Lou Reed was on a particularly strong creative streak in the late 80s/early 90s, and in 1990 he teamed up with fellow ex-Velvets’ John Cale to record a tribute to the late Andy Warhol. Reed had developed a subtle, deft guitar playing style which really works on this album the second of three real classics from this period (1989’s New York and 1992’s Magic and Loss also).
The keyboard-based Open House is wonderfully warm piece of music, as is the Cale-sung Style It Takes. The second of these is a particularly beautiful piece of music, mainly keyboards but with great guitar touches from Lou Reed. Supposedly John Cale had to be talked into singing the line “this is a rock group called the Velvet Underground... they have a style that grates”.
Many of the songs are intelligent and original, without being up their own behinds. Trouble with Classicists is an interesting musing on classicists, impressionists and personalities, while Faces and Names considers how easy it would be “if we all looked the same, and we all had the same name” how much easier things would be.
The album takes you through Warhol’s life, from his early days in America (Smalltown, Open House) to his shooting (Slip Away, I Believe) to his final, lonely days (A Dream, Forever Changed). Nobody But You, an almost Leonard Cohen-style track muses about surviving his shooting by Valerie Solanas (“I’m still not sure I didn’t die”) and concludes devastatingly that “all my life... it’s been NOBODIES like you”.
The six-minute spoken word of A Dream is almost light relief. The track is recited by John Cale, who can make a mundane passage sound very strange as the protagonist (Warhol) talks about Cale (“he’s been looking really great... what does it mean if you give up drinking and you’re still so mean”) and Reed (“I’m so mad at him, Lou Reed got married and didn’t invite me... I hate Lou, I really do”).
The album ends splendidly, penultimate track Forever Changed has almost frantic piano under Reed’s streetwise guitar riffs while Cale laments how (Warhol) is “forever changed”. The tender final track Hello It’s Me sees Lou Reed take the lead role as he directly addresses the deceased Warhol, lamenting his treatment of him (“I wished I’d talked to you more when you were alive) praising his vision (“I haven’t heard ideas like that in such a long long time”) but allowing himself a final sidewipe (“your diaries are not a worthy epitaph”).
Even without the words and knowledge of the subject there is fine music here. Often overshadowed by its predecessor, this is a fine album in its own right.