The Style It Takes

Mark Ford

  • What’s Welsh for Zen? The Autobiography of John Cale by Victor Bockris
    Bloomsbury, 272 pp, £20.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 7475 3668 6

Despite their ill-fated, short-lived, acrimonious reunion in 1993, the Velvet Underground are still the coolest rock band there ever was. Nowadays, music critics and historians talk of their seminal influence on punk or grunge, and you can buy big boxed CD sets (bearing that irresistible sticker ‘Contains Previously Unreleased Material’) of out-takes and rehearsal sessions, although it seems no live recordings survive from their heyday – that is, before Lou Reed kicked John Cale out of the band, ending three years of almost symbiotic closeness.

John Cale was born in the small Welsh coal town of Garnant, between Swansea and Carmarthen, in 1942. His father was a miner; his mother had worked in primary education until the birth of her only child when she was 39. Both were determined that their son should escape the fate of his father, who would return each evening from the pit too exhausted and bitter to talk. Cale began learning the piano at the age of seven, and developed into something of a prodigy: he played the local church organ, and the viola for the Welsh Youth Orchestra; his first original composition, ‘Toccata in the Style of Khachaturian’, was recorded by the BBC when he was 13. He listened under the bedcovers to a different kind of music, on Radio Luxembourg or the Voice of America – the jazz of Coltrane, the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan and, of course, the emerging rock of Elvis Presley.

With the help of Victor Bockris – author of a biography of Andy Warhol – Cale has written a thoughtful and entertaining autobiography in a strikingly original format: a slab of a book, bound in cardboard, combining photographs, facsimiles, cartoons, sketches and a disconcertingly innovative use of graphics. In his discussion of his early years, Cale develops some suggestive links between his early musical education and the triumphs and excesses of his later life, which the book charts in pitiless detail. At the time he began learning the piano, for instance, he suffered a series of bronchial attacks and was prescribed Dr Collis Browne’s cough medicine, a syrup laced in those days with opium. Here, he conjectures, lies the origin of ‘the relationship between music and drugs’ which would have him waiting anxiously for his man in the greenroom each night before he could take to the stage. Before one concert, when his parents were in the audience, he was so nervous he snorted chopped-up chalk, given him by his band as a prank, without even noticing.

To be a drugged up rock’n’roller is not unusual – could they all have been on Dr Collis Browne’s mixture in their infancy? To be able to play the classical repertoire, to compose orchestral pieces, to write scores for ballets or settings for Dylan Thomas poems, however, is well beyond the competence of other stars in the firmament, even Paul McCartney. There have been various, normally embarrassing attempts by rock groups, or ex-members of rock groups going solo, to explore musical ‘concepts’ and create ‘avant-garde’ albums, but Cale moved in the other direction, from the world of La Monte Young, Aaron Copland and John Cage to that of drums, rhythm and bass, and, of course, viola.

His parents hoped he’d become a doctor or a lawyer, but in his late teens Cale became obsessed with contemporary classical music, in particular the works of Webern, Berg and Cage, which he was able to obtain via inter-library loans from his local Workingmen’s Library. Aiming to become a conductor, he enrolled in the music department at Goldsmith’s College, but soon became disillusioned with the rigours and conformism of the course. His finale at the college was a concert performance in 1963 of La Monte Young’s X for Henry Flynt, a piano piece to be played, not sitting down, with the fingers, but kneeling, with the elbows. Such displays were not to everyone’s taste, but Cale won a scholarship to the Eastman Conservatory at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, presided over by Copland. There, too, he showed his determination to take his audience by surprise, particularly with a piece scored for piano and axe that drove some to tears and others to flight.

Cale arrived in New York in the autumn of 1963, and quickly established himself on the city’s burgeoning avant-garde music scene. He was one of the relay team of pianists who, under the direction of his near-namesake John Cage, performed Erik Satie’s 80-second work, Vexations, 840 times in succession in a concert that lasted more than eighteen hours. (‘After it was over,’ Cage later remarked, ‘I drove back to the country and I slept for a long time, something like 12 hours. When I got up, the world looked new, absolutely new.’) He joined La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, and experimented with ‘drone’ music, which involved sustaining notes for up to two hours at a time. Performance art was coming into vogue and Cale took to participating in ‘happenings’ that mixed poetry, drama, music and film, and would culminate in Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. These combined the dancing of Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga, an assortment of Factory films, and in time the musical drones and unnerving ballads of the Velvet Underground plus Nico, who often played facing the screen, their backs to the audience – ‘cause they have a style that grates’, as Reed and Cale wrote in Songs for Drella.

Cale and Reed met in early 1965. Reed had recently graduated from Syracuse University, where he’d shared a dormitory with Sterling Morrison, later the Velvets’ guitarist, and fallen under the influence of the man he called his ‘spiritual godfather’, the poet Delmore Schwartz, then approaching the final phase of his depressive mania, and convinced nearly everyone was secretly spying on him for Nelson Rockefeller. ‘Even paranoiacs have real enemies’ was Schwartz’s favourite mantra, and one that Reed – who’d undergone electric shock therapy in his teens to cure him of wanting to be a rock star – took to heart.

Despite the treatment, and the prescription tranquillisers (Placidyl) he was now on, Reed had already written ‘Heroin’ and ‘Waiting for the Man’, and was looking to escape his job churning out schlock songs for a commercial record company; he was desperate, also, to escape the family home on Long Island. Reed and Cale came from almost diametrically opposed musical traditions – Reed, as one of his album titles proclaims, was pure ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ – but within a matter of weeks they were sharing an apartment on Ludlow Street in the East Village, and more than that: songs, ideas, needles, hepatitis and girls, including Electra, who briefly joined their fledgling band, the Falling Spikes, and Daryl, commemorated in Lou Reed’s 1973 album, Berlin. It took the resolutely heterosexual Cale a while to realise his collaborator hoped their partnership would extend to bed as well; when he twigged, and declined the offer, Reed (in his disappointment, perhaps, confusing his Celts) mumbled: ‘They make them differently in Scotland.’

Sterling Morrison, who would later give up rock music to become a lecturer in English literature, then renounce that to become the captain of a tugboat, joined the band, now called the Warlocks, in the spring of 1965. Not long afterwards, a friend dropped in during rehearsals carrying a battered pornographic paperback that described sex parties in suburbia. He’d retrieved it from a gutter, attracted by its title, The Velvet Underground. So named, and with the androgynous Moe Tucker on drums, the group embarked on a two-week stint at the Café Bizarre on MacDougal Street, where they scared off the customers and baited the management. Just before they were closed down, however, Andy Warhol wafted in. The following day Warhol proposed to manage the group, to buy them new instruments and book them proper venues. The day after that he introduced them to the statuesque, strikingly cheek-boned, ice-cool, tone-deaf Nico, who, he explained, was to be their chanteuse.

Three of Reed’s most perfect songs were written out of the affair he immediately embarked on with Nico – ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ and ‘Femme Fatale’. Cale, meanwhile, paired off with Edie, the archetypal messed-up little rich girl, and at the time, though not for long, reigning queen of the Factory. ‘Being with Warhol,’ Cale writes, ‘was the best childhood you can have.’ All those floating silver pillows and clusters of happy people at play – over here making silkscreens, over there another movie – evoke an endless children’s party: one that generated more than its fair share of tantrums and squabbling over prizes. Sooner or later, virtually everyone ended up in tears.

Incorporating Nico in the band’s line-up did not prove easy. ‘I want to sound like Bawwwhhhb Deee-lahhhn,’ she kept wailing in recording sessions for their first album, the one with Warhol’s peelable yellow banana on the cover. The Velvets very much didn’t want to sound like Bawwwhhhb Deee-lahhhn: antagonism to Dylan is a constant in most accounts of the group’s history. Dylan and Nico had shared a one-night stand in Paris the previous year, and he’d written a song for her, ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’, which she frequently tried to persuade the Velvets to learn and play: they either refused point-blank, or deliberately fluffed it. ‘We did not want to be near Bob Dylan, either physically or through his songs,’ Sterling Morrison later explained in an interview. Cale was convinced the Velvets’ sound ‘would knock the socks off Bob Dylan’, and in an aside derisively refers to the ‘cult of personality’ Dylan encouraged in the Sixties. One of the victims of this cult was Edie, said (by Nico) to have inspired the acerbic ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’ on Blonde on Blonde. The deluded ex-deb signed up with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and abandoned the Factory and her dance-routine with the Velvets for the promise of a starring role in a putative Dylan film and, she seems to have hoped, in his life also. Warhol, who regarded this as the final betrayal, must have relished his parting shot: ‘Did you know, Edie, that Bob Dylan has gotten married?’

Ironically, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the name of the event which showcased the Velvets, was derived by Paul Morrissey, the Factory’s manager, through a process of free association from Dylan’s liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home. The show opened at the Dom in the spring of 1966, some months before Edie’s defection. The dancers brandished bullwhips, giant hypodermic needles and huge crucifixes, and the Velvets, in Warhol’s words, ‘played so loud and crazy I couldn’t even begin to guess the decibels’:

I’d usually watch from the balcony or take my turn at the projectors, slipping different coloured gelatin slides over the lenses and turning movies like Harlot, The Shoplifter, Couch, Banana, Blow Job, Sleep, Empire, Kiss, Whips, Face, Camp, Eat into all different colours. We all knew something revolutionary was happening. We just felt it. Things couldn’t look this strange and new without some barrier being broken. ‘It’s like the Red Seeea,’ Nico said, standing next to me one night on the Dom balcony that looked out over all the action, ‘paaaaarting.’

She was probably up on the balcony because there wasn’t all that much for her to do during the set. Ignoring her peremptory demands to be lead vocalist, the group issued her with a tambourine and allotted her a ration of three songs, which she almost invariably started on the wrong beat; exasperated, Reed would hiss across the stage: ‘We know what we’re doing, Nico.’

Yet in lots of ways, particularly legal and financial, they had no idea. While other bands brought in hard-headed managers to negotiate contracts with promoters and record company officials, the Velvets never came to terms with the commercial realities of the record industry. This was due as much to naivety as to their loyalty to their avant-garde roots; either way it wasn’t until the mid-Eighties that the band members began to receive regular royalties from their back catalogue. Cale also failed to take steps to have his part in the compositional process officially acknowledged, and he records here his bitterness at Reed’s double-dealing over matters of accreditation.

As chief songwriter and lead singer, Reed began increasingly to consider the other members of the group as his support band rather than equals. Morrison and Tucker were, in the main, compliant, but Cale stubbornly refused to be marginalised. The group’s second album, White Light/White Heat – a slang term for an amphetamine rush: the recording is ‘fuelled by a great deal of chemicals’ – reflected, as Cale puts it, ‘the internal tensions as we ascended at each other’s throats’. Worse still, in 1967 Cale married the fashion designer Betsey Johnson, and we all know what marriages do to boy bands, even one with a woman drummer who would soon be pregnant. In September 1968 Reed summoned Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison to a café in Sheridan Square, just before the group were due to tour the Midwest: ‘If Cale goes to Cleveland,’ he announced, ‘I don’t go.’

Oddly, the Velvets’ subsequent canonisation in the annals of rock has probably hindered rather than helped Cale’s solo reputation. In the NME in 1981 a reviewer noted that Cale, no less gifted than Reed, ‘has not simply avoided success, but tried to throttle it with both hands’. As a child he could only comfortably play the piano when his mother was in the room, and ‘thus was born a lifelong reliance upon a collaborator to complete not only the work but me.’ In the wake of Reed’s treacherous rejection, Cale embarked on a career as a producer; he worked with Nico on her haunting first solo album, The Marble Index (1968), with Iggy Pop, with Jonathan Richman, and with Patti Smith on Horses (1976). In 1971 he swapped New York for LA, heroin for cocaine, chic Betsey Johnson for his second wife, mad Cindy. The move, he laments, was the first of many ‘irreversible, lasting decisions’ which blighted the next twenty years of his life. But it was in the Seventies that Cale wrote nearly all his best songs: ‘Ship of Fools’, ‘I Keep a Close Watch’, ‘Paris 1919’, ‘Buffalo Ballet’ and seven or eight others that are as good as anything Lou Reed wrote. In his narrative, however, these years are one long, messy trip, a kaleidoscope of junk, booze, failed relationships, paranoia and increasingly abrasive stage performances. Cale moved back to London in 1973, and then back to New York just before punk broke over here. Many of his antics, as he proudly points out, anticipated the iconoclasm of the Sex Pistols and others; the famous concert in Croydon, for instance, when he suddenly produced a meat cleaver and a freshly killed chicken in the middle of the second verse of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’:

Thwock! I decapitated it and threw the body into the slam dancers at the front of the stage, and I threw the head past them. It landed in somebody’s Pimms. Everyone looked totally disgusted. The bass player was about to vomit and all the musicians moved away from me. Even the slam-dancers stopped in mid slam. It was the most effective show-stopper I ever came up with.

In a protest he dismisses as ‘pretentious’ his band quit that evening. By the end of the decade Cale was without a record label and about to embark on his third marriage, which recently ended in divorce.

His first wife, Betsey Johnson, has suggested Cale ‘is just a little pussy-cat underneath that pantheresque façade’. Lou Reed’s meanness, on the other hand, is probably in the stars; in the same interview she recalls going to see him backstage one night: ‘Hi Lou,’ she opened. ‘Get the fuck outta here!’ he replied. Despite two decades of intermittent sniping and antagonism, Reed and Cale joined forces in 1988 in response to Warhol’s unexpected death during a routine hospital operation. By this time, the two had something else in common: both had new livers. A couple of years earlier Cale had attempted to take out a health-care policy, only to find that he was uninsurable unless he agreed to a six-month course of Interferon, a drug that reconditions the liver, but meanwhile makes the patient feel ill and irascible. Soon afterwards, he found out that Reed had undergone the same treatment.

Songs for Drella (‘Drella’ was their nickname for Warhol) is a wonderful album, as vigorous as their fresh livers, but was followed by the usual wrangling over who was responsible for what. To appease Reed, Cale drafted a statement, printed with the album, acknowledging that Lou ‘did most of the work’, a statement he now retracts, claiming his ‘input on Drella was at least equal to Lou’s’. The best song on the record is in fact quarried from Warhol’s diaries. It relates one of Warhol’s dreams, going off into memories of the Velvets’ first shows at the Dom and Warhol’s later encounters, or non-encounters, with Cale and Reed. ‘Then I saw Lou,’ Cale intones as Andy:

I’m so mad at him. Lou Reed got married and didn’t invite me. I mean was it because he thought I’d bring too many people? I don’t get it. He could at least have called. I mean he’s doing so great, why doesn’t he call me? I saw him at the MTV show, and he was one row away and he didn’t even say hello. You know I hate Lou … And I was so proud of him.

Reed’s face during the video of this track is something to behold, an almost tragic mask of despair and resentment.

My favourite Cale album is Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992), a compilation of 20 live tracks. Cale is on piano and guitar; there are no other musicians. As well as most of his own best songs, it includes versions of his settings of a number of Dylan Thomas poems – ‘On a Wedding Anniversary’, ‘Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed’, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ – and great covers of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (ever-present in Cale’s repertoire since the Seventies) and Leonard Cohen’s extraordinary ‘Hallelujah’. But his performance of roughly the same songlist at the Royal Festival Hall earlier this year, accompanied by two other musicians, was even better. Given the abuses detailed in What’s Welsh for Zen? (abuses he renounced after his liver trouble), he was in remarkable shape, and even looked good in leather trousers. Not many men do, especially ones approaching 60. There could be no doubting that Cale, in the words of one of the songs for Drella he performed that night, still had ‘the style it takes’.