The Velvet Evolver
There are a few recordings that defy expectations and open up new exhilarating and terrifying worlds. To this day, this is the reaction most people have the first time they hear The Velvet Underground. Of course, Lou Reed deserves a lot of the credit for the sea change the band instigated in popular culture, but it couldn't have happened without the contribution of his musical foil, John Cale. A European, classically-trained instrumentalist lured by New York's avant-garde scene, Cale brought all of his unconventional ideas to the VU, providing the abrasive accompaniment that Reed's poetry demanded, which resulted in a vicious counterpoint to the Summer Of Love. Simply put, this was the birth of "alternative rock." Cale and Reed's relationship proved equally caustic in the short term, but Cale's approach would continue its influence through his production work on seminal proto-punk albums by The Stooges, The Modern Lovers and Patti Smith. While his own albums wouldn't have as great an impact, Cale's capacity for reinvention would continually push him in different directions, from classical to confrontational, but always with a desire to attack the status quo that has maintained his vaunted position within underground circles. His latest album, blackAcetate, builds on a recent creative surge, giving nods to hip hop and the current wave of bands that, whether they know it or not, partially owe their existence to the VU. As one of the few figures who truly changed the rules of rock and roll, John Cale will always be entitled to do whatever he wants. And more often than not, critics will continue to play catch-up.
1942 to 1960
John Cale is born March 9, 1942 in Garnet, Wales, a small mining village. His early years are dominated by his doting mother and by the local clergy, whose fiery sermons have a huge impact on Cale's psyche. He begins piano and organ lessons at age seven, but shortly thereafter is sexually assaulted by a tutor, as well as another village molestor. This doesn't prevent him from excelling at school or at music, and at 13 he joins the Welsh Youth Orchestra as a violist. His interests also turn to America, specifically the Beat poets, abstract composer John Cage, and later, the first wave of rock and roll. Cale begins imagining himself as an outcast within his community, and briefly finds an escape by enrolling at Goldsmiths College in London to study musicology. "I really did lead a sheltered life," he says. "While other kids were out playing soccer, I was inside playing scales on the piano."
1960 to 1963
Cale dives into his studies while continuing to tour with the WYO during the summers. The teachers he admires most eventually lead him into the avant-garde world he had already be dabbling in with his own compositions, and he corresponds with John Cage and Aaron Copland, who both offer their encouragement. Cale arrives in the U.S. for the first time after earning a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center near Boston, where Copland is instructing. On his last day of classes in London, Cale and a small ensemble perform LaMonte Young's "X For Henry Flynt," and Cale's own "Plant Piece," which consists of screaming at a potted plant until it theoretically dies. Few are impressed, and Cale's earns the "Most Hateful Student" award from the administration. After a term at Berkshire, Cale goes to New York, and soon cashes in his return flight ticket to get a loft in Manhattan. He is enlisted by John Cage for a performance of Eric Satie's "Vexations," an 80-second piece that Cage arranges to be played continuously for over 18 hours.
Cale supports himself by working at the Orientalia book store, where he crosses paths with a number of significant poets and artists. Once settled, he determines to visit one of his musical idols, LaMonte Young. Young is so impressed by Cale's interest that he invites him to join his ensemble, The Theatre Of Eternal Music, which also includes Terry Riley and Tony Conrad. Cale and Conrad go on to form The Dream Syndicate, which consists of their amplified violin and violas playing sustained notes for two-hour stretches. Cale develops this into the drone technique that will become his trademark. Working with Young is also Cale's formal introduction to the drug-fuelled Lower East Side artistic community. Although still allied with the avant-garde, Cale recognizes how it is starting to infiltrate wider pop culture. "The scene itself, there was so much going on that you couldn't keep your eye on it," he says. "It was a great pot-boiling experience. You weren't the only person doing something -- everyone was doing something. The big chunk of fun I missed out on as a kid, I made up for in New York."
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