What’s Welsh for Zen

Q and A with Victor Bockris



In a previous postI reviewed John Cale’s autobiography and I would like to point out that even though ”What’s Welsh for Zen” is (duly and rightfully) qualified as an autobiography, co-writer Victor Bockris played a huge role in helping lay out Cale’s life in this very powerful, attractive and alluring book. Looking at the cover, design and overall graphics by Dave McKean, sifting through the pages, I could unmistakably gather that this was indeed a very complete, well delivered piece of work. Perfectly structured, very well documented, implying lots of research, various point of views and quotes from friends, family, collaborators and/or fellow artists, I could most definitely feel the touch of my mentor, Victor Bockris. The more I progressed, the more I got to realize that Bockris really played a big part in this collective project. John Cale for sure is one of the most important musician/producer of the last fifteen years and WWZ for sure is the best book to read if you want to learn about his life and his work. So it is with a great deal of enthusiasm that I have the privilege to present this Q & A with my favorite biographer of everything sixties and I’d like to seize this occasion to thank him for his time and dedication so that we now have such an accurate documentation of what started during these agitated but interesting decades that were the ’60s and ’70s.

Loud Alien Noize: How did you get to befriend John Cale?

Victor Bockris: I first met John Cale in 1976 at one of the coolest downtown New York salon of Norman Fisher. Fisher had the best salon in New York 75-77 and died 77 or 78. Many people such as David Bowie have mentioned him in interviews. He was very good at mixing people thus played an important role in the development of the 77-82 Beat Punk period. Cale was only there for ten minutes but I told him I liked his work. I lived with the Velvet Underground and Nico. I loved what he did with Patti’s first album Horses and I’d liked some of the early seventies albums. I wasn’t a big fan but I admired him. In the summer of 1978. I booked into a suite at the Portobello Hotel in London with Sue Williams, the most beautiful girl to come from the New York punk scene.  She’s a good artist, became famous in eighties for an art work in which she made of a  life size sculpture of a woman body which she covered with writing the names of the violence women have endured for centuries but when I knew her she was hanging out checking things out. She was very funny and strong. These days she is more known for her painting but she came out of punk.

Art by Sue Williams

The Portobello was the hippest hotel in London. It was a lovely place and inexpensive, plus it had the rarest of things in London a late-night bar which closed at 4 a.m. After dinner on the first night we were there, we climbed through a window and dropped down into a garden. it felt so good there we turned for a few minutes into animals. It was a brilliant moment. Walking back through the bar I ran into John Cale. Norman Fisher had just died and we touched base on that, but it was a brief walk by. At some point in the afternoon while I was in the room, Sue was in the bar John was the only other patron. He started talking to her, she told me laughing upstairs, trying to persuade her to leave me and fuck off with him, but he was so drunk after a while she couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I guess that set the tone of what was to come.

John Cale, Lou Reed, Patti Smith & David Byrne, NYC, 1976 © Bob Gruen

The following night I was in the hotel bar around 1 a.m. with Sue and my best friend Miles. I was taking a flash photograph of a small black cassette recorder lying on top of a London Subway map which was spread out on the black and white tile floor next to our table. Suddenly John came hurrying in from the adjoining restaurant. I can only guess he thought I was taking a photograph of him – a flash of light in a small dark room –    because several minutes later he came running back into the bar, grabbed my new tape recorder out of my hands before I knew what was happening and threw it across the room where it smashed against the wall. It’s a long story. Then back in New York I got the clap from a girl who had been sleeping with John. It took us a long time to really meet. On a bright sunny day in 1992 I was walking up Hudson to the corner of Perry.  I was going home to start work on the Lou Reed biography. As I was about to turn right onto Perry John came careening around the corner out of the sunlight so I could not at first see him, but I heard his voice, “Victor!” It sounded promising. While I was writing the Lou Reed book, John lived around the corner from me and Lou lived about four blocks away on 11th Street. It was to my place at 106 Perry Street that John came three years later to talk about writing his book.

John Cale and Lou Reed from the Velvet Underground walking around in Manhattan, NYC.

Loud Alien Noize: How would you describe him as an artist?

Victor Bockris: John Cale started studying classical music at Goldsmith College in London. His precocious and furious drive earned him a scholarship to continue his studies in America. His deep roots in Welsh Hymns and the moderns like Schoenberg met the American avant-garde in John Cage and La Monte Young. John Cale found his calling when he collaborated with Lou. He is a courageous seeker and intuitive natural who speaks in music and words. Finding his calling released him to climb higher and further than he could have imagined, even  on acid. He’s a travelling artist without boundaries.

The Theater of Eternal Music (also known as the Dream Syndicate) perform in a private loft, New York, New York, December 12, 1965. From left, American musician Tony Conrad, musician and composer La Monte Young, visual artist and musician Marion Zazeela, and Welsh musician John Cale. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

Loud Alien Noize: In what ways would you say John Cale evolved after the VU?

Victor Bockris: The ways in which band members have been dismissed have often been unkind, but I cannot think of anything nastier than the way Lou Reed fired John Cale from the VU in 1968. They had made the VU/Nico and White Light albums together, making rock history and influencing everyone at the time and ever since. Now Lou wanted to move in a different direction than John. On the morning that the band was leaving for a tour, Cale had his bags packed and was waiting for the others to pick him up on their way to the airport.  While Lou waited below in the limousine, he made Sterling Morrison go up to John’s apartment and tell him he was out of the band. I don’t think Sterling ever fully recovered from betraying his friend. He would keep his distance from Lou through the final years of the Velvets and decades thereafter.  John was terribly insecure. Living in a country that was not his and speaking in a language that did not come naturally to him, John always found it difficult to deal with aggression. He was so incapable of defending himself that when Reed claimed all the credit and money for the many songs he clearly wrote with Cale, John meekly acquiesced. After the V.U. his wife Betsey Johnson’s career was thriving, but John who had made little money from the V.U. was at sea. He needed another collaborator like a gun needs a bullet.

Nico, Sterling Morrison and John Cale, NYC,1966 © Nat Finkelstein

John soon found himself producing Nico’s Marbe Index and Desert Shore and putting out his first solo album Vintage Violence.  He moved out to L.A and started working in A&R at Warners. By the time John and Nico joined Lou for one show at Le Bataclan in Paris in 1972, they were so far ahead of him that Lou’s suggestion they get back together fell on deaf ears. When I wrote my book on Lou I was stunned to realize that Cale’s catalogue of solo work from his own albums to the albums he produced had more continuity and was stronger artistically than Lou’s. Why then was Lou much better known than Cale and operated on a higher level of recognition in the rock community?

Loud Alien Noize: How did you become involved with the book?

Victor Bockris

Victor Bockris: I became involved with the book when John called me and made an appointment to come over and discuss the prospects of a collaboration. I was in the final stages of the Reed book and was planning to write a biography of Patti Smith, Cale was a natural fit and I wanted to do it. Where writing a biography takes me two and a half years, writing another person’s story is much easier and much quicker.  I decided I could write two books at the same time. In the passage between the initial conversation and the completion of the book my life would change radically and I would come out the other side a different person.

Loud Alien Noize: What did it mean concretely to co-write this autobiography? What was your role?

Victor Bockris: My role was to tape record Cale’s life story then turn the transcripts of the interviews into prose. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it is hard. It depends on how clear the subject is about their story and how they tell it. The biggest problem with the book was caused by my agent who took seven months to collect the advance which commonly comes in 2-3 months. It’s difficult when your agent goes rogue on you in the middle of a project. If I’d fired him it would have taken months to resolve the issue. By the time the money came through my campaign was ruined. It was a nightmare but we got it done. Near the end, while I had been working on perfecting the prose, John got into a creative relationship with the book’s designer Dave McKean. I have always prided myself on having well designed books like Uptight, but John and Dave came up with a brilliant layout that made the book dance. The first time Cale came over and showed me a model of the layout with the text, I was amazed and for a moment we shared the satisfaction, but the meeting was marred when I misunderstood a compliment John gave me on the writing and snarled defiantly that it was a fucking great book. I saw the moment of frustration skate across his face and felt sad. John knew what was wrong with me and was very cool about it. He put up with a hell of a lot of bullshit from me.

Loud Alien Noize: Around 1992 there were talk of a reunion tour that failed mainly because of Reed’s flippant attitude and extravagant conditions one of them being, and I quote: ”Lou And Sylvia insisted that the reunion tour would only happen if everyone refused to cooperate with Victor Bockris’ work on his Lou Reed biography”. Now where did that came from?!? 

Victor Bockris: 1992 was the year I began the Reed book and the year the V.U. were making plans for a reunion tour. At the time Lou’s second wife Sylvia managed and was going to manage the tour. Therefore, in the early days of the reunion Moe Sterling and John found themselves dealing with Lou through Sylvia. Sylvia was a good soul and a good manager, but after ten years of marriage to Lou she was showing signs of losing herself to Lou’s constant tormenting demands. She made the band feel like a back up band. By this time, I had good relations with Sterling and Moe from working on the V.U. book, Uptight and John was living around the corner. I was astounded to hear that one of Lou’s conditions for reforming the band was that they agree not to talk to me for my biography, which I was just beginning to research. The fact that all three of them refused to accept this says a lot about the height to which I had arrived with my Keith Richards book, published the same year. It also says a lot about how those band members were not going to let Lou walk all over them. This played itself out across the Velvet Underground’s reunion tour of Europe. They had plans to tour America and an invitation to record an unplugged album and several other potential albums. The whole thing broke down and died when Lou issued the condition that only he produce them. The main problem was that Cale was a superior producer and after one V.U. album had been mixed Lou had gone back into the studio and remixed it to bring his guitar upfront at the cost of hearing other players.

Reed chats with his wife Sylvia, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, and Chris Stein party for Blondie’s book, Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie (co-written with V.Bockris). in New York on May 4th, 1982. ©Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Loud Alien Noize: Are there any John Cale albums that you prefer above all? Why?

Victor Bockris: I am not really an album by album guy with John, it’s more about periods, 1978-1971 was brilliant as were several other periods. I think the best way to look at John these days is to start with his Collected Work and start from the present and go backwards. He looks to be having a terrific time. I was moved by the Boxed Sets of the VU & Nico and White Light/White Heat he worked on with Lou during Reed’s final years. I’d recommend them as a place to start.

Loud Alien Noize: How is Cale’s approach to music different from the other members of the VU?

Victor Bockris: This is too complicated a question for my response. The V.U. created their music by playing together.

The Velvet Undergound at Paraphernelia ©Nat Finkelstein 1966

Loud Alien Noize: How was Cale’s relationship with Warhol after the ”banana” album until his death in 1987?

Victor Bockris: When the Velvets worked at Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1966 Lou was closer to Andy than the others and much more shaped by working there.  Andy collaborated on making the EPI shows and the first album, Billy Name photographed him for Andy Warhol’s Index book and The Flowers Catalogue and Gerard Malanga danced in front of the band to spectacular effect. However, as Billy points out in the book, Andy recognized John’s avant garde roots and watching him having an affair with Edie Sedgwick saw how sensitive and beautiful he was. Andy favored people who did things their own way. John was more original than Lou, and in the long run he liked John more. On two occasions, he designed covers for Cale’s album and was always receptive when John called him. The only track on Songs for Drella I cannot live without is A Dream, where they took lines from the Warhol Diaries and weaved them into a haunting lyric perfectly recited by John. It’s one for the ages.

John Cale and Edie Sedgwick at the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry annual dinner, The Delmonico Hotel, New York, 13th January 1966.

Loud Alien Noize: How well was ”What’s Welsh for Zen” received?

Victor Bockris: When the book was published in London in 1998 it got excellent reviews and went to #4 on the Daily Mail’s Best Seller List. England’s rich rock press took it to Heart. Mojo published an eight-page excerpt. Unfortunately, by then relations between John and myself had broken down and the publisher took his side. The book had been a real artistic collaboration. I had suggested to John we do a limited edition of 100 signed copies of loose pages in a box. Everyone loved it and Bloomsbury (Liz Calder editor) went ahead and produced it. I had taken it for granted that we would sign the limited edition together, because I was not a ghost writer – indeed when the book was published by my name was put before John’s on the cover! However, it was signed solely by John. This was an unfortunate blow because the beauty of the book was in the success of our collaboration.  Closing me out of signing the edition I invented and in part designed negated all that.  Mind you, I was not on my best behaviour when I worked with Cale. Although I turned in an excellent manuscript, I was so late in delivering it that in order to get the books in shops to coincide with a BBC documentary by James Marsh we had shot in Wales they had to rush release it. This increased production costs considerably. Even though it went to #4 on the Daily Mail’s Best Sellers List it did not make a lot of money.  Bloomsbury also published it in the U.S. Furthermore, there is no doubt that John Cale was happy with What’s Welsh for Zen.

Thanks so much Victor!  Looking forward to review Uptight here on LAN!!

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