dave van patten
John Cale beat Jason Voorhees to both hockey masks and striking terror into the heart of American suburbia. He recently performed his classic Paris 1919 at UCLA’s Royce Hall without the old headgear but with all the old energy. He speaks now from his manager’s office near the Blue Line downtown. This interview by Kevin Ferguson.
You once said, ‘Doing evil is better than doing nothing.’
I didn’t say that—Lou did. Actually, wait a minute … It was all very tied into literature and risk. We were talking about people’s definition of risk. And there was very little literature that was just about that. Except he was pushing Last Exit to Brooklyn—the Hubert Selby book. It ends up in a lot of capital letters, so there’s a lot of screaming that goes on in the entire last chapter. It’s very good. The dialogue at high volume. Sam Beckett, too. Every line is somebody shouting at somebody. And we were discussing how useless doing nothing is.
Dylan Thomas said, ‘He who seeks rest finds boredom. He who seeks work finds rest.’
That’s a good work ethic. Good Labor Party ethic, too. My family were all coal miners. The idea that work was good for the soul was what they lived by.
Even evil work?
Yeah! I’m not doing much evil now. Most of my work is about creating things and has been for some time. Lou and I were trying to set our borders for what we believed in. And so it delineated the areas of activity that we were really passionate about.
How do you connect with Dylan Thomas?
He’s omnipresent when you’re a kid growing up in Wales. You never got anywhere without the education system teaching you about him. Some of those ideas were kind of spurious. The idea that Dylan Thomas was using language in the same way that the Welsh poets did with the Welsh language—it didn’t make sense because Welsh has specific rules. H is a vowel in Welsh! You can do a lot more with it. They were teaching us that alliteration and certain stuff in Thomas was related to the Welsh language. It didn’t strike me as accurate. But I did love his use of English language.
I’m from L.A., but I don’t like Bukowski much. What do you see in Thomas?
One of the things about this art piece I just did for the [Venice] Biennale is about what I carry around with me from my childhood that makes me work in the certain way that I work. You couldn’t get away from him growing up as a kid! I learned English when I was 7 and I was ready because my father was English—and my Grandma banned English in the home! And my relationship with my grandmother is nasty enough—every time I think about it it makes my blood boil! And why is it that a Welshman who grew up in a Welsh-speaking home ended up in New York making English his poetic language? The answer is because Dylan Thomas opened the door. I can understand what you mean by Bukowski, but I see him as more of a New York poet than an L.A. poet.
You said Los Angeles corrupted your life to its worst point—why did you stay as long as you did?
L.A. didn’t corrupt my life to the worst point—I did. I mean, I enjoy the climate out here. I loved New York for years. I still do. L.A. was always a company town. It still is. I came out here to learn more about corporate architecture and influence, so I did. I learned a lot about making alliances in corporations, but I didn’t really make the right number of alliances. And there was always this unrequited love of performing that I didn’t pursue while I was here. But when I left, it landed right in my lap in London. That was when I had a band and I could decide which direction the band was going to go in.
Too much producing?
It’s very difficult when you’re in the company. You have to do the work that you’re asked to do. But as far as I could, I did that. This opportunity of going to London and starting a solo career was very good.
Where were you in your life when Paris 1919 was written?
I had a lot of commitments at the time and I really had difficulty rationalizing them. It’s a very calm record—the one case where I wrote all the songs before I went into the studio. All the albums afterwards have sort of been improvised. Nowadays I just start off with a drum groove and it’s all improvised. That way you get further down the pike in production. But anyway, it was all very much emotion recollected in tranquility—that’s what Paris was. I was feeling very nostalgic for what I loved about Europe, and it all ended up in the album. A lot of those songs are really a little opaque.
Did that make the London move all the more welcome?
Funny thing was—when I got to London I spent all my time listening to a turntable that was stacked with Beach Boys records!
Did you ever meet Brian, by the way?
I went to say hello to him at the Javits Center in New York—it was like eight years ago. I caught him at the door. He didn’t know me from Adam. But I was just happy to say, ‘Look after yourself, Brian.’
What did London do for your music?
It was exciting for me. I got my teeth into having a band. I got a lot of help from Chris Spedding. It’s a little brutal, but he helped me figure out how to take what we did in the studio and make it work live. I had this penchant for making up new songs on stage. Chris was always there—he was like an eagle. He’d spot a change coming up. That’s where I got closer to the idea what the VU was—on stage.
Sounds like the trip back to New York was hard.
Yeah it was, actually. The punk scene in London was really solid. It had pretty good grounding. The Sex Pistols covered that ground pretty well. I wasn’t that much aware of that at the time until I got to New York. But in L.A. it seemed like the spiritual side of what punk was. It had much more energy than the one in New York. It reminded me a lot more of London than the ones in New York did. I don’t know why—whether it’s because the difference between the rich and the poor here is as graphic as it is in London or what? There was a lot of energy.
Did you hear about the John Cale Revival—the John Cale tribute band from Prague ?
No, but Prague makes kind of a sense. The Velvet Revolution was based on what we did in the Velvet Underground. People were passing around the lyrics in jail.
Were you the first person to frighten people in a hockey mask?
No, robbers would wear them back then! The idea was on the outside I had a hockey mask and on the inside I had reflective ski glasses that were sort of yellowish, and then underneath that I had a reflective steel scarf, and then under that I wore green reflective shades. They came off during different stages in the performance.
Sounds like a nightmare.
Yeah—you can’t see very well. You get down to the nitty gritty real fast. But at least something’s going on during the show. There was always stuff like that going on anyway. In Denmark I’d have some giant Viking guy carry a stepladder onto the stage without telling the band and then the band would play ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and I could hang upside down in the ladder while I was singing. You’d try to figure out different things in different clubs. You’d look at the place where you were playing that night and say, ‘OK, let’s turn all the lights off in here!’ And we’d start with ‘I Keep a Close Watch’ and from that we’d go into the hard rock stuff. But turning all the lights off—the club owner would say, ‘You can’t do that! You gotta have the exit signs on!’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but it’s only for like three minutes,’ and he’d say, ‘OK.’ There was always a plan to have some sort of theater going on. I had a ski outfit—I had a fencing outfit made by Betsey Johnson for me.
You couldn’t just buy one off the rack?
Well, I mean it’s much better to have one fitted—all the others are sort of generic. There’s a way of making them look zippier than the rest.
When was the last time you played piano with your elbows?
About ten years ago, I guess. I ended ‘Fear’ with elbows, it was a solo performance. Back in the day, there was a piece by La Monte Young—‘X for Henry Flynt’—that was about that. About human fallibility. When I played that song, the audience came up and dragged the piano away from me. I was on my knees so that the keyboard was at the right level, and somebody jumped up on stage and pulled the piano away from me! I had to go running after it. And Cornelius Cardew—my collaborator—came up and was really pissed off.
Did your avant-garde friends accept you as a pop musician?
They weren’t too impressed with it at first. But when they saw that we hooked up with Andy, they started paying attention! But I never inquired as to what they thought. I did take the Marble Index album to Aaron Copland. And he thought [Nico] had a very gravely voice. And that was about it. I never went and discussed it with them. They were watching Andy and what Andy was doing more than anything. The idea of a rock ‘n’ roll band that Andy got together was really the buzz.
Was Andy really that crucial?
Sure! I mean—having a co-conspirator was really important. But I think it was really a case … what happened was we got so much publicity so fast, and we were pretty rabid anyway—really interested in our work. And one of the things that really worked in those days was we went up to the Factory and would see how all they worked. We did all those rehearsals for the first album there, and that work ethic was important for Andy as well. It wasn’t just messing around. If you wanted to do a silk screen, you had to get down and do the silk screen. It takes time and effort.
Didn’t Lou write a song about that?
Exactly! Those were the topics we covered on that album.
I heard writing with Lou was a mixed bag back in the day.
We were working very hard to get this sound and idea going. That’s the way ‘Venus’ worked, ‘Heroin,’ ‘Black Angel’s Death Song.’ We were trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It was collaboration at its greasiest.
How greasy was Songs for Drella?
I don’t smoke. I didn’t like having to be in a room where Lou didn’t mind blowing smoke in your face every five minutes just to get you out of there. It was tough. The songwriting process was fine, but by the end of the process it really got hairy! We just bore down—we had three weeks and we just sort of methodically charted where we wanted to go. In the end we were like, ‘There’s no song about us!’ So we wrote one.
Why did you start playing pop music?
I decided not to do anything more with the avant-garde when I joined the VU, and after the VU I decided I could really be a producer. It just seemed to be at hand at the time. And I had these things with Terry [Riley]—he was an instrumentalist. I really wanted to take advantage of the fact that he could do boogie woogie in all sorts of time signatures. At the time, too, CBS corporate were really concerned with Vintage Violence—worried if the title had a political meaning.
Really? Even the Monkees had protest songs by then.
I think it was the Democratic Convention. They didn’t want to stir anything up. The album was harmless enough.
How did the VU prepare you to go solo?
It’s something I was shy about at first. But what became clear was there weren’t any rules for it. You just needed to focus your way through. The first song was ‘Winter Song’ for Nico on Chelsea Girls.
Do you still own that Mustang Cobra?
No, I don’t. I don’t know what I’d do with it if I had it anyway. The EPA is much tougher on Mustang Cobras than they were back then—except in Nevada.
Drive it to Vegas.
Yeah, I could leave it in Vegas!
My dad’s first car was a 1968 GT California Special.
I went to visit Jim Webb at one point who had an AC Cobra, and I just wanted to listen to it. ‘Just turn it on for me, Jim! Let me listen to it!’
Did you ever get back on speaking terms with Kevin Ayers?
Why? What happened?
Didn’t he sleep with your wife?
Oh yeah! But I really took that as a personal gesture from my spouse. I really didn’t blame Kevin for that. I talked to him. That really didn’t influence my relationship with Kevin at all!
What about ‘Guts’? ‘The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife’?
Ahhhh—not really. I mean … slightly.
VISIT JOHN CALE AT MYSPACE.COM/JOHNCALEOFFICIALSITE.