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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
[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.
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?
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.
of the surprises on the Velvet Underground box set
is the demos with Lou singing in a Dylanish manner.
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.
did you get from that to the classic Velvet Underground
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.
always assumed that the relentless droning sound
of the Velvet Underground came from your experiences
of working with La Monte Young.
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.
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....
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
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.
it because you wanted to do something completely
different from what you'd been doing with the Velvet
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
the almost nostalgic stories evocative of places
and times on your own records are quite different.
are the ones I usually latch onto quickest.
they in some way related to your work on movie soundtracks?
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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
wanted to ask you about your mystical-meteorological
theories—making the weather warmer or colder
through pitch. Does this come from your Welsh background?
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
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.
your most recent project?
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."
career as a producer has been highly influential—your
work with Jonathan Richman, the Stooges, Siouxsie
and the Banshees, Patti Smith...
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—
wasn't the improvisation on "Sister Ray"
what made it such an amazing track?
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.
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!
not disdaining it.
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.
the secret world view of the band: that everybody
might think they know what they're doing but they're
really in the dark.