Influential, innovative and back in Israel

Former Velvet Underground member John Cale will mix in a few old favorites while performing in Tel Aviv this week.

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January 15, 2006 08:30
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'Anger is a good inspiration for songwriting," says John Cale laconically. Not that the 63-year-old Welshman has much to be angry about, besides being slightly put off at having to explain why he's remained uncommonly prolific over an illustrious 38-year career. His place in rock history is secured; as bassist, viola player, keyboardist and partner of Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground, Cale epitomized the dark, droning New York underground rock sound in the Sixties - a sound that has influenced bands from REM to The Strokes. And if that wasn't enough, he produced a handful of classic albums by the likes of The Stooges, Patti Smith, and Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers that formed the sonic blueprint for punk rock and new wave. And let's not forget 23 solo albums beginning with 1970's Vintage Violence, and numerous film scores. And, oh yeah, even if you've never heard of Cale, you just might know him anyway because of his rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Halleluyah" from Shrek. All in all, it's not a bad resume - especially for the son of a coal miner who discovered a passion for classical music at an early age. He performed an original composition on the BBC before he entered his teens, and in the early Sixties won a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in Massachusetts - thanks to endorsements by the likes of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. "I was going after the avant garde world - I was into post-Stockhausen music, and I really wanted to work with [minimalist composer] Lamonte Young," he told The Jerusalem Post in a phone conversation from Los Angeles, where he was rehearsing with his three-piece band for a European tour that will bring him to Tel Aviv this week. He'll perform Wednesday at the Zappa club and Thursday at Hangar 11 with opening act Rami Fortis and Barry Saharov. "I finagled my way to America on the scholarship, which gave me time to settle down and get ready for Lamonte. I rehearsed daily for a year and half. Then the Beatles hit, and I realized I missed out on my youth, and I decided I wanted to be part of that." "That" turned out to be the Velvet Underground - the hugely influential group that combined bleak rock and gritty realism. Championed by the arbitrator of New York underground hipness, Andy Warhol, the band was otherwise almost totally ignored during its brief three-year life. But as younger groups in the Seventies, Eighties and beyond - from Talking Heads to REM to The Strokes - pointed to their music as a seminal influence, the VU's stature has risen to a god-like status usually reserved for The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Cale and Velvet co-founder Lou Reed didn't seem to have much in common besides an ambition to bring the sensibilities of the avant-garde to rock music. While Reed's songwriting and personality dominated the band, Cale was crucial to the band's sound, contributing the memorable elements to some of the group's most delicate songs - "Venus in Furs," "All Tomorrow's Parties" - as well as some of their most abrasive moments, including the droning viola in "Heroin," the relentless piano in "I'm Waiting for the Man," and the noisy organ in "Sister Ray." But egos clashed, and Cale found himself ousted from the band in mid-flight. An estrangement from Reed ensued, broken only by a late Eighties collaboration on their Warhol tribute album Songs For Drella, and a brief VU reunion in 1993. Begging off questions about his and Reed's relationship with a groan and a "Why?" Cale did admit that he saw the VU reunion as a lost opportunity. "We could have done anything, but we just regurgitated the material. At least one of us was happy about it," he said - a jibe apparently directed at Reed. Cale preferred to talk about his current music, which like his work with the VU runs the gamut from pretty, lilting melodies to raucous, sonic experimentation. He's especially enamored with a creative process he said has been boosted by innovative studio technology that streamlines the recording process. "Since I started, studio technology ability has grown by leaps and bounds. It used to take an irritatingly long time to do what takes a short time now," he said. "When I think back on Patti and the Stooges, it was like 'you have 5 days to record and produce the record.' There's no time for messing around, or hand holding. But they were all very professional, and we went in and did it. Nowadays, I have the freedom to start in one direction, and I can switch directions on a dime if I want. The technology has improved that much." No stranger to Israel, Cale sounded like he was looking forward to returning to what he considers a familiar and friendly place. "I've been to Israel many times - the last time was 5 years ago by myself on piano. It's been years since I've been here with a band," he said. Promising to throw in a few old favorites, Cale insisted that most of his material this week would come from his latest release Black Acetate, and its similar-sounding predecessor, Hobosapiens. "It will be an all-stand up rock and roll show - it's more of a romp with the band," he said. "There's a different sensibility at work. It's rock and roll."

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