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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."
The results, including "Andalucia," "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and the title cut, made for some of the headiest words and lyrics of the early Seventies. Equally stellar songcraft fought its way onto 1974's Fear. But by then, the sound and feel of Cale's work had grown darker. Fear's best cuts--Gun" and "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend"--are included on the Rhino retrospective. Both songs make for convincing portraits of a psyche starting to slip, especially "Fear," which takes a catchy, melodic shell and breaks it into shards of off-white noise.
Cale's tour in support of Fear was his first extended road trip since V.U. days. His band, led by guitarist Chris Spedding, put on genuinely entertaining shows, highlighted by an animated and costumed Cale in fencing garb accented with layers of scarves, sunglasses, ski goggles, and masks. The act invariably included Cale yelling and screaming his tonsils dry, and often running offstage and hiding for extended periods of time.
Cale's psycho-persona kept him well-fed and viable. He was comfortable as one of rock's most uncomfortable-sounding performers, but the onset of punk upped the stakes. Suddenly, Cale's antics seemed like so much theatre against the shower of real spit coming from newer, angrier showmen.
Cale's idea of keeping pace was to sacrifice a chicken.
"There were a lot of wild and hysterical things going on," Cale says of a time he felt very much a part of. "Even more so than in the Sixties. In the Sixties, we had no idea what we were doing, but in the Seventies, we had theory behind us. We knew exactly what we were doing. It was so serious and murderous that it was hilarious in the end."
It also ushered in an artistic lull in Cale's music. His legend secured him as a punk/New Wave icon, and he was constantly on the move, recording noisy young bands like Sham 69. He even started his own label, Spy Records, which signed a distribution deal with I.R.S. (Among the acts on Spy's roster was demigod rock critic Lester Bangs.)
But Cale's own music at the time was cold and uninspired. The Rhino collection avoids most of Cale's deeper dross from the period. Instead, and wisely, the anthology features songs like "Taking Your Life in Your Hands" from 1982's Music for a New Society. It's a stunning work, something akin to the warped aural mirrors scattered throughout Big Star's Third album. Rhino's inclusion of the title cut from 1984's Caribbean Sunset is a smart move, too, seeing as how it's that disc's only song worth remembering. (Note: "Caribbean Sunset" was co-written by Larry "Ratso" Sloman, at the time an executive at National Lampoon and most recently the co-author of Howard Stern's best-selling assault on literature.)
Cale's most striking work in those years occurred outside the studio; 1984's John Cale Comes Alive, with just a three-piece backing band, was his strongest album in years. Cale also would occasionally go out on solo acoustic tours, performing intimate shows that featured his stark, moody countenance offset only by an electric piano. The shows were well-received, affording Cale's older songs a new life and at the same time blessing the aging artist with new converts.
"It was another dimension of really showing a sense of responsibility towards the material," Cale says of the solo dates. "You can have a band and you can have safety in numbers and share the responsibility with other band members. But when you're out on your own, and you have those songs and yourself and the piano, then it's that one-on-one angle that really nails you."
One show that was really nailed was here in Phoenix at the long-defunct Impulse Club across Indian School Road from the Mason Jar. There was Cale, alone, intense, resurrecting a forgotten song like "I Keep a Close Watch" (included on the Rhino release) and making it turn untold shades of gray in the small, dark bar. It was a magical evening, and one that Cale remembers.
"I do remember the Phoenix stop," he says. "The main thing I remember about Phoenix and Tucson was the heat. I seem to have gotten there in the worst time of the year. And what I noticed about Arizona in general was that it was heavy-metal country." Cale pauses. "And I remember the Kinks were there on tour. I went to a Kinks concert, and it was really amazing."
The Rhino anthology ends on an upswing similar to the recent restart of Cale's muse. Fittingly, the compilation's closing songs are collaborations, the working arrangement that seems to best suit Cale. And, fittingly, the last two songs were co-written with Lou Reed--Trouble With Classicists" and "Faces and Names," both from 1990's Songs for Drella, the V.U. duo's "fictional" eulogy to Andy Warhol.
Today, Cale seems to have as much chance of working again with Warhol as he does with Reed. But no matter; Cale has plenty to do on his own. The Welshman's most recent project is fusing his music with various forms of theatre. He's just come out with The Last Day on Earth, the first in a series of song cycle/theatrical partnerships with singer-songwriter Bobby Neuwirth. "It's a step back in the sense that I'm writing material for other people that other people will be able to perform," Cale says. Cale adds that writing in this latest mode means coming up with songs aimed at "specific dramatic situations." Not that his past work missed many targets; consider the song "Thoughtless Kind," penned in 1982, with Lou Reed clearly in the sights of this specific dramatic situation: "If you grow tired of the friends you've made/Never ever turn your back on them/Say they were the best of times you ever had/The best of times with the thoughtless kind."
Cale is a man who thrives on weirdness and conflict, his work a powerful thing through decades of "best of times." Yet brutality is not the only way to accomplish something. Seducing Down the Door is proof enough of that.
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