john cale

[contributed by Dan Whitworth: unattributed quotes are from interview Dan did with Cale in '94.]

"the cut ['birdland'] is totally live. exactly as we recorded it.
one moment i looked out of the vocal booth and behind
the control board was john cale crashing his head against
the hard melodic keys of an acoustic typewriter."

—Patti Smith (from the Patti Smith songbook for

Born in Garnant, Wales, in 1942, John Davies Cale played piano and violin from an early age. As a promising student at London University, he often chafed at the limitations of the classical hierarchy , and was drawn to the work of such avant garde composers as John Cage and La Monte Young. When Cale moved to New York in 1963, he fell in with each of these influences in turn, eventually playing viola in Young's Theater of Eternal Music (a.k.a. The Dream Syndicate).

The next phase of Cale's career began when he met Lou Reed; after performing on street corners as a duo, they formed the nucleus of the Velvet Underground. The rock and roll milieu gave Cale a chance to unleash the fierce improvisational skills that classical music had no use for. "Velvets shows were pretty riotous. When we went to the West Coast, we'd end up playing in big clubs with a lot of the acidhead bands, and we found we could fit in there by improvising a little harder than what the acidhead bands were doing."

Breaking away from the group after their second album, Cale worked in production (Nico's The Marble Index, The Stooges) for a few years before returning with some subdued but elegant solo albums. His 1973 classic Paris 1919 established his penchant for writing allusive, emotionally compelling songs linked to historical and political concerns—a concern that reached its culmination in his harrowing 1982 album Music For A New Society. "Emotional concerns are very political, in the end," he points out.

The mid-'70s found Cale back in the UK, fronting a series of rock bands that assaulted audiences with a stage presentation that drew as much from Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty as from Phil Spector. His three albums from this period— Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy—capture the dark and manic energy that colored his live shows, and prefigured the punk explosion that lurked right around the corner.

In 1975, Cale produced Patti Smith's first album, Horses. Smith explained her choice of Cale as producer to writer Dave Marsh in1976:

My picking John was about as arbitrary as picking Rimbaud. I saw the cover of Illuminations with Rimbaud's face, y'know, he looked so cool, just like Bob Dylan. So Rimbaud became my favorite poet. I looked at the cover of Fear and I said, 'Now there's a set of cheekbones.' ...In my mind I picked him because his records sounded good. But I hired the wrong guy. All I was really looking for was a technical person. Instead, I got a total maniac artist. I went to pick out an expensive watercolor painting and instead I got a mirror. It was really like A Season in Hell, for both of us. But inspiration doesn't always have to be someone sending me half a dozen American Beauty roses. There's a lotta inspiration going on between the murderer and the victim. And he had me so nuts I wound up doing this nine-minute cut ["Birdland"] that transcended anything I ever did before.

["Her Horses Got Wings, They Can Fly", Rolling Stone, January 1, 1976]

After touring for a while as Patti Smith's opening act, Cale resettled in New York City and settled into the scene. His extreme behavior contributed to his wild man reputation, but it never obscured the quality of his work. His albums are varied and eclectic, but they are unified by the originality of his concepts. Cale took a break from recording and performing in 1985, a move inspired by the birth of his daughter Eden. He re-emerged in 1989 with a renewed energy that has produced several classical albums, a live disc (Fragments Of A Rainy Season), a collaboration with Brian Eno (Wrong Way Up), another with Lou Reed (Songs For Drella), and the much-heralded, if short-lived, Velvet Underground reunion. Most recently, he composed the score to the film I Shot Andy Warhol. A new John Cale album is due out in the fall of 1996.

Some links:

Patti comments on differences between John Cale and Jack Douglas as producers

Eoin Ryan's John Cale site in Ireland

discography at above site

short profile of Cale at Music West site

review of Toronto concert in July '95

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