”I could never figure out whether John Cale wanted to be Elvis Presley, The Frankenstein monster, or young Chopin” -Nat Finkelstein, Up-Tight
”He’d get paranoid craziness. I thought he was really special because of that, that craziness to me was incredibly interesting. He was really the kind that would be afraid to go into the street -from paranoia or whatever makes you that way. ” –Betsey Johnson, Up-Tight
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).
His work shows a fascination with opposites: lyricism and noise, subtlety and bluntness, hypnotic repetition and sudden change. Even as a student of classical music, he was an extremist: During a recital at the Guildhall School of Music, London, where he was studying theory and composition, he demolished a piano. Cale studied in Britain with composer Humphrey Searle, came to America in 1963 to work with Iannis Xenakis and Aaron Copland under the auspices of a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship, then settled in New York with such radical composers as John Cage and La Monte Young. That year Cale was one of a group of pianists to perform Erik Satie’s nearly 19-hour-long “Vexations.” Through his association with the Lower Manhattan art community, Cale met Reed, who directed him toward electric instruments and rock & roll and helped conceive the Velvet Underground, for whom Cale played keyboards, bass, and electric viola. 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.”
“When John left, it was really sad. I felt really bad. And of course, this was gonna really influence the music, ’cause, John’s a lunatic. I think we became a little more normal, which was fine, it was good music, good songs, it was never the same though. It was good stuff, a lot of good songs, but, just, the lunacy factor was… gone.”-Moe Tucker
After two Velvets albums (The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat), Cale left in 1968 for a solo career. 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 the early ’70s he worked as an A&R man for Warner Bros. and Elektra, and as a consultant for Columbia, remixing albums by Barbra Streisand and Paul Revere and the Raiders in quadraphonic sound. On his solo albums of the decade, he used elegant pop (Paris 1919, with Little Feat’s Lowell George), hard rock (Fear), Phil Spector/Brian Wilson gloss (Slow Dazzle), minimalism (Church of Anthrax, with fellow La Monte Young pupil Terry Riley), full orchestra (The Academy in Peril), and punk (Sabotage). Lyrically, he displayed equal daring; delivered in a strong baritone, his work ranged from musings about terrorism, espionage, and states of psychological extremity to love songs. His ’70s tours, generally featuring guitarist Chris Spedding, were often acts of disturbing theater (recorded at New York’s CBGB, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues captured the punk ambience of the period); at one point Cale chopped up a chicken onstage, causing his band members to walk out.
By the next decade Cale had established himself as a producer/collaborator on some 80 albums, ranging from the debut efforts of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers, and Squeeze to four albums by former Velvets singer Nico; he also had worked with Brian Eno, Kevin Ayers, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Nick Drake, and Mike Heron and scored soundtracks for Andy Warhol‘s Heat and Roger Corman’s Caged Heat. While commercial success continued to elude him, he was lauded as one of punk’s godfathers, a status he contended against with characteristic irony: His primary interest remained classical music. As the ’80s waned he continued producing (Happy Mondays), scoring (the soundtrack for Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild with Laurie Anderson and David Byrne), and releasing solo work as various as the almost-pop of Wrong Way Up to “The Falklands Suite,” an orchestration of Dylan Thomas poetry that highlighted Words for the Dying.
By 1993 Cale had come full circle: Having, two years earlier, collaborated with Lou Reed on Songs for Drella, a tribute to Velvet Underground mentor Andy Warhol, he teamed with the Velvets on a reunion tour.
On his own, he continued to innovate, releasing in 1996, with help from David Byrne and Velvets drummer Maureen Tucker, Walking on Locusts, featuring a moving tribute to Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, and, in 1998, Nico, an elegy for Velvets chanteuse Nico.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).