John Cale - Biography

More than any other individual, John Cale (b. 1942) is responsible for injecting the virulent power of the avant garde into the mainline of rock ‘n’ roll. His half-century in sound is as urgent, vivid, and diverse as it gets. The son of a Welsh coal miner, he attended conservatory and studied with Aaron Copeland; his work in the early 1960s with Tony Conrad and La Monte Young defined the Big Bang of American minimalism; he waltzed into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of his contributions to the Velvet Underground; his solo efforts range from lilting to visceral and back again; and, as a producer, he introduced the world to The Modern Lovers, The Stooges, and The Patti Smith Group, among many others. Add to that a recently unearthed stash of early recordings that place him decades ahead of his time in the noise and drone departments, and you’ve got an amazing, prolific career.


Cale showed an early aptitude for viola, and studied music in London. He came under the tutelage of composer Aaron Copeland, who facilitated Cale’s move to New York, where he soon made the acquaintance of the avant elite, most notably Iannis Xenakis and John Cage. In 1962, at the age of 19, Cale achieved some degree of national notoriety as one of the pianists who performed in Cage’s 18-hour presentation of Eric Satie’s Vexations.


Shortly thereafter, Cale met a young violinist named Tony Conrad. Both were classically trained, and both were fascinated with decidedly non-classical music, including the newfangled sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Conrad lived in — squatted in — a squalid, tenement walkup at 56 Ludlow St. in the Lower East Side. When Conrad’s original roommate — the protean filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith — moved out, Cale moved in. Together they burned trash for heat, and immersed themselves in sound.


Conrad was also a member of a performance ensemble that was starting to establish a thoroughly unique sound, and he brought Cale into the fold. La Monte Young, a young jazz musician, and his artist girlfriend, Marian Zazeela, had begun a loose series of collaborations with a poet/percussionist named Angus MacLise, and Billy Name, a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Their initial efforts were wandering free-improvisations, although the focus would shift dramatically with the addition of Conrad.


Conrad introduced Young, and then Cale, to his interest in just intonation and the harmonic cycle, and soon they were deep within a rigorous new performance idiom, in which first one carefully considered note, then two, then three, would be held for a very long time, generating rich fields of harmonic overtones and undertones. A line-up solidified, consisting of Cale, Conrad, MacLise, Young, and Zazeela, with occasional appearances by Terry Riley and Terry Jennings on saxophones.


Zazeela held a vocal drone; Cale and Conrad drew glacial string lines on viola and violin, respectively; meanwhile Young played sopranino saxophone. To compete with Young’s volume and to coax out harmonics, Conrad contributed the final ingredient: He first added an electric guitar pick-up to the bridge of his instrument; he then did the same for Cale. Plugged into guitar amps, they created a colossal roar. Young then switched to vocals, and quit the saxophone forever. They continued in that configuration for nearly three years, rehearsing for hours on a constant, daily basis. Conrad, a hardcore documentarian with a two-track, Nigra tape deck, recorded everything. Both Cale and Conrad consider this post-saxophone period to be the group’s zenith.


The name of the group is a point of contention. Young and Zazeela called it the Theatre of Eternal Music; Cale and Conrad had their own term: the Dream Syndicate. Despite Young and Zazeela’s preference, the latter has since caught on with the public when referring to the version with Cale and Conrad. Either way, the group’s influence was combustible. Their performances in lofts and galleries in and around New York were unlike anything the Downtown art scene had heard, and artists such as Yoko Ono, Steve Reich, and a young Philip Glass took note.


In 1965, Cale and Conrad were approached at a party by a young executive from Pickwick Records, which was a low-budget, somewhat disreputable label of the day. One of the Pickwick staff writers had come up with what the label thought might be a minor novelty hit, and he was looking for some long-haired types to tour it around the region on weekends, at shopping malls and such. When Cale and Conrad protested that they weren’t really guitar players, the exec reassured them that it wouldn’t matter: The song, called “The Ostrich,” used specially tuned guitars and had only one chord. Appreciating the obvious irony, Cale and Conrad agreed. They enlisted a friend, the now-famous sculptor Walter de Maria; the young Pickwick employee who wrote the song rounded out the ensemble. That was Lou Reed.


The Dream Syndicate disbanded in 1966. There is little evidence of ill will in the initial breakup. Conrad, who also left, would perform with Young again in 1968; in a further sign of trust, the departing members agreed that Young’s loft was the logical place to store their collective archives, Conrad’s massive piles of tape reels. Conrad would continue with a prolific career as a musician, film- and video-maker, professor, author, and intellectual and social provocateur.


“The Ostrich” failed to launch, but Cale and Reed immediately hit it off, and when Conrad moved out of Ludlow St., Reed moved in. The two decided to start a band, merging Cale’s avant sensibilities with Reed’s rock ‘n’ roll, enfant terrible persona. Angus MacLise joined them on drums, but promptly quit when he heard the band was going to play its first show for — gasp — money. He was quickly replaced by Maureen Tucker; Reed’s college buddy Sterling Morrison was tapped for rhythm guitar. It was Conrad who supplied the band’s name, when he dropped by with a lurid, dime-store novel about sadomasochism that he had found on the street. The Velvet Underground was born. Andy Warhol saw their earliest shows, brought them in as his house band at The Factory, introduced them to a German chartreuse named Nico, and the rest is history.


It’s difficult to imagine today, but the first VU LP, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1966 Verve), was mostly ignored, and what little attention it did receive was due to Andy Warhol’s notoriety. In fact, the record was so extreme in its sonic explorations that many dismissed it as a novelty record; unlistenable; nothing more than a deliberate provocation. A half century later, of course, it’s an acknowledged classic, thanks in large part to Cale’s contributions. The soaring scrape of his viola imparts an epic sweep, in delightful juxtaposition to his delicate Welsh-accented vocals. Add the use of feedback, the high-volume, low-fidelity overcrankings,  some dreamy, hypnotic swirlings, and some taboo-upon-taboo subject matter, and you’ve got the definitive collision of the avant garde and rock ‘n’ roll.


Unfortunately, Reed’s authoritarian streak didn’t sit well with Cale (drugs and outsized egos probably didn’t help matters), and we only got one more VU record with the latter, the incendiary White Light/White Heat (1968 Verve). It was a commercial bomb, and bobbed in and out of print for most of the 1970s, as did the other, post-Cale VU releases. It wasn’t until 1982, when the entire VU catalog was comprehensively reissued by Polygram, that WL/WH blew up like the Death Star. Almost every band formed in the subsequent decade owed a direct debt to the Velvets and Cale. A five-disc set, Peel Slowly and See (1995 Polydor), gathers Cale’s remaining loose ends with the band, and is a must.


Surely it was inevitable that Cale would go solo; he simply had too many ideas, and was far too capable, to be anyone’s backing band. However, those expecting a continuation of “Sister Ray,” his blistering exit from the VU, were in for a surprise. Cale’s solo debut, Vintage Violence (1970 Columbia), is not violent at all; rather it sounds as if the intensely over-amped blast of WL/WH blew some psychic circuit breakers. VV is an even-keeled pop masterpiece, more folk than punk. It’s full of fine, introspective writing; delicate, Americana-tinged arrangements; gorgeous harmonies; and outstanding studio production. It was the perfect way for him to enter the 1970s, and may be his best work.


Cale also landed on his feet as a producer; first on Nico’s lush, languid solo debut, Chelsea Girl (1968 Verve); then, at a wildly opposite extreme, on Iggy’s napalm-bomb debut, The Stooges (1969 Elektra). Frankly, these two in tandem provide a wonderfully clear, vivid glimpse at John Cale’s greatest strength as an artist: the uncanny ability to accommodate beauty and brutality, and to synthesize the two. In the last three decades he has compiled a vast discography, but when he’s at his best — as a solo artist, collaborator, or producer — he’s illuminating the gossamer delicacies of noise, and suggesting the grittier truths that even the most soothing of Welsh accents can’t completely hide.


After Vintage Violence, Cale collaborated with former Ludlow-era pal Terry Riley on Church of Anthrax (1971 Columbia). Those looking for an example of Cale’s Dream Syndicate-style work won’t find it here, but it’s delightfully jaunty, driving, looping effort, with a pretty ballad plopped in the center for good measure. If you want a great snippet of early 60s-type drone, check Cale’s playing on “Frozen Warnings” on Nico’s The Marble Index (1968 Electra).


With Cale’s third solo record, Paris 1919 (1973 Reprise), he tries a more conventional, classic approach, with a thick varnish of strings. He lurches back to raw, aggressive rock with Fear (1974 Island) and Slow Dazzle (1975 Island). Around this time he also produced Patti Smith’s ebullient debut, Horses (1975 Reprise). As the decade advanced, Cale started to hear rumblings that he was the “godfather of punk,” a cloak that he alternately embraced and shrugged off. His onstage demeanor was punk enough. Battling drugs and alcohol, his live shows often became belligerent outpourings of conceptual and physical excess. His subject matter was increasingly about paranoia, surveillance, and fear; this period reached its zenith (nadir) with Sabotage/Live (1979 Spy).


A more fit and calm Cale emerged in the 1980s. Music for a New Society (1982 Rhino), tones down the chaos in favor of rich textures and an ambient atmosphere. Artifical Intelligence (1985 Beggars Banquet) is a mixed collaboration with lyricist/journalist Larry Sloman. In Words for the Dying (1989 Opal), he set the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to music.


The beginning of the 1990s saw an unexpected reunion with Lou Reed; Songs for Drella (1990 Sire) was their critically acclaimed homage to the recently departed Andy Warhol. The inevitable Velvet Underground reunion tour and CD followed, documented in Velvet Underground: Velvet Redux, Live MCMXCIII (1993 Sire). Sterling Morrison passed shortly thereafter; Cale dedicated Walking on Locusts (1996 Hannibal) to his memory, with a guest appearance by Maureen Tucker.


After a self-imposed moratorium, Cale forges ahead in the Oughts. HoboSapiens (2003 EMI) is a techno-tinged, sample-based effort featuring Brian Eno. The subsequent Black Acetate (2005 Astralwerks) is a grungier, guitar-laden affair. But the 2000s also opened an intriguing window into Cale’s past.


In the early 1980s, both Cale and Tony Conrad approached La Monte Young and requested listening copies of their collective recordings from the 1960s. Young refused — unless they would sign a document agreeing that he, Young, was the sole composer. Conrad and Cale both adamantly declined, and in the subsequent decades voiced, to the music media, their dissatisfaction with the situation. As a result, interest in these “lost” recordings increased dramatically, and a very public rift was visible between the two camps.


In 2000, Conrad acquired (from a third party, and after a back-story worthy of a John le Carre novel) a copy of a Dream Syndicate recording from 1965 that he considered an accurate representation of the ensemble at the time. For fans, the potential discovery of a recording of this configuration of the group was akin to finding the Holy Grail. Maintaining their assertion that the group was an improvisational, collaborative effort, Cale and Conrad authorized its release.


Cale and Conrad issued a statement upon the release of Day of Niagara: Inside the Dream Syndicate (2000 Table of the Elements). In a single paragraph they contended that the five musicians appearing on the recording were co-authors, and as such, they were within their legal right to authorize the release. Young responded with a furious 17-page diatribe, in which he claimed he was the sole composer, and Conrad and Cale were simply following his instructions. He also leveled intense criticism at the sound quality and the packaging (in part for lacking Marian Zazeela’s art).


The CD is a modest item, with meager packaging, billed to neither the Dream Syndicate nor the Theatre of Eternal music, but simply to the five contributing artists, alphabetically listed: John Cale; Tony Conrad; Angus MacLise; La Monte Young; Marian Zazeela. There is a brief description, and a quote from Cale: “Those recordings are [part of] a library that represented, for Tony and I at least, a labor of love. The power and majesty that was in that music is still on those tapes.”


He’s right. Day of Niagara is a revelation. Even with the poor quality (the percussion is low in the mix, but it’s there), it is an epic, soaring, exhilarating ride; brief, raw, and loud; the scrape of the strings; the implacable drone of the vocals; the fluttering wings of the percussion. It ends as abruptly as it begins, with the sound of the last of the tape running past the recording head to the take-up reel. Who knows how long they played after the tape ran out — possibly for hours. Of course, it’s the proper way to present an archival document, in its original state, but as an ending to this particular recording, it’s sublime.


As for Young’s critique of the release, it seems unlikely that either John Cale or Tony Conrad spent so many years performing with Young just for the privilege of being studio lackeys or a backing band — Cale lasted less than two years taking orders from Lou Reed. Furthermore, some of Young’s arguments seem baldly disingenuous. Whether or not he possesses a better master and more suitable art is a moot point when he’s made it clear he will never release the material.


Ironically, it’s Conrad himself who addresses the shortcomings of the original recordings — in the book that accompanies his Early Minimalism Vol. I (1996 Table of the Elements), released a full four years before the existence of the Niagara tapes was made known. He speculates what the response might be if Dream Music tapes were ever released. It’s probably the frankest assessment we’ll receive. Writes Conrad:


“Before leaving Dream Music behind, there is room for a final confession — it was indeed amateurish; our recordings, should anyone ever be able to hear them, are of poor quality, with outrageously poor balance in the mix; La Monte always turned himself up loudest; the group was frequently too stoned to play long enough with adequate focus; our heterogeneity as performers often overcame our ability to muster group discipline.”


Yet Conrad goes on to propose that these shortcomings might have been essential to the aggregate accomplishments of the group, that their personal singularities were united in their radical denial of conventional ways of listening to, and composing, sound. It is impossible to listen to Day of Niagara in relation to the work of either John Cale or Tony Conrad, and not hear overwhelmingly strong, consistent, and confident performance idioms. Again, the notion that Conrad and Cale were simply Young’s studio hacks is absurd.


For Cale, Niagara opened the door to a cascade of early, pre-Velvet Underground recordings, all recorded and produced by Conrad, and released on the latter’s Audio ArtKive imprint. Featuring Conrad, as well as Angus MacLise and Sterling Morrison, these CDs solidly confirm Cale’s position as a visionary experimental artist who built the crucial bridge between the avant garde and rock ‘n’ roll. Sun Blindness Music (2000 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements), Dream Interpretation (2001 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements), and Stainless Gamelan (2001 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements) are all revelatory; daring, bruising fistfights between textured drone and crushingly high volume. The title track of Dream Interpretation is especially vivid: a soaring viola/violin duet with Conrad, recorded in 1968, it leaves zero doubt as to either man’s claims for their role in the Dream Syndicate. It’s stunning.


Perhaps Conrad should have the final word on the inexorable spirit of John Cale:


“What I had learned first about John Cale was that he had written a piece which pushed a piano down a mine shaft. We hungered for music almost seething beyond control — or even something just beyond music, a violent feeling of soaring unstoppably. Powered by immense angular machinery across abrupt and torrential seas of pounding blood.”

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