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At the beginning of his performances, John Cale says, "I think a lot of people are kind of mystified by what I'm doing. But on a good night, they're intrigued by the end."
Those two sentences neatly encapsulate the dilemma that is Cale. Although he's most widely recognized as a co-founder, with Lou Reed, of the Velvet Underground--a band whose influence on art rockers, punk rockers and new wavers far outstripped its middling sales figures--Cale is now a quarter-century into a solo career that's confused as many listeners as it's fascinated. He's made recordings whose brilliance is obvious to everyone. He's made recordings whose brilliance is obvious to no one--probably including himself. But even the least of his efforts are enhanced by his beguiling nonconformity. When asked if he enjoys having a reputation for contrariness, his response is brevity itself. "Yes," he says in a stentorian voice that calls to mind Richard Burton in mid-soliloquy. "I do."
And he proves it night after night. On his current tour, for instance, Cale is confounding those fans hoping to hear him serve up scorched-earth versions of "White Light/White Heat" and "Sister Ray" by rearranging his work for a back-up band that consists of a string quartet and a pedal-steel guitarist. "It's very much a classical show," he notes. "Like a chamber-music version of many songs."
While such an approach may seem odd to listeners who know Cale only as VU's feedback-loving provocateur, it's hardly the first time this native of Garnant, South Wales, has ventured into such territory. In fact, young Cale (born in 1942 to a coal-miner father and a schoolteacher mother) was so adept on the piano and viola that he initially was groomed for a life of exploring the classics. When he was a student at London University's Goldsmiths' College circa the early Sixties, however, he started to drift toward the avant-garde. Composer Aaron Copland helped Cale win a scholarship to the Boston University Orchestra's Tanglewood summer school in 1963, but he wasn't interested in penning homages to "Appalachian Spring." That fall, he moved to New York and promptly began burrowing into musical netherworlds under the tutelage of experimentalists John Cage and La Monte Young. Before long, he was a regular violist for Young's Theater of Eternal Music, aka the Dream Syndicate--a primary inspiration for the Eighties-vintage L.A. punk band of the same name.
In 1964 Cale met Reed, then a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, and began collaborating with him on a much less highbrow scheme; dubbing themselves the Primitives, they came up with "The Ostrich," a failed attempt to cash in on the dance craze. Fortunately, the pair wasn't discouraged by this flop, and over the next year, they hooked up with guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker to form a group whose moniker was borrowed from an obscure pornographic novel. The Velvet Underground went on to capture the attention of pop artist Andy Warhol, who made the quartet the house band for his 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia extravaganza. Warhol also conceived the memorable banana cover on VU's first LP, 1967's The Velvet Underground and Nico, in which Cale and company were paired with Nico, an icy German actress and singer. The disc, remembered for "Heroin," "Waiting for My Man," "Venus in Furs" and several equally staggering selections, was a groundbreaker--and its followup, 1968's White Light/White Heat, was just as striking. It was also among the least accessible discs of the era, largely because Cale's excursions into racket swathed many of the numbers in deafening, thrilling noise. When Reed wanted to quiet down for a followup, Cale objected--and departed.
Rather than immediately making a platter of his own, Cale stepped behind the soundboard for Nico's The Marble Index LP and the self-titled, protopunk debut by Iggy Pop's outfit, the Stooges. Since then, Cale has served as producer for a wide variety of performers, most notably Jonathan Richman (their quarrels became the stuff of pop-music legend), Patti Smith and Squeeze. Next month he'll be heading back into the studio to helm a comeback CD by the Raincoats. "I'm always very happy when progress is being made--when I can help someone make music that's really different from everybody else's, that has something to say and is unique in its own way," he says. "There's a lot of talent out there."
When Cale finally stepped out on his own, with the 1970 release Vintage Violence, he did so with material that was subdued by comparison with the early Velvets. This change of direction set the tenor for his Seventies offerings. The decade saw him deliver 1971's Church of Anthrax, a musical adventure constructed with the help of minimalist Terry Riley; 1972's Academy in Peril, which tilted toward the symphonic; 1973's Paris 1919, a gentle, affecting song cycle that featured several members of Little Feat; and Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy (all three were completed in 1974 and 1975), a vinyl triumvirate filled with bloody, scarifying psychodramas. Sabotage/Live, from 1979, was, if anything, more extreme--an aural affront so assaultive and grim that even fans of the Clash and the Sex Pistols found it tough to take. It was also terrific.