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John Cale on Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, David Bowie and Nico


Here are two broadly identified information about John Cale: He was a founding member of the Velvet Underground, and infused the group with its astringent avant-garde sensibility; and he as soon as decapitated a hen onstage and chucked it on the viewers, inflicting a few of his band members to stop. “It was the most effective show-stopper I ever came up with,” he wrote unrepentantly in his 1999 memoir, “What’s Welsh for Zen.”

Cale’s place in music historical past contains not solely the primary two Velvet Underground albums, but in addition his manufacturing work on influential debut albums by the Modern Lovers, the Patti Smith Group and the Stooges, and a string of solo albums that blend excoriating tales of violence like “Gun,” “Dead or Alive” and “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” with stately and unsettled ballads, together with “You Know More Than I Know,” “Buffalo Ballet” and “I Keep a Close Watch.”

On “Mercy,” Cale’s first album of latest songs since 2012, he introduced in collaborators for greater than half of the songs, together with electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso and people experimentalist Weyes Blood. Cale casts an extended shadow on a youthful technology of musicians who traverse musical boundaries.

“Cale brought drone-y dread to the Velvet Underground,” says singer and violinist Andrew Bird, who has lined Cale’s 1973 music “Andalucia.” “And his solo albums are an inspiration to anyone who believes pop music can deliver on thrills and still hit you with unexpected depth.”

Even when Cale was younger, he sounded outdated: world-weary, skeptical, paranoid. On “Mercy‘s” 12 chilly, unhurried songs, he reminisces about his friend David Bowie (“Night Crawling”) and his Velvet Underground bandmate and former lover Nico (“Moonstruck”), who died in 1988, and links sound to memory on an extraordinary highlight, “The Noise of You.”

John Davies Cale was born in a rural Wales village where his father worked in the mines, “a soul-destroying job,” Cale has said. His doting mother signed him up to study classical piano when he was 7, and Cale proved a prodigy, learning viola and bass in addition to piano. He won a scholarship to study modern composition at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where his music was deemed too aggressive, and soon found surer footing in New York City, where he performed with avant-garde deity La Monte Young and formed the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. “We decided that we were gonna do things nobody could figure out,” he later wrote.

Even at 80, Cale remains a self-described “trickster,” and during a recent Zoom call from the voiceover booth of his recording studio in L.A., he spoke obliquely about his recent landmark birthday, his influential cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and why he was fired from the Velvet Underground.

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Seven of the 12 songs on “Mercy” have collaborators, and also you’ve collaborated rather a lot over your profession. What makes somebody collaborator?

Collaborators all the time present me one thing new. It’s a welcome injection of concepts. You open a Pandora’s field. Let me look inside that field. Let me tickle the keys right here and see what occurs.

Who’s a collaborator you’ve realized from?

La Monte Young was one in every of them. I got here to New York in 1963 to fulfill La Monte and work with him. I had managed to get a number of cellphone numbers for La Monte, John Cage and Aaron Copland, and I went about assembly the musicians who would open my eyes to some issues. Even across the fringe of that avant-garde group, there was somebody who had their very own concepts of how issues ought to run.

Even although there are totally different collaborators, the songs on “Mercy” nonetheless have a constant sound, which I’d describe as gradual and gentle, but in addition decayed and wintry. Does that description resonate with you?

Yeah. I welcome the wintry thought, as a result of my favourite music on the album, “The Noise of You,” jogs my memory of Prague in winter. I don’t know what extra I can say besides that a few of the collaborators paid consideration to earlier collaborators that aren’t with us anymore. One is Nico. I used to be stunned that it had taken me so lengthy to concentrate to her fashion.

In “Moonstruck,” the “Mercy” music about Nico, you sing, “I’ve come to make my peace.” Is there literalism in that? Did you not make peace together with her earlier than she died?

It appeared applicable for me to say one thing much less summary than I did in a few of the different lyrics on the report. The music is affectionate. I confirmed Nico some respect. People have abruptly realized how efficient her songs had been. I hoped that one way or the other, Nico’s son, Ari, would get to learn the lyrics as properly, as a result of he had a tough time of it.

“The Noise of You” struck me first as a music about mourning or loss, however is it additionally about how sound pertains to reminiscence?

Well, there’s a subject. It does, and as exhausting as I strive to not relate one sound to an surroundings or historical past, it’s factor to have within the combine. It’s a really engaging emotion, to have shadows of previous experiences coming down on you.

People extra typically consider style and odor because the sensory keys to reminiscence. For you, it’s sound?

Yes, all the time. It’s both sounds from reminiscences or reminiscences from sounds. It’s a collision of feelings. The thought of collisions in music is de facto helpful for a composer.

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“Night Crawling” is a music about nocturnal adventures with David Bowie. One of the traces is “I can’t even tell when you’re putting me on.” Was that true of your relationship with Bowie?

Yes, and it describes his relationship with me additionally.

Why do you assume he couldn’t inform if you had been placing him on?

I’m simply being cautious. I’m hedging my bets.

In the music, or in life?


The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, from left, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed.

(Nat Finkelstein/Apple TV+)

A brand new Lou Reed album got here out a number of months in the past, “Words & Music, May 1965.” It’s you and Lou doing very folk-rock demos of “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin,” amongst different songs. At what level did you and he begin incorporating aggression and atonality?

I feel that began in ’65. See, I met Lou and I acquired the impression that the songs he was writing contained numerous sincere, argumentative positions, and that was necessary to me. I used to be extra fascinated with that than within the people aspect. That’s the place I acquired the concept the power of Bob Dylan’s prose was additionally potential with Lou. I don’t prefer to say that, as a result of Lou’s fashion was his personal — sacrosanct.

I’d run backwards and forwards to London, see my outdated associates from school and ask what was occurring in music. They unloaded a complete bag of, like, the early Who, Daddy Longlegs, Small Faces. I got here again to New York and mentioned, “Lou, we’ve got to wake up! These guys are doing what we should be doing. What are we waiting for?” I suppose that’s one of many issues that got here again to hang-out me.

What do you imply?

Later on, it was identified to me by any person in our group — it could have been our supervisor, however let’s not point out his title — that I used to be not a straight shooter. I used to be not welcome within the band anymore as a consultant of the avant-garde. I mentioned, “Now is not the time to back off from what we’ve done.” They mentioned I used to be pushing it too far. So I backed off quietly.

Have you listened to the third and fourth Velvet Underground albums, and what do you consider them?

I most likely listened to them a few occasions and didn’t hearken to them once more. It was necessary to me to get extra songwriting carried out, produce some bands and give attention to the longer term.

Do you recognize that thanks partly to your 1991 cowl of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, it’s develop into some of the lined songs of the final 20 years?

Yeah. The music was mysterious sufficient that I actually needed to seize Leonard and say, “Can you send me the lyrics?” He mentioned, “Sure.” So I acquired the lyrics, which took up a complete roll of thermal fax machine paper. The music had 15 verses in it. I assumed, “God, thanks a lot, Leonard. Too welcome!”

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What was it concerning the music that resonated with you?

One factor was that I had a alternative. I advised Leonard, “There are certain verses here that I can’t wrap my head around. They’re not something I feel confident about being sincere.” He mentioned, “Just take what you need.” That jogs my memory of a business on TV that’s actually obnoxious — some man who has an emu working round after him. Do you recognize the man I imply?

Yes, it’s an advert for Liberty Mutual insurance coverage. “Only pay for what you need.”

[laughs] That’s proper. I fell out of affection with insurance coverage corporations.

“Hallelujah” isn’t a contented music, and it’s bizarre that it’s develop into a ballad folks cowl on “American Idol.”

But it’s additionally a music that individuals can take as being an ethical corrective. It’s not too typically that you just come throughout a music that can crawl beneath your pores and skin and sit there and watch you. The approach Leonard does issues could be very easy.

The first time I noticed you carry out, there was an actual feeling of menace. Someone within the crowd threw a bottle on the stage and I assumed there may be a riot. That suggests to me that if you sing concerning the violent nature of humanity, that matter can’t be contained. You’re not answerable for it.

Yes, that’s true. And I by no means attempt to comprise it. I’ve all the time tried to carry it up like a specimen in a jar and say, “Now look at this!” or “Listen to this!” I’d slightly have an thought of what’s disturbing within the jar than not.

I’m all the time suspicious after I hear about rock musicians who’ve classical coaching, as a result of they’re often horrible rock musicians. What use was your classical coaching in enjoying rock?

Totally ineffective! But I didn’t see classical coaching as an endpoint. I noticed it as a spot to scramble. If you wish to be a chef and also you go to this one man who does all kinds of bizarre cooking, out of all of it comes your inquisitiveness. There is as a lot in a listener as there’s in a composer. I hope that’s clear.

So the composer doesn’t exist with out the listener?


You turned 80 final yr. What did you do to have a good time?

[pause] Well, I can say I had a cookie.

You actually splurged, huh?

Oh man, it is best to have seen me. [laughs]

Seventy-nine years with no cookie, after which bang! A cookie.

That’s it! The worst f— destiny for anyone: no cookies.

I then went on to doughnuts.


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