John Cale: 80 and Ageless

Now in his eighth decade on Earth, the Velvet Underground viola master remains an explorer ever on the lookout for challenge

John Cale turns 80 today (Image: Island Records)

Contradiction? It’s John Cale’s calling card. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It comes naturally to him. Within the music and, I’d have to say, having interviewed him a few times, in his thought processes.

Music first: His forays into dissonance and contemplative mellifluousness have long been integral, often intertwined, components. In that contrast has rested the enticement: No matter which end was up, you could count on Cale – singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, guitarist, violist etc. – to make music that pushed and pulled the emotional and physical strings.

“I always get into trouble,” he told me, back in the early ‘90s, “when I try and decide between {classical and rock}.” Tension is important, he adds, “but it’s the tension between choosing unusual things — unnatural instruments to go with a certain melody or chord change. Fear is a prime example of where you have the track going along and the voice gives out. That’s the way you make the drama work for you . . . You can make people hear [an old song] in a different way — you can change the sensibility and play tag with the audience. The bottom line is you have to have a sense of drama in the song.”

In conversation: An explorer ever on the lookout for challenge, before a show at The Channel club he called the key qualities to performance “reaction time and spontaneity”. About playing with his latest band, he said: “They never know what’s going to happen next and neither do I sometimes.”

He and that hard-rocking band had just closed a set with “Mercenaries’.” They’d hauled out the finest rock ‘n’ roll weaponry and laid the best strategic plan. Charging through a blistering “ready for a war!” refrain, Cale drove home the insanity of armed-confrontation fever and his disdain for hired-hand warriors. The song reached an incendiary level of passion with Cale screaming “War!” at the top of his lungs and the guitars blazing a twisted path to glory.


AUDIO: John Cale “Mercenaries (Live)”

I asked if he thought his young band knew anything about his Velvet-y past. “I don’t care if they know,” he said, pausing to think and then amending that to “I don’t particularly want them to know. It’s more important to get that reaction time from them.” Cale says he encourages his band to react in a “diametrically opposite” fashion from the way convention would dictate.

The talk turned to rock ‘n’ roll’s importance or value. I posited that it certainly had some. Cale countered by calling it “car music That’s the only value, really. Turn on a rock ‘n’ roll station and go out on the freeway.” Full stop.

His quick lookback on his life from one of the ‘90s interviews: He said he entered the world “kicking and screaming,” but wanted to live in the moment, or the present. Cale was happy relatively few people remembered him from the Velvet Underground days. A man who has expressed an interest in European history through his music, Cale shrugged off much of his own. He dismissed it thus: “What we set out to do, we didn’t deliver on – to have improvised music. We thought that maybe we could give Dylan a run for his money and indicate a different, more vitriolic, approach to that intellectual mentality.”

He didn’t much care to look back upon his solo records – and Vintage Violence and Paris 1919 are both A-level (pre-dissonance) gems. Concerts? Yeah, those could be good. A more challenging and immediate form of expression.



So, I asked – much I’d asked Lou Reed more than a decade prior: Who are you? Who is John Cale?

“I’m a Welsh coal-miners son,” he said, smiling. A minute later: “I’m basically an alarmist.”

Cale turns 80 March 9. 

I didn’t grow up listening to Cale in the Velvet Underground; I was too young for the VU as they unfolded, and I didn’t really recognize him until hearing the eponymous debut LP he produced for the Stooges (which I bought in the early ‘70s). Then, I quickly became a huge fan of his music with his leap into Eno-land, the Fear album in 1974 and then the (in)famous June 1, 1974 album, where the artists are often abbreviated as ACNE. (That’d be Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico and Brian Eno.)


AUDIO: Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico and Brian Eno “May I?”

Of course, I went back and caught up on what I’d missed with the Velvets, as did most any punk-aligned musician, writer or fan during the mid- ‘70s. By the time, the Cale-produced/long-delayed Modern Lovers debut LP came out in 1976 I was well aware and in the Cale camp. And there was Patti Smith’s debut (big wow!) and Squeeze’s (slightly lesser wow, but still damn good.) Later came the Nico albums, Desertshore and The End.

I talked to Nico in 1979 for Trouser Press and asked her if she’d be working with Cale again. “It depends if he wants to because he’s a little angry at me,” she said. “I didn’t show up at the Carnegie Hall benefit concert because, first of all I wasn’t on the poster, and I was supposed to sing only one song which I thought was too little, and then I was really sick too. He was very angry; he still is. Says I’m not reliable… so I have a bad reputation now.”

I’ve seen Cale a bunch in concert and Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” has been a staple and highlight for years; he mined the depths of despair Elvis only hinted at. I remember seeing Cale at the Rat club in Boston in 1989 and when he got to the “We could all feel so lonely we could die!” line he stretched out “die” into, I swear, about seven syllables. It felt pretty goddamn lonely, except of course for the bond between band and crowd and amongst the crowd. That’s where and why it doesn’t feel so lonely.

Cale is at home both in a band setting or solo, playing piano and occasional guitar. He told me the 1992 live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season, was intended to include Midi-derived orchestral sampling, where a touch of one button could trigger a number of sounds. But the complicated system got derailed in Germany last spring, and Cale was forced to opt for simpler, grand piano arrangements. He liked them, stuck with them, and recorded them. This is where we first heard his arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that inspired Jeff Buckley and made the once-obscure song famous. 


VIDEO: John Cale “Hallelujah”

“I found out how much technique I’d lost over the years in playing electronic instruments,” Cale said, “and rediscovered this whole other palette of tones and expressions that I’d forgotten about. It was very nice, a much warmer experience. With a band, there’s a kind of safety in numbers; you share responsibility, you can use [band members] as foils. When you do things on your own, you really have a personal situation with the songs and the audience, a very direct line. They can tell what you’re presenting them with is your personality with nothing between them and it.


VIDEO: John Cale Fragments of a Rainy Season

“There’s a string quartet format I just explored in Munich, and that was very interesting. We didn’t really expand the songs because of time constraints, but we did re-arrange a whole lot successfully. What I intend to do is use the string quartet in a different way from just doing salon arrangements, doing abrasive, amplified parts.”

He almost embraced the notion that he was not a cog in the current rock ‘n’ roll scene. “There’s a certain discomfort level, but that’s only because I’m not using rock ‘n’ roll bands, and I’ve defected into the theater division, and I’m more interested in how long pieces operate, how [the songs of] an hour-an-a-half theater piece are connected.”

When we talked, the Velvet Underground had been twice-nominated but yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But did it matter? 

“Yeah,” he said. “I would be proud of having just a little recognition from your peers. I know there are many other worthy [bands], but there’s no doubt in my mind it would be an accolade.”

They got the call in 1996.

For the send-off, I’m going to pass the baton over to M. Howell, a longtime friend, one-time competitor at the Boston Phoenix, where he wrote criticism from 1978-1995 and a huge Cale afficionado. He writes about seeing Cale at Boston clubs and more.

Nowadays, you’ll see John Cale as honored guest at some avant-garde music event in Europe, but the Cale that I revere is a different incarnation.

He’s John Cale at The Rat. Sweaty and ferocious, screeching into the semi-shit-stained crowd about fear being man’s best friend. He’s John Cale at The Channel, trying to rope the wildly disparate strains of his musical personalities together into a coherent concert experience. He’s John Cale alone onstage at The Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, seemingly deciding what to play next based on whatever of the many instruments he’s expert at is closest at hand. 

One of the more fascinating observations made about Cale’s career is that despite the umbilical connection to the Velvet Underground, he has made more music with Eno than with Reed. A bit startling to hear, but true. Put aside the eulogy of Songs for Drella and the VU isn’t more than 20 songs or so. His dark and delightful collaboration with Eno, Wrong Way Up, not to mention Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy from his fecund middle 1970s period, all deliver solid punches, even if they never reach the chaos of the VU White Light/White Heat black hole. VU was pained sweetness (“Sunday Morning”, “Femme Fatale”) tossed unnervingly with drug-driven desperation. WH/WL was the multitude of madness. 

But Cale is far more than even those extremes. A guy comfortable playing with members of Fairport Convention as well as Roxy Music and Television. A deft lyricist and highly emotional composer (when he chooses to be). The musician as James Bond. Or James Bond villain. Hard to tell from song to song.




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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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