Musician APRIL 1989 - by Bill Flanagan



Painter/experimental filmmaker media icon Andy Warhol was introduced to The Velvet Underground - Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison - in late '65. The band was struggling, playing Reed's innovative rock 'n' roll songs to a Greenwich Village scene hung halfway between hootenannies and acid rock. Warhol was looking to expand his influence into the rock world then dominated by Bob Dylan in New York and the Beatles in London. Any number of bands might have fit into the colony centered around Warhol's "Factory," but against all odds the painter and his aide-de-camp Paul Morrissey found a group touched by genius. The Velvet Underground signed on as the musical component of Warhol's traveling multimedia show "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable." That sound-and-lights happening also sometimes included dancing by fashion model star Edie Sedgwick, and extra vocals by the European femme fatale Nico. The addition of Nico as a part-time member of the band was rumored to have annoyed The Velvets - but that was another era and, besides, the chanteuse is dead. Their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, produced by Warhol, included great Reed songs such as Heroin, I'm Waiting For The Man and I'll Be Your Mirror. The record was not a commercial success, but like all The Velvets' albums it is still reaching new fans and influencing musicians today, long after most of the hit groups of the time have hit the cut-out bins. After that album, Nico was left behind (though Reed and Cale wrote songs for her solo debut, Chelsea Girl, as did her teenage boyfriend/guitar player; Jackson Browne) and soon the band decided to cut loose of Warhol and get serious about the music business. After their second album, the abrasive White Light/White Heat, Cale quit. Although his multiple instruments and dark humor had helped define The Velvets' sound, Cale's songwriting had been lost in Reed's shadow. Freed of that inhibition, songs and solo albums poured from him. The Velvets made two more studio LPs before Reed went solo in 1970. Of course, once they were dead, people decided they loved them.

Getting Lou Reed and John Cale to sit down together to be interviewed was just a little easier than reuniting Lennon and McCartney, a bit harder than finding common ground between Shamir and Arafat. That's not because they don't get along. Songs For Drella demonstrates that whatever animosity once existed has been buried - but because both men are engaged in ongoing careers and don't get much satisfaction from public strolls down memory lane. But with Andy and Nico gone, and former hangers-on cashing in with tarted-up memoirs of the Warhol/VU. glory days, it seemed like a good time for Cale and Reed to get a few things off their chests. We spoke at suppertime on January 20, Presidential inauguration day.

MUSICIAN: How was Songs For Drella composed?

REED: Oh, it was just a hundred-percent collaboration. John and I just rented out a small rehearsal studio for three weeks and locked ourselves in.

CALE: It was on and off around Christmas time. We were planning on maybe five weeks, but when we got working on it I started adding keyboards until we had a whole MIDI setup. I had a Roland D-50, a Yamaha CP8O MIDI and a Korg Ml. And they slowly started being part of the songwriting process. A lot of it was done just on the piano to begin with.

MUSICIAN: The opening number, Small Town, has claustrophobic lyrics ["When you're growing up in a small town and you're having a nervous breakdown"] with very jaunty music. [John plays piano and Lou sings.] It is very much like the opening number of a Broadway musical - an upbeat tune that introduces the main character.

CALE: I know we set ourselves up for this idea of a theater piece, but it really is banished. Because what we have there is such a strong core idea that the simpler the better. I was really excited by the amount of power just two people could do without needing drums. When we started work I was always, in the back of my mind, wondering, "Where the hell does the backbeat go?" And by the time we finished it I was saying, "Thank God we don't have one!" [Reed laughs] The way it's going to be at BAM is exactly the same. We're going to maintain that hard-edged, clear-eyed image of it - simple and very hard.

MUSICIAN: Most of the songs are in Andy's voice and from Andy's perspective. Were you concerned with making the voice of Andy the character match the voice of Andy, your old friend?

CALE: One of the things that happened while we were putting the thing together was we never quite clarified what our attitude was toward Andy speaking all the time. And that included the question of whether there should be any reference to The Velvet Underground. It's a good lyrical device to write it from another person's point of view, but inevitably it's going to blur. In Forever Changed I feel as if I'm singing about myself as much as Andy. Specifically, my coming from Wales to New York and meeting members of the hand.

REED: Some of the things that apply to Andy apply to all of us. There are things that I think are very universal, and Andy probably make Andy more of an approachable person. Through the lyrics of the songs. If you knew him and you knew the situation - and John and I spoke about this at great length - you could see things from his eyes and experience things perhaps the way he did. And some of the situations he found himself in were analogous to situations everyone finds themselves in.

MUSICIAN: Well, that's one of the most impressive things about the work for those of us who got our image of Warhol from books like Edie. We come to the show with the idea that Warhol was this cold, calculating figure - and you immediately get us to consider him much more sympathetically. The second song, Open House, has the lines: "My skin's as pale as the moon outside! My hair's silver like a cheap watch! I want lots of people around me as long as they don't touch." You do a brilliant job of disarming our prejudices.

REED: Yeah, that was exactly it. Small Town, the first number, seemed the way to ease into the show, because we thought, "People are bringing a lot of notions to this show before we ever play a note. How can we get their toes in the water without smacking them over the head, and before we let the electric instruments go as far as they're going to go?" It seemed like that little cabaret number was the thing that answered that. I think it disarms you a bit; it's not what anyone expected. And in Open House, John and I had spoken a lot about - particularly with the spate of unattractive books that are out...

CALE: Hear! Hear!

REED: ...what we thought of Andy and how to present it, and what did he do and how did he do it from our points of view. It was very much wrapped up in some of the things we felt were very strong character traits that he literally brought to New York with him.

CALE: More about this spate of books: There's a question here of responsibility in narrative-that is, you don't apply moral judgments and dump responsibility on one of the characters in your book. In the way that we approached the song cycle it's more like we accept responsibility for our beliefs of what went on. We don't pass judgment.

REED: We came to understand that we were asking the audience to absorb a lot of information. They were going to be bombarded by a lot of new information, musical and lyrical, so they would have to go along with us and they would have to concentrate on it. And I thought that was really a good gift to give to the audience. John and I were talking about, "Well, what happened the first time people went to see Hamlet?" They were going to get bombarded by a lot of information.

CALE: And they were drunk! The Globe Theatre.

REED: Supposedly the people at the church were sober. All I'm trying to say is that I don't think there's anything wrong with giving them a lot of information and trying to get them to go along with the possibility of having to be an ally of this work, of having to concentrate and absorb the thing and follow it. That's part of the adventure of the show. Now, they missed all this the first time around, twenty-odd years ago, when they were asked to concentrate on some stuff. So here's a little second shot for them. People have been moaning about, "Gee, I didn't see it then" or "Why isn't there a Velvet Underground reunion?" - which there isn't going to be. But there is this particular thing. And we wanted to present it in as pure a state as possible. Certainly that's my goal, to get you as close to the music and the words as possible with as little showbizzy glitz going on as there could be, and to introduce you to our friend Andy.

CALE: That theatrical device, though, is time-honored. It's one of those things that Orson Welles used a lot in his movies. He may have had a dialogue on paper, but he had all the actors talking at once in those scenes - everybody all of a sudden had to pay attention to hear exactly what everybody's point of view was, and it really pulls you right into the action.

REED: It requires something of the audience. You're talking about one of my favorite directors, it goes without saying...

CALE: ...When in A Touch of Evil...

REED: ...the camera angles are incredible. I mean to this day I'm sure you know if they're showing something on TV and I look over there - "Orson Welles movie! Stop everything! Let's look at this!" A Touch of Evil was particularly wonderful. Andy had that ability with some of his movies. In no way to denigrate Paul Morrissey's movies, but the earlier movies that Andy directed, where he didn't move the camera at the beginning - I was really so struck by it, as I was by so many things that he did. We wanted to bring some of that up in this piece. He was not this little tinkertoy society plaything that he's being made out to be.

MUSICIAN: The fourth song, Work, is the first time in the show that Lou Reed speaks in his own voice. We've had three songs from Andy's perspective and now Lou Reed or The Velvet Underground enters as a character.

REED: Yeah, that's true. In that case it's no longer just an anonymous third-person narrator; it's The Velvet Underground talking. Lyrically there are a lot of devices we can use, and I thought that one brings you a little step closer; gives this ring of authenticity. If I use the word "I" they immediately say, "Ah, it's true. He's singing from a first-person experience." We kind of save that, 'cause sometimes when you do that, people sit up and say, "Uh-oh, here come the real goods." And what we're talking about is a work ethic. That's not what Ultra Violet talks about.

MUSICIAN: I haven't read her book.

REED: I haven't either, but I've been told about it. I don't think she has a work ethic.

MUSICIAN: But you and John do. Do you think Andy influenced that?

CALE: I don't know. From my childhood I just remember I'd hate going to sleep because somewhere in the world something amazing was going on, and I'd miss it.

REED: And to this day [laughter], to this day the poor man still can't be in seven places at once! Andy really did say that. When we shaped the lyrics we tried to make it so not only are they real, but they're effective in the song. So we can't say that those are verbatim quotes, but even if they are not, they should be. You know what I mean? Because the results should approximate what went on then from that point of view. I was very, very struck by his work ethic. I was always struck by the fact that Andy was the first one there at work, Andy was the last one to leave. And when he spoke to me he was always going on about the work, how incredibly lazy I was. Which I really enjoyed hearing, as you can imagine.

MUSICIAN: When Andy first approached The Velvets, did you worry about being swallowed up by his thing~ He was already famous; were you afraid of being overwhelmed by his Exploding Plastic Inevitable?

REED: Well, he didn't have it then. He just had pieces and fragments of an idea that was going to be put together and ended up being bigger than all of us. Including him. At a certain point it turned into people thinking Andy was the guitar player. So it depended on whose world you were in.

MUSICIAN: But did you two ever look at each other and say, "I dunno, we're a rock band working on something pretty original, do we really want to be part of Warhol's world?"

REED: No, I think we looked at each other and said, "This sounds like really great fun and a lot better than playing in this tourist trap in the Village."

CALE: The relationship between him and Paul Morrissey was bordering on the spurious in terms of them managing us. I mean, Andy was a catalyst. He was so magical in his ability to transform mundane things into really important events. This work thing Lou just spoke about - Andy may have been the first there and the last to leave, but he never stopped there. Once he got out of the Factory he was going straight to a restaurant or to another person's. Whenever you approached him with a problem there would be this facile ability to come up with a really exciting solution.

REED: The solution might be worse than the problem.

CALE: For instance, he was complaining that because we'd been on the road too long, the band was turning into a road band and we had little time to sit down and really work on arrangements. He said, "Well, why don't you go onstage and rehearse?" That's something I wish we'd done now. Well, we did end up doing Sister Ray Part 7 onstage and then going into Sister Ray.

MUSICIAN: When a band goes in to make their first album they want a producer they can lean on. Andy produced your first album, but I imagine he looked at the knobs and controls with more confusion than you did.

CALE: I remember that first album with so much hilarity. That the thing actually got done... For $1500! I mean, my God.

REED: We were in the studio where Dionne Warwick did Don't Make Me Over and stuff like that. Andy was the producer and Andy was in fact sitting behind the board gazing with rapt fascination...

CALE: all the blinking lights.

REED: At all the blinking lights. He just made it possible for us to be ourselves and go right ahead with it because he was Andy Warhol. In a sense he really did produce it, because he was this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when we weren't large enough to be attacked. We weren't worth really attacking at the time. So they'd attack us, but just use us as a springboard to attack him. As a consequence of him being the producer; we'd just walk in and set up and do what we always did and no one would stop it because Andy was the producer. Of course he didn't know anything about record production - but he didn't have to. He just sat there and said, "Oooh, that's fantastic," and the engineer would say, "Oh yeah! Right! It is fantastic, isn't it?"

CALE: I was just thinking about one of the charming things that happened immediately after meeting Andy. Where else would we get an invite like this: He had us perform at a psychiatrists' convention! To be stared down by these people in tuxedos who were all suggesting we needed a long rest and some severe medical attention.

REED: That was when the Herald Tribune still existed, and we made page one of section two: "Warhol and Rock Group Plays Psychiatric Convention: Hard to Tell Doctors from Patients. " I mean, our lives were filled with things like this, courtesy of Andy. Then at one point he pulled us aside and said, "You've got to decide what you want to do." And after he pointed it out, we fired him. When he got angry the worst thing he could think of to call me was a rat.

MUSICIAN: John, I'd like to get your feelings on something I asked Lou about last week - the song I Believe, in which Lou wishes retribution on Valerie Solanis for shooting Warhol. He sings, "I believe I would have pulled the switch on her myself."

CALE: I agree with that.

REED: Point of interest is that Billy Name came up to us after the show and assured us that he had seen her death certificate in L.A.

CALE: Which we wished we had. We could have made a slide of that just to show there is some justice in the world

REED: Right.

MUSICIAN: The shooting of Andy, the attempted assassination, is portrayed in Songs For Drella as a climactic moment. Afterwards, in Nobody But You and Forever Changed, you imply that it gave Andy greater self-knowledge and perhaps pulled him back from some sort of abyss. There is a counter-implication that it might have eventually caused his death. The idea of building to a violent climax from which the protagonist emerges with a greater self-knowledge is so central to theater that I wondered if you were exaggerating the effect the shooting had on Andy for dramatic effect. Was he really so transformed?

CALE: I was thinking about how shooting him did not kill him.

REED: I was thinking about how at one point I ran into him and he said that he was alive, but he thought he may have died. One of the most astonishing remarks I'd heard in a while. Along with "Why didn't you visit me, where were you?" Which was something that's bothered me over the years. But he said it more than once. They had thought he died in the hospital, he was there for eight hours and he was telling me how he ran out of veins and they had to take blood out of his hands, how the pain was so awful and he was alive now - but maybe he had died. He wasn't sure that he felt any difference.

CALE: Christian imagery.

REED: Andy was really an astonishing person. When he talked to you he never ceased to say the most amazing things. Just another way of looking at it that at least in my case would make me stop right in my tracks and think about what he said.

MUSICIAN: In Forever Changed Andy lists a number of people who "will see me through." Edie Sedgwick was one, I didn't know the other names. Are they all dead? All saints?

CALE: No. They were all people - like Henry Geldzahler - who were influential on him at one point or another. When we first hooked up with Andy he had the mixed-media-event bull by the horns, and it was a major effort to then enter the salons of Central Park West [Reed laughs) and shake the sensibilities of the art cabal. Some of these people are mentioned in the songs.

MUSICIAN: You mentioned absolution and Christian imagery John. There was quite a funereal feel to the whole presentation of Drella - partly because it was presented in a church.

CALE: Yeah, that building is really overpowering.

REED: It's just my own personal taste, but when we do the BAM version I wish we would stay in that church. 'Cause I think the church itself was incredible; it made us into a trio - John, myself and the church. [laughter]

CALE: And God!

REED: The father; son and holy ghost! When we go on the road we have to take the church with us! It was a very powerful part of the thing. We didn't realize during soundchecks and dress rehearsals that when there were people in it and we were up there with the stained windows... you suddenly felt this incredible surge that this house devoted to belief can generate.

CALE: [bursts out laughing] Come on, Lou!

REED: Let me try a little harder. Give me a half hour. I've got to rephrase that one so it's proper... Thanks, John, I appreciate that.

CALE: I have to say that that's sort of like typecasting. The building is not the star of the show, it's Andy.

REED: Except that Andy always went to church, which was something that a lot of people either didn't know, or didn't associate with him even though they'd heard about it. Every Sunday he went to church with his mother. We wanted to give people some taste, if it was possible, of how brilliant he was. That this was not just some...

CALE: This was no fool manipulating headlines.

REED: Right, exactly.

CALE: He was a very penetrating individual.

REED: Right. A very, very talented, extremely brilliant spark of light.