Certain Songs #984: Lou Reed / John Cale – “Work”

Album: Songs For Drella
Year: 1990

Of course the reason that Lou Reed & John Cale recorded Songs For Drella as a duo instead of with a full band is that they knew that a full band would instantly invite comparisons to their work with the Velvet Underground, and they wanted to make sure that the focus was on the stories they were telling about their mentor, the late Andy Warhol.

Which made sense, because for rabid Velvets fans such as myself, just the prospect of hearing the interplay of Cale’s keyboards and Reed’s guitar for the first time since the late 1960s was far more important than anything they had to say about Warhol, who I always perceived as important to their career, but not so much to their music.

Which is a perception that is completely challenged by a song like “Work,” which posits Warhol as not just an exemplar of the work ethic, but as someone who tried to foist those ideals upon a young Lou Reed, the older version of whom recalls those times rather wistfully.

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 lied and said, “Ten.”
“You won’t be young forever
You should have written fifteen
It’s work, the most important thing is work
It’s work, the most important thing is work”

One time, Bob Dylan was asked if the drugs he took influenced his songs and he responded: “No, not the writing of them. But it did keep me up there to pump ’em out.” I would argue that a song like “Work” kinda shows that Andy Warhol had the same kind of influence on The Velvets. He didn’t influence the songs, but he sure did help Lou pump ’em out.

“You ought to make things big
People like it that way
And the songs with the dirty words
Make sure you record them that way”
Andy liked to stir up trouble, he was funny that way
He said, “It’s just work, all that matters is work”

(And yes, I know Lou rhymes “that way,” “that way,” and “that way.” And no, I don’t care.)

Meanwhile, John Cale is playing one of those pulsating rhythmic piano parts that doesn’t quite to seem to exist in any real time signature, and is continually on the verge of floating into the ether, but luckily Lou’s guitar is keeping it anchored. There is almost no way a song like “Work” could have been recorded with a full band, and yet, it’s still like a lost Velvet Underground demo, especially when Lou takes off on the guitar near the end.

One of the upsides of Songs For Drella is that Cale & Reed tolerated each other just enough to decide to tolerate each other for a full Velvet Underground reunion and European tour a couple of years later. Which of course ended up being so acrimonious they never made it here to the colonies.

Considering how broke I was during that point in my life, I wonder if I’d have been able to see them on that forever hypothetical U.S. reunion tour. Guessing I would have done everything possible.

“Work”

“Work” performed live

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