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FILTER 47: A Broken Hallelujah: The Incomparable Musical Journey of John Cale, Part 2

By Ken Scrudato on April 10, 2012


FILTER 47: A Broken Hallelujah: The Incomparable Musical Journey of John Cale, Part 2

[Continued from Part 1]

In a way, Cale became the ultimate stable-boy-at-the-ball, the working-class lad from the Welsh countryside who found himself hobnobbing with the elite of New York’s fashion and art scenes. He even married outré, proto-punk designer Betsey Johnson, though it didn’t last long. But Cale eventually had enough of the combative relationship with Reed and set out on his own.

He wasted no time blossoming into the Renaissance man he’d surely always meant to be. In fact, it’s hard to emphasize enough the scope of his influence, considering he would go on to produce the earth-shaking, self-titled debut of The Stooges in 1969, and later Patti Smith’s 1975 masterpiece Horses…both of which laid imperative groundwork for the punk explosion. In between, his nascent solo work ranged from the straightforward but absorbing debut Vintage Violence, to the primarily instrumental (featuring the Royal Philharmonic) Academy in Peril, to Paris 1919, which found him revisiting some of the aural chaos of his VU days and mating it with his classical inclinations.

He’d also formed one of rock’s most fascinating and enigmatic partnerships with none other than Nico. The aloof, Teutonic beauty was keen to reject her status as fashion icon, and with Cale as arranger or producer, recorded first 1969’s The Marble Index, still considered a seminal master work of Gothic rock, then the Desertshore and then yet another classic of elegiac exquisiteness, 1974’s ominously titled The End…

Reed, Sterling Morrison and Cale in studio during recording of "The Velvet Underground and Nico";
courtesy of Cale Archives

Nico died of a brain hemorrhage in 1988 in Ibiza, and in 2009, Cale, along with the likes of Peter Murphy, Mercury Rev and Lisa Gerrard, organized tribute shows, the most spectacular taking place at the Teatro Comunale in the medieval Italian city of Ferrara.

“It was this giant opera house,” he rhapsodizes, “just packed to the rafters. It was really amazing. I think what we tapped into [with the tributes] was an audience of young female artists who really appreciated Nico for her songwriting.”

The mid ’70s had found Cale at a brilliant creative peak, with him releasing a trio of albums for Island—Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy—that would come to define the unfettered range of his musical vision. His collaborators included Brian Eno, legendary guitarist Chris Spedding and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera. The common aesthetic thread was a general dark and brooding atmosphere, suggesting a rather unsettled psyche.

“‘Gothic’ is a good word for it,” agrees Cale while managing a laugh. “I was not in a good place at that time. The lifeline for me was going out on tour with Chris Spedding and the band.”

Curiously for someone so revered by its adherents, Cale was so busy touring Europe in the ’70s that he now insists that punk pretty much snuck up on him. While rock and fashion were being ripped to shreds in New York and London, he was busy cultivating a rabid following on the Continent, especially Germany. He claims of the punks, “I wasn’t really sure what they were after. I tried to do what I had done in Europe in New York, and it had all changed. Then we went to London and got our heads handed to us.”

Original Velvets: Cale, Angus MacLise, Morrison and Reed, 1965;
courtesy of Donald Greenhaus

Nevertheless, he concluded the ’70s by recording the abrasive, politically charged Sabotage/Live at New York’s punk temple itself, CBGB. But despite a generation of New Wave and Goth bands clearly mining Cale’s oeuvre, he spent most of the ’80s just touring around Europe and releasing a few solid but not distinctly spectacular solo records (Music for a New Society was notable for its gripping bleakness). He also, in a bizarre turn, produced the Happy Mondays’ outlandishly brilliant debut album.

“That was a strange one!” Cale admits. “I knew Tony Wilson of Factory Records, but I never expected that he would think I would be good for Happy Mondays. It’s vague enough in my memory that I never really understood who was the songwriter. But I saw them at the Q Awards a couple of years ago, and they have this remarkable ability to walk into a room and create chaos almost instantly!”

It was the renewal of his creative relationship with Eno, however, that genuinely signaled a career renaissance.

Indeed, Cale dug out his never-recorded “The Falklands Suite” from 1982, based on the poems of fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas, and performed it with a full orchestra and children’s choir at Amsterdam’s Paradiso in 1987. He sent a tape of it to Eno, which would blossom into the deeply poignant collaboration Words for the Dying, recorded with an orchestra at Gosteleradio Studios in Moscow, later adding Wales’ Llandaff Cathedral Choir. It was followed by another magnificent Eno-Cale collaboration, Wrong Way Up, curiously enough an exuberant, almost joyful pop record.

In the interim, however, the death of Andy Warhol in 1987 had brought Cale and Reed back together for the first time in many years. What followed was as unimaginable as it was inevitable.

Cale recalls, “Andy died, and there was a gathering after the ceremony at St. Patrick’s. Julian Schnabel and I were talking there about doing a requiem for him. Lou was also there, and we hadn’t spoken in years. It struck me that the thing that people would be most interested in seeing would be just Lou and me on stage, performing. So we put the deal together with Warner Bros and BAM.”

Cale playing bass with The Velvet Underground;
courtesy of Lisa Law

The result was Songs for Drella (Warhol’s nickname, a combination of “Dracula” and “Cinderella”), a loving but musically uneven encomium to Andy, with riveting live performances staged at St. Ann’s and the Brooklyn Academy of Music to accompany the album. Cale and Reed soon fell out again, but rumors of a full Velvet Underground reunion emerged in the wake. The VU did, indeed, reunite in 1992, and a European tour was launched in Edinburgh in June 1993 to widespread acclaim. A U.S. tour was in the works when it all quickly unraveled.

Cale earnestly reflects, “I don’t think it was really a success from The Velvet Underground’s point of view. I think we could have gone and done anything we wanted. We got caught up in doing things we would have been better off replacing with newer stuff. But Lou made it clear that he wasn’t interested in doing that.”

Cale’s career since that time has been as varied and unrelenting as one might expect of such a restless genius. He produced the final Siouxsie and the Banshees record in 1995, has collaborated with the likes of Bob Neuwirth, Hector Zazou, Patti Smith and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem (Cale covered LCD’s “All My Friends” as a B-side to the band’s single release of that song in 2007), scored several French films and released a pair of excellent post-millennium solo albums, HoboSapiens and blackAcetate, which are up there with his best work.

In 2010, Cale received an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) from the Queen herself—marking the full circle journey from his role as an antagonist of the established order to being honored by that very same crowd.

He explains, “It had to do with the fact that I went to the [2009 Venice] Biennale and represented Wales. The extraordinary experience that went with it was all these people being recognized for their amazing works in communities all over England and Wales.”

"Songs For Drella", 1990; courtesy of Cale Archives

In 2011, he signed to Domino Records, not only one of the world’s perpetually hippest labels but also one which perfectly matched his peripatetic creative spirit. His first release for the label was the relentlessly modern, virtually flawless EP Extra Playful. It encompasses elements of so much of his career output (funk here, Gothic there, punctuated by noise experiments, laden with perfect pop hooks). Tracks like “Catastrofuk” and “Hey Ray” could stand comfortably beside any number of current hipster hits.

Cale is also hard at work on a full album for Domino, out later in 2012, featuring vocal contributions by Noelle Scaggs of Fitz and the Tantrums. As well, Cale mentions the likes of Black Lips, James Blake and Panda Bear when queried about returning to the producer’s chair. But it is the relentless pace of his inexorable career that, at least for now, prevents just such a return.

“Last year turned out to be something other than what I thought,” he explains, “with the festivals and two film scores. This year is going to be even worse, with touring all over the world. I love touring. But coming off the road and marching into the studio with someone you’ve never met before takes some thinking, it takes figuring out.”

And with the “conceptual” speed of time having been decisively accelerated, urgency is ever at his door.

“I think Andy’s ‘15 minutes,’” Cale incisively observes, “are now down to three seconds.”

This article is from FILTER Issue 47