Saturday, March 27, 2010

Secret Influences 2: Songs for Drella

I've been revisiting Lou Reed lately, particularly the 1980-1990s period, which many believe redeem his hit-and-miss 1970s solo albums. While it's not Reed's best album, nor my favourite, I've been surprised at how much Songs for Drella, Reed's 1990 concept album about Andy Warhol written with John Cale, has played an influence on my thoughts about artistic creation and the creative life.

Many phrases from that album continue to run through my head involuntarily, or find themselves peppering my conversation about writing, notably: "There's no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh," (from "Small Town"), "that's the trouble with Classicists" (from the song of the same name), or "the most important thing is work" (from "Work"). Actually, a whole stanza from that latter song continues to haunt me when I'm feeling unproductive in my creative or academic life, that being the one where Warhol chastizes Reed for not writing enough: No matter what I did it never seemed enough/ he said I was lazy, I said I was young/ He said, "How many songs did you write ?"/ I'd written zero, I'd lied and said, "Ten."/ "You won't be young forever/ You should have written fifteen"/ It's work.

Reed's New York came out the summer I turned drinking age, and all that year it was an essential album at all occasions (I think I had it on vinyl and tape, and it was one of the first albums I got as a CD when I bought a player the following year). In contrast, Songs for Drella was the sleeper album (quite literally: I'd often play it before passing out after a long day) that I listened to all through the first year of university when I'd left home and was trying to figure out my own aesthetics. Songs for Drella, thanks to the presence of Cale, also led me to investigating the Velvet Underground (yep, typical bass-ackward adolescent idiocy--of course "Sweet Jane" was popular again thanks to the Cowboy Junkies cover which was also huge in Canada during 1989, but it took me several years to track down the entire Velvets catalogue and give it the listen it warrants) and Cale's solo work.

Once that album wormed its way into my subconscious, it wasn't long before I started investigating Warhol himself. The 1990s were a great opportunity to do so, as several films featuring Warhol came out during that time (Basquiat and I Shot Andy Warhol both in 1996), a cool Kingston theatre company did an environmental production based on Warhol's Factory when I was in third year, and I got to see a small Warhol exhibit while visiting Madrid in the spring of 1990. My interest in Warhol and his circle continued, but was really rekindled in the last few years after meeting Kenny Goldsmith and reading his excellent critical work on Warhol, including I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews (2004). By this time, my interest was less in the gossip and lifestyle of the Factory, and more in Warhol's actual cultural production, which is how it always should have been (as I keep returning: adolescent impressions take a while to overcome).

Beyond the use of pop culture references in my poetry, what Warhol--and more particularly the representation of Warhol in Songs for Drella--taught me was the importance of working hard at your craft, not to be afraid of repetition (which would be reinforced when I first read Gertrude Stein at around the same time), and how you didn't need to come from a cool place (I still struggle with my Oshawa upbringing), be a confident kid, or have a remarkable early family life, to be an artist. I guess it comes down to this song: