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John Cale

While John Cale is one of the most famous and, in his own way, influential underground rock musicians, he is also one of thehardest to pin down stylistically. Much has been made of his schooling in classical and avant-garde music, yet much of whathe's recorded has been decidedly song-oriented, dovetailing close to the mainstream at times. Terming him a forefather ofpunk and new wave isn't exactly accurate either. Those investigating his work for the first time under that premise may besurprised at how consciously accessible much of his output is, at times approaching (but not quite attaini more

While John Cale is one of the most famous and, in his own way, influential underground rock musicians, he is also one of thehardest to pin down stylistically. Much has been made of his schooling in classical and avant-garde music, yet much of whathe's recorded has been decidedly song-oriented, dovetailing close to the mainstream at times. Terming him a forefather ofpunk and new wave isn't exactly accurate either. Those investigating his work for the first time under that premise may besurprised at how consciously accessible much of his output is, at times approaching (but not quite attaining) a fairly "normal"rock sound. There is always a tension between the experimental and the accessible in Cale's solo recordings, meaning that heusually finds himself (not unwillingly) caught between the cracks: too weird for commercial success, and yet not really weirdor daring enough to place him among the top rank of rock's innovators.

Any assessment of Cale's solo contributions also tends to be overshadowed by his other considerable achievements. Beforelaunching his solo career, he was, with Lou Reed, a primary creative force behind the Velvet Underground, as bassist, violaplayer, keyboardist, and occasional co-songwriter (the exact nature of his compositional contributions is still a matter ofheated debate among the group members). He was without question one of the most influential producers of pre-punk, punk,and new wave, overseeing important recordings by the Stooges, Nico, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, and Squeeze.Ultimately he may be better remembered for his work in the Velvets, and as a producer, than for his own large discography.

The son of a Welsh coal miner (his father) and schoolteacher (his mother), Cale was a child prodigy of sorts, performing anoriginal composition on the BBC before he entered his teens. In the early '60s, he drifted toward the avant-garde, gaining ascholarship (with help from Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein) to study music in the United States. Moving to New York in1963, he participated in an 18-hour piano recital with John Cage (pictures of Cale performing at the event made The NewYork Times). More important, he became a member of LaMonte Young's minimalist ensemble, the Dream Syndicate, whose useof repetitious drones would influence the arrangements of his next group, the Velvet Underground.

Cale founded the Velvets with Reed and guitarist Sterling Morrison in the mid-'60s. John met Lou when the latter was astruggling songwriter for the rock & roll exploitation label Pickwick Records. He tested the rock waters as part of thePrimitives (with Reed and fellow Dream Syndicate member Tony Conrad), who did a few live shows to promote a silly noveltythat Reed had written and recorded at Pickwick, "The Ostrich." What Cale and Reed shared was an ambition to bring thesensibilities of the avant-garde to rock music.

They succeeded in doing so over the next three years with the Velvet Underground. While Reed was the most importantmember of the band as the lead singer and primary songwriter, Cale was just as crucial in devising the band's sound. It wasCale who was responsible for the most experimental elements of their first two albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico andWhite Light/White Heat (1967), especially with his droning viola parts on "Venus in Furs," "Heroin," and "Black Angel's DeathSong"; his pounding piano on "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "All Tomorrow's Parties"; his deadpan narration of "The Gift"; andthe white-noise organ of "Sister Ray..

Yet Cale was ousted from the band in an apparent power play by Lou Reed in the summer of 1968. Accounts still vary as towhether he was fired and/or quit, but it's been suggested that Reed's ego found Cale's talents threatening to his leadershipof the band. Sterling Morrison has said that Reed told him and Velvets drummer Maureen Tucker that if Cale didn't leave, hewould leave instead; the pair reluctantly opted to side with Reed. the Velvets would continue to make great music for acouple of years, but their experimental edge was considerably blunted by Cale's absence.

In any case, Cale was soon busy producing ex-Velvets singer Nico's Baroque-gothic The Marble Index (1969) and theStooges' self-titled debut album (also 1969). Though about as different as two projects could be, both were extremelyinfluential (though initially extremely low-selling) cult items that helped lay the ground for punk and new wave about fiveyears later.

In 1970, Cale began his proper solo career with one of his best albums, Vintage Violence. Those expecting a slab of radicalismwere in for a surprise; the material was the work of a low-key, accessible singer/songwriter, working in the mold of the Bandrather than the Velvets. Listeners wouldn't have to wait long for something a bit more radical; his next album, Church ofAnthrax, was a collaboration with minimalist composer Terry Riley that was almost entirely instrumental.

In some respects, these two records defined the poles of Cale's solo career. Even at his most accessible, his music had amoody, even morbid edge that precluded much radio airplay. Even at its most experimental, it was never as avant-garde as,say, LaMonte Young. Cale would reserve his most experimental outings for collaborations with Riley, Brian Eno, and, muchfurther down the road, Lou Reed.

On his own, he was more concerned with crafting songs, delivered in his lilting if thin Welsh burr, and inventively arranged. Itwas in his arrangements that his musical training and avant-garde background were most evident, in its eclecticism (evendrawing from country-rock and guest shots from Lowell George at times) and touches of classical music. Sometimes he'd takeout his viola, but generally he focused on the more traditional instruments of guitar and keyboards. Cale has covered a wideterritory on his solo albums without ever quite making his mark as a major artist. His songs and concepts are interesting, butultimately he does not have the striking traditional rock talents of someone like, say, his old rival Lou Reed. The hooks aren'tthat sharp, the lyrics -- often dealing with the psychological and social dilemmas of late 20th-century life, in somewhat artyterms -- not as gripping.

Toward the end of the late '70s, his approach became harder-rocking and a bit vicious, especially in concert, where he wouldadopt a number of flamboyant costumes and theatrical poses that verged on the confrontational (such as in a notoriousincident in which he appeared to kill a chicken -- though in actuality it was already dead -- by cutting its head off on-stage).Generally he was most successful in a more subdued and brooding mode, as on Vintage Violence or, much later, Music for aNew Society (1982). His discography is so large and variable that the two-CD career retrospective Seducing Down the Doormight be the best place to start for those with enough interest to buy more than one or two Cale records.

Cale never abandoned his production activities, and indeed a few of the albums with his credits are destined to endure asmore important statements than anything he's done on his own. His sessions with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers(from the early '70s, but not released until a few years later) anticipated punk and new wave. Patti Smith's Horses (1975)was one of the best and most influential recordings of the 1970s. There were also other albums with Nico, and records withSqueeze, Sham 69, and others; for a couple years in the early '70s, he was even a staff producer at Warner Bros., handlingunlikely clients like Jennifer Warnes.

After the mid-'80s, Cale slowed (but did not curtail) work on his own releases. His most high-profile outings since then havebeen collaborations. Wrong Way Up (1990) matched him with Brian Eno. Songs for Drella (1990), which got a lot more mediaink, reunited him at long last with Reed, with whom he had feuded on and off for a couple of decades; the album was a song-cycle tribute to their recently deceased mentor and ex-Velvet Underground manager, Andy Warhol. Well received both onrecord and in performance, it may have been one of the factors that finally caused the pair to bury the hatchet and re-formthe Velvet Underground for a 1993 live European tour (and live album). These events were not as successful with the critics;more disturbingly, Reed and Cale were on the outs yet again by the end of the tour, with feuds over direction, leadership,and songwriting credits apparently resurfacing with a vengeance.

Prospects for an American Velvet Underground tour never came to realization, Cale and Reed vowing never to work with eachother again. The death of Sterling Morrison in 1995 ended any reunion hopes, although it did apparently serve to reconcileReed and Cale, who played together when the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.Cale, however, didn't need Reed to keep busy (or vice. versa). In the '90s, he continued to record as a soloist and asoundtrack composer. One of his most ambitious collaborations was The Last Day on Earth (1994), a song cycle andtheatrical production written and performed with cult singer/songwriter Bobby Neuwirth. Cale released Nico, a tribute to hisVelvet Underground bandmate, in 1998. He continued to record regularly well into the new millennium, releasing a pair of well. received studio albums, HoboSapiens (2003) and Black Acetate (2005). The Extra Playful EP arrived in 2011, followed in 2012by a well. deserved career overview, Conflict & Catalysis: Productions & Arrangements 1966-2006, and a new studio album,Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. « hide

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