INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Filter APRIL 9, 2012 - by Ken Scrudato
A BROKEN HALLELUJAH: THE INCOMPARABLE MUSICAL JOURNEY OF JOHN CALE
1967. Hippies decisively and visibly represented the countercultural reaction to all of the old regime's evils (war crimes) and injustices (institutionalised prejudice), by means of shambolic style, liberal drug experimentation, peace-and-love ideology and, most enduringly, politicised rock music. Yet in 2012, it is the cultural legacy of what came out of a small New York enclave of narcissistic weirdoes known as The Factory that resonates most relevantly. To wit, works by Andy Warhol regularly fetch eight figures... while hippie culture has settled into a perpetual self-parody.
The Velvet Underground, of course, were The Factory's official musical front. They remain one of the few most-influential rock bands in history. Yet on paper, they seemed a virtual impossibility: Lou Reed, the gruff but arty Brooklyn Jew; Sterling Morrison, the unassuming guitar virtuoso from Long Island; Moe Tucker, a keypunch-operator-turned-stand-up-(stand-up!)-drummer; and, finally, John Cale, the dashing but radically inclined son of a Welsh coal miner, on bass and viola. Together, they dragged rock and roll violently into the swelling avant-garde.
Cale had broken from his humble but odd upbringing (his mother taught him only Welsh, his father spoke only English) by allying with London's artistic new guard while studying music at Goldsmiths College in the early '60s. And while London was awash in a brightly coloured, mod pop revolution, Cale and his cohorts were looking to Deutschland and Gotham for an instruction manual on cultural deconstruction. In New York, John Cage was composing silence; Yves Klein's The Void found the artist provocatively exhibiting a blank gallery; and the Fluxus movement had set out to demolish the last vestiges of bourgeois banality in art. In Darmstadt, Germany, Karlheinz Stockhausen was exploding the boundaries of modern composition.
Cale recalls of his Goldsmiths days, "I was hanging out with [experimental composer] Cornelius Cardew and the artist Robin Page. Cornelius was part of the avant-garde in London, but he'd gone to Germany and been to the Stockhausen classes that La Monte [Young] had also been at. He'd met La Monte and knew him. There was a common ground, we were all very much into John Cage and the New York School. Cornelius helped me to put together the Festival of New Music in my last days of college."
Cale eventually bolted for New York, bringing with him a classical music education. He spent a year working with the NYC bleeding edge - Young, Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise - resulting in the unprecedented Inside The Dream Syndicate series. But his life would be forever changed when he and Conrad met a Pickwick Records exec at a party, who later introduced him to an ornery but romantic young songwriter named Lou Reed.
For proper context, you must remember how relatively tame rock still was at that time. The twentieth century had already seen a radical reformation of the visual arts by means of Dada and Surrealism - and Fluxus was reviving the Dada spirit as a commentary on the fractured postwar consumer and media society. Rock and roll had The Doors and Hendrix, but it still mostly followed a set of structural rules. The Velvet Underground were about to introduce it to beautiful chaos, with Cale as the prime sonic agitator.
"The viola is a very melancholy instrument," Cale says. "But when I got to New York, I changed the whole character of the instrument, it became part of the tapestry for the band. We were trying to get that grandiose Phil Spector panorama going, and the viola with a drone was the closest we could get to it. It worked very well."
Well, indeed. The Velvet Underground made music that was virulent, antagonistic, aurally piercing and yet somehow also seductively quixotic. Drugs played no small part.
Cale recollects, "We would do the romantic style that Lou really favoured, and then there was the orchestral stuff that was a lot more manic and put us very much outside the norm."
They were quickly "adopted" by Warhol and the Factory crowd, Andy keenly recognising the value of aligning with the most original and polarising band of the time. He installed the icily gorgeous Berlin model Nico as vocalist, staged quasi-anarchic multi-media events at the cinematheque dubbed The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (with the VU playing in front of projections of Warhol films) and generated a fervor amongst those who got it, while inspiring a kind of terror in those too square to comprehend.
"We loved it!" enthuses Cale. "It was us against them. Nobody had seen anything like it. It was shambolic, it was exciting, it was dazzling... and it was abrasive. But we had no idea how big of an influence Andy would be. It turned our lives upside down! There was so much publicity all of the sudden; we weren't prepared for it. Though, having Andy on our side kind of silenced a lot of people, because he was the enfant terrible of art in New York. It was a real cultural revolution going on."
They went on to record two of the most perception-shattering and important (in terms of immediate and lasting impact) albums of all time, the astonishing debut The Velvet Underground & Nico, and the wicked, noise-laden follow-up White Light/White Heat.
In a way, Cale became the ultimate stable-boy-at-the-ball, the working-class lad from the Welsh countryside who found himself hobnobbing with the elite of New York's fashion and art scenes. He even married outré, proto-punk designer Betsey Johnson, though it didn't last long. But Cale eventually had enough of the combative relationship with Reed and set out on his own. He wasted no time blossoming into the Renaissance man he'd surely always meant to be. In fact, it's hard to emphasise enough the scope of his influence, considering he would go on to produce the earth-shaking, self-titled debut of The Stooges in 1969, and later Patti Smith's 1975 masterpiece Horses, both of which laid imperative groundwork for the punk explosion. In between, his nascent solo work ranged from the straightforward but absorbing debut Vintage Violence, to the primarily instrumental (featuring the Royal Philharmonic) The Academy In Peril, to Paris 1919, which found him revisiting some of the aural chaos of his VU days and mating it with his classical inclinations. He'd also formed one of rock's most fascinating and enigmatic partnerships with none other than Nico. The aloof, Teutonic beauty was keen to reject her status as fashion icon, and with Cale as arranger or producer, recorded first 1969's The Marble Index, still considered a seminal master work of Gothic rock, then the Desertshore and then yet another classic of elegiac exquisiteness, 1974's ominously titled The End.
Nico died of a brain haemorrhage in 1988 in Ibiza, and in 2009, Cale, along with the likes of Peter Murphy, Mercury Rev and Lisa Gerrard, organised tribute shows, the most spectacular taking place at the Teatro Comunale in the medieval Italian city of Ferrara.
"It was this giant opera house," he rhapsodises, "just packed to the rafters. It was really amazing. I think what we tapped into [with the tributes] was an audience of young female artists who really appreciated Nico for her songwriting."
The mid '70s had found Cale at a brilliant creative peak, with him releasing a trio of albums for Island - Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen Of Troy - that would come to define the unfettered range of his musical vision. His collaborators included Brian Eno, legendary guitarist Chris Spedding and Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera. The common aesthetic thread was a general dark and brooding atmosphere, suggesting a rather unsettled psyche.
"'Gothic' is a good word for it," agrees Cale while managing a laugh. "I was not in a good place at that time. The lifeline for me was going out on tour with Chris Spedding and the band."
Curiously for someone so revered by its adherents, Cale was so busy touring Europe in the '70s that he now insists that punk pretty much snuck up on him. While rock and fashion were being ripped to shreds in New York and London, he was busy cultivating a rabid following on the Continent, especially Germany. He claims of the punks, "I wasn't really sure what they were after. I tried to do what I had done in Europe in New York, and it had all changed. Then we went to London and got our heads handed to us."
Nevertheless, he concluded the '70s by recording the abrasive, politically charged Sabotage (Live) at New York's punk temple itself, CBGB. But despite a generation of New Wave and Goth bands clearly mining Cale's oeuvre, he spent most of the '80s just touring around Europe and releasing a few solid but not distinctly spectacular solo records (Music for a New Society was notable for its gripping bleakness). He also, in a bizarre turn, produced the Happy Mondays' outlandishly brilliant debut album.
"That was a strange one!" Cale admits. "I knew Tony Wilson of Factory Records, but I never expected that he would think I would be good for Happy Mondays. It's vague enough in my memory that I never really understood who was the songwriter. But I saw them at the Q Awards a couple of years ago, and they have this remarkable ability to walk into a room and create chaos almost instantly!"
It was the renewal of his creative relationship with Eno, however, that genuinely signaled a career renaissance.
Indeed, Cale dug out his never-recorded The Falklands Suite from 1982, based on the poems of fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas, and performed it with a full orchestra and children's choir at Amsterdam's Paradiso in 1987. He sent a tape of it to Eno, which would blossom into the deeply poignant collaboration Words For The Dying, recorded with an orchestra at Gosteleradio Studios in Moscow, later adding Wales' Llandaff Cathedral Choir. It was followed by another magnificent Eno-Cale collaboration, Wrong Way Up, curiously enough an exuberant, almost joyful pop record.
In the interim, however, the death of Andy Warhol in 1987 had brought Cale and Reed back together for the first time in many years. What followed was as unimaginable as it was inevitable.
Cale recalls, "Andy died, and there was a gathering after the ceremony at St. Patrick's. Julian Schnabel and I were talking there about doing a requiem for him. Lou was also there, and we hadn't spoken in years. It struck me that the thing that people would be most interested in seeing would be just Lou and me on stage, performing. So we put the deal together with Warner Bros and BAM."
The result was Songs For Drella (Warhol's nickname, a combination of "Dracula" and "Cinderella"), a loving but musically uneven encomium to Andy, with riveting live performances staged at St. Ann's and the Brooklyn Academy of Music to accompany the album. Cale and Reed soon fell out again, but rumours of a full Velvet Underground reunion emerged in the wake. The VU did, indeed, reunite in 1992, and a European tour was launched in Edinburgh in June 1993 to widespread acclaim. A U.S. tour was in the works when it all quickly unraveled.
Cale earnestly reflects, "I don't think it was really a success from The Velvet Underground's point of view. I think we could have gone and done anything we wanted. We got caught up in doing things we would have been better off replacing with newer stuff. But Lou made it clear that he wasn't interested in doing that."
Cale's career since that time has been as varied and unrelenting as one might expect of such a restless genius. He produced the final Siouxsie & The Banshees record in 1995, has collaborated with the likes of Bob Neuwirth, Hector Zazou, Patti Smith and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem (Cale covered LCD's All My Friends as a B-side to the band's single release of that song in 2007), scored several French films and released a pair of excellent post-millennium solo albums, HoboSapiens and blackAcetate, which are up there with his best work.
In 2010, Cale received an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) from the Queen herself - marking the full circle journey from his role as an antagonist of the established order to being honoured by that very same crowd.
He explains, "It had to do with the fact that I went to the [2009 Venice] Biennale and represented Wales. The extraordinary experience that went with it was all these people being recognised for their amazing works in communities all over England and Wales."
In 2011, he signed to Domino Records, not only one of the world's perpetually hippest labels but also one which perfectly matched his peripatetic creative spirit. His first release for the label was the relentlessly modern, virtually flawless EP: Extra Playful. It encompasses elements of so much of his career output (funk here, Gothic there, punctuated by noise experiments, laden with perfect pop hooks). Tracks like Catastrofuk and Hey Ray could stand comfortably beside any number of current hipster hits.
Cale is also hard at work on a full album for Domino, out later in 2012, featuring vocal contributions by Noelle Scaggs of Fitz and the Tantrums. As well, Cale mentions the likes of Black Lips, James Blake and Panda Bear when queried about returning to the producer's chair. But it is the relentless pace of his inexorable career that, at least for now, prevents just such a return.
"Last year turned out to be something other than what I thought," he explains, "with the festivals and two film scores. This year is going to be even worse, with touring all over the world. I love touring. But coming off the road and marching into the studio with someone you've never met before takes some thinking, it takes figuring out."
And with the "conceptual" speed of time having been decisively accelerated, urgency is ever at his door. "I think Andy's 'fifteen minutes,'" Cale incisively observes, "are now down to three seconds."