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The New Yorker JANUARY 30, 2017 - by Amanda Petrusich
JOHN CALE'S INVENTIVE RETROSPECTION
The experimental musician and co-founder of The Velvet Underground reinterprets his back catalogue.
For the past several years, John Cale, the Welsh musician and co-founder of the Velvet Underground, has been selectively reissuing his back catalogue. Some of these efforts are straightforward: an old record is remastered, and given new packaging, an updated set of liner notes, and perhaps a new video. Others are wild reimaginings. This spring, Cale will be seventy-five. Lou Reed, his collaborator in The Velvet Underground, died in 2013, followed by other friends and peers: Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, the experimental composer Pauline Oliveros. It can feel, at times, as if Cale is tidying his legacy - dusting the house before company comes by.
Last month, Cale reissued Fragments Of A Rainy Season, a live album recorded at various stops on a 1991 world tour. He was usually accompanied only by his own piano playing, and the set list included compositions from different eras in his discography, along with covers of lonesome songs like Heartbreak Hotel. For the reissue, Cale added eight new tracks: some alternative versions - including a second, more jarring Heartbreak Hotel, with distorted strings and other inconsonant noises - and some songs that didn't make the original cut.
The album art features an exchange from "Macbeth":
Banquo: It will be rain tonight.
1st Murderer: Let it come down.
Cale is not interested in circumventing or prettifying anguish: let it come down. But he doesn't revel in suffering, either; he figures out what hurting sounds like and then articulates it. The result can be challenging and discordant, but this is still a deeply benevolent impulse - to recognize and free pain. Fragments Of A Rainy Season opens with a song called A Wedding Anniversary. Cale sings lyrics by Dylan Thomas - another aching Welshman - over a tense piano melody. "Death strikes their house," he intones, his voice cavernous and melancholy. "Too late in the wrong rain."
Thomas imbibed and philandered without restraint, dying, in 1953, of pneumonia exacerbated by the several days he'd spent drinking whiskey at the White Horse Tavern, in the West Village. But he wrote often of the possibility of putting off death, or, at least, of defying it. His poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, published in 1951, ends, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
It is not hard to sense that same spirit in Cale. In the early '90s, Cale closed most of his sets with a cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which Cale first recorded in 1991, for a tribute album titled I'm Your Fan: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen, and later included on Fragments Of A Rainy Season. Hallelujah, which was released by Cohen in 1984, has been covered so relentlessly that it now feels like a shortcut for conjuring feelings of despondency. In 1991, though, the song was still an obscure track from Various Positions, a record that nobody was paying much attention to. Cohen's take is cool and moody, sung in a staid, stately baritone. Cale's version is sparse and undulating, and he sounds freshly gutted after every verse. It's this iteration - which Jeff Buckley covered in 1994 and Rufus Wainwright sings on the soundtrack for the animated film Shrek - that most people recognize.
Cale also monkeyed with the lyrics. After he heard Cohen singing different words to the song during a show at the Beacon Theatre, he asked about alternative verses. Cohen reportedly faxed him fifteen pages of unused lines; from these, Cale pulled together new lyrics, which change the entire narrative trajectory of the song, making it bloodier, less celestial. It contains a heartbreakingly succinct account of how it feels to watch someone fall out of love with you:
There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
I remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.
The fifth verse opens, "Maybe there's a God above / but all I ever learned from love / was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you." On this line, Cale resists the temptation to sing "you" as the more colloquial "ya," which Cohen often did, and cheekily - to make it rhyme in a satisfying way with "hallelujah." He seems to know that the lyric contains too tough a lesson to be made cute: how to be bested by someone you trusted but still land a blow on your way down. How to survive.
A week before Cohen died, in November, Cale released a video for his version of Hallelujah. It features Cale - sturdy and muscular, dressed in black, with heedless white hair and a goatee that makes him appear slightly devious - seated at a grand piano overrun with crickets and mealworms. A long string of pearls is wrapped around his left wrist. In one sequence, Cale is lying flat on the floor, and the worms are inching around his face. The evocation, of course, is of decomposition.
Cale was born in the spring of 1942 in Garnant, a small village in the Amman River Valley of Wales, a region rich in slow-burning anthracite coal. Mining began there in the eighteenth century; between 1860 and 1960, more than fourteen hundred workers died in the coalfields. Cale's father, William, was a miner, and his mother, Margaret Davies, was a schoolteacher. Margaret's mother insisted that John speak Welsh at home, making it impossible for him to effectively communicate with his father, who spoke only English, until he was seven, when he started school.
Cale's adolescence was bleak. He was hospitalized frequently for bronchitis. He later said that whatever syrupy opiate he was spooned led to hallucinations: "You'd end up sitting in your bedroom, looking at the wallpaper, and the flowers would change." Margaret became ill with breast cancer, which his maternal grandmother blamed on his birth. At twelve, Cale was molested by a church organist who had been giving him music lessons. "The way into the organ loft was narrow and, once in, you could not easily get out. If you were there with the organ tutor, it was even more cramped," he wrote in his autobiography. There is an undercurrent of dread in Cale's work which seems clearly born of his youth.
Cale exhibited an aptitude for composition on the viola and the piano, and left Wales to take music courses at the University of London's Goldsmiths College. In 1963, following an invitation from the American composer Aaron Copland, he went to the United States to study at Tanglewood, the music center in the Berkshires, on full scholarship. Later that year, he moved to New York and took a job in a bookshop. At the time, downtown Manhattan was an incubator for experimental musicians, who incorporated into their pieces the dissonance and the atonality of city living. The minimalist composer La Monte Young worked from a vast, boxy loft on Church Street that eventually became his Dream House, the "sound and light environment" that he built with his partner, the visual artist Marian Zazeela. Yoko Ono offered up her home on Chambers Street as a performance space for young players. It suddenly seemed as if classical composition could be deinstitutionalized just by rerouting it geographically. John Cage, Terry Riley, Cornelius Cardew, John Zorn, Morton Feldman, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and others were inventing new ways to generate and organize sound. Their movement became known as Fluxus.
Cale quickly internalized its directives. Ingenuity and brazenness still trump nearly every other motive in his work. "It's what I must do each day: create music beyond the premise set before," he has said. By 1964, he was performing with Young's Theatre of Eternal Music, an ensemble interested in sensory inundation and programmatic harmonic sequences, usually dictated by Young. The work could be beautiful, but it wasn't exactly user-friendly. In his notes on the project, Young explained his mission in mathematical terms, speaking of primes and denominators and intervals. The group's compositions had titles like The Tortoise Recalling The Drone Of The Holy Numbers As They Were Revealed In The Dreams Of The Whirlwind And The Obsidian Gong, Illuminated By The Sawmill, The Green Sawtooth Ocelot And The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer.
Musically, the pieces combine an extended time structure, heavy, sustained sounds, and ungovernable melodic lines that often flit about unpredictably, like a mosquito stuck inside a car. Young described these movements as "the independent entries and exits of the tones." Sections of the compositions feel improvised, unmoored, and chaotic; something feral is happening over something staid. Elements of this approach, known as drone - and of Young's lawless spirit - stayed with Cale throughout his career.
In early 1965, at a party, Cale met Terry Phillips, an employee of Pickwick Records, a British label that released children's records until its founder, Cy Leslie, figured out that he could corral pickup musicians into writing and performing songs that resembled the hits of the day, and then sell those soundalike 45s at a discount. Phillips asked Cale to join a Pickwick band called The Primitives, which was promoting The Ostrich, a goofy, chaotic pop song written by Lou Reed, who was then a songwriter and session musician for Pickwick. Reed had a knack for sticky melodies, but he was interested in drone, too. He created a new guitar tuning for The Ostrich - a so-called trivial tuning, meaning that all the strings on his guitar were tuned to the same note. The results are intense and mesmeric.
The song wasn't a commercial hit, but, shortly after its release, Cale and Reed - with the guitarist Sterling Morrison and the drummer Angus MacLise - started a band called The Warlocks, later The Falling Spikes, and, finally, The Velvet Underground. Andy Warhol, who first saw the group play at a beatnik club called Café Bizarre, on West Third Street, became their first manager, along with the filmmaker Paul Morrissey. In 1967, after MacLise was replaced by Maureen Tucker, The Velvet Underground partnered with the German singer and model Nico, an acolyte of Warhol's, and released The Velvet Underground & Nico, the band's début album. The cover featured one of Warhol's banana paintings. (If you are lucky enough to find an early pressing, you can peel off the banana skin to reveal a pinkish fruit underneath.) Nico's wan alto is famously dispassionate, but Reed sounds anxious and weedy, singing about heroin, sex, and masochism. The record did not sell particularly well, but its influence was far-reaching. In 1982, in an interview with Musician, the electronic artist and producer Brian Eno suggested that everyone who had bought a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico went on to start a band.
Cale made one more record as a member of The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat, which was released at the beginning of 1968. It's a noisy, difficult record; Cale has since called it "consciously anti-beauty." In its seventeen-minute closing track, Sister Ray, Reed tells a rambling and mostly incoherent story about a smack dealer trying to plan an orgy. The words "sucking on my ding-dong" are repeated. Reed and Cale noodle aggressively at each other through distortion pedals.
The two weren't getting along. The simplest explanation is that Cale's taste skewed more avant-garde. (The first record the band made without Cale, The Velvet Underground, is easily its sweetest and most straightforward.) The split was acrimonious, and seemed to haunt both men for a long time. In 2014, a reporter for Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom asked Cale if he was over Reed's death. He paused. "Not really," he said. "I don't think that will happen."
After Cale left The Velvet Underground, he made sixteen studio albums as a solo performer and released at least ten live and collaborative albums. Paris 1919, the best known of his solo records, from 1973, is wry, expansive, and playful, featuring an assortment of literary and historical allusions. Nobody was expecting Cale to make such a record, for which he had enlisted the U.C.L.A. symphony orchestra and two members of the blues-rock band Little Feat (the guitarist Lowell George and the drummer Richie Hayward). The result is somehow both anomalous for Cale and characteristically inventive.
Cale has produced, arranged, and contributed to a number of records, including The Stooges' self-titled début, in 1969; Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, in 1971; Brian Eno's Another Green World, in 1975; Patti Smith's Horses, the same year; and Manic Street Preachers' Postcards From A Young Man, in 2010. His presence on these albums ranges from subtle to overt. Sometimes he is so close - either literally, as a player, or spiritually, as an influence - that the work feels as much his own as the songs he writes and performs. On The Stooges' I Wanna Be Your Dog, Cale is the guy maniacally stabbing that one note on the piano for the whole three minutes. Take that away, I'd venture, and the entire song is instantly defanged and made limp. He is the person you want in the room when you are afraid that what you are doing is benign.
Cale has been so consistently innovative, so focussed on ingenuity and instigation, that it's strange to watch him glance backward. Yet even his approach to retrospection feels groundbreaking. Last year, when he reissued Music For A New Society, a bleak and largely improvised record from 1982, he also recorded new versions of all its songs. In a press release announcing the two albums - the updated collection was titled M:Fans - Cale spoke of the process as a kind of psychic exorcism. "It was time to decimate the despair from 1981 and breathe new energy, rewrite the story," he explained. Miraculously, he succeeded. Some songs, like Chinese Envoy, once a spare, prickling dirge and now a boisterous electro-pop song, are almost unrecognizable in their present-day iterations. An album that felt colorless and desperate - Cale wrote of shame, death, "the crawling skin of God" - became contemplative, conciliatory. "I don't feel so bad, and always look forward with hope," Cale sings on Taking Your Life In Your Hands. In the original, the line is hollow, if not scornful. On M:Fans, his delivery remains monotone, but he sounds nearly earnest.
Cale's relationship to his past reveals a contemporary mind-set. The idea of the album, as a form, has endured, stubbornly. It used to be a pleasurable and efficient delivery method: a dozen or so tracks collected onto one long-playing disk and sold to consumers at a discounted price. But after The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, from 1966, and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, from 1967, it became a kind of creative imperative, a way of eschewing the ephemerality of the single and establishing pop music as art. Then the technology changed; a preference for customization developed and became embedded in the culture. Younger artists look at the idea of the album sideways, kicking the tires, imagining a less prescribed, more multidimensional future for their high-concept work. Kanye West's newest project, The Life Of Pablo, has been revised untold times since its release (a snare drum might be quieted, or a lyric adjusted). It is not expected to exist in physical form - merely as a stream or a download - which would only impede its constant evolution. West has called the album "a living breathing changing creative expression."
Cale has always thought of art as fluid rather than static - he has rarely been satisfied by recapitulations of the status quo. Most of the songs on Music For A New Society are about misplaced faith and the strange rage that accompanies regret. "I wasn't in a very good place at the time and it was all about changes, about changing me, changing the people around me," he told Uncut last year. "Some of them I wished would go away, and I wanted to go away."
Here, then, was an opportunity to reclaim and reconfigure his despair. The idea feels deeply human. Who hasn't winced, looking back on a thing they made - or a place they lived, or a dress they wore, or a type of tea they drank - while enveloped in grief, and hoped for a way to neutralize that history without losing the thing itself? It is easy to be nostalgic about the past when we are yearning for a time before we knew certain disappointments. But it is just as easy to want to revisit dark days with the knowledge of fresh triumphs. Cale has invented a way to do that.