveled in an attempt to unravel Warhol’s enigma – Blake Gopnik’s 2020 biography is 976 pages long. And yet, in just 55 minutes, Lou Reed and John Cale’s 1990 album and film “Songs of the Drill” reached the heart of a man overshadowed by his wig, shades and empty expression. Their cycle of songs begins with Smalltown, a cheerful portrait of Warhol’s childhood in Pittsburgh, “Bad Skin, Bad Eyes, Gay and Fashionable” (or “fat”?), During his hyper-productive golden age of the ’60s, to his – In later years he struggled with the pain of the wounds received when he was shot by Valerie Solanas, author of the Manifesto of the Society for the Dissection of Men, the alienation of co-workers and friends and the growing shortage of ideas. All the topics that biographers later treated as great revelations – Warhol’s Catholicism, his strangeness, his relationship with his mother – are studied here with intense precision and economy.

Andy Warhol (center) between John Cale and Lou Reed with Velvet Underground and Factory star Paul Morrissey (far right). Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

Reed and Cale, of course, had a special idea of ​​Warhol. They were the creative engine of Velvet Underground, the rock band that the artist manages and produces, and whose first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, ignored during its release, became a bible for glam rockers, drag queens, drug addicts and punks, and perhaps the most influential LP ever created. Given that Reed fired Warhol and then kicked Cale out of the band a year later (not face to face – he got guitarist Sterling Morrison to do so), the relationship between the three men was less than cordial. Even the title “Songs for Drela” is ambivalent: Drela was a nickname used behind Warhol’s back that he didn’t like, a mixture of Dracula (the blood-sucking night creature) and Cinderella (the servant who goes to the ball). But without any sentimentality, “Songs of the Drill” reveals the warm streams of respect and friendship that lie deep beneath the icy surface.

The cover of Velvet Underground’s first album. designed by Andy Warhol. Photo: Records / Alamy

Warhol died suddenly in 1987 after routine gallbladder surgery at the age of 58. Cale and Reed decide to make “Songs for the Drill” after meeting at his memorial service – the first time they’ve spoken in years. They finally performed his 14 songs entirely at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, in late 1989. Probably in view of the flammability of the partnership, as well as its great cultural significance, someone decided that this performance should be filmed for posterity. The great cameraman Ed Lachman enters. Already 76, Lachmann filmed Far from Heaven and Carol for Todd Haynes, winning Oscar nominations for both films, and has worked with Sofia Coppola, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. However, it was a music video that provided him with the Songs for Drella concert.

“There was an AIDS compilation called Red Hot + Blue,” he recalls. Zooming in from a color correction studio in New York, it’s pressed into the corner of the frame, so all I can see is a living eye and his fedora. “I was going to make a video with Derek Jarman and Annie Lennox, but then Derek was too sick.

Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986 and had to become seriously ill to make his 1990 film The Garden. “We met and he gave me home movies about his family when he grew up, so it occurred to me to project his childhood images onto Annie’s white pancake face, who sings Cole Porter’s song Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye. It was wonderful and received a lot of attention, so Channel 4 came to me and offered me to do this concert. ” Yes, the television station, which is to be sold by Nadine Doris, is co-producing songs for Drella, along with Sire Records in the United States.

“I don’t know how I’m going to film the concert without cameras” д Ed Lachman. Photo: Marion Curtis / StarPix / AppleTV + / REX / Shutterstock

Lachmann met with Cale and Reed to see if he had received their approval. Lou was very emphatic and said: “I don’t want to see any cameras on stage and I don’t want the cameras to be between me and the audience. Are you okay with that? So I said, “Well, I don’t know how I’m going to film the concert without cameras.”

“I thought, I went back the next day and I said, ‘Look, could you let me film two of your rehearsals on stage without anyone in the audience and film the show, but the cameras will be off stage?’ And he agreed. “

The result is different from any other concert film. Lachmann’s 16mm camera is so close to the two protagonists that it’s as if you’re reading their minds – both about Warhol and each other. Shot when both men were 47, Cale looks aristocratic in a black suit and a great leggings, while Reed serves the disgruntled librarian in a black sweater and octagonal glasses. Neither of them looks like rock stars, and the two concentrate hard, facing each other, as they perform vocals (singing is not the right word in Reed’s case) and knock on the piano or guitar. Although there are no drums in Songs for Drella, the music is often sharp and percussive – not least in I Believe, in which Reed surprisingly states that Solanas should have been sentenced to death for shooting Warhol. In fact, she got three years, which tells you something about low respect for homosexual lives, even celebrities.

As with Velvet Underground, the abrasive moments are fermented with others with intense sweetness, such as Style It Takes, in which Warhol exhorts a great young man to perform in one of his screen test films and which includes self-referential lines: “This is a rock band, called Velvet Underground / I show movies about them, do you like their sound? ”In moments like this, the camera stays on Reed and Cale’s faces. “Sven Wilhelm Newquist, Ingmar Bergman’s great cameraman, said the face is the landscape for the camera,” Lachmann said. “If there were ever people who could be landscapes, it would be theirs.”

The Velvet Underground in Rotterdam in 1993 … John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison. Photo: Rob Verhorst / Redferns

Towards the end of Songs of the Drill, a mood of self-blame reigns, such as in The Sun, where Cale recites lines taken from Warhol’s diaries, such as, “You know I hate Lou, I really do.” He won’t even hire us for his videos, and I was so proud of him. ”At this point, you’re taking a closer look at Reed and Cale. There are so many things to wonder about while watching their impenetrable expressions. Can we discern regret for their meanness, both for Warhol and for each other, pride in the blazing mutual creativity of their youth, sadness that it is too late to do things differently?

“It was not just a tribute, a tribute, a praise, but it was like a confession,” Lachman said. To that end, Cale and Reed were photographed in near darkness, sometimes with works of art by Warhol or the front page of the New York Post, which, after being shot, mocked “Pop Becomes Pop Artist” after the filming. “Operators like to separate people from the darkness,” adds Lachmann, “but I wanted them out of the darkness.”

Lachmann had first met Reed years before – he was hired to make a video for Reid’s baroque grim 1973 album Berlin. He walked over to the camera as I adjusted it, kicked the tripod and said, “Make him like Andy.” I was horrified, I was trying to hold on to the camera that was going to fall to the floor. ” Reed had sobered up at the time of Songs of the Drill. “I asked him if he remembered that, and he said, ‘I don’t remember much since,'” he smiled, and returned to the microphone.

John Cale and Lou Reed in 1988 worked on what became songs for Drella. Photo: New York Times Co./Getty Images

So what was the atmosphere like between Cale and Reed? Were they joking? “What you see is what you have,” says Lachmann. “They showed up and got the job done. I didn’t hang out with them after or before, I had my hands full. They didn’t go around the corner for a beer. ” In fact, Reed and Cale lost their way after “Songs of the Drill,” “Lou always has to control,” Lachmann notes, before resigning and deciding to reform Velvet Underground. The band toured Europe in 1993 (including, amazingly, a performance in Glastonbury), before Cale and Reed became estranged again. This was the case until the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, which turned out to be their last performance. Reed died in 2013 at the age of 71; Cale is now 80. He rejected the approach of talking about this film.

Songs about Drella were broadcast on Channel 4 in 1990, a performance I recorded on VHS that seemed to me to be a cryogenic coolness from a planet. He’s been living deep in my bones ever since, so it’s a shock to hear that he’s actually “lost” from the first broadcast. In the United States, he was put on a laser disk and then disappeared. Lachmann tried to find the film while working on Todd Haynes’ documentary on Velvet Underground, and finally found it during the pandemic, reviewing boxes of material he had requested from the Motion Picture Lab in New York. “There, 100 feet from my bed, were the real original negatives, but no sound,” he says. Warner Brothers provided …