At his best
Whether featuring Pavement, the Pixies or the Police, reunion concerts have become the default when it comes to live music. John Cale’s restaging of his classic 1973 album “Paris 1919" -- hitting UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday -- transcends a mere nostalgia trip, however.
For one, “Paris 1919" doesn’t have the mainstream consumer awareness of, say, “Zenyatta Mondatta”: It remains as challenging a work as it is gorgeous and nuanced. In a 9.5 Pitchfork review of the album’s 2006 reissue, critic Matthew Murphy praised the album’s “stately, haunted grandeur,” concluding, “For better or worse, Cale has never again made another record quite like ‘Paris 1919,’ at least in part, one suspects, because so many in his audience have since longed for him to do so.”
As such, many consider “Paris 1919" the idiosyncratic pinnacle to Cale’s thrilling yet perverse career, despite the fact it never topped the charts. “Irony doesn’t really sell records,” Cale noted in a recent interview at his labyrinthine studio tucked in an office building in Los Angeles’ fashion district.
Sporting a bleached blond surfer haircut, striped RVCA hoodie and skinny trousers, Cale, 68, resembles a hip Japanese skateboarder more than a grizzled rock legend, but his bona fides are without compare. Classically trained, Cale was mentored early in his career by Aaron Copland, but he first gained fame in the ‘60s “serious music” scene alongside iconoclasts John Cage and La Monte Young.
Cale’s greatest legacy, however, came in co-founding the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed, with whom he made two groundbreaking albums, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” (1967) and “White Light/White Heat” (1968). Post-Velvets, Cale began a fascinating career that’s proved vital right up to today. Indeed, like a pop Zelig, he has been present for many crucial moments in rock history. As a producer, he has worked with a diverse lot of artists spanning the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers and Happy Mondays.
As a solo artist, Cale has also proved compellingly unpredictable, alternating between the impenetrably avant-garde and edgy, nuanced rock right up to today.
His masterpiece, however, remains “Paris 1919" -- a mesmerizing melange that coalesced in a surprising manner. At the time it was created, Cale, steered by music-biz icon Clive Davis, had made his first two solo albums for Columbia; however, he’d also been lured to Los Angeles as an A&R;/in-house producer for Warner Bros. by another legendary music exec, Mo Ostin, which led to “Paris 1919’s” coming out on that imprint.
According to Cale, producer Ted Templeman suggested Cale use the L.A. group Little Feat as his backing band. Initially, it seemed a strange pairing -- Cale the severe, black-clad, viola-slashing maverick merged with Little Feat’s funky hippie groove.
The results proved inspired: Little Feat’s countrified, organic pocket imbued Cale’s regal melodies and fantastical imagery with unexpected beauty. “I didn’t know how it was going to work,” Cale says now. “I didn’t know how flexible they were musically, but they let it rip.”
Little Feat’s Bill Payne was equally wary of the 1973 collaboration at first: “I must have thought the same thing John Cale thought when he saw us: How would a guy from the Velvet Underground relate to Little Feat, and vice versa?”
Cale and the album’s producer, Chris Thomas, hired USC classical music students to provide symphonic backing. To re-create the album at the Royce Hall performance, Cale will be backed by the UCLA Philharmonia. Cale will also play a set of non-"Paris 1919" numbers and will be joined by special guests, including Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.
Cale’s re-creating “Paris 1919" in L.A. proves an apt choice: Its combination of ‘70s California rock with Continental symphonics proves timeless, enhancing its complex essence. The album reverberates with odd, provocative juxtapositions: Self-conscious literary references run rampant -- “Graham Greene” is the title of one song, “Macbeth” is another, and the opener, “Child’s Christmas in Wales,” pays homage to the poetry of Dylan Thomas.
Elsewhere, historical and fictional figures collide in the lyrics, including the Queen of England and Norma Desmond. The title itself comes from the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, yet the harmonies stem from Cale’s obsession with the Beach Boys.
Cale claims the combination of these disparate elements reflected his contradictory existence at the time. “All the songs are about this Welsh guy lost in the desert of L.A., feeling nostalgic about all the things he loved about Europe,” he says.
“It was during the height of the Cold War, and I started thinking, ‘How did we end up here?’ In the ‘70s, everywhere felt like a target -- everyone was running to Argentina, because that was a nuclear-free zone. And that was all because of the Treaty of Versailles.”
Strangely, Cale’s former bandmate and rival Lou Reed also released an acclaimed European-obsessed song cycle, “Berlin,” in the same year “Paris 1919" came out. “It was uncanny, actually, that that happened,” Cale says. “We were not talking at all in those days.” (Nor apparently are they now: When asked today about a possible Velvet Underground reunion, Cale responds with an unequivocal no.)
“Paris 1919’s” influence continues to resound: Its eccentric DNA can be found in artists as varied as the Flaming Lips, MGMT, Grizzly Bear and R.E.M. Nick Cave’s dark persona clearly owes Cale a debt. LCD Soundsystem requested he cover its hit “All My Friends” for a B-side.
Mark Lanegan, who appeared during a series of Cale-organized tribute concerts in honor of former Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico’s 70th birthday, will also be performing with Cale on Thursday night. “When John asked me to do the Nico shows, I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Lanegan says. “I’ve been a huge fan forever. In fact, in 2003 I tried to get him to produce an album for me. I’ve also covered his song ‘Big White Cloud,’ which I’m releasing soon.”
Besides the “Paris 1919" shows, Cale remains busy. In 2009, he was asked to represent Wales at the Venice Biennale, creating a multimedia show that has since traveled internationally. At the beginning of 2010, he served as artist in residence at Mona Foma, an arts festival in Tasmania.
This year he was even made an officer of the Order of the British Empire, an ironic honor for an anti-establishment maverick. Hollywood has also been surprisingly welcoming: Cale has created scores for films such as “American Psycho” and “Basquiat,” and his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” featured prominently in “Shrek.”
He’s also working on a new album in Los Angeles, which Cale considers his home for the few weeks he’s able to spend here between engagements. “The weather is in my bones,” he says. “The city’s changed a lot from 1972, when I made ‘Paris 1919,’ but the vibe you get from bands here is still the same. You go to any of the clubs, and you see it’s a living, breathing organism.”
Where: Royce Hall (UCLA), 340 Royce Drive
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Price: $38 to $68