Dracula In Memphis: A talk with John Cale

loJohn_Cale_(2006)John Cale (Photograph: Bert Cabanier)

“Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed – and even Maureen Tucker – wore jeans and T-shirts, but John Cale, the electric viola player, had a more parochial look – white shirts and black pants and rhinestone jewelry and long black spiky hair and some kind of English accent…”
Andy Warhol describing his first sighting of The Velvet Underground
in his book POPism: The New York Sixties

John Cale, it seems, stood out even among the misfits of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd. This condition is perhaps his defining characteristic. As a child; as a student musician; as co-founder of The Velvet Underground; as the producer who developed a serial habit of helping against-the-grain artists make seminal debut albums (The Stooges, Patti Smith and Jonathan Richman among them); and as the  artist behind a restless string of  extraordinary solo records that are still far less well known than they should be (Vintage Violence, Paris 1919, Fear, Slow Dazzle and Music For a New Society to name but five) – he has always stood out.

Cale was born the son of a coal miner and a primary school teacher in Garnant, South Wales, in 1942. Originally his mother only schooled him in Welsh, leaving him unable to talk to his father, who spoke only English. Communication, or the lack of it, might be a theme in his work. Music was something of a family tradition, and he became a prodigy: by the age of eight, he was recording piano sonatas for BBC radio. In 1960, he started a three-year course at London’s Goldsmiths college. His time studying in London coincided with the birth of the UK’s R&B movement, but he was oblivious, writing symphonies while the Rolling Stones played their first gigs half an hour away.

At Goldsmiths, Cale grew interested in electronic music and the avant-garde, and, in 1963, under the sponsorship of Aaron Copland, was awarded a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to travel to the USA and study modern composition in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. By the end of that year, he had left in frustration and gone on to New York City, working with John Cage, before joining La Monte Young’s fabled minimalist project, The Dream Syndicate. Even here, though, he began to feel trapped.

Finally, at 22, through the influence of his flatmate and fellow Dream Syndicate player Tony Conrad, Cale discovered rock’n’roll.

Rock’n’roll still hasn’t recovered.

In this interview, dating from 1996, Cale talks about his early years, how he first got into music, some of the influences swirling around the early Velvets, how he writes his songs, and his abiding desire to “get under peoples’ skins.”

There’s an old quote about you, by Mary Harron [director of the movie I Shot Andy Warhol, for which Cale provided the score], that I wanted to put to you. I wondered if you recognised any truth in it: “Throughout his career, he has not simply avoided success, but tried to strangle it with both hands.”
JOHN CALE: [Cackles]…Are you sure that was Mary said that?

Yeah, it was in a piece she wrote for the NME in the early-1980s. And Victor Bockris [who, a few years after this interview, would be co-writer of Cale’s excellent 1999 autobiography, What’s Welsh For Zen] quotes it about you in his Lou Reed biography.
JC: Yeah…Hmm. That’s interesting. I didn’t know it was Mary who said that…I thought it was me who said it. No, I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that she said that. I’ve said something like that before myself, something along the same lines. I said that, ‘People really fail more often from success than from failure.’ Or suffer more from success than from failure. But anyway, I mean, that quote from Mary may be true. But it also could be that I’ve really chosen my own way of doing things, which is…The idea of success and failure to me is fairly clean cut, and I don’t think I’m a failure. And, so, I may not have a clear idea of what success is, but it’s not commercial success. And I don’t think the Velvet Underground had commercial success on its mind, either. And, really, whenever we felt bad that we weren’t doing better, it was always because we were so confused about what our idea of success was. That was what really got on our nerves more than anything, rather than our lack of success. It was that we were just confused, and didn’t know what the hell success was gonna mean for us anyway – except that we didn’t want success on anybody else’s terms except our own. Which we did very well.

What was it that first drew you to music? You started extremely young. Was it a family influence?
JC: Yeah, it was a family influence. My uncles were very musical, and my mother was a music teacher. Well, she was a primary school teacher, basically, and the local education authority had teachers pinholed for roles in a new experimental programme for music teaching. And she was asked to be part of that, she was kind of a guinea pig in this new process. And so the local education authority was very experimental and broad and ready to try new things, and I got swept up in some of that.

What was the place you grew up in like? Was it a small village?
JC: Yeah, a very small village. It was in the valley, so the village was almost continuous up the valley, but it was a small village.

Was there a point there when you became aware as a child that your interest in music made you different in some way?
JC: Well, yeah. The thing was, though, that I wasn’t considered strange because I played a viola, I was considered strange because I liked soccer. I mean, you might as well be wearing a dress if you wanted to play soccer. And I didn’t want to play rugby, because I didn’t want to get my hands damaged, so I started playing soccer, which everybody thought was right out. I played with the soccer team in grammar school. But it was a sheltered life, I mean, by the time I was eleven I was passing something like four music exams a year, and in order to do that you had to spend a lot of time practicing. But, having done all of that and then gone into grammar school, the moment I got into grammar school, things got turned around – because you’re then supposed to be concentrating on your studies: ‘Now you’re going to be a doctor, or a lawyer, and so just you forget about the piano…’ And I went crazy at that. I played more piano after that than I ever did when I was forced into practicing when I was younger. So, I dunno, I was quick to find out what I was good at, and I just sort of decided that…that was it.

Did your parents ever accept that you weren’t going to get ‘a proper job’?
JC: They really tried very hard to point out to me that you’re really going to die young and poor as a composer. Because nobody can make that work. And the more they said that, the more I was determined to make it work. Eventually, they were very, very supportive. But I had to make it work in the right way – in order to become a composer, I had to get the scholarship from Bernstein and Copland, so everything was done kind of so that I covered my back as it were. But it helped develop a lot of determination in me. But they were always very supportive, my parents, they were enlightened liberals.

What kind of student were you when you were in London studying composition? I kind of have a vision of a young man walking around with his head stuck in a music manuscript all the time…
JC: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. The Goldsmiths College was very, very supportive, too. They really bent over backwards to try and take what was my very abrasive character, and really help direct it in one particular way. So, from starting the three-year course in Music, History and English, it became a triple Music course, by the second term. And, I was going for composition classes with Humphrey Searle, and viola lessons with Gwynne Edwards of the Royal Academy, so, there was no stone left unturned by Goldsmiths. They would nurture every ounce of musical creativity I had. It was really great. What was more important than anything, though, was that I was writing pieces and running round to other composers, Roberto Gerhard, and shoving manuscripts in their faces saying ‘Look at this,’ which was good experience –  you learn how indifferent other composers are to your music really quickly.

And were you oblivious to what was happening in Rock’n’Roll at that time? It must have been just beginning to explode around London during that period, 1960-1963
JC: Yeah, absolutely oblivious. I never paid much attention. Although, I mean, the really interesting rock wasn’t happening on radio at the time. It was just about to break when I arrived in New York. And when I got to New York, the Beatlemania happened, y’know – and within six months, it was rampant. I’d be walking around the lower East Side with Tony Conrad, and these kids on the block would start throwing stones at us, and running up and saying ‘Are you the Beatles?’ It was amazing. And, you know, it was that phenomenon that really drove all the enthusiasm that Lou and I had for putting a band together. And all the things with Murray The K and The Beatles and all of that, just…there was a great spirit that came from that whole movement. I’d really been into collaboration with La Monte Young and a lot of things, but finding Lou Reed was like…finding a diamond in the rough, and someone you could really pin a band around.

Can you explain a bit about the frustration that you were beginning to feel as part of the classical/ avant-garde circle in New York, just before the Velvet Underground happened?
JC: Well, that futility was really born from the stationary position we’d ended up in with La Monte, which was really: nothing is gonna happen here. You’ve got to understand, from the time we started working with La Monte, there was a year-and-a-half of day-in-day-out everyday rehearsing, and recording everything that we did. And this was becoming an ever-decreasing concentric circle, with fewer and fewer members that we were attracting to see what we were doing. We were involved in really experimental, avant-garde music, and we were not doing anything to make it more available to anybody. And it was just a closed society, it was almost like a secret society that we were in. And when I met Lou, it was just an out of the blue offer to come and support some record, called ‘The Ostritch’ – you know that one? Yeah. But, after I’d talked to Lou for a length of time, we got to be very, very close for a while there, via…literary sort of ideas, and appreciation. I was telling him about what I liked in one kind of literature, and he showed me what was going on in American literature, where I wasn’t so well read. And on that basis, it seemed like there was some sort of intellectual meeting of the minds there, as to what could be done in music, something that hadn’t been done before. I was very interested in doing something which hadn’t been done before.

What sort of literature was it that the two of you were drawn to at that time?
JC: Well. I can’t remember specifically…there were a lot of… I think our discussions really began with Lou telling me about all his personal experiences with shock therapy, you know? Which were horrendous. And I really refused to believe that any of that was necessary, so I think, from that point of view, Lou had really found a sympathetic ear in me. Although I didn’t understand exactly what had been going on there, it just seemed to me to be barbaric, anyway. And to me, Lou was kind of a hero to have come through it. But, in that vein, finding anything in literature that compared to what medicine was capable of, was almost an impossibility. That’s what we tried to find: we scoured literature for descriptions of…like the nose-job in Thomas Pynchon’s V, for instance. Y’know, just in general, we were looking for a newer and broader definition of ‘risk,’ what it meant. What were you threatened by? Was it physical danger? Or were you threatened with psychological danger? Psychological danger is far more pernicious than physical danger. And so on…

If you hadn’t had this chance encounter with Lou Reed, do you think you would have moved into Rock’n’Roll anyway?
JC: Hmmm. [Cale pauses for several moments] I really can’t tell. I mean, to me, it was like going through something that most people go through when they are fourteen or fifteen – except I went through it when I was twenty-one and twenty-two. But, I don’t know if anybody ever got any more joy out of it than I did, I mean, it was very exciting.

You would come back to visit Britain from the US during that early Velvets period, and then return to New York. Were you checking out the UK scene by that time?
JC: Yeah, that’s true. Things like The Who and The Small Faces ‘What’cha Gonna Do About It?’ were like two things in particular. Some of my friends from Goldsmiths told me they were similar to what I was talking about…I was just explaining to them, when I came back to the UK ,what we were doing in New York with the Velvet Underground: that we were into noise, etcetera, etcetera. And they said “Well, if you’re into noise, you’ve got to get this Small Faces record, ‘What’cha Gonna Do About It?’” And that the solo in there is kinda noise. So I went and got that record, and I listened to it, and I said… ‘Holy Shit. We better hurry up here.’ We didn’t have a record deal at the time, and I was trying to get a record deal one way or the other, by running around to people over here in the UK. And nothing really happened, of course, until Andy showed up.

Jumping on a bit to your production work, I think the first Stooges album was the first record you officially produced?
JC: The Stooges, yeah.

How did you land that job?
JC: I had done Nico’s Marble Index for Elektra, for Jac Holzman, and Jac was really impressed with that one, and I said, “Well, that was just arranging. I wanna be a producer.” And he said, “Well, when I think of the right thing, I’ll call you…” And he found The Stooges, and I went out to see them perform, and he was right. That was the right thing.

Do you have any lasting impressions of the sessions for that album?
JC: What was really surprising to me was how professional they were. Because, when you saw The Stooges’ show, it was really kinda hairy, and wild and wooly, and…you know, you never knew what was going to happen next with James [Iggy Pop]on a stage. In the studio, though, it was all very together, and just no messing around. On that record, it was almost like two takes and you’re there, and that was great. I think it only took about four days.

Then you did some recording with Jonathan Richman.
JC: Jonathan was a fan of the Velvet Underground for a long time.

Did he request you as producer?
JC: No, I dunno how he got the tape over…I was working with Warner Brothers by that point, I had an office in Warner Brothers. People were coming in and out of the office bringing tapes and trying to get a deal, and these guys kept calling me up saying ‘Jonathan Richman, Jonathan Richman, Jonathan Richman… You know Jonathan, you know Jonathan..’ and I couldn’t remember him. And then it finally dawned on me: that he was this annoying little kid that used to hang around in Boston at The Tea Party when we played, and he would come into the dressing room and he would shove his poems of adulation right in our faces, and he used to get really short shrift from everybody in the group, we’d all just be saying ‘Get outta here.’ What was more interesting, though, was what was on this tape, which was this song ‘Hospital.’ The song started off with such an almost…weak-kneed presentation, but then that very quality became its strength. And I thought that that was really…There’s something magical about that.

Do you know Jonathan Richman’s ‘Velvet Underground’ song?
JC: Oh, his song about us. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s funny. Yeah, it’s cool.

I wanted to ask you about the Horses album. Those sessions are famed as being a bit of a battle of wills between you and Patti Smith. Is that a fair description in your memory?
JC: Yeah, sure. We won a friendship borne of differences. It was really how we tackled the problem of literature and Rock’n’Roll. That was the creative momentum, how to put the two of those together.

And you’ve recently worked with her again, playing on Gone Again. It’s her first record for a long time. Did you notice any changes in her?
JC: Well, Patti’s obviously a little fragile at the moment. But I don’t think that that’s gonna last for long. There’s a strong lady there, and she’s learning how to redirect her energies. But it’s coming back to her. I remember, with the new one, she said that she was glad that this album was over, because now she knew how to do it again, and she could get on with the next one very quickly. There’s a lot of power there.

Getting back to your job with Warners, what was your actual title there?
JC: A&R.

How did that job come about?
JC: It came about because a guy I knew who used to work for Warner Film and Music had mentioned that I had been offered a job by Clive Davis at CBS, and he touched a raw nerve of rivalry with Warners. So I got offered a job in LA, and I took the one in LA, because at the time I wanted to get out of New York.

Was that a rewarding time for you: working for the company?
JC: Yeah, very. I mean: I learned the heart of Corporate America, and how to behave and how not to behave.

So do you behave yourself now?
JC: Oh, I’m house trained now.

You’ve mentioned the literary quality of Rock’n’Roll, and one thing I was interested in about your  songwriting is your approach to writing lyrics, because, I was thinking most people – like you mentioned Jonathan Richman and his poems as a youngster – most songwriters start out writing words, I’d think. But you came from the other direction, you were so deeply into music and composition first. Has your approach to lyric writing changed over the years?
JC: Well, I feel a lot more confident writing lyrics now than I did when I started, yeah. But, basically, I really don’t know where the words come from. Sometimes they happen very quickly and instantaneously, and sometimes they take a little bit of figuring out. Some songs have just sort of fell right there into my lap. Others were a little different, they needed some concentration. What I’ve learned is to leave some awkwardnesses in the lyrics – not to try and manicure them until they’re perfect.

I wanted to ask you quickly about a couple of songs I particularly love. One is ‘A Child’s Christmas In Wales.’ What is that song about?
JC: It’s kind of about the Welshman in New York, during the Warhol time. It’s really about what goes through his mind, when he’s wondering what the hell he’s doing in New York. It’s about all those cow wallpapers seducing down the door…All those images come from that period, thrown in with a few…the Welsh part of it is, obviously, the reference to Dylan Thomas. That’s about as close as I can come to explaining what that song is about.

The other song I wanted to ask you about is ‘Ship of Fools.’ The lyrics there are very impressionistic, almost…
JC: Yeah. They’re also about Wales, actually. The lyrics are pretty much more about growing up in Wales than anything else. That was, growing up, and listening to Radio Luxembourg, and all you got was a vision of America through Voice of America , and these were the places that were exciting, because that’s where the music was coming from. And you wondered about the cowboy ethos, and where it fitted into the music…

Something you’ve often claimed as a tenet of your method of working is this thing of wanting to annoy.
JC: To get under people’s skins, yeah.

Is that always there? Is it still as much to the fore?
JC: No, it’s not quite so much to annoy people, as to get people inquiring about things. I mean, annoying is the same thing, but I don’t mean it so much as to just to aggravate them, but to really move them into thinking about things. Disturbing them more than anything else.

The reason I was asking that, was because I’d been thinking about it when you appeared on the Elvis Presley tribute show in Memphis a couple of years back [1994], and you played your version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’….
JC: God. Did you see that?

Well, I saw it a bit later. We got “edited highlights” of the show here in the UK, and, funnily enough, your performance was missing. But I tracked a copy down.
JC: Yeah. Well there were two versions of it. There was one that was put out on satellite, and one that was broadcast, and the satellite one had everything on it. It was a very strange experience, that show…For me, almost being run down by Michael Jackson’s limousine was part of it…That event was a recording event, it was a television event, and it was a live event – and none of those things ever work together properly. You’ve got to imagine the Pyramid, the arena there in Memphis, is huge: it’s a baseball arena, and people are in there, and you’ve got three stages, and these three stages are surrounded by a huge complexity of cameras that are moving very fast on tracks around the room, and the lights light up one stage at a time, so that everybody’s attention is on that one stage that is lit, and there are other events that are more… films and things going on. And the average age of the audience is like, seventy-years-old. So, coming along, and setting up and playing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ as a jazz avant-garde piece…it was really not their idea of entertainment. And it was bizarre. The Scientologists were there, running around trying to keep an eye on everybody, trying to make sure that nobody said the wrong thing.

So, when you had finished playing and you looked out….
JC: Well, you couldn’t tell a damn thing, you were like….I mean the people sitting nearest you were staring at you with their mouths open, and they didn’t know what the hell to do. They didn’t know what’d hit ’em, basically. It was just this cacophony as far as they were concerned. They didn’t even recognise the song, they didn’t know it was ‘Heartbreak Hotel…’

Was that pleasing to you?
JC: It was hilarious, in a way. I mean, Don Was was very cool. Before the show he came up to me and said, “Cher just cancelled. Now we’re gonna have a really cool show.” So, his heart’s in the right place.

Can I finish with another quote about you? This one’s from Nat Finkelstein [“in-house photographer” at Andy Warhol’s Factory ]….
JC: Nat? Yeah!

Okay, he said: ‘I could never figure out whether John Cale wanted to be Elvis, The Frankenstein Monster or Young Chopin…’
JC: …Nat said that?! That’s the only coherent thing I’ve ever heard Nat say. I’m surprised he could string the words together.

Do you think you’ve figured out which one you want to be?
JC: Have I figured it out? Of course not.