John Cale at 80, on collaborations old (Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, David Bowie) and new
Here are two widely known facts about John Cale: He was a founding member of the Velvet Underground, and infused the group with its astringent avant-garde sensibility; and he once decapitated a chicken onstage and chucked it at the audience, causing some of his band members to quit. “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 history includes not only the first two Velvet Underground albums, but also his production work on influential debut albums by the Modern Lovers, the Patti Smith Group and the Stooges, and a string of solo albums that mix excoriating tales of violence like “Gun,” “Dead or Alive” and “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” with stately and unsettled ballads, including “You Know More Than I Know,” “Buffalo Ballet” and “I Keep a Close Watch.”
On “Mercy,” Cale’s first album of new songs since 2012, he brought in collaborators for more than half of the songs, including electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso and folk experimentalist Weyes Blood. Cale casts a long shadow on a younger generation of musicians who traverse musical boundaries.
“Cale brought drone-y dread to the Velvet Underground,” says singer and violinist Andrew Bird, who has covered Cale’s 1973 song “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.”
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Even when Cale was young, he sounded old: 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.
Seven of the 12 songs on “Mercy” have collaborators, and you’ve collaborated a lot over your career. What makes someone a good collaborator?
Collaborators always show me something new. It’s a welcome injection of ideas. You open a Pandora’s box. Let me look inside that box. Let me tickle the keys here and see what happens.
Who’s a collaborator you’ve learned from?
La Monte Young was one of them. I came to New York in 1963 to meet La Monte and work with him. I had managed to get a few phone numbers for La Monte, John Cage and Aaron Copland, and I went about meeting the musicians who would open my eyes to some things. Even around the fringe of that avant-garde group, there was someone who had their own ideas of how things should run.
Even though there are different collaborators, the songs on “Mercy” still have a consistent sound, which I’d describe as slow and soft, but also decayed and wintry. Does that description resonate with you?
Yeah. I welcome the wintry idea, because my favorite song on the album, “The Noise of You,” reminds me of Prague in winter. I don’t know what more I can say except that some of the collaborators paid attention to previous collaborators that aren’t with us anymore. One is Nico. I was surprised that it had taken me so long to pay attention to her style.
In “Moonstruck,” the “Mercy” song about Nico, you sing, “I’ve come to make my peace.” Is there literalism in that? Did you not make peace with her before she died?
It seemed appropriate for me to say something less abstract than I did in some of the other lyrics on the record. The song is affectionate. I showed Nico some respect. People have suddenly realized how effective her songs were. I was hoping that somehow, Nico’s son, Ari, would get to read the lyrics as well, because he had a rough time of it.
“The Noise of You” struck me first as a song about mourning or loss, but is it also about how sound relates to memory?
Well, there’s a topic. It does, and as hard as I try not to relate one sound to an environment or history, it’s a good thing to have in the mix. It’s a very attractive emotion, to have shadows of past experiences coming down on you.
People more often think of taste and smell as the sensory keys to memory. For you, it’s sound?
Yes, always. It’s either sounds from memories or memories from sounds. It’s a collision of emotions. The idea of collisions in music is really useful for a composer.
“Night Crawling” is a song about nocturnal adventures with David Bowie. One of the lines 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 also.
Why do you think he couldn’t tell when you were putting him on?
I’m just being careful. I’m hedging my bets.
In the song, or in life?
A new Lou Reed album came out a few months ago, “Words & Music, May 1965.” It’s you and Lou doing very folk-rock demos of “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin,” among other songs. At what point did you and he start incorporating aggression and atonality?
I think that started in ’65. See, I met Lou and I got the impression that the songs he was writing contained a lot of honest, argumentative positions, and that was important to me. I was more interested in that than in the folk side. That’s where I got the idea that the strength of Bob Dylan’s prose was also possible with Lou. I don’t like to say that, because Lou’s style was his own — sacrosanct.
I’d run back and forth to London, see my old friends from college and ask what was going on in music. They unloaded a whole bag of, like, the early Who, Daddy Longlegs, Small Faces. I came back to New York and said, “Lou, we’ve got to wake up! These guys are doing what we should be doing. What are we waiting for?” I guess that’s one of the things that came back to haunt me.
What do you mean?
Later on, it was pointed out to me by somebody in our group — it may have been our manager, but let’s not mention his name — that I was not a straight shooter. I was not welcome in the band anymore as a representative of the avant-garde. I said, “Now is not the time to back off from what we’ve done.” They said I was pushing it too far. So I backed off quietly.
Have you listened to the third and fourth Velvet Underground albums, and what do you think of them?
I probably listened to them a couple of times and didn’t listen to them again. It was important to me to get more songwriting done, produce some bands and focus on the future.
Do you know that thanks in part to your 1991 cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, it’s become one of the most covered songs of the last 20 years?
Yeah. The song was mysterious enough that I really had to grab Leonard and say, “Can you send me the lyrics?” He said, “Sure.” So I got the lyrics, which took up an entire roll of thermal fax machine paper. The song had 15 verses in it. I thought, “God, thanks a lot, Leonard. Too welcome!”
What was it about the song that resonated with you?
One thing was that I had a choice. I told 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 said, “Just take what you need.” That reminds me of a commercial on TV that’s really obnoxious — some guy who has an emu running around after him. Do you know the guy I mean?
Yes, it’s an ad for Liberty Mutual insurance. “Only pay for what you need.”
[laughs] That’s right. I fell out of love with insurance companies.
“Hallelujah” isn’t a happy song, and it’s weird that it’s become a ballad people cover on “American Idol.”
But it’s also a song that people can take as being a moral corrective. It’s not too often that you come across a song that will crawl under your skin and sit there and watch you. The way Leonard does things is very smooth.
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The first time I saw you perform, there was a real feeling of menace. Someone in the crowd threw a bottle at the stage and I thought there might be a riot. That suggests to me that when you sing about the violent nature of humanity, that topic can’t be contained. You’re not in control of it.
Yes, that’s true. And I never try to contain it. I’ve always tried to hold it up like a specimen in a jar and say, “Now look at this!” or “Listen to this!” I’d rather have an idea of what’s disturbing in the jar than not.
I’m always suspicious when I hear about rock musicians who have classical training, because they’re usually terrible rock musicians. What use was your classical training in playing rock?
Totally useless! But I didn’t see classical training as an endpoint. I saw it as a place to scramble. If you want to be a chef and you go to this one guy who does all sorts of weird cooking, out of it all comes your inquisitiveness. There is as much in a listener as there is in a composer. I hope that’s clear.
So the composer doesn’t exist without the listener?
You turned 80 last year. What did you do to celebrate?
[pause] Well, I can say I had a cookie.
You really splurged, huh?
Oh man, you should have seen me. [laughs]
Seventy-nine years without a cookie, and then bang! A cookie.
That’s it! The worst f— fate for anybody: no cookies.
I then went on to doughnuts.
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