Saturday, June 30, 2012

Jam of the day and a lengthy review of POP!, a musical about Andy Warhol: Lou Reed & John Cale / "I Believe"

Artist: Lou Reed & John Cale
Album: Songs For Drella
Song: "I Believe"
Released: April 11, 1990
Label: Sire Records (Warner Music Group)

NOTE: I pretty much crapped out this lengthy diatribe a day or two after my viewing of POP! on May 10, 2012 (which I mention again later). I had a lot of thoughts about the play, and this Reed/Cale album that I relistened to a few times that day, sifting through the madness that is my brain (hah! I said my blog title!), and during the wee 2am-ish hours, I sat down and typed furiously without much self-censorship. I got up the next day and second-guessed myself about posting it. Then, I promptly forgot about the whole thing … until recently, when I decided to just say "Fuck it" and post the damn thing mostly unedited (save for some grammar cleanup and formatting). Keep that in mind as you read through. Ultimately, I decided that the thoughts I had were interesting enough and sharable, even if the verbose and, frankly, bombastic way in which I present them leaves much to be desired, and might even keep you from reading too much of it. In any event, that seems to be the opposite of the spirit of the blogger, so … in the immortal words of Kel, "Awww, here it goes!"

Songs For Drella is an album that I actually really enjoy but hardly ever want to listen to. (It's pretty much too intense, and I hope that the verbosity and indulgence of the ensuing paragraphs will convey this feeilng sufficiently well.) Think about that claim; I bet there are very few albums that can be described that way, for you and me. I bought a CD copy of this album years ago—I don't even remember where or exactly when, sometime late in college or shortly thereafter—when I was heavy into The Velvet Underground (not like that has changed, but back when it was still fresh), seeing that it was the first collaborative material from Lou Reed and John Cale since White Light/White Heat way back in 1968. For the uninitiated or those in need of refreshing, here's the super quick version: Reed & Cale were original members of The VU whose first album, 1967's The VU & Nico, was essentially produced and/or funded/curated somehow by Andy Warhol (at the very least, he paid for some recording and included them on his Exploding Plastic Inevitable extravaganza tour, with live music and dancing and light shows and movies and craziness); Cale quit the band in 1968 after two albums to pursue a solo career and produce/engineer albums, and eventually Reed did the same in 1970; the two were known to basically have mutual disgust for each other and didn't speak until Andy Warhol's funeral service in 1987; someone suggested they create some kind of memorial for Andy, and, a couple years later, Songs For Drella came out over the course of some small shows and an eventual recording and CD release.

The album itself is a rather artsy, lyrics-oriented concept album about Andy Warhol, in general, and Reed and Cale's relationships with and perceptions of Warhol, more specifically. They knew Warhol at the height of his New York City Factory days, acted in some of his movies, and were apparently rather friendly with him, in addition to their musical business relations. The songs on this album manage to explore Warhol's identity, his philosophies on art and life, and how he interacted with the many, many people who clung to his burgeoning, high-art-doesn't-mean-what-it-used-to-mean, societal lifestyle. The tunes are roughly chronological, too. Opener "Smalltown" describes Warhol's not-so-ideal childhood in the Steel City, his outcast role ("Bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty, people look at you funny"), and his real desire to "make it big" ("There's only one good thing about a small town, you know that you wanna get out"). The Reed-penned and -sung "Work" is apparently based on conversations Reed had with Warhol about producing his art and his view of it as … well, "work"; this might be due to him coming from Pittsburgh, how he supported his mother for most of his life, or just a serious work ethic, but it's interesting to think about these lyrics and his life's output and his mass-production style.
Andy said a lot of things, I stored them all away in my head
Sometimes when I can't decide what I should do I think, 'What would Andy have said?'
He'd probably say, 'You think too much, that's 'cause there's work that you don't want to do!'
'It's work, the most important thing is work!'

The next track, Cale's tune "Trouble With Classicists", is another take on Warhol's view of art. Verse by verse, it goes through and describes how Warhol would deconstruct another artist's particular style, as seen through the lens of looking at a tree. For instance, the "trouble with a classicist" is that "he looks at a tree and that's all he sees", and "he paints a tree". Building from just Cale's soothing voice into a rollicking piano line and Reed's snarly guitar riffs, this song is one of the highlights of the album. (For more thoughts on this album from a contemporary, i.e. 1990, standpoint, see this surprisingly stellar, nuanced, and empassioned Rolling Stone review, or this characteristically terse and unhelpful yet decidedly opinionated Robert Christgau review.)

At this point, though, I'll stop quasi-reviewing the album and outright quoting its lyrics. If you're someone who's remotely interested in The Velvet Underground and/or Lou Reed and/or John Cale, from a musical standpoint, or Warhol's art and the entire pop art scene as it developed over time, and the 1960s NYC scene associated with it, then I highly recommend you give this album a solid three or four listens. It's not going to really hit you hard on the first listen, I bet; if it does, awesome! If not, give it a little bit of time to sink in; read along with the lyrics; try to put yourself in Cale and Reed's shoes, making this material to honor their dead friend and benefactor despite hating each others' guts; and imagine how Warhol himself would view this album. Imagine him grinning quietly and nodding along, saying quite matter-of-factly, "Well, I thought it was wonderful when they said my name." (Somehow, that's what I imagine he would say.) If you like these musicians and/or this artist, you'll find a home in this album. Other standout tracks, in my mind, are "Images" (with Reed's insistent vocals about how Warhol comes up with art, I think, and a specific reference to Mao Tse Tung in a strangely compelling vocal inflection), "I Believe" (see below for more), "A Dream" (hazy guitar soundscapes from Reed and spoken word from Cale that's remarkably compelling), and "Hello It's Me", a final direct, honest message from Reed to Warhol and, if you're listening carefully, a real tear-jerker.

The particular tune I want to share from this album, though, is found towards the end of the album's track listing and corresponding chronology, and it is about a particularly troublesome event in Warhol's life and, I would imagine, the lives of everyone who knew him and cared about him. Despite this, I feel like it has escaped the modern art historical ethos and remains somewhat of a mystery to anyone who isn't particularly interested in Warhol's history, personally, or 20th century American art history, in general. Seriously, though; ask a bunch of your friends what they know about the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol. Odds are, close to (or a complete) majority will say, "What? Huh? That happened?!", while several more might say, "Oh yeah, he was shot or something, right?", while maybe a select few will say, "That Valerie Solanas sure was a bitch!". Maybe I'm wrong, but I doubt it. Somewhat luckily, though, there is a newish musical out on the theatre circuit that explores this exact event. POP!: Who Shot Andy Warhol? played at Pittsburgh's City Theatre on the South Side for a string of dates back in May, starring Broadway's Anthony Rapp (from Rent and Road Trip and other stuff) as Warhol. More info about that in a moment. Now, let's play that song I mentioned. It's all about Reed's apparent reaction to Solanas' shooting (I will make no association of Reed's vitriolic lyrics to Cale's mild-mannered persona) and the rough-around-the-edges guitar (especially that frantic solo from 2:05-2:18) combine rather well with the simple, staccato piano to convey that message.
Valerie Solanas took the elevator, got off at the 4th floor
She pointed the gun at Andy saying, 'You cannot control me anymore'

And I believe there's got to be some retribution
I believe an eye for an eye is elemental

Lou Reed & John Cale / "I Believe" / Songs For Drella [Sire, 1990]

Let's talk about that play now. I admittedly grew up being exposed to musical theatre fairly often, having a mother and sister who were huge fans, huge enough to "force" their tastes on me and subject me to live experiences, soundtrack CD listenings, cinema viewings, and so on and so forth. Mind you, I don't regret any of it, nor do I begrudge them; I'm just saying that, at the time, they probably weren't my favorite activities, but they were real, so now I associate them into my personality as they fit. Moving on. My sister acted and sang in a local (but decidedly professional and well-done, I might add) production of The Sound Of Music when I was in middle school (among other plays, musical or otherwise, throughout our lives), I saw Rent on Boston's "Broadway" in high school, I've seen numerous musical films (Grease, Bye Bye, Birdie, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Hairspray, Chicago, etc.), and so on. My point: I'm not a typical male musical rube. So take my opinions with a grain of salt—according to my general thoughts about the genre and its temporaneous extinction—as well as a pinch of sugar—according to my life-long experience with and reluctant appreciation for the genre.

POP! is a big hit and a big miss, simultaneously. For me, as a now-and-again theatre-goer and general arts patron, I thoroughly enjoyed the "fresh" take on musicals, exploring the "underbelly" of the 1960s that hasn't really been touched by mainstream theatre since, say, Hair, I'd imagine. Also, though, as a serious fan of Warhol and The VU and the whole Factory scene as a conglomerate of interesting individuals with a lot to say about art and history and culture, I am somewhat disappointed. Anthony Rapp is a perfect fit for Warhol, and I take nothing away from his performance but reverence for the man; however, the mix of sarcastic, one-liner dialogue and indulgent, introspective, downright bombastic lyricism makes for a dischordant treatment of Warhol as a person and—from what I understand from every other treatment of him (e.g. his self-written books, his films and TV clips that I've seen at the Andy Warhol Museum over the years, Crispin Glover in his [albeit short] role as Warhol in The Doors movie—a not entirely accurate one.

Oddly, though, Andy Warhol doesn't seem to be the main focus of this production. The elaborate and overwrought—yet underveloped—treatment of the so-called "suspects" of the murder "mystery" comprise the majority of the plot. Edie Sedgwick. Viva. Valeria Solanas. That's it. The songs explore their personalities in one-dimensional ways—the blonde superstar who's a rich daddy's girl on the urban prowl, the intelligent black girl who's too smart to play games, the irreverent anti-male feminist who has a lot to say and a lot of energy with which to say it—that hardly ever touch on the subtleties that truly belong to them. Look, I even saw Factory Girl a couple years ago and thought it wasn't that great—or bad, mind you; it's really worth seeing if you've even read this far!—but it gives a decidedly more interesting, honest, and worthwhile treatment of Sedgwick's character in any 20 minute segment than POP! does throughout its run. But maybe that's not the point? Maybe this play isn't meant to explore all of the nuances of the Factory's multitude of colorful characters. Maybe POP! is about sensationalizing Warhol's life and, particularly, his violent shooting, and contorting that into a marketable production that might appeal to a wider public than would normally find fascinating a decades-dead artist who is (sadly) best known for copying soup can labels and scouring pad boxes.

I guess that is the point, and one that I had to come to terms with during my viewing of the show. (For reference's sake, I saw the 9:00 performance on Thursday, May 10; one day before official "opening night" at City Theatre here in Pittsburgh.) My eternal fandom for Warhol and the Factory scene makes me inherently question any inaccuracies and misrepresentations. On this note, I think the production completely obscures the original artistry and intrigue of the scene as it homogenizes it for a mainstream, modern audience; however, I am thankful for the play's existence and what it can possibly achieve for recognition and understanding of this particular branch of cultural and artistic history. Somewhat strangely, the most offensive character to me was not Warhol, but Gerard Malanga; luckily, he was not a particularly (ultimately) important persona (in the production, anyway!) so I retain hope for a na¨i;ve audience's take-away from the show.

I associate Gerard Malanga with the seedy side of The Velvet Underground, the fervent and ecstatic and outrageous live shows, the dancing, the whipping, the sexuality, the early punk attitude filtered through their urban hipsterism that preceded any kind of negative connotations of the term "hipster". I see him, in my mind's eye, as he appears in photographs in Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story, and as he has always appeared in my thoughts before owning that book. (The two imageries are notably similar, mind you.) In POP!, though, Malanga is a fucking cartoon, and there's no nice way to say this. Luckily, he is not an entirely crucial character in the overall story (he is important, but I can't imagine that a total "novice" to the narrative would find him irreplaceable) but he is decidedly influential, and it is bizarre to me to see him not in the typical tight leather denim pants and jacket, with a riding crop, but rather in a depressingly stereotypical paisley vest and bell bottoms, with a retro-fit and unoffensive haircut. It's weird and off-putting, really, but only to anyone who really cares. To the majority of the skewing-towards-elderly audience I saw at the performance I attended, nothing was out of the ordinary, and we could all sufficiently laugh at the delightful "speed freak homos" Malanga and Ondine as they tried to sort through the comical "pop bang mystery" as Andy Warhol "slept". Yeah. It's silly when you think about it, but that's exactly how the play works.

And yet ₀ here I am, compelled to return to my musical theatre "roots". And I can't help but avoid this conclusion: this is a remarkably watchable production. I would honestly recommend this to my friends and family to see. I bet you're surprised by that, if you've even fucking read this far, because—let's be honest—you've given up by now. (If you haven't, leave me a comment on this post with your favorite Velvet Underground song and I will buy you a beer sometime.) But that's how I feel. I had a great time at the show, barring my self-imposed discomfort with the treatment of Malanga, Warhol, and the overall scene, but I get the feeling that this is something I have to deal with on my own. And, ultimately, Brian Charles Rooney is SO FUCKING GOOD as Candy Darling. Literally, this is the best musical theatre role performance I've ever seen. She/he sings high and low, does drama and comedy, dances and walks around in heels, engages with the audience, and is an overall great representation of who I think the original character might be without trivializing the components of said character for the sake of the production. Kudos, Mr. Rooney. You are my new favorite actor. What's more, my date wasn't totally convinced of your male/female-ness (either way) until I mentioned it after the show and I showed her the program. So, double kudos!

The Velvet Underground / "Candy Says" / The Velvet Underground [MGM, 1969]

Meanwhile, I have no perception yet for how anyone else experienced this show, except for (a) my date, Lisa, who didn't know anything about the story going into this and was not a musical theatre conoisseur and yet enjoyed it enough to say she liked it and was glad we went; (b) this New York Times reviewer who laments Warhol's solo song, saying "Gee, Andy, I liked you so much better when you were making like an empty shell"; (c) this Post-Gazette reviewer who said, "How do you create a whodunit when the facts of the case are a Bing away?" (WTF?! BING?!); and (d) Lou Reed and John Cale, who have said all the things I've mentioned above (and more, of course) but only about Andy and his story and not this production.

Ultimately, I hope you do get out and see this show, in some capacity. I hope you listen to a song or two online, or go out and see it live. I hope you read a review online and share it with your friends. I hope you read Warhol's writings. I hope you listen to every Velvet Underground album (especially The VU & Nico) and Songs For Drella. I hope you form opinions about all of those artistic objects. I hope you package your ideas somehow. I hope you share them however you see fit: Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, the Post-Gazette comments section, YouTube, a musical response, a self-printed manifesto, a telephone chain campaign, a stint at Speakers' Corner, or just yelling in the mirror while you brush your teeth. Whatever it is, I hope you have an opinion and that it gets shared with the universe. Andy Warhol would be proud. He'd fucking love you. But he probably wouldn't say so. He'd likely smile at you, though. And maybe he'd put you in a movie.

1 comment:

  1. Related note: the Village Voice shares interesting excerpts from their archives now and then, and here is a news article they posted about the shooting of Andy Warhol, from June 6, 1968!