|Examination of John Cale - Part Two: Commission (1968-1973)
All art is collaborative; art is an expression that inspires a relationship and relationships imply collaboration. Music, as an art form, is inherently collaborative. Even a reclusive musician working alone, picks up relationships and ideas from other musicians, from the radio, records, from the world. Cale is a collaborative artist: the music he will be remembered for was a collaboration with Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker on the two studio albums of the Velvet Underground. His earlier Dream Syndicate work had been a collaboration with LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad, even his performance of Saties "Vexations" had been a collaboration with a number of other performers and musical conceptualist John Cage. His solo career is rife with further collaborations: from 1970s Vintage Violence with Garland Jeffries, 1971s Church of Anthrax with Terry Riley, 1972s The Academy In Peril with the Royal London Philharmonic, 1973s Paris 1919, his four albums with Nico, Chelsea Girls (1968), The Marble Index (1969), Desertshore (1970), and Camera Obscura (1985), 1989s Songs for Drella with Lou Reed, 1990s Wrong Way Up with Brian Eno, and 1994s Last Day On Earth with Bob Neuwirth, additionally his numerous production and musician credits, and his work with numerous filmmakers on a number of motion pictures, including Caged Heat, Sid & Nancy, I Shot Andy Warhol, Basquiat, American Psycho, and Something Wild. In fact, these strictly collaborate efforts comprise a bulk of Cales discography.
Following the break up of the Velvet Underground, Cale was faced with the problem of finding work. "I figured I could be a producer," Cale recalls, " I wanted to write songs. The first collaborative result of these impulses resulted in the other ex-Velvet Nicos first solo album, Chelsea Girls, for which Cale wrote songs, played on and produced, though production credit went to Tom Wilson. Obviously, Cale and Reeds musical relationship wasnt entirely unsalvageable, together they wrote and played with Sterling Morrison the songs "Little Sister" and "It Was a Pleasure Then". And Lou and Sterling wrote "Chelsea Girl". Tim Hardin contributed a song ("Eulogy"), as did Bob Dylan ("Ill Keep It With Mine") and Jackson Browne ("Fairest of the Seasons", additionally "Somewhere Theres a Feather" and "These Days"). Cale himself contributed "Winter Song" and one of his earliest songs "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams," (which had its first appearance on the 4-track 1965 tapes later unearthed on the Velvet Underground boxed set Peel Slowly and See (1996). Of all Nicos albums, Chelsea Girls is the most accessible but not her finest. That commendation must go to the follow-up, The Marble Index; a vast, solemn, gothic recording, possessing an underlying pop ethos that renders the dark music surprisingly listenable. All of the songs were written by Nico. According to Cale,
All I had to do was shape her songs up a little, add punctuation, get an A-B-A form around them with introductions, endings and interludes.
Cale contributed viola to a number of songs, in particular "Frozen Warning". Cale would produce two more Nico recordings, Desertshore and Camera Obscura and would later contribute music to a documentary about Nicos short and tragic life. But as with Reed, Cale and Nico had a strained working relationship and gradually grew less willing or able to work with one another.
Based on the critical success of Nicos works, Cale was given the offer to produce further recordings, resulting in "a whole bunch of stuff that I might not have done if I had still been involved with Lou." Among these efforts was the seminal first recording by the Stooges, to be discussed in greater depth in the following chapter.
In 1970, Cale collaborated with Terry Riley, with whom he had worked previously in one of the numerous incarnations of the Dream Syndicate, and the band the Penguins, headed by Garland Jeffries on the stunning Vintage Violence album. The album encompasses a vast array of musical styles; for a musician with classical background and avant-garde training, Cale was able to bridge the gulf between art-rock and pop from the very beginning. The album set the general framework for all of his recordings to follow. But Violence, for all its Catholicism in musical style, was somewhat self-conscious and established Cale as a difficult cross-over artist: was he a rock musician with avant-garde affectations or vice versa? Still, from the opening swaggering rock of "Hello, There" to the somber, scary "Gideons Bible," to pre-disco "Cleo," the garage rock of "Bring It On Up," to the classic, breathless "Amsterdam", Vintage Violence, with all its pedal steel guitars and strings, remains one of Cales most versatile, accessible and striking recordings. In describing the album Cale observes:
the album demonstrated my ability to write easy going, even sensitive lyrics and my tendency to use proper names and place names as song titles [ . . .] To some, I never sounded less British than on Violence. To others, I never sounded less Velvety.
Soon after, Cale signed with CBS Masterworks under the auspices that he would bring Terry Riley into the mainstream. Together they produced the mostly instrumental Church of Anthrax, featuring a majority of piano-based works much in the minimalist vein to be made popular in the following decades by composer Philip Glass.
After Vintage Violence and The Church of Anthrax failed to translate into commercial sales, Cale decided that he wouldnt "mess around with rock and roll anymore, that I would do straight classical music." He moved to Warner Bros. as a producer and signed a contract for two albums released under the labels subsidiary Reprise. The result of this decision, The Academy In Peril, was a collaborative effort with the largest group of musicians Cale had worked with yet, the 85-piece Royal London Philharmonic. It was not, however, an altogether classical album, as it contained three rock songs "King Harry," "Days of Steam" (later to be made the theme of Andy Warhols film Heat (1972)) and "The Philosopher" (on which Ron Wood plays slide guitar). In keeping with his love of improvisation, spurred by his experience as adolescent on the BBC, the "music was sort of written in my head, improvising, and then I copied down what I heard and orchestrated it." The orchestrations provided by the Royal Philharmonic proved daunting (Cale had used smaller string sections on Vintage Violence and Church of Anthrax). The three orchestrated pieces "John Milton", "Captain Morgans Lament" and "The Balance" were originally intended as a suite, but Cale was unable finally to make it cohere; he would not successfully stage a suite until "Falklands Suite," a tribute to fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas, appearing on his 1989 effort Words for the Dying. Of the two vocal cuts, "Legs Larry and Television Center" and the aforementioned "King Harry," Cale used what he called a "mocking, sneering voice," "laryngitic at times;" indication of a growing (or continuing) punk sensibility which, along with his screeching viola, also present, evinces a continuation of a confrontational attitude even amongst the admittedly Elizabethan setting, as does "Macbeth," the stunning, Chuck Berry influenced stomp, the kind of song an Elizabethan playwright might have written had punk appeared in London three hundred years before its time.
"Macbeth" appeared on Cales last album with Reprise, produced by Chris Thomas, and effectively a collaborative effort between Cale, Lowell George and Georges band Little Feat, an unlikely collaboration at best. However; the southern rockers fused remarkably well with Cale: at little over 35 minutes in length Paris 1919 is an artfully rendered, concise and consistently good musical artifact: theres not a throwaway moment of the recording and the songs have a feeling of maturity and timelessness about them that seems absent on Cales previous works. The album features his first nod to Dylan Thomas, "A Childs Christmas In Wales," the contemplative love song "Andalucia," the surrealistic pop gem "Paris 1919," the jaunty "Graham Greene" and the eerie, whispered "Antarctica Starts Here". It is, in a sense, a return to Vintage Violence, but this time around Cale seems more sure of himself. Part of this is due to the fact that Cale had allowed the songs "time to percolate," whereas on his other records the songs were written in the studio and contained a great deal of improvisation, a method of playing that had attracted Cale since his forced improvisation as an adolescent on the BBC (see Part One).
Cale: Paris 1919 was as musically accessible as anything I had ever done, yet its dense musical texture and lyrics made it as eclectic as Anthrax or Peril, since it struck a sort of ideal middle ground. Paris, critics argued, was my chef doeuvre. All the more reason to mourn the fact that Reprise deleted it from its catalogue scarcely a year after its release.
In addition to four collaborative full length recordings, Cale was also finding plenty of work as a studio musician, contributing to Mike Herons landmark 1971 recording Smiling Men with Bad Reputations which also featured Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon and Ronnie Lane of The Who, the self-titled Glass Harp and Tax Free, Nick Drakes sophomore effort Bryter Layter and Earth Operas Great American Eagle Tragedy. He also found work at Warner Brothers re-releasing albums in the new Quadraphonic sound technology, and assisted the filmmakers of A Clockwork Orange in developing technology to install Quadraphonic sound in movie theaters (the project fell through after it was felt too expensive by Warner Brothers). He also found time to produce, of all things, a Jennifer Warnes album and, to be discussed in the next chapter, the initial recordings of The Stooges and The Modern Lovers, headed by Jonathan Richman, self-proclaimed obsessed fan of the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith.
Cales solo efforts, being far from successful, were an artistic endeavor that were, like the Velvets, ahead of their time.
Cale: The modus operandi on all of the records from Vintage Violence onwards was a continuation of the Velvets: we could improvise songs on stage, nothing would have anything in common with the previous one, we could record each performance and have them all representative of states of mind. But I wasnt happy with it in the end, it became confusing and chaotic. To change styles constantly has a negative effect. I think if you want to be really good at something, you should concentrate on one simple aspect of yourself and that aspect should be worked out.
Over the next few years, Cale seemed to be taking his own advice, for in various New York night clubs and London recording studios, during the strange years of 1974-1980, he was busy laying the groundwork for the first great revitalization of rock and roll, punk.