Living Obituaries: John Cale

Will Hagle introduces Living Obituaries, a series praising our greatest artists while they're still alive.
By    April 24, 2018

Will Hagle’s a ghost, la la la la la la la la la.

We don’t need death to appreciate the poignancy of “Hallelujah,” the Leonard Cohen classic that John Cale popularized with his own rendition in the early ‘90s (and/or on the Shrek soundtrack, depending on your own age/distance from death). We don’t need Cale’s heart to stop beating in order to recognize he was the beating heart of the Velvet Underground, the band that shuffled along a little less convincingly, like a Lou Reed-faced zombie with decomposing limbs, after his departure. We don’t need a flat-lined heart monitor to remind us Cale is the reason drones worked their way into rock ‘n roll music. We can remember the greats whenever we want.

The comedian Brendon Walsh once had a bit where he’d casually start talking about how Gene Hackman had just died. When the audience reacted, he’d call them out for their hypocrisy. If everyone loved Gene Hackman so much, why weren’t they talking about him while he was alive? We should talk about aging celebrities while they’re still living. We should talk about John Cale.

Born in Wales and formally educated in music in London, Cale came to New York in 1963 to find an avant-garde renaissance well under way in the city. He joined an active scene spearheaded by the likes of John Cage and La Monte Young, composers who were trying to upend everything the public had been taking for granted in classical music.

Cale and his contemporaries demolished the concept of music in general, crafting pieces (like Cage’s “4’33,” which consists of total silence) that served as equal parts performance art and intellectual dissection of traditional composition. The key to Cale’s musical genius lies in the fact that, unlike Young or Cage, he has been able to apply this avant-garde aesthetic into every popular genre with which he experiments.

When he dies, Cale will likely be most remembered for his contributions to the early work of the Velvet Underground. Cale met Lou Reed not long after moving to New York, and he transitioned from a heady composer to the heady multi-instrumentalist backbone of early rock ‘n roll. He took what he had learned from New York’s musical fringes and applied it to the most popular sound of the day, while working within the traditional structures of that genre.

The tension between Cale and Reed—whether real or imagined, underplayed or overblown—is palpable in the Velvet Underground’s music. It’s also part of what makes their early work so great. Reed, who died in 2013 and subsequently received much due praise online and around the world, had an innate pop sensibility. He was a brooding, cool rock star, sure. But he could also write hits and let his charisma carry him the rest of the way. Cale served as Reed’s counterpoint: the avant-garde foil to Reed’s pop prowess.

Although the experimental approach of the Velvet Underground can’t be entirely credited to Cale, his presence is obvious in the musical underbelly of tracks like “Heroin.” That song wouldn’t be as great as it is without Reed’s emotional pining for the drug he deems his “wife,” but it would be flat and thin without the drone of Cale’s electric viola beneath it.

“Sunday Morning” wouldn’t evoke the lazy, content feeling of the track’s title without Cale’s bright melodic riffing on the celesta. Cale quit the band after White Light/White Heat, shortly after Warhol left, as if the artsy experimentation of the group was done and it was time to move on to something new. The Velvet Underground and Loaded should be celebrated for their own achievements, but there’s no denying the band never sounded the same.

Cale has credited La Monte Young for influencing his work, particularly his use of minimalism and drones. It’s difficult now to conceive that droning sounds were once out-of-the-ordinary, but Cale showed people how repetitive, near-hypnotic sounds could be incorporated into popular music. In 1967, when The Velvet Underground & Nico came out, The Beatles were already experimenting in a similar manner on Sgt. Peppers. But with songs like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the radio, and the majority of rock bands taking an upbeat, straightforward approach to rock, drones were a revelation.

Rock ‘n roll was, to Cale, just another genre with which he was able to push the limits of musicality as far as he possibly could. Slightly before the Velvet Underground, but around the same era given the long arc of Cale’s life and career, Cale performed with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. Angus Maclise, the first drummer of the Velvet Underground who would quickly be replaced by Moe Tucker before the band’s first recordings, was also associated with that group. “Day of Niagra,” a 30-minute Theatre of Eternal Music bootleg from 1965 featuring both Cale and Maclise, shows just how strange these artists could get.

It’s an extended piece of noise, drones, and feedback. It’d be chaotic if the musicians didn’t have a complete understanding of what they were doing. It might not make the official obituary when John Cale passes, but it’s worth listening to in its entirety for an understanding of what Cale was bringing to Velvet Underground, and the New York scene as a whole, during its earliest years.

When Cale finally embarked on a solo career, the result was surprisingly closer to the center. Only “Wall,” the droning string-based closing track on his 1970 debut Vintage Violence, comes close to replicating the wildness of the Theatre of Eternal Music. The rest plays more like straightforward rock ‘n roll, with little flourishes of avant-garde production and Cale bringing his softer singing voice and playing style as a contrast to the in-your-face brazenness of Lou Reed.

Cale has released 15 albums since Vintage Violence, each with varying degrees of experimentalism, rock ‘n roll, classical, orchestral, and other outside influences. One of his most well-known songs ever—“Paris 1919”—combines a little of all of those into a sweeping, almost Broadway-esque track. One of Cale’s, and the world’s, most underrated songs of all time is “You Know More Than I Know.” It’s also amongst Cale’s most straightforward pop ballads, but there’s a ton of beauty to be found in its simplicity.

Hobosapiens, which came out in 2003, is a straight-up electronic beat album, with Cale’s aging, shakier voice splattered across twelve challenging tracks. It’s impossible to predict what Cale will sound like at any given moment, but the consistent thread is that it will be weird, and it will be good.

In addition to his own musical career, Cale has also served as a record producer and been involved in the creative side of the music business for several years. He produced The Stooges’ debut self-titled album, and even appears in the background on a few tracks. He’s worked with a ton of other surprising artists.

The only time I saw John Cale perform was in 2013, in Prague. I was there on a college grant, filming a short documentary about the Czech musicians of the ‘70s and ‘80s who faced persecution for playing rock and punk music with English lyrics while the country was under Soviet rule. Many Western bands influenced that generation of Czech artists, but few had as much lasting power as the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed was infamously friends with Vaclav Havel, the poet who became the first president of the newly established Czech Republic in 1990. The country even named their peaceful revolt “The Velvet Revolution.”

But Cale’s influence can be immediately detected in the music of all the great Czech bands from that time period: the Plastic People of the Universe, DG307, FPB, and more. All of those bands incorporated droning sounds, chaotic orchestration, and avant-garde experimentation into their unique takes on loud, noisy rock ‘n roll.

The surviving members of that era were all in attendance to see Cale that night, and their kids and grandkids packed the theater to pay tribute to an artist who’s far too unknown in the country where his career began. But the bands’ incorporation of Cale’s styles into their music is another testament to Cale’s genius, and proof of the underrated span of his cultural influence. He did things differently and the world took note, whether they were aware Cale was the one inspiring them or not. He has always brought his avant-garde appreciation of the absurd into everything he’s done, and he’s managed to have the magic touch of making experimentation accessible.

Cale is still doing things differently. He’s 76 years old, still performing around the world, and may outlive us all. He will probably be releasing new albums in new genres until the day he drops cold and the love pours sincerely yet briefly into the Twitterverse. But there’s no reason we have to wait until that day to press play on any aspect of his extensive discography. John Cale is still alive.

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