‘Hip-hop is the new avant garde’: John Cale on Lou Reed, anger and continual reinvention

Estimated read time 12 min read

Even over the phone from Los Angeles, John Cale has a certain presence. It’s not just the still resonant Welsh lilt of his speaking voice or the way he takes his time to settle on the right words, more his tangential way of thinking – about music, songwriting, the world in general. This is someone, after all, whose 1999 biography was titled What’s Welsh for Zen?.

That phrase echoes in my head more than once during our transatlantic conversation, Cale having lived in Los Angeles for 10 years now after a long stint in New York. His answers, while always courteous and considered, sometimes tend towards the abstract and are marked by a reluctance to be pinned down about the subject matter of his songs.

On his new album, POPtical Illusion, for instance, there is a track called Funkball the Brewster. When I ask him where the title came from, he replies: “I made it. I made it like I make breakfast.” Like the song itself, which begins with the line “Tell me to go to hell” and ends with a barely audible scream, the answer is pure John Cale: intriguing, but hard to fathom.

“John’s creative gaze is diagonal rather than linear,” says his friend of more than 20 years, the author and journalist Ed Vulliamy. “That also applies to his whole way of looking at the world. He is as arcane, interesting and relentlessly curious as the music he makes.”

By way of illustration, Vulliamy recalls meeting with Cale in New York just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Everyone in Manhattan had a visual memory of the event, but John, with his coyote ears, had an aural one. He vividly described all the people running silently past his front door, their feet not making a sound because of the dust.”

At 82, a full 60 years after he met Lou Reed and formed the Velvet Underground, and 54 years after he released his first solo album, Vintage Violence, Cale remains a singular figure in popular music, the diagonal gaze of his songwriting alongside his musical reach – he is classically trained – positioning him forever on the interesting outskirts of pop, his constantly restless creative momentum undimmed by old age.

‘I don’t like to dwell on the past’: John Cale, top left, with Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Nico and Sterling Morrison in the late 60s.View image in fullscreen

POPtical Illusion is his 18th solo outing, the songs therein often densely layered in samples, synths, loops and distorted instrumentation. Lyrically, it often sounds as if Cale is channelling his unconscious even more so than usual, while daring the listener to make sense of the results. Sonically, it is a defiantly modern statement of intent from someone whose entire creative raison d’etre is bound up with the idea of forward motion. “I don’t like to dwell on the past, I just try to get on with things,” he says at one point. “That’s always been the case. With me, it’s always, what’s next?”

The new album follows fast on last year’s album, Mercy, on which he collaborated with various younger artists including Weyes Blood, Animal Collective and Fat White Family. “I feel like he always wants to push the envelope,” Natalie Mering (AKA Weyes Blood) told the Guardian on its release, describing how she arrived at his Los Angeles studio to find that there were no traditional instruments, just a selection of miniature toy pianos. She described his approach as “obtuse” and “conceptual” but also “very raw”, which just about nails it.

As with Mercy, the new record’s starting point was “a huge tranche of songs” that Cale wrote in a feverish burst of creativity during the Covid pandemic. “The lockdown sort of dictated what was going on, so my anger showed up fairly regularly,” he says. What was he angry at exactly? “Political stuff, mainly. I wasn’t really worried physically by what was going on with the lockdown, but there were some things that really annoyed me.” As a result, he continues, he started writing songs “with a great deal more aggression than I have in the recent past, but it was a different kind of aggression – a kind of romantic aggression”.

That “romantic aggression” takes many forms, from the brooding Company Commander, in which he has a pop at “rightwingers burning their libraries down”, to the almost self-explanatory I’m Angry, where the darkly hallucinatory lyrics may – or may not – be about mortality and even express a trace of regret. As ever, he’s not saying. “My songs have an interior logic, but I also think people want to discover things for themselves when they listen to them, just as they would when they read a poem.”

On How We See the Light, he sings about “wasted time” and learning a lesson in “the quiet ways of love”. I ask him if it is essentially a conversation with himself… “Partly, yes. My younger self.” On the rare moments he allows himself to look back, is it with regret or stoical acceptance? “It’s simply acceptance. With all the turmoil that was going when I wrote this record, I was really glad to have even some moments of reflection – and gratitude.”

Cale has always, by temperament as well as design, been something of an outsider. Even within the nascent New York art-rock scene that spawned the Velvet Underground in the mid-60s, he seemed an outre character, slightly aloof. He was 22 when he first crossed paths with Lou Reed at a house party on the Upper East Side in 1964, but, by then, he had already been on quite an eventful creative journey.

Born in the village of Garnant in Carmarthenshire in 1942, Cale’s first language was Welsh. His father, William, was a miner and his mother, Margaret, a schoolteacher. Her maiden name was Davies and, on the new record, there is a jaunty but bittersweet song called Davies and Wales that seems, however obliquely, to refer to her. “Yes,” he says, quietly, when I mention it. “But it’s really a joke song about all the Davieses I’ve met in my life.” Like his accent, his Welsh identity remains intact. “I’m afraid so,” he says. “It’s tribal. It doesn’t go away.”

Cale took to music early, playing viola in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales aged 13. Decades later, he recounted how, aged 12, he had been molested by his music teacher in the organ loft of his local church. That revelation cast new psychological light on some of his more unhinged live performances in the 1970s, when he often appeared wearing a sinister-looking hockey mask and seemed to utterly inhabit his darker songs, such as Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend and Guts. The latter is a song about bloody revenge that begins with the line: “The bugger in the short-sleeved shirt fucked my wife.” For a time, the uneasy highlight of his set was his transformation of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel into an extended psychodrama that often ended with him crouched, foetal-like, under the piano. In one performance, unimaginable in our age of trigger warnings, he decapitated a live chicken on stage, causing his band to walk off in disgust. His extreme behaviour, he later admitted, was exacerbated by his prodigious cocaine habit, which rather than suppress his traumas seemed to dramatically accentuate them in unpredictable ways.

Cale on stage at the Rainbow theatre in 1974.View image in fullscreen

Cale left Wales as a teenager when he gained a scholarship to study music at Goldsmiths in London. There, he fell under the influence of the experimental Fluxus movement, which also counted the young Yoko Ono among its myriad fleeting members. He conducted the UK premiere of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra in 1963 and, soon after, with the support of the American composer Aaron Copland, relocated to New York. It was a heady time for experimental music and Cale immersed himself in the scene, collaborating with Cage on a live performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations that lasted more than 18 hours, and working for a time with another pioneer of the avant garde, La Monte Young, whose use of sustained drones would so inform the disorienting thrust of several Velvet Underground songs.

“My gratitude is always to Aaron Copland who brought me to New York,” Cale tells me. “Without that initial step, I would never have been able to progress. And, but for the generosity of Cage as a human, I would have continued using blood bank donations as a source of income.” They remain abiding influences, not least in terms of their shared work ethic. “They didn’t get to be the leaders of the movement by sitting on their hands,” he tells me. “They abided by the edict that ‘work is more fun than fun’ and so do I.”

That chance meeting with Reed in 1964 led to the formation of the Velvet Underground, whose viral influence would shape the course of rock music for generations to come. The group managed to fuse Cale’s often bracing experimentalism – his use of the viola as a viscerally unnerving component of the group’s signature – with Reed’s songwriting style, which ranged from the raw reportage of songs such as Heroin and I’m Waiting for the Man to the disarmingly melodic drift of wistful ballads such as Sunday Morning and I’ll Be Your Mirror. The group’s creatively productive, but wildly dissolute, alliance with Andy Warhol at his Factory studio has been so oft-recounted that it is now the stuff of rock legend.

Intriguingly, on last year’s Mercy album, Cale included a song called Moonstruck, which was dedicated to the group’s beautiful but doggedly self-destructive singer, Nico, who died, aged 49, in 1988. Following her departure from the group, he produced her second solo album, The Marble Index, in 1968 and co-produced her third, Desertshore, in 1970. The latter in particular is now critically lauded for its stark but seductive strangeness.

“You’re a moonstruck junkie lady, staring at your feet…” Cale croons on Moonstruck, against a sumptuous but suitably melancholic backdrop. Have her songs stayed with him over the years? “Very much so. She was a unique personality. If you had any understanding of Nico at all, you knew to always speak to her in terms of her creativity. She resented her physical beauty and anyone who referred to her in that way. Personal insecurities aside, she was uncompromising as a songwriter. We have the proof.”

Has he ever been tempted to write a song about Reed, who died in 2013, and with whom Cale had a famously tempestuous creative partnership? “I think I have already, however vague they may seem,” he replies, leaving us to do the guessing.

Cale left the Velvet Underground in 1968 after the release of their second album, White Light/White Heat, on which his experimental approach is most evident. His reluctant departure caused a fracture with Reed that reputedly lasted until 1987, when they spoke again for the first time at Warhol’s funeral. The pair reconciled for a time, recording the elegiac Songs for Drella, a tribute to Warhol that was released in 1990. A Velvet Underground reunion tour followed in 1993, but that, too, ended in acrimony. Cale and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker are the only surviving members of the original group.

‘No regrets, many mistakes’: Cale, second left, performing with the Velvet Underground in 1966.View image in fullscreen

“The Velvet Underground are important, immensely so,” says Vulliamy, “but their legend tends to overshadow what John has done since, which is continually reinvent himself. There have been so many John Cales since then.” That is indeed the case. There is, to name but a few, the John Cale who produced landmark albums by the Stooges, Patti Smith and the Modern Lovers in the 1970s, the John Cale who has collaborated with fellow experimental travellers such as Terry Riley and Brian Eno, and the John Cale whose 18 solo albums chart a course whose map reference points, as Vulliamy puts it, “range from Elvis Presley to Alban Berg by way of Dylan Thomas”.

When Cale revisits his past work, whether on stage or on record, it is often to dramatically dismantle and reassemble it. In 2016, alongside the reissue of his 1982 album Music for a New Society, he released M:FANS, which featured new versions of the original songs. The decision to do so was precipitated by the death of Reed three years earlier, which he described as “too painful to understand”. It seems emblematic of Cale’s diagonal approach that, by immersing himself in a dramatic reworking of his own work, he found a way to exorcise the demons that stalked his fractious creative relationship with Reed, and, at the same time, pay homage to him.

As his recent records attest, John Cale is still pushing and pulling at the parameters of the song. “I look back at the very first record I made, Vintage Violence, and I really can’t complain,” he tells me. “I can’t say if those songs really hit the mark, but they do have different things in them that are still interesting to me. I guess my new songs are a little more animalistic than when I wrote Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend.” Is he seriously telling me that song isn’t animalistic in its own way? “Well, it’s kind of crooked,” he concedes. “It comes at you in a jump-start kind of way.”

That is not a bad description of some of his recent work, his musical approach in particular taking its cue not from the avant garde, if that term even applies any more, but the constant sonic adventurism of hip-hop. “It’s ravenous,” he says, approvingly. “Rock music just doesn’t do that any more and neither does the avant garde. Hip-hop is the new avant garde.”

He has also, he tells me, just discovered the music of the Irish group Lankum, who are at the forefront of the current darkly gothic reinvention of the traditional folk ballad. Their songs, he says, “just creep up on you. They have so many things going on. So much character.”

At 82, still restless, still curious, Cale shows no sign of slowing down. When I ask him if he has any regrets, he replies: “No regrets, many mistakes – but few that are noticeably grotesque.” When I ask him what’s next, he says: “Beginning the creative dissonance of road work.” So it goes, the same as it ever was, but always diagonally different.

Source: theguardian.com

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