Cold Black Style

The Welsh composer and rock ‘n’ roll musician John Cale is not someone you take lightly. Having witnessed his solo concerts, as well as interviewed him on occasion, I’m all too aware of how Cale’s mountainous, crystalline presence can turn as withering as a trudge across the sub-arctic tundra.

And yet my fondest memory of him dates back to our first encounter at Sydney’s then post-punk venue of choice, the Trade Union Club in the mid ‘80s. After a press conference to a quivering mass of rock journalists, Cale’s publicist allowed 5 minutes each for one-on-one conversations, an absurd amount of time but I stood in line like everyone else. All I could think when my turn came was to ask if he ever went back to Wales? The saturnine titan of the press conference dissolved into a gentle reverie.

I was reminded of this again recently while reading his 1999 biography, What’s Welsh for Zen. In it Cale speaks of everything from the dourness of life in a mining village to being molested as a child at the local church, to the presence of Arthurian legends in the region and rumours Merlin was born not far from where he lived in Garnant. “Out on the mountains,” he writes, “I had an ever present feeling I was running on the bones of ancient people.”

Reading those words I could still remember his coal-dark eyes studying me back at the Trade Union Club. “Eventually you learn that being vicious is a weakness,” he told me then, “that it’s just a way of hiding – and not a sign of strength at all.” This comment seemed aimed at someone off-stage, most obviously his old Velvet Underground songwriting partner, Lou Reed. It was also a reference to Cale’s former self, and the severe cocaine addiction he had just overcome.

That night Cale would play an interpretation of Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ which remains one of the most chilling performances I’ve ever seen on a Sydney stage. It has since become a calling card of his or, more precisely, a coup de grace whenever I’ve seen him play: “Since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell, down the end of lonely street…”

Ten years after our meeting at the Trade Union Club the Zen Welshman would shit on me like cold snow in a phone interview. So cold I swore I’d never speak with him again. It’s that Walt Whitman thing, I guess, containing multitudes, contradicting himself, so what?

Today he’s in a kinder, more expansive, even amusing frame of mind. But I’m always aware of being on my mettle. It does not help, however, that I have assumed he will be performing his entire 1973 album, Paris 1919, as part of the Sydney Festival. A pastoral and baroque suite of songs inspired by the Treaty of Versailles and the novels of Graham Greene, the record is often cited as one of Cale’s best and most approachable works. Unfortunately my line of enquiry is entirely wrong. Yes, he’s performed that record in full recently at other festivals overseas, but he is launching a far more wide-ranging concert in Sydney under the aegis of ‘Signal to Noise’, a theme that matches the keynote address he is also giving at the Festival.

“It’s that John Cage idea, that there’s no such thing as silence,” he explains. “Wherever you go you carry in your ears the sound of blood rushing through your veins. You can never be pure about listening to Brahms. There’s always traffic in the background, or someone in the audience coughing, your own breathing…”

Cale’s concert and talk, he says, will be dedicated to work of his that has influenced, or was later inspired, by the punk movement of the ‘70s: a musical culture driven by elements of anarchist and left wing politics, a passion for experimentation and a wipe-the-slate-clean, DIY aesthetic that could be highly aggressive.

With half my interview vaporized before me it’s helpful to have done additional research. So you’ll be focusing on Sabotage/Live (1979) era material, I ask, bouncing back as best I can. “Yes, songs like ‘Gun’, ‘Fear is a Man’s Best Friend’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’…”

Cale’s voice has a barrel-chested, baritone rumble to it like faraway thunder – as well as a rasp that hints at an older man’s waning physical power. He is now 67 years of age. Three marriages down; one daughter. Across his career he emerges as a shape-shifter, restlessly moving through neo-classical, pastoral, stormy rock n roll and electronic influences. When I call him an explorer he doesn’t exactly agree, emphasizing instead that “the songs are about characters talking about things, so you can make it very different each time you do it depending on the ecology of the character in each song.” He nonetheless enjoys my troubled visions of having seen him do ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ as a solo artist so long ago.

“Oh the version with band and me now, that’s pretty much a gargoyle,” he brags, beginning to laugh. “The song has room for that. It has room for a very creepy side. The lyrics support it. It was always important for me to emancipate it from the original. But it was a really hard nut to crack. It’s written in a major key, and it took me a while to get out of that, years. When I [finally] put it in a minor key that made it much creepier. It got me out of the ditch I was in. I wanted to do it as a resurrected song with my band [again now]. I was a big fan of the band Free – they played so slow and sexy. I wanted to be in that same groove with it.”

Imagining an avant-rock composer like Cale banging his head to Free is not the first image that comes to mind. But then neither is his interest in using samples from Sammy Davis Jnr tracks in his recent music – “the old stuff has a really nice swing to it” – or for that matter a fascination with Pharell and Snoop Dog, both of whom he loves.

These sampling and hip hop influences have been filtering into Cale’s work for some time, reaching their height on his last release in 2005, blackAcetate, and what almost qualifies as doom rap in the song ‘Brotherman’. “We tried,” he laughs, “we tried,” but Cale feels the hip hop leanings came far too late, incorporated mostly at the production rather than the songwriting process on blackAcetate. He nonetheless enjoys the use of sampling live, “just having a good thump underlining everything. The problem is to avoid it becoming cold and vicious, to give it that swing.”

Cale goes into an involved explanation of sampling and playing that reveals his artisan nature, and the heavy classical training that gives him such a vice-like intellectual grip on how he approaches rock ‘n’ roll despite his passion for improvisation and ‘noise’. In What’s Welsh for Zen Cale described his group of the punk era as “a very good band that had a cold black style to it and was poised to do something.” To me this is a definitive description of everything about Cale, good and bad: a cold, black style poised to do something. When it happens, look out. When it doesn’t, run.

As a founding member of the Velvet Underground, Cale undoubtedly developed a thick layer of permafrost while slugging it out with his creative nemesis, Lou Reed. The latter would finally oust him from that band. In doing so the group kissed goodbye to the European avant-garde influences (a passion for drones, feedback, repetition and improvisation) that had marked Cale’s viola, bass and organ contributions to Reed’s droll, strangely romantic tales of sado-masochism and drugged identity within the Warhol Factory social scene on songs like ‘Venus in Furs’, ‘Heroin’, ‘Sister Ray’ and ‘Waiting for the Man’.

The rejection by Reed was a bruising experience for a brilliant and innovative musician. Cale had previously distinguished himself in the classical arena after being singled out as a prodigy by the likes of Aaron Copeland and John Cage. As a teenager he was almost prematurely determined to be “a living composer not a cataloguer of the dead”. It would reputedly lead to his being given “the Most Hateful Student Award” by teachers at Goldsmith’s College in London after performing a La Monte Young piece for piano with his elbows, then developing another composition of his own that required screaming at a plant until it died.

Inevitably he defected to rock ‘n’ roll. First with the Velvet Underground then across a multitude of roles as a solo artist, producer and A&R man for record companies, signing up artists and expanding new technologies like quadraphonics. As a producer Cale would steer pioneering debut albums by Nico, The Stooges, The Modern Lovers and Patti Smith, who tried to punch him out when he sought to exert excessive control over her band.

Having indulged heavily in most drugs, Cale would blitz himself with cocaine across the 70s and 80s. Paranoia and agoraphobia were the by-products, hall-marked by songs like ‘Fear is a Man’s Best Friend’ and creepy stage appearances wearing a hockey mask, as well as a notorious incident where he took a meat cleaver a live chicken and threw it’s head into the audience. After celebrating the birth of his daughter Eden in 1985 with a bottle of wine and a gram of cocaine he decided he’d reached the end of the proverbial line.

This annihilating tendency in his background draws me to a quote of Cale’s that all of Andy Warhol’s work was about death. Would he say the same thing about his own work? “Absolutely,” he replies. “And that was made very clear to me after 9/11. I lived about a block away from the World Trade Centre. Everybody was trying to get out.” Cale’s voice drifts off to the moment like he’s seeing it happen again, the office paper that rained down from the exploded offices and over the streets. “It was like Christmas out there. Like snow.”

“Two days later I had to leave for a concert in a Philadelphia. The problem was how to get out. There no flights, bridges were closed… it seemed impossible to go. No one told you what was going on. Eventually I got a limo with three musicians, we found a bridge open, and we drove to Philly. I’d been indoors all that time, walking up and down. I hadn’t been rehearsing. And suddenly there I was on stage in my ‘normal’ role. It was certainly made clear to me then, that night, how much my work was about death.”

For such an iconic and influential figure Cale has remained the cold outsider really, a loner all the way. It’s fascinating to discover that Cale spoke no English till he was seven years old; while his father spoke no Welsh. Ironically his miner father was also an amateur musician, and music bridged some of the huge gulf between them – as much as it later came to embody what was also lost.

This history might explain why Cale almost seethes when I mention the warmth that underlined a 1990 memorial project like Songs for Drella, where a re-united Reed and Cale put together a narrative song cycle in the wake of Andy Warhol’s death. It had seemed to me a re-assertion of Warhol’s more humane personality, a counterpoint to the chill blandness of the Pop Art image with which he is so widely associated. Cale suddenly burns in my ear: “It’s perfectly possible to be sympathetic and emotional without having to talk to anybody, or walk around shaking hands like your friends with everybody. It’s perfectly possible to feel everything going on, perhaps more so than those who seem to be involved.”

– Mark Mordue

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, January 2-3, 2010.