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John Cale's been a busy man the past 30 years. He's performed marathon piano pieces with John Cage. He co-founded the Velvet Underground, one of the half-dozen most important acts in rock history. Cale's served as mentor-producer to the likes of the Stooges, Patti Smith, and Squeeze, and his solo career includes music tracks performed with minimalist Terry Riley, lyrics co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, and album-cover art courtesy of Andy Warhol.
Cale has done quite a bit with himself over the years.
"Yes," he says without missing a beat, "I stand back and look in horror at what I've done with myself."
Well, yeah. There was that one show in the Seventies when the artist sauntered onstage and killed a screaming chicken, voodoo-style. And Cale's certainly credited with a slew of grotesque and violent songs, little ditties like "Guts," with its reference to an armed psycho blowing away his lover "like parrot shit." Cale says such antics are understandable. He says they were "very much the hangover" from his years with the Velvet Underground.
Cale's trauma with the Velvets and co-founder Lou Reed are well-documented. The ride began when Cale, fresh from London by way of south Wales, met up with Reed in New York. Cale had been doing experimental music with John Cage and later with La Monte Young in the Dream Syndicate.
In short order: Cale and Reed hit it off, formed the V.U., allowed Andy Warhol to steer for a while, released a couple of records and then split amid much gnashing of teeth. By the time it was over, the Velvets had let loose with some of the most timeless and influential music to ever sucker-punch rock n' roll.
"I don't think the Velvet Underground really was rock n' roll," Cale says over the phone, his words stiff and thick through a still-heavy Welsh accent. "The Velvet Underground was something else. It was a conglomeration of styles. I mean, Lou was the street merchant and I was more of the intellectual musical backbone. Everything I did was always to try to set off what Lou was doing. I'd been in the avant-garde for some years, and I wanted to see if the avant-garde could survive in rock n' roll." Cale's droning instrumentation with the Velvets survived to the point that it's still a major rock influence, but Cale himself didn't last long with the V.U. He quit after just two years and two albums, citing "resentments" between himself and Reed. Just last summer, the original Velvet Underground reunited for the first time in 25 years, and after a brief tour of Europe, the old resentments between Cale and Reed bubbled up again.
When asked if his relationship with Reed would best be described as love/hate, Cale says, "Yes. When there was a relationship. There is none now."
Says Cale of the anointed MCMXCIII tour and subsequent album: "It was complete folly. I mean, there was no respect, there was no vision and there was no management. For me, it was a complete waste of time. We agreed before we even started that doing new material was what was important, and in the end, we did none of it. In the end, it was obvious that Lou was on a Lou Reed tour and everybody else was on a Velvet Underground tour. The rest of us were hoping that the band would be able to really proceed further, but we just stood still.
"The only good thing," Cale continues, "was that the other members of the band were really recognized for the first time for their contribution to the music. I mean, it was clear to everybody where that sound came from and what Mo [Maureen Tucker] and Sterling [Morrison] had in the creation of that sound. That recognition was very important, and I'm glad it happened."
Cale's feuds with Reed bookend a considerable solo career, one that's chronicled with reverence on Seducing Down the Door, a new, double-CD compilation on Rhino Records. The set is easily the most definitive statement to date about Cale's music away from the Velvets.
"I don't really go after those things," Cale says of anthologies. "They're often the products of legal departments and record companies, but [Rhino] had already done a lot of research, and what they came at me with was a very interesting collection of stuff. They actually went to a lot of trouble to try and find documentation--things like photographs from old periods that I haven't seen in years. It was fun to do in the end."
Seducing Down the Door displays, over three-dozen songs, that shift between wistful naivet‚ and the tantrums of an artist both looking for and running from himself. The compilation runs chronologically, starting with Cale's early, opaque songs. "Big White Cloud," off 1969's Vintage Violence, and the wonderful "Andalucia," released four years later on Paris 1919, are in equal measures soft, edgy and introspective. They're also undeniably beautiful--ironic, as one of the reasons Cale abandoned the Velvets was Reed's insistence on performing "pretty" pop songs.
Cale's early solo efforts peaked on Paris 1919, recorded with Little Feat as the backing band. Cale says Paris was crafted "with some thought to it. The songs were written before we went into the studio, and [producer] Chris Thomas had this very intricate approach to the arrangements and to the sound of the album."
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