B y T i m o t h y G a s s e n
JOHN CALE HAS gracefully weathered the questions for over 30 years--there has been no end to the constant digging about Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and one of music's most enigmatic groups, The Velvet Underground. The band's brief 1993 phoenix and resulting double CD set Live MCMXCIII has spawned a new generation of queries, and Cale is ready for them.
He draws in a deliberate breath, releasing it slowly, explaining "I'm a collaborator, and there was nothing in the reunion for me. What you have there is really just a rehabilitation of a (song) catalog, and I wasn't interested in that, that's not what I expected."
The 53-year-old Welsh composer picks up steam, adding, "We could have gone on stage and done anything we wanted to, and all we could think of doing was rehabilitating old songs! That was something that wasn't in the plan in the beginning, but slowly it crept in and ate away at the whole thing."
He explains that he constantly attempted to interject new ideas and compositions into the project, but was stone-walled.
"We had three weeks of rehearsal before going on the road. We spent one week learning material and two other weeks deciding on what guitar sound to use on all of this stuff," he says with irritation. "It was just a complete waste of time."
Cale isn't disowning his Velvety past, though, nor discounting the musical prowess of his Underground cohorts. While the "greatest (almost) hits" live package was a creative disappointment for Cale, he concedes that, "We can kick ass, no doubt about it," though also, "I think everybody felt a little dog-eared after the tour--(there was) a certain amount of abuse that nobody was prepared to put up with anymore."
A proposed U.S. Velvet Underground tour has never materialized, but Cale has hardly been waiting by the phone for the past quarter century. He's released an amazing slew of solo work, stretching genre barriers from classical to ambient to rock.
A wide variety of his solo work was collected on Rhino Records' 1994 2-CD, 39-track set Seducing Down The Door. The mammoth retrospective covers 20 years and 16 albums of material.
"There have also been a number of recent releases in Europe," says Cale, "but they're film scores." There are two new ones coming out, Don't Forget You're Going To Die is being presented at the Cannes film festival this year.
The violist, keyboardist, guitarist, bassist and vocalist sees more freedom in his European soundtrack work.
"They will try things over there that they wouldn't in other places. I can sit down and discuss several ideas and have immediate feedback," he says. "With Hollywood, they hire you if you are a 'package'...A solo piano score is not something that interests somebody in Hollywood. They're interested in high volume."
The son of a coal miner, Cale spoke only his native Welsh until he was seven years old, and is curious about the use of language.
"That's a great ambition to be able to handle all of the differences of language, and I tried to do it in a (new) film score I did for a 1927 silent movie, a film by Tod Browning called The Unknown, with Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford," he says. "It's a very cynical movie, and I was just trying to figure out how to make it more cynical, and one of the things I came across was using many languages spoken together. It definitely twists that film around, and gives it a bigger sense of claustrophobia."
Another recent project is the just-released Songs From The Cold Seas, a compilation of material by composer Hector Zazou. Cale is featured on the track "The Long Voyage" with vocalist Suzanne Vega, though they never saw each other in the studio.
"I got to the studio a few months after she had put down her vocals," he said. "They had assembled her vocals from many different previous occasions."
After decades of such recording studio trickery, Cale remains excited by the spontaneity of live performance. His latest tour will encompass 10 U.S. dates, before heading off to France, Austria and Canada.
These performances will be both solo and ensemble in nature. Cale will first perform on guitar or piano, then add a pedal steel guitarist, then finally The Soldier String Quartet.
"The string quartet is amplified," Cale explains. "I've worked with them in Europe a lot and been on tour with them there, and they rock if needed, and they also play the other side of the coin--classically."
Narrowing a song list from 25 years of solo work is a daunting challenge. "The material will range from Words For The Dying to stuff from Paris 1919 and Wrong Way Up, unreleased material, plus new songs and some stuff from Drella," he adds.
Wrong Way Up is a 1990 collaboration with Brian Eno, while Drella is the much-publicized Andy Warhol "tribute" LP created with fellow Velvet Underground alum Lou Reed. Paris 1919 is a 1973 LP, called at the time by Rolling Stone, "The most ambitious album ever released under the name 'pop.' "
"It really shows the value of writing all of the songs before going into the studio, that's for sure," Cale says of Paris 1919. "And I really learned a lot from Chris Thomas, who produced that record. His kind of caution and scrutiny paid off in the overall quality of the record."
Cale also enjoys working with ambient-electronic wizard Eno. "He's not afraid of technology, and that's a lot of fun. It's refreshing to have someone turn all the knobs up to '10' and never mind what the equipment is going to do."
Feedbacking electronics aside, one can assume the somewhat mellowed Cale won't be sacrificing any live chickens on stage--as he did during one late 1970s British show.
"It seemed right at the time, but that kind of craziness was unsustainable. You certainly find out what an insatiable hunger people have for watching others decay in front of your eyes," he noted in a 1994 press bio.
Back in the present, Cale admits about excess, "It's an easy thing to fall into, that is, to try to live up to other people's expectations and not your own--and that's where the crisis comes.
"Magic is a really valuable component in a personality, and once you lose that you get into trouble. I like magic, I believe in it. It's the way I came out of a lot of crises."
John Cale will perform at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Friday, May 19. It is his first appearance in Tucson since 1979. Advance tickets are $12 each. Call 622-8848 for more information.
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