”What’s Welsh for Zen?”
John Cale’s autobiography, co-written with Victor Bockris, is a book that you will most definitely want to own for the form as well as its content. What’s Welsh for Zen? is the best illustrated books about John Cale and it so happens to be his only autobiography. By the way, it was Neil Gaiman who brought Cale and Dave McKean together for the project. McKean did something more than just set the type on almost every page of the 270 pages volume. He even found ways to use his familiar comics approach in a few places. The result is a very clever collage of quotes, photos, drawings and paintings containing visual memorabilia references brilliantly intertwined with an equally very insightful, well written narrative. Furthermore, it’s efficiently peeking into the mind and soul of one of the most influential artist of modern times, going through Cale’s entire magnificent five decade career as a musician and producer. Many of you might remember him for being, with Lou Reed, the co-founder of the controversial but nevertheless essential band: The Velvet Underground. Created in the 60’s the VU gave music a major shove into the modern era, helped in their debut by the celebrity of Andy Warhol, who was the first to manage the band and use it for various experiences such as multi-media events like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) that would be later proven to be way ahead of its time. It goes without saying that, of course, Warhol played a huge part in the success that The Velvet Undergound (from Michael Leigh’s sadomasochistic novel of the same name) would later get amongst an evergrowing stronghold of hardcore fans. There already was something so special about the VU that Warhol duly spotted and reading WWZ, one can certainly understand how/why John Cale became such a revered musician, producer and overall artist well after the VU era was over.
Cale was born on March the 9th, 1942, in the small village of Garnant, between Swansea and Carmarthen, South Wales. 3 000 miles away in Brooklyn, New York, Lou Reed was born on the 2nd, only one week before Cale who adds, half-joking; ”I always knew he had an edge on me!”. WWZ takes us through Cale’s childhood and education with a sensitive, candid narrative that’s not deprived of a very acute sense of humor and an instinctive awareness of what’s important and what’s not. Cale sets a constant tone from start to finish, brilliantly mixing up facts with emotions, a strong sense of Welsh humor and a spontaneity that makes this book such a pleasant, slightly Dada, definitely surrealist trip. In fact, when you hear John Cale’s story you hear a man describing his life as some kind of beautiful entropic shipwreck, in which music and instinct are his only guidelines and port in the storm amidst all these marooned merriment wildlife predators. Fortunately for him, there were quite a few exceptions, of course, as he met exceptional collaborators along the way who helped him to artistically define his music, shape his character but even more importantly, to make his life interesting and unpredictable. If there is one thing you can definitely read through the lines, it’s that John Cale refused above all to follow the rules and be bored. And bored he never was.
When he first came to the Big Apple, Cale was very much inspired by La Monte Young — all this while Reed was also meeting his mentor Delmore Schwartz who wrote ”In Dreams Begin Resonsabilites” . La Monte Young (born October 14, 1935, he’s now 82!),is an American avant-garde composer, musician, and artist generally recognized as the first minimalist composer. His works are cited as notable examples of post-war experimental and contemporary music, and tied to New York’s downtown music and Fluxus art scenes. Initially inspired by sources such as Indian classical music, serialism and jazz, Young is best known for his pioneering work in Western drone music (originally referred to as “dream music“), prominently explored in the sixties with the experimental music collective the Theatre of Eternal Music. His first contacts with La Monte Young must have been some very revealing moments for Cale: ”It was an immediate natural fit, the same aesthetic intent but different natures… Either you knew exactly where he was or you weren’t in the same room. So all the people who hung around and played with La Monte had the same aesthetic intellect.(…)At the time he also was the highest quality dope dealer in the avant-garde movement”-Billy Name in WWZ
Tell me you don’t foresee Warhol Exploding Plastic Inevitable here…
Cale was engaged in musical and multimedia even before meeting Andy Warhol –in fact that was part of the reason Warhol was so instinctively interested with the Velvets, if not consciously. John Cale collaborated with a wide range of artists, including Tony Conrad,Angus Maclise, Terry Riley, and visual artist Marian Zazeela, with whom he developed the Dream House sound and light installation. Listening and looking at Cale’s first collaborations with known musicians, I can easily believe that another main inspiration for him was a French-American painter, sculptor, Dada conceptual artist and writer Marcel Duchamp.
The next epiphany also took place in New York when John Cale met Lou Reed in 1964. One was a young prodigy of a rather classical formation who played mainly the viola, the other a promising poet whose muse had been snuffed by electroconvulsive therapy. “Lou was aghast at the idea that somebody from Wales could come to New York and force him into making music again,” recalls Cale. “As soon as we started improvising, it happened. He was like, ‘I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.’ From his point of view, in Long Island, Wales was Moldova. We won’t go into the similarities.” -from WWZ. Cale, however, was struck when Reed told them that learning “The Ostrich” would be easy, as all the strings were tuned to a single note. This was similar to what Cale was doing with Young; Reed was applying a similar concept to rock & roll. The Primitives experience likely was another factor that helped bring Reed and Cale together, starting as a musical partnership that would flower into The Velvet Underground and prove hugely influential of the course of rock/punk/new wave music by asserting an edgy darkness to an already gloomy atmosphere which made it an extremely unusual style. They helped introduce art into rock, unwarily introducing concept performances and some kind of mise-en-scene that is still unique to them. With Andy Warhol’s support, the Velvet Underground applied electrodes to American rock’n’roll.
Warhol had seen the Velvet live and proposed to supply them with all instruments and amplifiers they needed, handle the promotion and the bookings for 25% of their revenue and imposed Nico as the lead singer while Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker became part of the equation in a most natural, simple manner. This is more than any band back then could dream of back in those days. Warhol took an immense interest in the visual part of what Cale had done with his previous collaborations and pushed it a bit further, producing the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI), which was in fact the first multimedia event where people could enjoy a live band, dancers/performers, a sophisticated light show, several movies being projected simultaneously on the band, as well as various other provocations/stimuli. The Velvet were more than just a musical performance, it was a treat for all of your senses, never playing the song twice the same way. The Velvet Underground were an important component of Warhol’s Factory scene in the old weird downtown New York, and Warhol served as a kind of fifth member, providing management services and art direction (he crafted the iconic banana album cover on the band’s 1968 debut EP : The Velvet Underground & Nico). It was also he who suggested that ephemeral singer and former model Nico join the band (something Reed was initially vehemently against).
”John had a very clean and sharp image, wearing a black turtleneck with a rhinestone snake around his neck, and this jet-black suit and what was really a Buster brown hairdo and a very good posture. Lou was always turning his back to the front; John was just standing there defiantly, more or less. The first number he was playing when we got there was on electric viola, which immediately gave everyone a shock. it took a while to get used to because the viola is not the obvious instrument for a rock and roller. John had the perfect face for it; he looked perfect holding that thing, absolutely menacing-looking.” –Billy Name in WWZ
Warhol’s handling of the Velvet Underground began to rankle Reed, and a rift grew between the two; Warhol was dismissed as manager by the time the group released their second album: White Light/White Heat. Soon after, Reed drove Cale out of the band as well. Cale vowed never to work with Reed again, but 20 years after the release of White Light/White Heat, they got back together on Songs for Drella. In 1972, there was a memorable extraordinaire reunion of the Velvet Underground in Paris, live from Le Bataclan (lugubriously popular now because of the terrorist attack that occurred on Friday the 13th of November 2015). Fifteen years later, following Warhol’s death in 1987, Reed and Cale reunited to craft a tribute album to their old friend and colleague, Songs For Drella. Outside of the first two Velvet Underground albums, it’s the only time Cale and Reed ever recorded together, and it’s a lovely, smart, funny meditation on friendship, creativity, aging, and death. Most of the songs are built around stories and observations from Warhol’s life, and they act as something of a chronological biography about him, from his beginnings in Pittsburgh (“Smalltown”) to his untimely passing (“Hello It’s Me”).
Later in 1993 a couple of shows, a live album and were in talk, along with a reunion for and an MTV ”Unplugged” album. It all failed, again due to important personal and professional disagreements. As a result, the European tour turned out to be the last one ever to include all of the Velvet’s original members. It’s with an avid curiosity and a bit of resentment that I read Cale’s recollection of the events as they are duly related in minute details in WWZ.
”Lou was insisting that he had to produce the ”Unplugged” album. ”I’m the only one who can produce the VU” he said. I saw immediately what it was about- Everybody would be taking orders from Lou Reed- and I pointed out that we could have Chris Thomas or George Martin or any producer we wanted. Lou likes to obsess over things. I have different productions values, in that Lou will go for audiophile situation and I will go for the excitement. I have a lot of respect for the way he produces hos own albums, but when it comes to the Velvet Underground’s music, that’s a different matter altogether. It was a beautiful day and we all went to the beach in his limousine and sat on the sand, looking at the sea. Everybody left Lou alone and he was very quiet, saying only; ”I must produce”
–”Absolutely not”, I replied.
”Lou got back in the white limousine and spilt. That night I dreamed he did not drive back to Manhattan; he swam away, just drifted off into the wild blue yonder.”
Unfortunately, Sterling Morrison died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on August 30, 1995, one day after his 53rd birthday. When Reed died October 27, 2013, from liver disease at his home in East Hampton, New York, at the age of 71, Moe Tucker and Cale played ”I’m Waiting for my Man” in Reeds’ memory as part of the Grammy Salute to Music Legends concert. The relationship between Reed and Cale always have been one of competition instead of collaboration. Reed is also well-known for having an obsession over controlling everyone and everything and always wanting to be the center of attention and brought on stage a very uptight atmosphere. I always wonder what wonderful music the VU could have brought us if things would have turned out differently. The world will never know. I was definitely in mourning the day Reed died and so was Cale.
Patti Smith paid a robotic but well felt tribute when Cale was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (vote now!)as a member of the Velvet Underground in 1996, and appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2010.
So as I said I definitely intend to talk more extensively about the VU in a near future since ‘‘Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story‘‘ written by Gerard Malanga and Victor Bockris is next on my list of books to be reviewed here on Loud Alien Noize. WWZ does NOT overlook the VU period at all. It is widely detailed and half of the book is dedicated to that subject mainly told from John Cale’s point of view and all is told without any hatred or any form of resentment. Only a sad, melancholic regret for what could have been created musically and maybe a dash of pity for Lou’s decrepit state of mind and obsessive nature over controlling people, always wanting to be put at the forefront, making sure he gets all the credit. Cale had a much more Zen, instinctive way of doing things. It worked at first while the egos were relegated to the second place after music but it sure wasn’t the case anymore.
Flying Solo/Years of Turmoil
”Besides becoming a solo artist, in 1968-75 I established myself a s a producer, working on music that ran the gamut from absolute moron-rock to what is perhaps some of the most complex material ever recorded.”
Let me just slip in a few words here about designer Betsey Johnson who had been in fact already a player in the VU and part of the web of influence created by Warhol and his entourage. Betsey designed the fashion that defined the look of The Factory. Even before being introduced to Andy, Betsey was one of the in-house designers for a Manhattan boutique called Paraphernalia. After designing for Paraphernalia for about a year, Andy introduced Betsey to Edie Sedgwick who immediately fell in love with Betsey’s designs. Betsey lent Edie a collection of her signature silver clothing, and Edie became Betsey’s fitting model for the following year. Betsey was dating John Cale at the time, and she readily began to design clothes for the band once Andy had brought them into The Factory. The web was woven; the stage was set. Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Betsey Johnson, and The Velvet Underground became the incubators of an era, producing a radical wave and cult phenomenon that has yet to be rivaled. John was going through a period of huge changes in his life as he ”left’, the VU and he was definitely trying all sorts of things but the real golden opportunity came when John was asked to produce Nico’s second solo album (her first Chelsea Girl was produced by Tom Wilson) ”The Marble Index” (1968) and then he went on also doing ”Desertshore” (1971) and ”Camera Obscura” (1985).
Cale’s remembers that helping Nico gave him the confidence to release his first solo album in 1970 called ”Vintage Violence’‘ and a collaboration album with Terry Riley ”Church of Anthrax” in 1971 . This would be the first of a long list of seminal albums that would send Cale on a very successful solo career, just like Lou Reed but with such a different approach. People really got the sense that the VU were one thing and Lou’s and John’s solo career would be something that’s very different from the VU but nevertheless, everyone realized that both of them definitely had something going on there.
Now I wanna say something clear right now about WWZ: Yes, it will give you all the info about what was done when and with who and how it went but most importantly you will always get down to how did those works, either Cale’s producing of another artist or recording his own album, were related to what was going on in Cale’s heart and soul. I think it’s a great quality that Cale had. This guy lived his life walking on a tightrope, always trying to follow his guts and remain true to himself. Cale’s work is as honest and sincere as his music. All through the book, you get 100% honesty about Cale’s problems with drugs, his heart breaks, what he perceived as failures in his work and what he perceived as his favorite achievements. Now I’ve already gotten way too much into the details but I thought the early days of an artists always tell so much about the rest of his career and despite Cale’s amazing versatility, there always remained a constant in his music, his friendships and his love life, leaving a profound and everlasting impression with every single artist he’s worked with. Cale never works for other artists, the same way other artists never works for him. To Cale, everything is a collaboration and you can feel this sorta ”ZEN” approach is felt in the book from beginning to end in his professional life as well as in his personal life. Cale lived his life by ear… Funny for a musician who had such a classical background… I respect the way he really tried to never let anybody down, being able to recognize his weaknesses and failures as well as rejoicing over his own success and his friends and fellow artists success. I never felt Cale envious of anyone else, he was too busy doing his own stuff and putting all his heart into it. Cale’s life was a constant vaudevillian adventure, full of secret passages, hidden doors and unexpected characters appearing. Cale was always up for the challenge and WWZ is a fantastic example of how an extremely rich his life was but he never ever left friends behind. He answered Nico’s hunch about The Stooges and went on to produce their first record.
”She even made a film with the art patron Francois de Menil in Iggy’s back yard. The story that affected my view of him most at the time was the night she told me he spent alone in the farmhouse, up to all hours of the morning, tuning each string of his lap-steel guitar to the same note, turning it up and immersing himself in the noise. That was vision to me. If my production of Nico was impenetrable to most, Iggy was the epitome of simplicity. We just did one album together, and it was effortless; we did it as quickly as I would do anything with a young punk band today, in about six days. Iggy was efficient, the lyrics came easily. He taught his band exactly how to play their instruments. They were very professional. I even played viola on a ten minute ”We Will Fall”, which like the rest of the album is built around two chords.”
I could go on and on but I will leave you the pleasure of discovering this overlooked masterpiece of an autobiography co-written with Victor Bockris, most certainly the best book you can ever own about John Cale. I just would like to point out that since Cale was involved in so many projects and collaborations with so many people, some sort of index would have been really helpful!
Cale produced the first albums of the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, Squeeze and Happy Mondays; collaborating in one way or another with Lou Reed, Nico, La Monte Young, John Cage, Terry Riley, Hector Zazou, Cranes, Nick Drake, Mike Heron, Kevin Ayers, Brian Eno, Lio, Art Bergmann, Manic Street Preachers and frontman James Dean Bradfield, Super Furry Animals, Marc Almond, Element of Crime, LCD Soundsystem, the Replacements, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Soldier String Quartet, and Animal Collective.
If you are a Velvet Underground fan or a John Cale fan, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to this book for Christmas. The story is as rich as the artwork it contains; A brilliant collage of a life that encapsulates everything that an essential modern artist such as John Cale represents.