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FILTER 47: A Broken Hallelujah: The Incomparable Musical Journey of John Cale, Part 1

By Ken Scrudato on April 9, 2012


FILTER 47: A Broken Hallelujah: The Incomparable Musical Journey of John Cale, Part 1

1967. Hippies decisively and visibly represented the countercultural reaction to all of the old regime’s evils (war crimes) and injustices (institutionalized prejudice), by means of shambolic style, liberal drug experimentation, peace-and-love ideology and, most enduringly, politicized rock music. Yet in 2012, it is the cultural legacy of what came out of a small New York enclave of narcissistic weirdoes known as The Factory that resonates most relevantly. To wit, works by Andy Warhol regularly fetch eight figures…while hippie culture has settled into a perpetual self-parody.

The Velvet Underground, of course, were The Factory’s official musical front. They remain one of the few most-influential rock bands in history. Yet on paper, they seemed a virtual impossibility: Lou Reed, the gruff but arty Brooklyn Jew; Sterling Morrison, the unassuming guitar virtuoso from Long Island; Moe Tucker, a keypunch-operator-turned-stand-up-(stand-up!)-drummer; and, finally, John Cale, the dashing but radically inclined son of a Welsh coal miner, on bass and viola. Together, they dragged rock and roll violently into the swelling avant-garde.

Cale had broken from his humble but odd upbringing (his mother taught him only Welsh, his father spoke only English) by allying with London’s artistic new guard while studying music at Goldsmiths College in the early ’60s. And while London was awash in a brightly colored, mod pop revolution, Cale and his cohorts were looking to Deutschland and Gotham for an instruction manual on cultural deconstruction. In New York, John Cage was composing silence; Yves Klein’s The Void found the artist provocatively exhibiting a blank gallery; and the Fluxus movement had set out to demolish the last vestiges of bourgeois banality in art. In Darmstadt, Germany, Karlheinz Stockhausen was exploding the boundaries of modern composition.

Cale with viola in the early '70s;
courtesy of Cale Archives (PROMO)

Cale recalls of his Goldsmiths days, “I was hanging out with [experimental composer] Cornelius Cardew and the artist Robin Page. Cornelius was part of the avant-garde in London, but he’d gone to Germany and been to the Stockhausen classes that La Monte [Young] had also been at. He’d met La Monte and knew him. There was a common ground, we were all very much into John Cage and the New York School. Cornelius helped me to put together the Festival of New Music in my last days of college.”

Cale eventually bolted for New York, bringing with him a classical music education. He spent a year working with the NYC bleeding edge—Young, Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise—resulting in the unprecedented Inside the Dream Syndicate series. But his life would be forever changed when he and Conrad met a Pickwick Records exec at a party, who later introduced him to an ornery but romantic young songwriter named Lou Reed.

For proper context, you must remember how relatively tame rock still was at that time. The 20th century had already seen a radical reformation of the visual arts by means of Dada and Surrealism—and Fluxus was reviving the Dada spirit as a commentary on the fractured postwar consumer and media society. Rock and roll had The Doors and Hendrix, but it still mostly followed a set of structural rules. The Velvet Underground were about to introduce it to beautiful chaos, with Cale as the prime sonic agitator.

Cale feeling punk, late '70s;
courtesy of Cale Archives

“The viola is a very melancholy instrument,” Cale says. “But when I got to New York, I changed the whole character of the instrument, it became part of the tapestry for the band. We were trying to get that grandiose Phil Spector panorama going, and the viola with a drone was the closest we could get to it. It worked very well.”

Well, indeed. The Velvet Underground made music that was virulent, antagonistic, aurally piercing and yet somehow also seductively quixotic. Drugs played no small part.

Cale recollects, “We would do the romantic style that Lou really favored, and then there was the orchestral stuff that was a lot more manic and put us very much outside the norm.”

They were quickly “adopted” by Warhol and the Factory crowd, Andy keenly recognizing the value of aligning with the most original and polarizing band of the time. He installed the icily gorgeous Berlin model Nico as vocalist, staged quasi-anarchic multi-media events at the cinematheque dubbed “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” (with the VU playing in front of projections of Warhol films) and generated a fervor amongst those who got it, while inspiring a kind of terror in those too square to comprehend.

Cale performing at CBGB;
courtesy of Hugh Brown

“We loved it!” enthuses Cale. “It was us against them. Nobody had seen anything like it. It was shambolic, it was exciting, it was dazzling…and it was abrasive. But we had no idea how big of an influence Andy would be. It turned our lives upside down! There was so much publicity all of the sudden; we weren’t prepared for it. Though, having Andy on our side kind of silenced a lot of people, because he was the enfant terrible of art in New York. It was a real cultural revolution going on.”

They went on to record two of the most perception-shattering and important (in terms of immediate and lasting impact) albums of all time, the astonishing debut The Velvet Underground & Nico, and the wicked, noise-laden follow-up White Light/White Heat.

For the rest of "A Broken Hallelujah: The Incomparable Musical Journey of John Cale," stay tuned for Part 2, appearing on tomorrow.

This article is from FILTER Issue 47