Published Nov 01, 2005There 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."
Cale encounters Terry Phillips, a producer for Pickwick Records, who assumes Cale is a pop musician simply because of his long hair. Phillips introduces Cale to one of his staff writers, Lou Reed. Cale, Tony Conrad and Walter De Maria are hired to back Reed on a song he's written called "The Ostrich," and the group is christened The Primitives. Cale doesn't take the experience seriously, but finds himself enamoured with Reed after hearing more of his material. "Lou's songs were personal, and that's what got me. All politics are local, and so is songwriting," Cale says. "They gathered strength because of that. They were poetry. He was really a poet who was trying to create some rock and roll in his life." Feeling frustrated, Reed jumps at the chance of forming a real band and opens up to Cale's unique approach to his songs. Their first collaboration is "Why Don't You Smile Now," recorded by the All Night Workers. The pair craft more songs at Cale's loft, as well as shoot heroin together. They play several gigs as The Falling Spikes, before Reed recruits his friend Sterling Morrison, and Cale gets his neighbour, Angus MacLise, to play drums, prompting a name change to The Warlocks. At one rehearsal, Tony Conrad arrives with a paperback entitled The Velvet Underground and the band's name changes yet again. They record a demo at the loft, including "Heroin," and "Venus In Furs" with Cale singing lead, and he returns to London in a futile attempt to have Marianne Faithfull record them. The VU plays its first gig at a high school in New Jersey and soon after the unreliable MacLise is replaced by another of Reed's old school contacts, Moe Tucker. The band continues to play mostly as accompaniment to experimental film screenings, until a staunch supporter, pioneering rock journalist Al Aronowitz, gets them a two-week residency at the Cafe Bizarre. Although they don't endear themselves to either the club owners or the audience, they make an important fan out of Andy Warhol when he catches one of the shows.
Warhol immediately adds the VU to the multitude of projects underway at his studio, The Factory. His one condition is that they include his other new discovery, the gorgeous, but tone-deaf, German singer Nico. Reed falls in love with her and writes touching ballads for what will be Nico's segment of the show, while Cale enters into a brief affair with the star of Warhol's films, Edie Sedgwick. The VU appear at screenings of Warhol's films, which he quickly develops into a multi-media event he dubs the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, that also features simulated S&M rituals. In April, a month-long series of shows is set up at a venue in St. Mark's Place that draws much media attention. Following this run, the VU is booked for shows on the west coast. The first of these has The Mothers Of Invention on the bill, and Frank Zappa proclaims from the stage his distaste for their act. While in L.A., the VU records its first album with Warhol acting as de facto producer, although engineer Tom Wilson -- well-known for working with Bob Dylan -- lands the band a deal with Verve Records. Despite the hype surrounding them, The Velvet Underground & Nico will not be released until spring, 1967, the label claiming to have problems with Warhol's cover design of a banana with a removable peel. The band continues to tour around North America, although the controversy that dogs them leads to much in-fighting. This comes to a head when Reed and Warhol squabble over the record deal, and Warhol loses interest in the band, taking Nico with him. Reed finds a new ally in Boston promoter Steve Sesnick, who takes over managing duties, and effectively breaking their ties to Warhol's crowd.
With the release of the first album coming as an anti-climax, Cale turns his attention to his new love, fashion designer Betsey Johnson. Although this marks Cale's retreat from the band's social scene, they continue to work on material for a new album. The songs reflect their time on the road, and show the progress they have made with both volume and improvisation. They also reflect the personal battles, and the addition of speed and cocaine to their chemical intake. The centrepiece of White Light/White Heat is "Sister Ray," a 17-minute sonic assault that will become the blueprint for subsequent generations of noise merchants, such as Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. The album receives bad reviews and sells few copies, much like its predecessor. Despite strained relations with Warhol, the VU does not completely sever ties with Nico, writing several new songs for her first solo album, Chelsea Girl.
Cale and Johnson are married, while two months later Warhol is shot in his studio by Valerie Solanis. Both these events add to Reed's paranoia over control of his work and he questions Cale's role within the band, which he views as growing too strong. Their relationship unravels completely when Reed issues an ultimatum to Morrison and Tucker that he will dissolve the VU unless they agree to fire Cale. He accepts the decision and begins plotting his next move. A natural choice is to work again with Nico, and Cale takes on full producing and arranging duties for her dark and dense second album, The Marble Index. "Nico came to depend on me for a certain type of understanding," he says. "She was not a musician, but she was a woman who recreated herself, mostly due to the influence of Jim Morrison, as well as Andy. Both of them gave her the inspiration to do that, and she decided to become the negative image of what she was in the band. She wrote her own songs, and didn't give up." Although The Marble Index now stands as another singular work of the era, it is also virtually ignored at the time, leaving Cale struggling to find work.
After hearing from Elektra Records head Jac Holzman that he liked The Marble Index's European sensibilities, Cale asks if he can do more production work for the label. Holzman sends him to Detroit to check out his latest signings, the MC5 and The Stooges. Cale opts for the latter after being captivated by Iggy Pop's live performance. The Stooges is recorded in six days, with Cale adding his own piano and viola to the band's visceral sound. At the same time, Cale lands a two-album solo deal with CBS. The first project is already planned as a collaboration with composer Terry Riley and Church Of Anthrax is recorded in three days of improvised sessions, although it will not see the light until 1971.
Cale finds new management with Lew Merenstein, producer of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. He encourages Cale to work with many Woodstock, NY-based musicians and Cale writes a batch of songs in a suitable folk-rock vein. The results on Vintage Violence evoke some of the earthiness associated with The Band, but with Cale's cool European detachment still dominating, the album receives mixed reviews. Cale gets a surprising call to come to the VU's sessions for Loaded to lay down some organ parts. He agrees, but recognizes that the band's sound has completely changed. Cale returns to other studio work, having been tapped by CBS to remix its back catalogue in the new quadrophonic sound format. He and Johnson separate and Cale starts using heroin again. On the recommendation of producer Joe Boyd, Cale is offered the job of staff producer at Warner Brothers, and uses the ensuing move to L.A. as a reason to get clean.
1971 to 1972
Cale and Johnson officially divorce, and he takes up with high-profile L.A. groupie Cindy Wells, eventually marrying her. Cale does little substantial work for Warners, as much of his time is occupied by Wells' personal problems. He briefly moves back to England to work again with Nico on Desertshore, and participate in many other sessions, most notably Nick Drake's Bryter Layter. A rare live perfomance finds him on stage with Nico and Reed for a memorable night at the Bataclan in Paris. A recording of the show will come out in 2003. Cale's unspectacular commercial track record prompts him to avoid anything pop-oriented on his next solo album, The Academy In Peril, which includes several tracks recorded with the London Royal Philharmonic. Although Cale finds a return to the classical realm invigorating, his is ultimately disappointed with the results.
Back in L.A., Cale teams with then-fledgling producer Chris Thomas for Paris 1919. With its almost perfect balance of rock and classical elements, tied together by Cale's best songwriting to date, the album is hailed as his best solo effort. Cale returns to production duties with one of his discoveries, The Modern Lovers, fronted by VU superfan Jonathan Richman. With powerfully raw songs like "Roadrunner," "Pablo Picasso," and "Astral Plane," it seems an ideal match. But as sessions get underway in Bermuda, Richman's eccentric personality is at odds with Cale's suggestions, and plans for the album's release on Warners are scrapped. The Modern Lovers will come out three years later on Berserkley, still in time to have a huge impact on the emerging punk movement. "In a sense, I could see that bands like The Stooges and The Modern Lovers were a continuation of the VU, but Jonathan I'd known for a while and he was a special case," Cale says. "He's always been someone who shows how weaknesses can become strengths. I think he felt the pressure of working with Warner Brothers, and it seemed at every turn he wanted to do other things. Eventually, it all just crashed into its own vortex." Cale produces several more projects for Warners before his contract expires at the end of the year.
Cale accepts a deal with Island Records and moves to London with Cindy. He sees it as a chance to become a full-fledged live performer again and this process begins with his appearance at a Kevin Ayers show where Cale is joined by Nico, and Brian Eno. It is later released as June 1, 1974, and includes Cale's dour version of "Heartbreak Hotel." On the bad side, Cindy and Ayers have a tryst, widening the rift between she and Cale. He moves on to his next album, Fear, a more aggressive record aided by contributions from Eno, to whom he returns the favour by appearing on Another Green World.
Cale continues to record prolifically, releasing Slow Dazzle, an admitted attempt at commerciality geared around his first major tour since leaving the VU. On stage, Cale appears in a variety of costumes, from ski goggles to a goalie mask, and many shows are fuelled by anger over his deteriorating marriage. He records another album with Nico, The End, and shortly after receives an offer to produce the first album by poet Patti Smith. He is intrigued and flies to New York to shape her still-gestating songs. Although the six-week sessions prove to be a struggle, upon its release, Horses achieves instant iconic status as another signpost of the changes that are underway in rock. Cale completes his final album for Island, Helen Of Troy, and the label refuses to extend his contract. His marriage to Cindy also officially ends.
1976 to 1978
Cale attempts to pick up the pieces by moving back to New York with his guitarist Chris Spedding. He opens big shows for Patti Smith, as well as appearing in smaller clubs where he is received warmly by the young punk crowd. He records the Animal Justice EP, and joins the Smith Band again on their European tour. Prior to a show in Croydon, England, Cale acquires a live chicken, then decapitates it during "Heartbreak Hotel," throwing the pieces to the stunned audience. The incident prompts some of Cale's band to quit in protest. He decides to stay in London at the behest of Police manager Miles Copeland who gets Cale to work with several of his clients, including Squeeze and Sham 69.
1979 to 1980
Cale starts his own label, Spy Records, and records Sabotage Live during a three-night stand at CBGB's. The overtly militaristic image that Cale presents on the album carries over on the subsequent tour. At its conclusion, he is most often found making the rounds at various New York clubs. Following an acrimonious split with manager Jane Friedman over unpaid royalties, Cale and Spedding tour frequently across Canada, an experience Cale finds depressing. "I see that whole period of the late '70s now as a struggle," he says. "I got disoriented within my personal life, more than anything. Working with Patti was really the most rewarding thing at that time. She was another special case."
1981 to 1983
Cale is at another lowpoint, living in his Manhattan rehearsal space. He begins to emerge after meeting actress Rise Irushalmi, and finally receiving his royalties for Horses. Cale marries Rise and gets a new deal with A&M Records. He attempts to record Honi Soit in the same fashion as Paris 1919, with an outside producer, but the results again prove that his music is not compatible with mainstream rock tastes. He tours solo, which leads to his next album, Music For A New Society, being a brooding collection dealing with many violent concepts. Cale's addictions turn predominantly to alcohol and cocaine, and excellerate upon the death of his father.
1984 to 1986
He forms a new band and records the hit-and-miss Caribbean Sunset, and later John Cale Comes Alive. Once again Cale offsets his own commercial failure by working with Nico, and Camera Obscura is another milestone of her unusual career. Cale makes one more failed mainstream record, Artificial Intelligence, with lyrical contributions from New York underground journalist Larry "Ratso" Sloman, before determining to turn his back on the pop world. Rise gives birth to Cale's first child, Eden, and this motivates him to get completely straight. He accepts the job of producing Vancouver punk icon Art Bergmann's first solo album, Crawl With Me, although Bergmann will later claim that Cale spent more time playing squash, his new passion in an effort to stay off drugs.
1987 to 1989
While spending most of his time as a house husband, Cale works on classical compositions, including "The Falklands Suite," and several inspired by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He approaches Eno about the project, and plans are hatched to record Words For The Dying in Moscow. The sessions there are filmed, along with further sessions in Wales, where Cale is luckily able to be with his mother during some of her final months. Warhol dies unexpectedly as well, leaving many of his old colleagues in shock. Cale and Reed speak to each other for the first time in years at the funeral. Later, Reed attends a performance of "The Falklands Suite," and immediately after they undertake a concept album in tribute to Warhol. After two performances of the material, the pair record Songs For Drella. Although Cale is enthusiastic about working with Reed again, he notices old habits re-emerge. The album is hailed with much fanfare upon release and Cale looks forward to a world tour. However, Reed backs out, leaving Cale dismayed.
1990 to 1992
Cale returns to working with Eno and they produce the accessible Wrong Way Up, although the outcome results in animosity as well when Eno cannot give up control of the project. The Cartier Foundation in Paris extends an offer for a VU reunion to mark its Warhol Exposition. After much negotiation to cool long-simmering feuds, the four original members (Nico had died in 1988) agree to perform "Heroin." The performance is a turning point for Cale, reigniting his interest in pop culture, specifically fashion. He sparks a friendship with designer Yoghi Yammamoto, appearing at his shows as both a musician and model. The compilation, Fragments Of A Rainy Season, is released, and Cale moves his family into an expensive home in Greenwich Village. However, his increasingly lavish lifestyle starts to strain his marriage.
The goodwill among the VU members since the 1990 reunion carries on and they undertake casual rehearsals. During a Tonight Show appearance, Cale hints that a full reunion is in the works, and soon after a summer European tour is announced. One of Cale's conditions is that they write new material, but only one song, "Coyote," makes it into the set. Media coverage is extensive, and the band records three shows in Paris for a live album. As the tour progresses, Cale puts up with Reed's demands to be the focal point, but Sterling Morrison does not, falling prone to drunken outbursts. At its conclusion, MTV offers to do a VU "Unplugged" show to be followed by an American tour, but when Reed insists on producing it, Cale declines, effectively ending the reunion for good. "I think during all of our time together, Lou and I have both found ways to screw things up," Cale says. "I don't think that anger management was either of our specialities."
1994 to 1997
Cale retreats to more personal musical projects, including a collaboration with Bob Neuwirth (Last Night On Earth), producing The Happy Mondays (Loads And Loads More), further compilations (Seducing Down The Door and The Island Years) and a string of soundtracks. The Warhol Museum invites the VU to perform at screenings of the films Kiss and Eat, and they accept -- without Reed. This is Morrison's last public performance as he dies of cancer in 1995. The following January, the VU is inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame by Patti Smith. For the ceremony, Reed, Cale and Tucker write and perform "Last Night I Said Goodbye To My Friend," in honour of Morrison. Cale records his first solo album in several years, Walking On Locusts, and plays memorable shows in small clubs with the Soldier String Quartet. While another honour comes when he receives a fellowship from his old college, Goldsmiths, Cale's marriage to Rise finally falls apart.
1998 to 2000
Cale continues working on a wide variety of projects, from composing a ballet inspired by Nico, Dance Music, to producing a track for The Jesus Lizard, to several more soundtracks. A surprising production success is the Mediaeval Baebes' Undrentide, which is basically classical music performed by a group of sexy British females. For his score to the film Beautiful Mistake, he teams with members of several Welsh bands, including Super Furry Animals, Manic Street Preachers, and Catatonia. Although this is a significant bridging of the generations, Cale will continue to downplay his influence on the current scene. "The bands that I love, I don't really see any influence at all. I love them for their own unique sensibilities. People mention The Strokes a lot, and at least with them I sense that there's a mentality behind it that's kind of nasty, which I admire. But with other bands today, you can't just go back to '68 VU and do that over again. It's not good enough. I'm not decrying anyone's efforts, I just admire originality in whatever form it takes. It's flattering to be appreciated, but that's where it ends for me."
2001 to 2004
His lengthy period of soundtrack work is broken when he signs with EMI and releases first the 5 Tracks EP, then the full-length HoboSapiens, produced by Nick Franglen, known for his work with Bjork, Primal Scream and Pulp. The sound reflects Cale's new fondness for blending beats and traditional song form, inspired by artists like Beck and the Beta Band, and the album receives almost unanimously positive reviews. "I'm still primarily an improviser, so the value of technology for me is really just memory. Once I get down a groove, it's so much easier to write a melody over top of it. Then the challenge becomes not to make it sound cold, which I've always tried to do, no matter what situation I'm in."
Riding his creative momentum, Cale records blackAcetate, with producers Herb Graham Jr. and Mickey Petralia. The songs continue to blur the boundaries between Cale's current fixations with the new generation of art rock and hip-hop, as well as trying to come to terms with his own immense legacy. "We aimed to do a guitar-based rock record, but I was also after something like Snoop Dogg's 'Drop It Like It's Hot,' which knocked my socks off the first time I heard it. I have a lot of respect for Pharrell -- and Dre for that matter -- so once Herb and I got a handle on combining those two things, we got to a point of getting three songs down a day. There's some even funkier and more hardcore songs that we didn't finish, but I'm going to go back and work on them because I really like them a lot. 'Brotherman' is part of that batch, and it's something I never expected I'd ever do, which is rap."
The Essential John Cale
Peel Slowly And See (1995)
This box set has everything you need to hear of Cale's work with The Velvet Underground, including fascinating early rehearsal tapes. His piano on "All Tomorrow's Parties," and viola on "Venus In Furs" remain chill-inducing, but the storm he unleashes on "Sister Ray" is still unsurpassed. This music will live on as one of the towering achievements of 20th Century art.
Paris 1919 (1973)
His most accessible, and consequently most admired, solo album, it somehow managed to combine a laid-back California rock vibe -- courtesy of backing band Little Feat -- with Cale's European baroque tendencies. Needless to say, no one had accomplished this before, and no one has done it since.
Following a long period of soundtracks and sessions, Cale returned with a bang on this dynamic set that ushered in a new era. Updating his sonic palette with snatches of trip-hop made perfect sense, and it adds even more weight to Cale's trademark doom and gloom.