INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Musician APRIL 1989 - by Scott Isler
BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED
VIOLENCE, VIOLA AND ENIGMA VARIATIONS
He's very much a private man," says one of his associates; "he keeps his own counsel." "He's amazingly articulate," says another, adding, "He's also incredibly humble." "He's a perfectionist... he knows what he wants," the first counters. The various viewpoints aren't surprising, considering the subject: John Cale has baffled, shocked and thrilled people with his music for over two decades. He plays Dirty Ass Rock 'n' Roll (the genre and the song, which he wrote) and symphonic sketches with orchestras. He prefers Brahms and Jimmy Reed to hip-hop - or Philip Glass. He knows viola, keyboards and guitar; insists he's a classical composer; and tours clubs with hard-rocking little groups inevitably featuring guitar wizard Chris Spedding. In the early '60s, while performing at Tanglewood, Cale chopped up a table. Over a dozen years later, performing more visceral music in a less effete atmosphere, he chopped up a chicken. In short, a well-rounded musician.
But there's more to Cale than chops. His studio expertise keeps him active as a producer. His taste in projects has shown a discernment justified by history if not record sales: Cale produced the debuts of Iggy Pop (with The Stooges), Jonathan Richman (with The Modern Lovers), Squeeze and Patti Smith. His four albums with the enigmatic singer Nico, who died last year, embrace some of the most profoundly unsettling sound ever marketed as "pop". And yet, for all his achievements, there is one albatross Cale can't get off his neck. From 1965 to 1968 he was a member of The Velvet Underground, a band that - though little heralded at the time - has so grown in stature over the years that it is now considered a crucial turning point in rock music. Cale was second in the group only to main singer/songwriter Lou Reed; but while Reed's wildly uneven solo career has received lots of attention, Cale - to paraphrase a Reed song - has done his growing up in private. John Cale is a legend who would rather be famous.
January 1988: Cale arrives promptly at a Greenwich Village coffee shop, looking professorial in a dark herringbone tweed jacket over a sweater over a blue shirt. In his late forties, he cuts an imposing figure: largish build, but with the tucked-in look someone who works out. A shock of hair falls over his forehead, accenting his broad features. The voice retains a Welsh accent, with rolled Rs and muzzy intonation. A week earlier Cale played with his band at New York's Bottom Line. He looked distinguished in a pin-striped ruffled shirt with Eton collar and suspenders, while grinning maniacally through Guts or screaming cathartically on Leaving It All Up to You. Cale screams well. At the end of the set he bowed formally to the cheering audience.
Two months later Cale would be playing piano at the American premiere of his 1987 Falklands Suite, four Dylan Thomas poems and three interludes all scored for chamber orchestra, pedal steel guitar and children's choir. No rock 'n' roll animal here.
It sounds like culture shock, but Cale has always moved gingerly between these two musical worlds. Indeed, his resumé and conversation suggest that rock, not "classical," is more foreign to his taste. "Instead of putting bands together when I was a kid," he says, "I used to play viola concertos with youth orchestras." He left his native South Wales to study classical music at London University in the early '60s. From there he went to the Eastman Conservatory at Tanglewood on a Leonard Bernstein scholarship. By 1964 Cale was in New York, working with proto-minimalist composer La Monte Young and discovering pop music.
A fortuitous business encounter threw Cale and Lou Reed together in a touring band to promote a pseudo-dance craze number Reed had written called The Ostrich. "That was a song," Cale remembers, "written entirely by detuning the six strings of a guitar down to a B - six B strings. You played the whole thing by barring it."
The Reed-Cale partnership evolved into The Velvet Underground. Cale played on the band's first two albums; then Reed fired him, giving rise to persistent mutual-hatred rumors (though the two reunited onstage with another VU alumna, Nico, a mere two years later). Cale admits he and Reed were out of touch for some time. But in 1987, Cale says, "I called up Lou and I said, 'Look, I've got these few songs and I'm stuck with them. I thought maybe you'd be interested."
That was the beginning of Songs For Drella: A Tribute To Andy Warhol, a commission by Arts at St. Ann's, a Brooklyn heights church, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Cale "supposes" Reed was surprised to hear from him. "But I think he was more surprised how easy it was to get back into working than anything else - just as I was that things started off in one direction and rapidly grew in strength. The ideas were really good."
Songs For Drella (a Warhol nickname, from Cinderella) completes a circular voyage for Cale - not only reuniting him with Reed but acknowledging the artist and media guru who was the patron saint of the Velvet Underground. In the twenty years that Cale has been on his own, he's dabbled in various areas: Besides his own recordings and productions for others, he's been a record-company A&R rep and even acted on film. Since the release of his last studio album, 1985's Artficial Intelligence, Cale has purposely emphasized his classical-music side. The catalyst was the birth, also in 1985, of his daughter Eden.
"I took a year off to be a father," Cale says. "I wanted to learn parenting. Then I decided, okay, I'm not going to go out and tour and leave my family, and I'm not going to take my family with me. I'll do something that would be a compromise: I'll write more classical pieces." He began with a string quartet in 1987, a commission from the Massachusetts College of Art. Then he started a symphony, but before he could finish he received another commission, from the Randy Warshaw Dance Company. The orchestral ideas went into Sanctus, which the Warshaw company performed (with the aid of Kurzweils and string synthesizers) that November.
The Falklands Suite grew out of an early-'80s desire on Cale's part to set Dylan Thomas to music - "partly to find out what musical sounds worked with the internal rhythmic clatter of the words," according to Cale's notes for the piece. He also used the opportunity to throw in the pedal steel guitar he had earlier written into the string quartet and then taken out. "I showed it to somebody and they just threw their arms up in the air and said, 'You can't do this. You can get steel players who have great ears but very few of them can read.'"
Later, however, Cale met Joshua Dubin, a musician who says he's "very much into trying to do different things with the steel guitar." Cale, Dubin adds, "was as unfamiliar with steel guitar as I was with his music," but the composer still "wanted a certain sound," and Dubin was willing. The Falklands Suite had its world debut on Dutch television, played by the Metropole Orchestra "which spends most of its time doing Nelson Riddle arrangements," Cale says. "These guys are bureaucrats: 'Don't fuck with me, Jack, I've got tenure.' They're all very well dressed and totally disinterested."
Cale is just as critical of himself. He prefers the string writing in Sanctus, done on a computer, to that in The Falklands Suite. The latter is "a mixture of The Sound Of Music and Benjamin Britten," and he wants to revise the score, which "sticks in my craw." He's hardly more lenient toward his only recorded orchestral work so far; the miniatures on his 1972 album The Academy In Peril. "Most of that was padding," Cale says, "holding chords. But it had a few moments of original noises from the orchestra."
Not even the Velvet Underground is sacrosanct. "We had a chance to do it and we blew it,', he stated in a 1979 interview. "We didn't deliver."
So who does Cale respect? Would you believe... The Doobie Brothers? Steely Dan? "There are elements of them that are very, very strong," he says, apparently in earnest. "Some parts of them show incredible craftsmanship, and that's what I appreciate. There are certain things Randy Newman does that, in the craft of songwriting, are really his brand: the way he creates phrases, his lyrics especially. There was a recording thing with The Doobies that I thought was tops. Steely Dan just seemed like they worked very carefully on their words." Cale still knows how to shock an audience.
Regardless of what he says, Cale the producer doesn't gravitate to slick performers. Instead, what attracts him to an artist, he says, is "individuality. You've got to resolve conflicts in situations. You've got to be an ally, a co-conspirator. Sometimes you have to introduce conflict into the situation in order to resolve it. You have to make one position or another untenable. With Patti Smith, it was a case of, 'Look, you're gonna have a band that would be able to do The Rolling Stones for you. You have got to be neither The Rolling Stones nor a member of the band. What you're doing is really not involved in songwriting at all. You're involved in something else that employs a band, but what it is I can't tell you.' The vaguer you leave it, the more product you get."
A vein of anger, like molten lava, runs through Cale's own rock-oriented work. His first solo release, pleasant enough musically, was called Vintage Violence. Later Cale albums grew increasingly strident in tone and subject matter. By 1981 at least one critic was moved to ask, "Why is John Cale's mind so full of bombs and barbed wire?"
"It was, then," admits the composer of Fear Is a Man's Best Friend," Gun and Mercenaries (Ready For War). "But... it was fashionable at the time." This isn't quite an answer worth an eight-year wait.
His friend and co-writer Larry Sloman notes Cale's "academic interest" in terrorism and government intelligence. Sloman, executive editor of National Lampoon, recalls Cale asking him for credentials to attend a National Security Council seminar in Washington on international terrorism. "I had to explain to him," Sloman laughs, "'John, they're not gonna take it seriously if National Lampoon asks to cover this!'" However, "judging by the way events unfold, John's insights always seem to be closer to reality than paranoia."
And maybe we should take Cale at his word. His new material, he says, consists of "humorous love songs. They're not anywhere near as dark as the old ones. Subject matter was really the one thing that was bothering me. I didn't want to get involved in that intense, psychotic-that was always something thathappened with the old songs. You start off with a plain tune and it turned into a totally different situation. This time it was a conscious effort not to get involved in it, to maintain equilibrium."
Asked if his songs are inner- or outer-directed, Cale fudges: "Inner-directed look-ing at other people." He refers to Music For A New Society, a 1982 album that is among Cale's most harrowing in its stark textures, extreme scenarios and lack of traditional song forms. Those pieces "seemed to have characters in them where forces around them were making them come to decisions. I've always disliked songs that ask questions. Finding answers is more important. And seeing characters, personalities working out solutions to problems is real interesting. That's what soap operas are. But songwriting is not that monochromatic."
Neither is Cale. His career is "all over the place," and it doesn't help that he has no manager. He admits it would be "handy to have somebody who knows everything that's going on. I don't know anything that's going on." Instead he retains a London-based representative, "basically a booking agent. It's a good arrangement for whatever little needs I have for some business."
He notes that Lou Reed is also managerless: "He seems to feel much better about doing everything himself. We have similar attitudes towards managers: We never quite figured out how the hell to use 'em. You've got to know what you want from 'em. You can't just say, 'Okay, you're the manager.' Usually when that happens you get a manager who's got an ego in him that's meaner than yours and there's never gratification for him."
One thing Cale's discovering from his present situation is that "record companies are loath to deal with an artist. They don't want to talk to you; they want to talk to your manager. You can't get on a personal basis, even if you know what a manager does. You can't argue with a record company without damaging your relationship with the publicity department."
That may explain why there have been no new John Cale recordings in four years. But if Cale's lost any sleep over that, he isn't letting on. "I hope that the different situations I've gone through haven't completely destroyed the thread of what the music is about," he says of his variegated career. "There's been a lot of distractions along the way, but I'm still here, alive and kicking. And I'm pulling all the little threads together, slowly."
August 1988: New York summer, with urban grace, has kicked spring aside, and the city is now stewing in its worst prolonged heat wave in forty-four years. Cale arrives at a (different) Greenwich Village cafe wearing jeans and a purple short-sleeve pullover. He seems distracted and/or fidgety. He's been pulling apart The Falklands Suite.
"I'm gonna drop the instrumental introduction; it doesn't fit in m going to try to do it with a smaller orchestra A lot of that string writing is murky, especially the cello parts. I like having that buzzing going on down low. The thing about doing it with fewer numbers is you don't have that depth, that low end.".
In the meantime, Cale's been keeping busy: producing an album for Canadian singer/songwriter Art Bergmann, touring as a one-man opening act for Pere Ubu, preparing ballet music for choreographer Ralph Lemon. And then there was the Songs For Drella project, pending Cale and Reed signing "a legal document that's very restrictive. But it's a strong foundation for a collaboration." The agreement, Cale adds, "won't apply only to Songs For Drella. It'll apply to anything. Then you'll be able to approach labels.".
(Reed had also asked Cale to play on the former's New York album, then in progress. This fell through for reasons Cale won't divulge. Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker appears on New York, suggesting that sentimental Lou was flirting with a VU reunion. Cale hints that with Reed it's "three steps forward, two steps back.").
"I'm really excited about the Drella thing," Cale continues. "Once we get the kind of writing I love from Lou - that kind of Venus in Furs, Black Angel's Death Song kind of writing which he doesn't give you so much of anymore. The lyrical style is denser, it's more intricate and compelling.
"Lou comes to terms with himself in songs. I wouldn't be surprised if he's most satisfied when he's written a song 'cause it's worked out all these tensions that are in his head. It happens with me too. It's like somebody discovering their identity. I've written 'pop' songs, for want of a better word. Those things don't move me anymore. I don't like the idea that I'm writing pop songs. Sanities on Music For A New Society is not just a song, it's a dramatic movement, like a monologue. Black Angel's Death Song was a slap in the face, confrontational: 'We don't care where you are, we're over here' - very defensive. It's trying to have as many levels as you want in a song, not just those that pop songs seem to fall into."
Cale has another reason to be thinking about The Velvet Underground era. A month earlier Nico had fallen off a bicycle, hit her head and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
"She was such a great lady," Cale says, his voice dropping in pitch. "I miss her. She's the one who was carrying the torch for The Velvet Underground. Everybody else went their own way. Nobody ever told her what to sing; she was a law unto herself."
Her willfulness apparently contributed to her death. "She dressed swaddling style, layered in black," Cale recalls. "And one thing you don't do in Majorica In summer is go cycling in these clothes!"
Cale's own willfulness hasn't hurt him - at least not fatally - though he's aware he can't be accused of going for the gold. "I can't put two and two together." He admits cheerfully, if only he sounded cheerful. "Some people say, 'Let's write this kind of song' and go off and do it. If I wrote that kind of song, I'd always end up seeing I'm doing it gritting my teeth with an ulterior motive in mind."
He's never recorded anything commercial then?
"There's too much egotism involved in it. I figure, well, it'll still work as a piece of my personality. I never have to be an apologist."
Cale then abruptly announces he has to leave. "I'm playing at four."