Rock history is littered with band leaders who made game-changing contributions within the context of their groups, but struggled to make an impact on their own. For all the mind-blowing tunes he dealt out with the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger’s solo output is pretty embarrassing, and though some of his post-Talking Heads music has been legitimately wonderful, David Byrne has never been able to replicate the Heads’ collective magic.
Not Lou Reed. His work with the Velvet Underground is rightfully heralded as legendary, but his solo career was just as powerful and inspiring. Throughout his solo run, Reed felt free to explore all sides of his personality, from the theatrical glam of Transformer to the sweet subversive pop of Coney Island Baby to the brutal drone of Berlin. Not all of his dalliances were successful—not even contrarian hipsters cop to liking the notoriously unlistenable Metal Machine Music, and his Metallica tag-team Lulu is problematic at best—but he took bold chances and hit more than he missed.
Reed’s solo period also managed to stand as a conduit between art both high and low, which made him a fitting protege of Andy Warhol. The Velvet Underground was an important component of Warhol’s Factory scene in the old weird downtown New York, and Warhol served as a kind of fifth member, providing management services and art direction (he crafted the iconic cover to the band’s 1968 album The Velvet Underground & Nico). It was also he who suggested that ephemeral singer and former model Nico join the band (something Reed was initially vehemently against).
Warhol’s handling of the Velvet Underground began to rankle Reed, and a rift grew between the two; Warhol was dismissed as manager by the time the group released White Light/White Heat. Soon after, Reed drove multi-instrumentalist and founding member John Cale out of the band as well. Though Warhol was no longer a part of his universe, Reed’s work clearly carried the same ideals that Warhol was preaching in the ’60s, as his solo work explored the depths of human sexuality, the commodification of art, and the increasingly weird evolution of celebrity in the downtown art scene.
Cale vowed never to work with Reed again, but 20 years after the release of White Light/White Heat, they got back together. Following Warhol’s death in 1987, Reed and Cale reunited to craft a tribute to their old friend and colleague called Songs For Drella. Outside of the first two Velvet Underground albums, it’s the only time Cale and Reed ever recorded together, and it’s a lovely, smart, funny meditation on friendship, creativity, aging, and death. Sung primarily by Reed, most of the songs are built around stories and observations from Warhol’s life, and they act as something of a chronological biography about him, from his beginnings in Pittsburgh (“Smalltown”) to his untimely passing (“Hello It’s Me”).
It’s that final track that is a real stunner. Over the weeping melodic drone of Cale’s signature viola, Reed lays bare a brutally honest confession. “Andy, it’s me/ Haven’t seen you in a while/ I wish I talked to you more when you were alive/ I thought you were self-assured when you acted shy/ Hello, it’s me/ I really miss you, I really miss your mind/ I haven’t heard ideas like that for such a long, long time.”
Ironically, Cale vowed once again to never work with Reed following Songs For Drella (a declaration he went back on when the Velvet Underground reunited for a tour in 1993). But Songs For Drella is Reed at his most human, and his most vulnerable.
Songs For Drella was released in 1990, as was the concert film of the same name. The film is especially great: Performed on a nearly-bare stage without an audience and with only the help of a handful of projections, Cale and Reed run through Songs For Drella mostly facing one another, as though Warhol’s passing was the catalyst that made them realize that they should hash our their differences (in fact, Cale looks rather severe during the opener and slowly softens as the film goes on). Check out the film (directed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Ed Lachman) below, and stream all of Songs For Drella on Spotify.