Today is John Cale's seventy-first birthday. I interviewed him almost nineteen years ago and wrote the following piece, which was published in The Event on August 16, 1994.
JOHN CALE'S LAST DAY ON EARTH
John Cale thinks Beck is hilarious. "In April, I was in Brussels, and I turned on Top of the Pops and there he was." When the slacker infidel Beck sang his now famous refrain, "I'm a loser, baby / So why don't you kill me?" Cale fell off his chair. "All of a sudden, from seeing that on television, I thought, Hey, this is the system working. This is the way rock & roll is meant to work."
He should know. At 52, much of Cale's life has been spent making rock music that matters. Since leaving the Velvet Underground (which he cofounded with Lou Reed) in 1968, his chameleonic career has changed back and forth between experimental pop and symphonies and, to borrow one of the singer/songwriter's own song titles, his own brand of "Dirtyass Rock 'N' Roll."
Born in Garnant, South Wales, John Cale came to the U.S. when he was awarded a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship. He has lived in New York since 1963. "I don't know if I'm more of a New Yorker or a Welshman," he confesses from his home. A musical prodigy who learned to speak English at school when he was seven, he performed on the BBC at the age of eight. He studied musicology under Aaron Copland, and his early career included performances with avant-garde composers La Monte Young and John Cage.
Nevertheless, Cale's prevailing influences ("icons," he calls them) were deep-seated in rock & roll. "Very early on there were the Everly Brothers and Elvis. Jerry Lee." But his tastes are not limited to the classics. "When I see someone like Beck, a fresh face," he says, "a fresh sound is always very welcome."
Photo by Craig McDean
Cale's career is composed of one fresh sound after another. While it is true that, during the frenetic punk-rock world of England in the late Seventies, he once killed a chicken, voodoo-style, onstage (compelling the vegetarians in his band to seek gainful employment elsewhere), he also adapted the words of poet Dylan Thomas to accompany a symphony. He has collaborated with artists as diverse as Brian Eno, the late Lowell George, Garland Jeffreys, various members of Roxy Music, minimalist composer Terry Riley, and, in between spats, maximum ego Lou Reed. He also produced at least three debut albums that are universally recognized as classics: Patti Smith's Horses, Jonathan Richman's original Modern Lovers, and Iggy Pop's fledgling work with the Stooges. Cale regards each of them "as one of the rungs of the ladder" that forms his body of work. Asked what attracted him to these artists' first efforts, he replies, "They all seemed to have a little something about them that was special."
Cale's most recent work is Last Day on Earth, a song cycle/performance piece created in collaboration with multimedia artist Bob Neuwirth, a self-professed "hillbilly from Ohio" who, not least among his accomplishments, wrote "Mercedes Benz" for Janis Joplin.
The idea for Last Day on Earth came about when the two men performed together at a New York City venue called the Kitchen. With the classicist Cale singing and playing piano, the countrified Neuwirth played guitar and started telling stories. Some time later, Cale happened to catch a PBS piece about Prairie Home Companion. "It struck me that there was a weird mixture there that Bob could cover, as well as some other angles that Garrison Keillor wasn't into."
They ended up doing to Lake Wobegon what David Lynch did to Norman Rockwell's small-town America in Blue Velvet.
Last Day on Earth, while inviting many interpretations, is the conceptual tale of a Tourist who finds himself in the mythical Cafe Shabu, where, in the back room, bathed in red, a host of angels stands ready "to meet your every need." The ensuing post-apocalyptic travelogue focuses on the cafe's usual suspects and the further adventures of the Tourist.
Cale says, "One of the things that we wanted to do was make sure that every song that was there had its own character." Strung together by an ongoing dialogue between the Tourist and the regulars at the cafe, the songs paint a panoramic view that is sometimes Blade Runner, sometimes Brechtian, sometimes Bonanza. "There was a gangland feel about all of this, these characters and this landscape."
Cale and Neuwirth took the work to Arts at St. Ann's and requested support. A branch of Brooklyn's Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, St. Ann's is known for sponsoring out-of-the-mainstream art projects (and had previously commissioned Songs for Drella, Cale and Lou Reed's song cycle about the life of Andy Warhol). St. Ann's garnered NEA support and provided Cale and Neuwirth with a loft at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for one month. Most of the music was written there.
Over the next year, the two men went about their lives, working together on the project whenever their paths crossed--more often than not over cappuccinos in London or on New York City sidewalks. "Usually when we'd meet," Cale says, "we'd end up throwing ideas around and writing stuff down on napkins."
They first worked together 16 years ago. "I had a little record label at one time called Spy Records," Cale recalls. "We went in and it was obvious from the sessions that we did one afternoon that Bob was an improviser. It was really a question of grabbing him at the right time. He's kind of a will-o'-the-wisp. He doesn't like to be pinned down."
Last Day on Earth was first performed in New York on a stark, nearly barren stage. Modeled so it could be replicated elsewhere, they had a lighting chart drawn for the entire piece. Subsequent performances have been staged at a Frankfurt art festival and in Hamburg.
Now Last Day on Earth is an album. MCA's senior VP of soundtracks, Kathy Nelson, saw in the work the potential to be "a soundtrack for a movie that doesn't exist," and approached the duo about recording it. Neuwirth, in a similar vein, has called the work "a mind movie."
"When we got into the studio," Cale recalls, "we decided to change the narrative part of it. We weren't going to do a transcription of the live show, so we had this certain leeway to be able to present it any other way. We put most of the monologue at the beginning of the piece and used some of it to introduce characters."
The resultant album is one of the year's best thus far. A disparate combination of plush electronic keyboards, violin, viola, cello, Dobro, guitar, five-string banjo, harmonica, and assorted percussive hubbub, it sounds at once futureless and rural, neighborly and surreal.
Just as Last Day on Earth has made the transition from a theatre piece to a musical work, it might indeed find its way onto the big screen. According to Cale, "There have been some inquiries from an Irish film company. I never thought the piece was concerned with another country--not a specific country, anyway--but that's great that somebody sees that kind of potential."
Sadly, translating the work into a movie might be the only way that it reaches the greater general public. Cale, who allows that it is perhaps unfortunate that his career has been more creative- than commercially-driven, says, "Money is kind of an abstract idea in my book. I don't understand it, really. I know how it works and all that, I know what it can get me, but I don't have an overwhelming urge to fill my pockets with it."
His reunion tour of Europe last year with Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, and Maureen Tucker--aka the Velvet Underground--and the ensuing Live MCMXCIII (Sire/Warner Bros.) double-CD most likely didn't damage his pocketbook. But, like all great romantics, the band, on the eve of a string of U.S. dates, disintegrated once more. Cale is politely reticent on the subject, except to call it "Very painful. It was clear from the start that it was the Lou Reed Band."
In March and December of 1967, Cale and the Velvet Underground released, respectively, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat (both on Verve/ Polygram). Two of rock music's most seminal albums, Cale today regards them with a circumspect pride. "It's something I'm very cautious about," he says, acknowledging the works' lasting influence. "I think all of us are, in a way. We shy away from power. I think that's probably one of the things that separated Lou from the other three of us in the band."
Although the Last Day on Earth album was just released in April, last month Rhino Records issued Seducing Down the Door, a 20-year retrospective of Cale's work. The handsome two-CD package draws from his 16 solo and collaborative albums and includes a detailed 50-page booklet containing rare photographs and track-by-track commentary by Cale himself.
As if all this were not enough, later this year Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, and two of the Last Day musicians will provide live music when the Warhol Museum presents a reconditioned version of Warhol's film The Kiss. This soundtrack, too, will likely end up as an album.
"This is a good job," Cale acknowledges before saying good-bye. He sounds pleased not so much with himself as with having ascended one more rung on the ladder.