The Cale chemistry

Co-founder of the legendary rock band Velvet Underground solo artist John Cale is still perfecting his formula for success

John Cale (photo credit: courtesy)
John Cale
(photo credit: courtesy)
‘I’m very suspicious of commercial riches – you never know if they’re there for the right reasons or not.”
Spoken like the staunch indie provocateur he’s remained over the course of his five-decade career, John Cale’s observation was in response to a query about feeling satisfied with his status as a founding member of The Velvet Underground – one of the most influential rock bands of all time – in light of the fact that they failed to translate that clout into monetary gain during their few short years together in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The 69-year-old, Welsh-born musical pioneer was speaking to The Jerusalem Post from his adopted home of Los Angeles ahead of a European tour that will bring him back to Israel for two shows on August 2 at the Zappa Club and the following night at the Barby Club, both in Tel Aviv.
The multi-instrumentalist last appeared in Israel in 2006, riveting the crowd with a dynamic performance that spanned his work with the VU and his vast repertoire from nearly 40 years and 30 albums as an eccentric, freethinking solo artist who can veer on a whim from melodic, classically influenced piano tunes to dissonant, electronic mayhem created with his electric viola.
Of course, amid that dedication to art and experimentation has been some financial reward. Cale can boast recording probably the most wellknown version of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” thanks to the film Shrek; his landmark series of solo albums in the 1970s, including Paris 1919 and Fear are considered visionary classics; and he helped jumpstart the punk movement later that decade by producing seminal albums by Patti Smith, The Stooges and The Modern Lovers.
And, of course, it was his work in the VU, along with one-time musical partner Lou Reed, that forged the sweet pop-meets-dark, avant-garde outrageousness that a thousand and one bands (including REM, The Strokes, Pavement) followed as their blueprints in ensuing years.
“It was a very active, incendiary period,” said Cale of the year and a half he spent with the band before leaving in 1968 after the release of their second album, White Light/White Heat, in what was the first of many public and private spats with Reed over musical direction and songwriting credits.
“We were trying to get somewhere, but we didn’t quite know where we were going; and when we got there, we didn’t know how to handle it. I don’t know if everyone understood what we were doing anyway, so I knew we were never going to become the next Elvis.”
One of the Velvet’s identifying marks was the classically trained Cale’s electric viola, used perhaps for the first time in a rock ‘n’ roll setting. Instead of its traditional role, however, Cale used the instrument to emulate the electronic sounds he had become enamored with that were being composed by the likes of John Cage and Eric Satie.
“I first got the viola because it was the only instrument left in school,” he said. “When I went into rock ‘n’ roll, I knew it would be good to create a drone sound. And whenever you have a drone, it really helps the music along – it creates a kind of chemistry.”
After such an illustrious career, Cale is still searching for the right chemistry. After a gap of six years since his last album Black Acetate, he signed a deal this year with indie label Double Six Record and is releasing a five-track EP called Extra Playful. He said he had no problem still being considered an indie artist and, in fact, insisted that a small independent label was the only place where he could feel at home.
“The kind of music I’m interested in and the kind of music I make sort of puts me in a certain category – some labels do that well, and some not so good,” said Cale, adding that his restless nature doesn’t allow him to rest on his laurels “I’m still making music because I still have things to prove to myself. I’m very pleased with what I’ve come up with; I think it’s a good piece of work.”
And that may have to be enough.
Despite sporadic reunions and joint projects together, Cale said the likelihood of him and Reed getting back together at some point was practically zero.
“Lou has his career, and I have mine. We manage our Velvet Underground business when that’s necessary, and that’s it. I don’t see any collaborations happening.”
John Cale, independent to the end.