What's Welsh for Zen? 
John Cale on Lou Reed, weather magic, mercenaries, and the Velvet Underground
By David Dalton

From Gadfly January 1999


The Velvet Underground in its classic phase (1966-1968) lasted barely two years and released only two studio albums but their influence has been immense. Their first album may have only sold a couple of hundred copies, the line goes, but everyone who bought one went out and started a group.

It has been said that while the music and lyrics of the Velvet Underground were Lou Reed's, their droning, hypnotic sound came from John Cale. It's an easy assumption to make given Cale's background in avant-garde music—notably his collaborations with La Monte Young—but it's not quite as simple as all that.

John Cale was born in Wales and studied classical music in London, where he soon became involved in cutting-edge avant-garde movements such as the Zen-inflected art movement, Fluxus. In New York he joined the avant-garde group the Theater of Eternal Music, centered around the composer La Monte Young.

Following a bizarre meeting with Lou Reed (recounted below), Cale and Reed formed the Primitives (with underground filmmaker Tony Conrad and sculptor Walter de Maria), which in turn evolved into the Velvet Underground with the late Sterling Morrison on bass and Maureen Tucker on drums. When Andy Warhol took the band under his vinyl wing, Nico was added as lead singer. In the spring of 1968 Nico left the Velvets to start a solo career and Cale made his last studio album with the group, the relentless White Heat/White Light. In September of '68 Cale was pushed out of the group by Lou Reed and began his second and third incarnations as solo performer and ground-breaking producer of such bands as the Stooges and the Patti Smith Group, as well as Jonathan Richman, Eno and Nico.

The two auteurs of the Velvet Underground were Lou Reed and John Cale. Of the two Reed is today the more familiar, having settled into his Transylvanian persona and jaded delivery after his 1972 album, Transformer.* Cale's subsequent career, on the other hand, has been bewilderingly prolix and perverse. The filmmaker Mary Herron once said: "John Cale has tried to strangle success with both hands."

The simplest way to describe the post-Velvets Cale would be to call him an edgy pop singer. Multiphrenic pop singer might be more to the point. He defies classification, from avant-garde collaborations with Terry Riley and Eno, to lush orchestral suites ("Dixieland"), to quasi-Goth readings of standards ("Heartbreak Hotel"), to Bach-into-Bartok piano sonatas ("Temper"), to Memphis R&B ("Dirtyass Rock and Roll"), to Tom Jonesish ballads ("I Keep a Close Watch"), to novelty songs ("Ooh La La"), to bizarre tales set to music ("The Jeweller"), to his current project, Nico: The Ballet, for violas, guitar, drums and sampled voice. He has been no less unpredictable as a producer. Many bands who hired him to produce their albums assuming they were getting an uncompromising punk minimalist found to their surprise (and sometimes horror) that they'd signed on an unabashed romantic with visions of clavichords dancing in his head.

To paraphrase John Dryden, John Cale is "a man so various that he seems to be, not one, but all mankind's epitome....  who in the course of one revolving moon, is alchemist, fiddler, genius and buffoon."

There's a wonderful story I remember you telling me years ago about how in your student days you pushed a grand piano down a mine shaft to see what kind of sounds it would make as it went down.

JC: [Laughs] You believed that one, did you? What it was is this: I was at Goldsmith Teacher's College in London where I was studying composition with Sir Humphrey Searle. Searle, I'd been told, had worked for MI5 [British secret service] during the war and had been responsible for drawing up the document on silent killing. That did it for me. How does a composer get involved in something like that? Around this time I'd run into some Fluxus people and began to feel myself part of a radical movement. I was running up and down with these pieces that I'd written, some with Welsh titles—they were pieces of performance art, really. One was an opera that involved dismantling the theater and another piece involved dropping grand pianos from a great height. Someone picked that up and said, "Down a mine shaft would be better." These were the kinds of ideas that Fluxus provoked. I read Nam June Paik's performance piece, Danger Music # 39, which instructed you to "Climb into the vagina of a live female whale..." and I was never the same again.

I wanted to ask you about your first meeting with Lou where he had his guitar strings all tuned to the same note. I can understand someone experimenting with this in the context of avant-garde music, but why had Lou done it?

That was the thrill of it. Tony Conrad, Walter de Maria and I were picked up one night at a party because we had long hair and they told us, "You look commercial. We think you'd make a great band, why don't you come out and visit us." Okay, so we go out to Pickwick Records on Long Island City, go into the back room of this plant that manufactures LPs of second-rate orchestras playing concertos. The back room had one Ampex two-track tape recorder. There were three guys milling around. One of these guys was Lou, who looked suitably funky, and two other guys, they were into trying anything. They played me this thing ["The Ostrich"] that they recorded on their two-track. All three of them had bottles of vodka and downed them in one night and each had a guitar tuned to one note. Exactly the kind of spirit in which most things were done. That's the same spirit in which you get things like Beck's "I'm a Loser, Baby, Why Don't You Kill Me" suddenly popping out of the chute. Spirit of rock and roll. You don't know why it works but it does. It's not marketing from record executives, knowing which area to pinpoint this record, it's really exorbitant ideas that are a little bit out of control.

One of the surprises on the Velvet Underground box set is the demos with Lou singing in a Dylanish manner.

Well, that's where they came from at the time. Lou was writing what were really twisted folk songs and he played harmonica and sang like Dylan.

How did you get from that to the classic Velvet Underground sound?

I think it was a case of one year of rehearsing every weekend, dragging in amps and puttering around. You can hear the shift happening on some of the demo tapes. In any case, one of the main bones of contention with Lou when we first got together was I didn't read his lyrics, you know. He would write all the songs on an acoustic guitar and I'd say, "I'm not interested in folk music, Lou." "Yeah," he'd say, "but look at the words, look at the words." He kept shoving these lyrics in front of me and when I sat down and read them it slowly became clear that these were not feeling-sorry-for-themselves lyrics, especially "Venus in Furs." That was the one that grabbed me, and "Waiting For the Man," which was a kind of desperate character portrayal. Anyway, all those discussions about folk music went away when we got the electric guitars and Lou started playing blues. That first album was the result of at least one year of weekend thrashings which paid off because we would never have got to "Venus in Furs" or "Heroin" if we hadn't kept doing that. I slowly veered away from La Monte Young's circle and put myself in the camp with Lou. In the middle of all this he and I went up and played on 125th Street in front of the Baby Grand club. I took my viola and recorder and he took his acoustic guitar in the summer.

I've always assumed that the relentless droning sound of the Velvet Underground came from your experiences of working with La Monte Young.

It had more to do with the work ethic from La Monte. In La Monte's group we rehearsed every day for a year and a half and tape-recorded everything. There's a whole body of work in a vault upstate of all those performances that La Monte refuses to release because he refuses to acknowledge the contribution of the other people involved in the music. A typical story. What I brought into the group was a rivetting concentration on climbing inside the sound. It's a question of keeping going and keeping going and trying it again and again until the sound wraps itself around you. When we came up with the sound we wanted on "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs" I was convinced nobody else could do what we were doing. In the beginning, if we wanted to get work in clubs we had to go out and play the Top Ten so in my mischievous frame of mind I began thinking, Okay, we're going to be successful, and when we are, other people will never be able to play what we are doing. Playing that game, making it impossible for other people to copy us was important, anyway, on an intellectual level.

The Velvet Underground had this image of satanic, heroin-shooting devotees of the Marquis de Sade and yet, leaving Lou aside, the rest of the group seemed very unlike that, Maureen going to church on Sundays....

If it was closer to Lou it was only momentarily. He dabbled in a lot of alternate lifestyles at the time. That was his research. That's where his lyrics came from.

Your solo career after you left the Velvet Underground is astonishingly diverse. I don't think anyone would have anticipated the variety of musical genres you've been involved with. After seeing you in the Velvet Underground, one thought of you as a relentless experimenter and avant-gardist, and yet you've also done ballads and novelty songs.

Rather funny that.

Was it because you wanted to do something completely different from what you'd been doing with the Velvet Underground?

To a certain extent I wanted to extend it. Because when I produced Nico's second album, Marble Index, I felt I'd really taken it all another step. I played it for Lou and said, "Listen to this. This is what you could have had." I was on a cloud after Marble Index, it was something that was completely in another world. European and classical and at the same time it had all this rock and roll chutzpah in it. I also purposely continued to use elements from the Velvet Underground when I was performing. I always included in the set one long number, like "Gun," that recalled what we used to do with "Sister Ray" and a short story like "The Jeweller," which was similar to what we'd done with "Lady Godiva's Operation" and "The Gift" in the Velvet Underground.

But the almost nostalgic stories evocative of places and times on your own records are quite different.

Those are the ones I usually latch onto quickest.

Are they in some way related to your work on movie soundtracks?

No. It's really the simplest form of Dylan Thomas appreciation because you don't necessarily get a lot of sense from Dylan Thomas's poems but the sound and the words put you into a state of mind.

A hypnotic state.

Yeah, the hypnosis thing was really important, too, in the transformation of the Velvet Underground. Lou and I were both into it in different ways. I was interested in how ten cycles of alpha rhythm played a role in what we did with La Monte, and Lou had the ability to create lyrics that were straight out of the subconscious. So I thought the drone might be the ideal hypnotic thing that would drive the rock and roll. What really interested me was combining those two elements with all their psychological potential. I daresay at one point we were thinking, Hey, we could hypnotize or stun people into what we were doing and they wouldn't really know why. And in a sense that's what happened because there are umpteen number of people who say they love the Velvet Underground but very few of them would be able to tell you why. So, on that level you might say we succeeded.

At the end of the 1970s your music became grim and dark and paranoiac. Songs like "Ready for War," songs about mercenaries. You have this line, "I've been chasing ghosts and I don't like it."

That's sort of an explanation of it. I was investigating those corners. It was the post-Vietnam era and we were running into a lot of people with Agent Orange afflictions and obviously these people had nothing to lose. They're sick of everything around them and they're sick and that's it. The feeling of danger from those people... you know, the wild card. It was interesting how much a part of rock and roll all that became. I remember a lot of people who came to see those shows were strange bedfellows. I had my first encounters with Special Forces people around that time. The first inkling I had of this underworld came from a group that used to meet at the Compleat Strategist. It's a store on 57th Street that has models, strategy games. This group was very knowledgeable about tank battalion deployment and sniper potential. They had it all down in their heads. What will a 10.65 millimeter bullet fire through? That kind of thing. These guys were very bright and some of them came to my shows. A group of them presented me with a war-game called Urban Fighter, urban strategy warfare. There were the Russian soldiers on one side with Russian names, and on the other side were all these guys with rock and roll names, like Commander Bators, Commander Cale and Lieutenant Smith... Patti was in there, too. One of these vets was a member of Mensa but no less violent for it. Next time I saw him he was in a military correctional center. He had the clap and he'd gone into the veterans hospital to get a shot but it was after closing time and the guy said, "Come back tomorrow, I'm going home." This vet pulled out an army issue Colt .45 and put a round through the closet and said, "I want it now!" The Feds came and took him away. You had all of those guys crawling out of the woodwork all across the Midwest when we were touring. It gave me a taste of "be careful what you ask for because you might get it." You write a song and it might be a good portrayal of a mercenary and it might even become very popular. It's right there on the cusp, but then you have to be prepared for the other side of it. People coming backstage to see you saying, "I've got a present for you. It's back at my house and I want to give it to you." "Oh, and what is it?" I ask. "It's a Luger." I wasn't going to someone's house to get a Luger.

But didn't that happen with the Velvet Underground on another level? People assuming you were sticking needles in your arm and whipping each other and wanting you to get involved in all kinds of druggy scenes and kinky sex?

Ah, but you see, that was in the upper levels of society—society people from Boston, Chicago and New York—it wasn't down with the workers on the Burlington-Pacific Railroad.

I wanted to ask you about your mystical-meteorological theories—making the weather warmer or colder through pitch. Does this come from your Welsh background?

Merlin the magician came from around the corner from where I grew up. Andy [Warhol] was into magic, too, you know. I think in his mind it was more like purity, Catholic purity, but he had his own magic. The way he helped me with a bunch of things was just unbelievable. So simple and so imaginative. I wish I'd used more of his ideas. Did you know that when the Whitney catalogued his movies recently they found he'd made 830 films? I know some of them are just three-minute screen tests, but still it's an amazing body of work.

But what you're talking about is really just physics. When you think about it, the lower the pitch, the larger the column of air that you have to move and if you keep going very low you get into huge columns of air which is really weather change. High pressure systems and low pressure systems. You can have a view, if you want to be ecclesiastical about it, that fits music into the universe the same way Jungians fit music into the universe.

What's your most recent project?

Nico: The Ballet. That's a piece for an ensemble which happily enough is all violas and a guitar and a drummer. I was very happy with it because it was a vehicle for me to sharpen up my string-writing chops. I don't get the chance that often. It's a little different from everything else I've done. It's in the style of Vaughan Williams' Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. It sent me back to the demands of being a classical composer. I got Nico's voice from the floppy disk that was in that issue of Aspen magazine that you and Andy [Warhol] designed. On that record there's a recording from the party they had for the magazine. Everybody is raging about in the background but then in one part of it Nico comes on and she sounds so young in it, so totally different from the way she was in later years. So I pulled her voice out of there and fashioned a staggered conversation where she was talking. There was just enough words there that you could make out something, but it had all that hesitancy and innocence she had. I think it's called "Are You Sleepy 2."

Your career as a producer has been highly influential—your work with Jonathan Richman, the Stooges, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Patti Smith...

Being a producer and a performer there was always this dichotomy between being spontaneous and rock and roll-oriented on the one hand and, on the other, being the producer whose job it is to capture that live sound. Capturing the live sound was something we always ran after in the Velvet Underground and we were never satisfied. "Sister Ray" kind of shocked us all. It was exactly what we wanted and exactly what we didn't want at the same time. Everybody got their say in it but—

But wasn't the improvisation on "Sister Ray" what made it such an amazing track?

When we performed it we thought of it as a vehicle, just like "European Son." Up until we got "Sister Ray" we had "European Son." They both fulfilled a role on stage. We always needed something to play where we could let off steam because improvising was what we really wanted to do. The idea was to let Lou carry on with the lyrics or whatever else he wanted to do and we'd provide the wall of sound behind him.

Did you know that in this issue of Gadfly "Sister Ray" is listed by Paul Williams as one of the major contributions to the twentieth century? [Cale laughs] You laugh!

I'm not disdaining it.

It's so overwhelming. One is stunned at the end of it. You really don't know where you are or what exactly is going on. Total submersion in a Velvet Underground world of freaks and sex and hallucinated voices against this mind-numbing wave of sound.

That's the secret world view of the band: that everybody might think they know what they're doing but they're really in the dark.