Tomorrow is the birthday of Andy Warhol, and today I’m going into NYC, maybe even some art galleries in Chelsea, so why not pay tribute to Mr. New York himself. Throughout my younger years—into the 30s—I was no great fan of Warhol, rather resenting the fact that fine art sold out to pop art. I could say more about that—I’ve been reading Hal Foster’s The First Pop Age recently because I think, at long last, I’m ready to start thinking as a pop formalist—but this isn’t the time and place.
Instead, I’m harking back to 1990 and the album Lou Reed and John Cale wrote and performed, paying tribute to their fallen mentor, master, and, sure, sometime whipping boy (who died in 1987). Warhol produced the first Velvet Underground album, of course, the one with Nico, and seemed to think of the band as an art provocation. The album, Songs for Drella, chronicles the artist’s career much as he might have viewed it himself—both Reed and Cale can be counted on to have some insight into how Warhol’s mind worked, and are willing to look at the frictions in their respective relationships with him. The complete album is not always as fine as its best bits, but there’s some interesting facet explored in each song. I came away from my early listenings to the LP with a more forgiving sense of Warhol’s necessary presence in art history. And Reed and Cale—always rather fractious with each other—overcoming their antipathy to create and perform a fitting tribute is actually touching, as are a few of the songs.
In other words, I could say that I was skeptical and that I became convinced. And still am. Even more so now that Lou’s gone too. And this video of the two performing on the David Letterman Show revives a bit of the awe I was capable of, where such persons were concerned, around 30. It still gets to me seeing two of my musical heroes paying tribute, on TV, to one of their heroes.
The song, “Nobody But You,” was the first song I heard because I saw them on Letterman before I had the record. It’s actually a bit better in performance than it is on the record. And it’s one of the best songs and was a good choice—even if you don’t know Reed is speaking “as” Warhol for much of it, the song still gets across the attitude it is trying to capture. Reed’s lyrics tend to be very direct, with a kind of stream of consciousness that, lots of times, only he can make work. The jibes at Warhol, sung as if coming from Warhol, are full of a very deadpan charm. Reed is a master of deadpan and it seems he learned it from Warhol, another master.
The lyrics capture the kind of low key whine that seemed to be Warhol’s most common interpersonal style, moving from “I really care a lot / Although I look like I do not” (pretty much summing up their view of Warhol) to “At dinner I’m the one who pays” to “I want to be what I am not” to comments on his health after being shot by Valerie Solanis in 1968, with “the doctors said that I was gone” (he was pronounced dead back then), and “I’m still not sure I didn’t die / And if I’m dreaming I still have bad pains inside.” This excavation of Warhol’s suffering (who’da thought?) comes across—a bit—as grandstanding, and that’s where the great Lou Reed deadpan delivery counts so much. The whole album, for Reed, seems an exercise in tough love, of Warhol, of Cale, of himself as seen through the prism of those involvements. I’ve never doubted Reed’s credentials as one of the great mavericks of rock, answerable, ultimately, only to himself, and to see him shadow someone so closely, keeping Warhol in his sights but also seeing himself as reflected from Warhol, is fascinating. It shows that Reed was a very good student of what Warhol represents, after all.
The great touch in the song is the way the line “Nobody But You” keeps morphing into “Nobody Like You” and “A Nobody Like You.” The bridge between the two is the middle term: “Nobody Like You” means “you’re unique, one of a kind”—a very key statement in the originality sweepstakes. On either side is “Nobody But You” which is one of those borderline masochistic positions: you are the only one who matters, there’s no one or nothing else in my life that could matter as much or more; and on the other side, when resentment of that adulation comes up, “A Nobody Like You” is the sadistic side of the coin: “you’re nothing, you’re not worth my time or attention.”
The song very carefully steps through that minefield—“Nobody but you / A nobody like you / Since I got shot / There’s nobody but you.” We might imagine that’s Andy consoling himself with the idea that, now that a brush with death has made him realize he’s all he has, ultimately, he must be the “you” in this equation. Even to the point of seeing that he himself was a “nobody” who has to accept the preciousness of his own being. So the self-effacing descriptions—“I wish I had a stronger chin / My skin was good, my nose was thin / This is no movie I’d ask to be in / With a nobody like you”—are very apropos. Warhol’s sensitivity to his own posturing comes forward as a grasp of how tenuous his grasp is—on his identity, on his art, on his looks, on his personal (as opposed to net) worth. Warhol knows that being a “somebody” cancels being a “nobody” except that “there’s nobody like you.” Nobody can be the Somebody he most wants to be, at least nobody like him: “I know I’ll never be a bride / To nobody like you.” There is a “one and only”—our best beloved, and our heroic sense of ourselves—that forever eludes us. Or at least those heroes as candid about their failings as Reed and Cale make Warhol, here.
And that great closing line, “All my life / It’s been nobodies like you,” resonates as a Warhol put-down but also the cry of the put-upon. Warhol was shot by a “nobody” who became a “somebody” by shooting him, revealing the machinery of the kind of fame Warhol himself was in service to, in cahoots with. It’s only ironic when looked at from without, historically as it were (or as it was). In propria persona, Warhol is the guy who got shot, regardless of who or what he is. That level playingfield is what still haunts. Andy was the last guy you’d expect to die for his art.
Anyway, I’m glad Reed and Cale got together to do this. And I get such a charge seeing them together on TV, in New York, paying tribute. It’s a funhouse—the pop world, the media, the fine arts. Warhol, in this little ditty, is still at play in them all.
You know I like to look a lot.