INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Age OCTOBER 27, 2001 - by Stephanie Bunbury
OUT OF CONTROL
Velvet Underground behind him, John Cale is heading to Melbourne.
John Cale is a huge, shambling man who barely folds down into an armchair. He looks far more robust than anyone should on the brink of sixty and, truth to tell, supernaturally healthy for someone who spent a significant part of his youth in the seedy indoor world of Warhol's factory and his middle years on the sauce. Can this John Cale, who seems to hail from the greenest of valleys, really be the same boyo?
Oh yeah, yeah. Cale, as everyone knew at the time, was the musical brain behind Lou Reed in the unmatched Velvet Underground. Lou did the posturing, the gravel voice, the street-smart lyrics and the stardom; John Cale knew how music worked. No, it was more than that; he knew to go beyond the way it worked.
He had studied musicology at Goldsmith's, the art college that later produced most of Britain's finest, then won a scholarship that allowed him to study, then work, with some of the most significant composers of the past century - Aaron Copeland, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and La Monte Young. John Cale, in other words, had been heading for the heart of serious modern music when he ditched it, more or less, for rock'n'roll. And then, of course, made rock that was scrambled by an avant-garde imagination.
And none of this has changed. Listen to his albums, admittedly few since his '70s boom, or his film music; John Cale is seething towards senior citizenship still as hungry for musical experiment as a fast-growing adolescent, but still a rocker. He talks young, too, quite unconsciously.
His autobiography, What's Welsh For Zen, documents his difficult relationship with his mother, who pushed him hard when he was young; little John, viola prodigy, was playing on the BBC when he was eight. Of course, that was long ago, but he talks of family wounds now with the fresh hurt of youth
I finally met, just a month ago, relatives on my father's side I knew nothing about, he says, and it just became clear to me that there was a whole number done to my head about my father's side of the family.
His mother's Welsh family were firm believers in education and set their sights high. And my father was just a coal-miner and English-speaking. When he moved to Garnant to live with my mother in my grandmother's house, my grandmother banned the use of English in the house. I knew that about my grandmother. I didn't like her very much at all.
But when I saw my cousin, there is something physical that happens when you see someone and say, hey, you look like me. You realise there is this kind of injustice being done here. And you are wondering what the hell you can do about it. But there is nothing you can do about it. And there is a big revision going on my head. An ambivalence, I suggest, towards his family? he splutters at ambivalence, a milksop little word trying to stand in for the vivid force of feeling. It's not ambivalence, he growls. It's more like turmoil.
A lot of Cale's relationships have exploded in his face. There are the three marriages, and the time his band walked out on a performance - and forever - when he decapitated a chicken onstage as a kind of challenge to the punk aesthetic.
Then there are the famous collaborations that have turned sour; he fell out with Brian Eno, had furious fights with Patti Smith when he was producing Horses and, of course, his years of closely watched friction with Lou Reed.
Cale met Reed at one of the succession of wild New York artists' parties. From the start, they pulled different ways. The only thing we had in common were drugs and an obsession with risk-taking, he has written. Everyone from Central park to San Francisco was dropping acid; Reed and Cale, meanwhile, championed hard, nasty drugs that could really wreck your life. We thought doing evil was better than doing nothing. It was a heady period, but people paid heavy prices for that excess. For many of us, Cale wrote recently, those days had a lustre but too much confusion.
Of course, iconoclasm was not quite all Reed and Cale had in common; they both loved edgy music and their musical differences, that magnetic push and pull between pop and the experimental, were precisely what made them such a remarkable creative partnership. All Tomorrow's Parties or Heroin or White Light/White Heat or Venus In Furs still sound new. Explosive energy, however, is not sustainable. Reed fired Cale in 1968 and, when they finally reunited in a Velvets reunion tour twenty years later, they found out all over again that they could not get along.
Lou was more about control, he says now, dispassionately. It was absolutely about control and I was all about improvisation. John Cale has a horror of control, even of an audience. There is a certain sort of control I just don't want. I don't want to write stadium anthems. I don't want to have people singing in unison. That sort of nationalistic fervour scares the shit out of me... That doesn't allow, he adds, slightly puzzingly, for human fallibility. Presumably he means human variety, but perhaps they amount to the same thing.
On that doomed tour of 1990, he realised Reed was a bully. I should have spotted it earlier on; when I did, it was too late. Once that point had been reached, it was obvious that I and everyone else in the band was considered second-class; it was quite blatant and he had Sylvia to help him. Cale could see why he needed to be so dominant; his childhood was terrible. I know the reasons. It helps a little bit.
He shrugs: I think he wants me to know that understanding doesn't help that much. But you could always rely on Lou to come up with this amazing lyric at the drop of a hat. The best thing about all of this is that he's still writing.
There could never have been any doubt that John Cale would keep working. Brian Eno was to say, right in the middle of his most substance-riddled years, that Cale was the most intelligent man in rock; in the recording studio he would play piano, read the paper and make phone calls simultaneously just to keep his mind adequately occupied.
Despite the uppers and the alcohol, he wrote prolifically and produced for a string of new bands from The Stooges on their first album through Squeeze and Siouxsie & The Banshees. Without having to bother to reinvent himself, Cale became a punk icon just as his thirties turned into supposedly terminal forties. Critics joked that he was the oldest man in the world still looking good in leather trousers. He probably still would.
His own composing embraced serious modern music and film scores. These included both the sort of New York art-house movies you might expect - Jonathan Demme's Something Wild Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol - and the less expected, such as a score for a silent film, Todd Browning's The Unknown, for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Film music is personal, he says. You don't have to sing or see an audience; there is a lot of freedom in that, because you can try anything you want.
Of course, the director is the author of the film and ultimately controls the music, but he is lucky because people hire him precisely for his individual voice, even his quirks. You really try and stay away from formulae, which is generally what people ask me to do.
recently, he has been investigating composing collaboratively on the computer, which is even more of a closed, intimate experience; he works on a piece, sends it off by email and waits for a reply. This is a great springboard for improvisation, he says, because no one personality can dominate a session as usually happens when everyone is in the same room.
It is kind of a genteel community and you get used to the process. You say 'OK, I know this will take three weeks'. If it takes four, I get nervous, but that is the most tension you ever have. It's cutting the umbilical chord of control. You know you are going to give it to someone, they are going to listen to it and what you want from that is not what you've been thinking. What you want is for someone else to have a listen and see where it goes. But the real freedom, of course, is that Cale is not trying to win fans. I really don't care. If people like the record, great.
The last John Cale album, Walking On Locusts, released in 1996, was rated accessible and pop-inflected and was, in the modern style, promoted by a European tour. The show coming to Australia, however, is a compilation of work going back to Fear, the album he made with Eno, the point of which is to play with audiences' accumulated expectations of a John Cale performance. He has been refining it, in short European tours, over two years.
Once you have the elements together and you know that will work every time, all sorts of doors open, he says. It's a process. You arrive with a punch-line and you have to set up a preamble. You are working with an empty canvas, what you think is acceptable. Then you upset the apple-cart.
The Guardian's review last year put it another way. While the set-list is crushingly predictable, Cale's performance - complete with radio interference and crazed shouts - is not. At the same time, wrote the critic, Cale's experiments with sound, the feral drones and tones that were his stamping grounds long before he met Lou Reed, were ill-served by the unplugged treatment.
They seem to be about melancholy more than anything else, he agrees. In a way, you can't get away from it. Not with a mind growing old on turmoil, anyway.