John Cale's musical journey knows no limits

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John Cale's musical journey knows no limits
John Cale in Los Angeles, Dec. 28, 2022. At 80, the musician who helped found the Velvet Underground before a prolific run as a producer and solo artist is releasing a new LP and mentoring new generations of avant-garde creators. (Chantal Anderson/The New York Times)

by Lindsay Zoladz

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Just a few years after he’d left the provincial Welsh mining town where he was born, a 23-year-old John Cale was invited — along with his friend Lou Reed and their budding band the Velvet Underground — to Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York.

“The first day you walked in, you joined the Academy,” Cale said in the industrial but cozy lounge of his studio on a recent afternoon, recalling the first meeting with the pop art power broker who would become the band’s manager. “The atmosphere of that place was really special,” he added; artists from all over “came in and unzipped a bag of magic.”

The musician, now 80, was reminiscing on an uncharacteristically gloomy January day in Los Angeles. Cale seemed to have summoned the Welsh weather along with his memories, and sat bundled up in a black puffer jacket and wool socks. “That’s the first thing you remember: all the work that was being done,” Cale said. “Andy was nonstop. We were nonstop. And it paid off.”

It was, however, just the beginning of one of the most accomplished resumes in rock history, if not 20th-century culture. Cale studied under John Cage and Aaron Copland, and later learned about the transformative power of drone from avant-garde musicians La Monte Young and Tony Conrad. He had a fling with Edie Sedgwick and a short marriage to Betsey Johnson. After he was unceremoniously booted from the Velvet Underground in 1968, he became a prolific, risk-taking producer, helming trailblazing albums by the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Nico and Patti Smith. His catalog as a solo artist is unbelievably rich, tonally varied and full of buried treasure. He is arguably responsible for plucking a little-known Leonard Cohen deep cut called “Hallelujah” out of obscurity. He is inarguably the most important electric viola player rock has ever seen.

It’s possible to chart the eras of Cale’s vast career by his succession of iconic haircuts: the chic, chin-length pageboy of his Velvet Underground days; the greasy bed head of his proto-punk ’70s; an asymmetric art crop as the ’80s became the ’90s; and the feathery, birdlike style in which he now wears his distinguished, white-gray locks, set off by a playfully Mephistophelean soul patch. Two months before his 81st birthday, he is still spry, sneaking in a pre-interview workout in his studio’s gym. (He’s been a disciplined exerciser since the late 1980s, when he kicked drugs by taking up the most physically demanding sport he could think of: squash. “It got me through,” he said.)

On Cale’s new album, “Mercy” — his 17th as a solo artist, due Friday — he occasionally glances back, on songs that honor late friends like David Bowie and Nico. But more often he’s making art focused firmly and defiantly in the present, responding to the political turmoil of the day (one song is titled “The Legal Status of Ice”) and collaborating with a supporting cast of younger avant-garde and indie artists: Celestial crooner Weyes Blood, punky provocateurs Fat White Family and art-rock dreamers Animal Collective all make guest appearances.

“I consider it an honor to watch little decisions he makes,” Animal Collective multi-instrumentalist Brian Weitz (who records as Geologist), said in a phone interview. “He’ll throw out one or two sentences to explain it, and it means the world.”

Cale has always been a man of contradiction: a classically trained violist with a penchant for chaos. In our conversation, he casually referenced such thinkers as John Ruskin, Bertrand Russell and Henri-Louis Bergson, but was just as quick to ad-lib a flatulence joke. When interrupted midsentence by a deafening gurgling coming from the building’s pipes, Cale grinned impishly and said “Excuse me” with impressive comic timing.

“He could be so formal in a certain way — he’s so learned and classical,” Smith said in a phone interview. (Cale produced her landmark debut album, “Horses,” in 1975.) “But he could also be as wild as any of us.” She recalled a kinetic 1976 gig in Cleveland when Cale played bass with her band during a cover of The Who’s “My Generation,” and “it got to such a fever pitch and the ceiling was so low that John put his bass through the ceiling of the club.”

The breadth of Cale’s accomplishments has left his collaborators and admirers in awe. “If you had one part of his career, you’d be a legend,” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy said in a phone interview. “If you were only the producer that John Cale was, you’d go down in history. If you were only in the Velvet Underground, your ticket’s punched to rock ’n’ roll heaven. But then you did all those Island solo records, and the Eno collaboration, and then ‘Songs for Drella,’” he added, referring to Cale’s 1990 reunion with Reed, before trailing off.

For all his creative triumphs, Cale never quite became a household name like Reed, his collaborator and sometimes antagonist. Todd Haynes’ acclaimed 2021 documentary “The Velvet Underground,” though, served as a corrective, arguing that Cale was the band’s secret weapon.

“There was no way to overstate John’s absolutely primary role as a conceptual and creative partner with Lou Reed,” Haynes said in a phone interview, describing Cale as “the most elegant flamethrower of ’60s utopianism that I can think of.”

Cale loved the film (“The minute I heard Todd was going to be doing it, I relaxed”), but he’s not one to sit around and think too hard about his legacy — he still has work to do. “I think that came to me from Wales and my mother,” he said. “She was a teacher, and I got it all basically from her: You don’t sit on your laurels. You get on with whatever it is that you haven’t done yet.”

CALE, THE ONLY child of a coal miner and a schoolteacher, spent the first 18 years of his life in Garnant, a small village in South Wales, “a strange, remote, some said mystical land,” as he wrote in his autobiography, “What’s Welsh for Zen.” When he was 7, he started learning English, and classical piano. A few years later, the BBC came to his school and recorded the precocious youngster playing a composition he’d written himself. The sheet music went missing, so Cale had to wing the ending. It was a thrill: his first improvisation.

“Creatively it liberated me,” he wrote. “I started to take chances.”

The viola, the crucial element that would later transform the Velvet Underground’s sound, came into Cale’s hands by chance: When it came time to choose an instrument for the school orchestra, it was the only one left. The local library was his portal to other worlds, especially when he realized he could request sheet music. “I was able to put my fingers in all these scores of the avant-garde,” he said at his studio, citing Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati and, of course, Cage.

When Cale was 15, he caught “Rock Around the Clock” at the local cinema; all his classmates rushed the screen and started to bop. He was electrified, bewildered — up until then, Igor Stravinsky had been his idea of rock ’n’ roll — and a little scared that everyone was about to get in trouble. After that, he said, “I was confused. Did I want to go into the avant-garde, or did I want to go into rock ’n’ roll?”

He went to Goldsmiths’ College in London, a suitable place to figure that out. Cale’s incendiary student performances — including one that involved playing a piano with his elbows — scandalized some of the faculty, but he was already dreaming of America. After exchanging letters with Cage and Copland, Cale received a scholarship from Leonard Bernstein to study at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. In 1963, he came to New York and quickly fell in with Conrad, Young and the boldly minimalist Theater of Eternal Music, joining them frequently to play meditative drones that lasted for hours. At last he’d found community, and the mind-expanding experiences he’d always longed for.

“I knew what I wanted from New York,” he said. “And I got it.”

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Reed had been born exactly a week before Cale; “I always knew he had an edge on me!” Cale quipped in his memoir. So began one of the most generative and — still, almost a decade after Reed’s death — tumultuous partnerships in rock.

Each time I asked Cale about Reed, he slyly rerouted the conversation: “We drifted apart,” he finally said. But maybe everything that needs to be known is right there in the music. As he wrote in a statement shortly after Reed’s 2013 death, “Unlike so many with similar stories — we have the best of our fury laid on vinyl, for the world to catch a glimpse.”

Last year, the archival label Light in the Attic released a collection of 17 previously unreleased tracks from Reed’s earliest recordings, including a May 1965 tape that features folky, self-recorded demos of future classics like “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man.” (Cale, who was Reed’s roommate in a drug-fueled Ludlow Street loft at the time, sings backup on some of them.) It’s revelatory to hear the material in this larval stage: They are unmistakably Reed songs, yes, but they’re not yet Velvet Underground songs.

“You see that he really hadn’t begun to imagine the potential of this music,” Haynes said of Reed, “and that what he was doing in content and lyrics hadn’t found a correlative energy and sensibility yet in the music.” Enter Cale, with his interest in drone, his connection to the avant-garde, and the low, sonorous viola that melted down traditional rock-song structures like molten lava.

“That dialectic, that tension, that attraction, that romance that brought the two of them together,” Haynes said, “therein lies the mystery of this music.”

THE GLORY DAYS didn’t last long. “I didn’t quite know how to exist outside the environment of the Factory,” Cale said. Warhol spent the latter part of 1968 recovering from a gunshot wound; by the end of the summer, Reed had given the rest of the Velvet Underground a Cale-or-me ultimatum, and insisted that guitarist Sterling Morrison break the news. For all their merits, the albums that the band released without Cale are quieter and more conventional. (“Who gets kicked out of the Velvet Underground for being too avant-garde?” Murphy mused. “I love that. That’s John Cale.”)

“It made some other people in the band unhappy, but it was just a challenge to me,” Cale said of his ousting. That Welsh work ethic, and his mother’s humble advice, saved him: “I decided, well, OK, you can sit on your hands and do nothing, or you can get up, move your butt and produce some things.” The first album he worked on would change Nico’s image forever, the stark, harrowing “Marble Index.” The second was the Stooges’ 1969 self-titled debut, one of the founding documents of punk.

After the refined chamber-pop of his great 1973 album “Paris 1919,” Cale’s solo work grew increasingly feral, too. He unleashed lacerating screams on the 1974 album “Fear” (the recording that made Smith seek him out as a producer) and embraced post-punk on the adventurous “Honi Soit,” from 1981. “There’s this counterpoint of Lou going and doing Zen,” he said and laughed, referring to Reed’s interest in meditation and tai chi, “and then I’m going and doing rock ’n’ roll.”

Cale and Reed hadn’t spoken in years when they ran into each other at Warhol’s funeral in 1987. The old spark was back, and they began work on a tribute to their former manager, which would become the theatrical, confidently sparse “Songs for Drella.” By the time it arrived in 1990, they were no longer speaking. A Velvet Underground reunion in the early 1990s was similarly short-lived, also owing to creative differences between Cale and Reed.

Cale cleaned up his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle when his daughter, Eden, was born in 1985. He released more classically minded albums and continued to exert an inconspicuous influence on musical culture. In the early 1990s, a small French record label asked him to contribute to a Cohen tribute album. He chose “Hallelujah” — a song from the quietly received 1984 album “Various Positions” that he’d first heard Cohen perform at the Beacon Theater — and made some tweaks to the lyrics and simplified the song’s arrangement. His version certainly struck a chord. When Jeff Buckley first began playing the song, a magazine editor in the audience told him backstage that he liked his Cohen cover. “I haven’t heard Leonard Cohen’s version,” Buckley is said to have replied. “I know it by John Cale.”

Cale has remarkably open ears for an octogenarian: He often speaks of “what a boon to music” hip-hop is and, in our conversation, expressed admiration for rap producers like Mike Will Made-It and Dr. Dre. “Hey guys, do you know what’s going on here?” he said to his imagined peers. “Better ideas of mixing, better ideas of melodies — it’s like, get on the train or get off.”

In recent years, Cale has become a generous collaborator with younger artists, and a kind of living conduit to avant-garde history and wisdom. “I jokingly tell people that it’s like a friendly godfather-type relationship that I have with him,” Animal Collective’s Weitz said. Cale has long been an admirer of the band, and Weitz described their reciprocal appearances on each other’s records — Cale played on the band’s 2016 album “Painting With,” and Animal Collective appear on a track from “Mercy” — as a kind of “music-for-music swap.”

Cale still makes art on the edge. In June 2019, he headlined the DMZ Peace Train Festival on the border between North and South Korea. (The wildlife surprised him: “Korean rattlesnakes!”) In 2014, at London’s Barbican museum, he conducted the first orchestra of flying drones. A certain defiance also courses through “Mercy,” a slow, meditative album. The songs have immediate emotional resonance, but they ask the listener for patience, too.

LCD Soundsystem’s Murphy admires that. “He always approaches it as, ‘What’s interesting to me right now?’ rather than being careerist,” he said. “Songs made by people like that last in a very different way,” he continued. “They feel alive and current for much longer, because they’re made with respect.”

There are plenty more of them coming, too. Cale spent much of the pandemic holed up in his studio, and he estimates that he’s written around 80 new compositions in the past few years. “Something snapped, in a good way,” he said. “It was like, you can’t turn your back on this. This is something that’s going to go on. And I want to go on.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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