Photo by CRAIG MCDEAN via Interview
EDITOR’S NOTE: A shortened version of this interview first appeared on VICE’s NOISEY website on February 3, 2016
BY JONATHAN VALANIA In 1982, VU architect John Cale recorded Music For A New Society, an album of wrenching, emotionally-shattered torch songs that prophesied a denatured dystopia, somewhere between Blade Runner and Metropolis, looming ominously on the horizon, full of vintage violence and hysterical laughter, homicidal mothers and greedy angels with broken wings exfoliating the crawling skin of God. Thirty-four years later, we may not quite be there yet, but you can see it from here.
Which explains, in part, what prompted him to create a version 2.0, a radical re-imagining of Music For A New Society that pushes the envelope of modern recording technology called M:FANS. Late last month he released M:FANS/Music For A New Society, which pairs a remastered reissue of the original with the 21st century re-make.
For Cale, the new album is not so much about revisiting the past as it is about reinventing it as the present. M:FANS is arguably as good as anything he’s released since leaving the Velvet Underground after the release of White Light/White Heat in 1968 — maybe better. Forty-eight years and 16 solo albums later, he’s still bringing his A game. Not too shabby for a guy who turns 74 on March 8th. Last month, we got Cale on the horn to discuss the new album and take stock of all that has come before.
DISCUSSED: His opiated childhood; his abuse at the hands of a church organist; discovering Fluxus at the University of London; being taught the deafening power of silence by John Cage; exploring the infinite cosmic possibilities of drone and the raw power of an amplified viola with The Theater Of Eternal Music; inventing the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed; thriving amidst the mind-bending velocity of life inside Andy Warhol’s Factory; performing “Heroin” for Walter Cronkite; pissng off Cher; the real reason why he left the Velvet Underground; working with Nick Drake on Bryter Layter; the connection, or lack thereof, between creativity and recreational drug use; the time he cut the head off a live chicken onstage; and what he thinks of Wacka Flocka rapping over “Venus In Furs.”
NOISEY: First of all, let me say I think M:FANS is fucking great. I’m not just blowing sunshine up your skirt because you’re on the phone right now and I want to talk to you about the Velvet Underground. I think this is one of the best things you’ve ever done. I think Music For A New Society is good, but I think M:FANS is great. At 73 years of age, you’re making some of the most vital and cutting edge music of your career.
JOHN CALE: I agree with you.
NOISEY: Let’s go back to the making of the original album. The songs were largely improvised in the studio with tape rolling. What prompted that approach?
JOHN CALE: I wasn’t happy with the way albums were happening. I wanted to capture the immediacy of negotiating a way through the emotions of the song.
NOISEY: You said recently that listening to the original tapes of the Music For A New Society recording sessions was like re-opening old wounds. Back when the album came out, you told the Melody Maker, “That album was agony. It was like method acting. Madness. Excruciating. I just let myself go. It became a kind of therapy, a personal exorcism.” Where was your head at when you were making the album?
JOHN CALE: It was very confused.
NOISEY: Even though you are revisiting an album you made 36 years ago, I think M:FANS is really the antithesis of nostalgia. You’re not reliving the past, you’re reinventing it as the present.
JOHN CALE: I agree. I think the songs at the time that they were originally written, were really kind of trying to define where you were, and trying to understand how you got here and where you were going. Trying to be honest about the forces that were working against you, figuring it out.
NOISEY: Let’s go back to the very beginning. You were born in 1942 in the mining village of Garnant, Wales. Your mother was a school teacher who spoke fluent Welsh and brought you up to only speak Welsh. Your father was a coal miner who only spoke English. You did not learn to speak English until around the age of seven. So, the first seven years of your life on Earth, you were unable to communicate with your father. Is that correct?
JOHN CALE: Yeah, yeah. It’s true. The sense of identity you have as a kid is really tied to the language that you speak. If you’re being pointed out as being under-qualified in any way because of the language you speak, you’re trying to gain somebody’s trust at every minute of the day. The only thing you have is music, which replaces language very easily. It becomes the way which you communicate with people easiest. I clung onto that.
NOISEY: I read that you were somewhat sickly as a child, and heavily-medicated and essentially tripping all the time, is that true?
JOHN CALE: Yes, if you had bronchitis as a kid they had one suggestion for you: this mixture that was pretty much just opium. It was this chemical. I had very bad bronchitis, and it kept you breathing quietly so that you could sleep at night. You’d end up sitting in your bedroom, looking at the wallpaper, and the flowers would change and all that.
NOISEY: You’ve spoken publicly about the fact that when you were boy you were molested by the church organist who was was giving you organ lessons. How did that impact your perspective on organized religion or, for that matter, the existence of God?
JOHN CALE: No, no. I can’t blame religion for what happened there. I feel such a sense of betrayal about it, that I don’t know. I can say I don’t know with a sense of despair.
NOISEY: You don’t know whether there’s a God or not?
JOHN CALE: Yeah, because it really comes back to, “Why didn’t my parents protect me from this?” And they couldn’t.
NOISEY: You studied music at the University of London, you became an acolyte of the Fluxus art movement, which in many ways had very similar ethos to punk. There’s this creative destruction element, ‘we had to destroy the village to save it.’
JOHN CALE: Some of Fluxus is like that. At the same time, it was explosive and experimental and cathartic. I mean, there were some very good ideas there, with [Fluxus founder] George Maciunas. He was a very strange individual, but he was also very forward-thinking. Maciunas was responsible for the establishment of [New York’s] SoHo [district]. He was the one who looked at those buildings — because he was an architect — he looked at those buildings and said, “Hey, these buildings are not going to fall down, these buildings are gonna have to be bombed to bring them down.” The rents were ridiculous. You had things like AIR, Artists In Residence. If you wrote a poem, you could go down to the city and say, look, I’m an artist. This is my poem. I want this special rent deal over here. Fabulous.
NOISEY: You came to New York in ’63 on a scholarship to study music. You quickly enmesh yourself in the avant-garde world. You participated with John Cage in an eighteen-hour piano-playing marathon…
JOHN CALE: Right, Satie.
JOHN CALE: Cage was the guy. He really opened my eyes. The internal life of a musician in Europe was distorted by the Second World War. There were all of these problems about how you really have to prove the social worth of what you were doing before composing it. There was all of these memories of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting for Hitler. And the history of the Second World War. The intellectual basis of creativity was really being distorted. Then all of a sudden, Cage comes along, and he has this book [called Silence], and it’s really full of Zen koans. All of a sudden, my head turned around. I got this clarity from Zen that was — humor was all right, but you never talk about God. It was kind of an intellectual emancipation for me.
NOISEY: Around that time you joined the LaMonte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music [pictured above, right], which was all about exploring the infinite cosmic possibilities of drone. Is that when you first came upon the idea of electrifying the viola?
JOHN CALE: Yeah. Tony Conrad showed up one day. He used to bow the guitar, and he put a pick up on the guitar. And it sounded gorgeous. Then, he got another one, and I put it on the viola. Slowly, holding a drone with two strings, I filed the bridge down until it was a three-string drone, and it became a very powerful instrument.
NOISEY: I think that music still sounds incredibly radical 50 years later. I can’t imagine what that sounded like to people back in 1963. It must have just sounded like it was coming from Mars.
JOHN CALE: They didn’t like it. At one concert somebody yelled out, ‘LaMont, you should be ashamed of yourself!’
NOISEY: You met Lou Reed when you were hired to be a member of The Primitives, a band invented by Pickwick Records, a Long Island label and Brill-style songwriting factory that specialized in cheap knock-offs of the radio hits of the day. Lou had written and recorded a song called “The Ostrich” under the name of an imaginary band called The Primitives, in the hopes it would become the latest dance craze, like “The Twist.” And Pickwick sent you guys out to play high school dances in the tri-state area. How do you come into the picture?
JOHN CALE: Tony and I were discovered by Pickwick when we were at a party, they thought we looked like we were in a band. We got invited to Pickwick Records, and I went along and ran into Lou. All of a sudden, it became a discussion of literature, and who are the greatest writers in modern literature, and so on.
NOISEY: The Primitives were pretty much over before they began. But you and Lou start working on your own music, which would eventually become The Velvet Underground. There’s a passage in Transformer, Victor Bockris’ Lou Reed bio, about your apartment on Ludlow Street, where a lot of the early Velvet Underground sound and songs were born. I wanted to read this passage back to you, and you tell me if he got it right, OK?
JOHN CALE: OK.
NOISEY: “The whole place was sparsely furnished with mattresses on the floor, and orange crates that served as furniture and firewood. Bare light bulbs lit the dark rooms, paint and plaster chipped from the woodwork and walls. There was no heat or hot water and the landlord collected the $30 rent with a gun. When it got cold, they often sat hunched over instruments with carpets wrapped around their shoulders. When the toilet stopped up, they picked up the shit and threw it out the window. For sustenance, they cooked a big pot of porridge and made humongous vegetable pancakes, eating the glop day and night as if it were fuel.” That about right?
JOHN CALE: I don’t know about throwing shit out the window, but yeah, that’s pretty much it.
NOISEY: I don’t know what’s crazier about that story, that the landlord shows up with a gun to collect the rent, or that there was a time when you could rent an apartment in Manhattan for $30.
There’s another passage from Transformer that I would like to read back to you about this period, where it talks about how the songs evolved, and how they were written: “Lou could be the sweetest, most charming companion socially, but he was virtually always a motherfucker to work with. His biggest problem apart from demanding complete control, and having a Himalayan ego, was a matter of credit. Just as The Rolling Stones had done when creating their music, The Velvet Underground worked up almost all their songs collectively. Reed, who composed the simple inspirational chord structures, or sketchy lyrics, was under the impression, however, that he had single-handedly crafted masterpieces like “Heroin,” “Venus In Furs,” “I’m Waiting For The Man,” “Black Angel’s Death Song,” etc. In truth, although Reed undoubtedly supplied the brilliant lyrics and chord structures, the various and greater parts of the music — Cale’s viola, Sterling Morrison’s guitar, Angus MacLise’s drumming — were invented by each individually. In short, Reed should have shared the majority of the credits with the other members of the band.”
JOHN CALE: We all agreed that on the business side of things that we should really share the publishing. That is, everybody had a piece of the publishing of Lou’s songs, of all the songs we did for The Banana Album, the idea was that we all got a piece of the publishing as long as we were a band. That was the driving factor in Lou deciding not to go any further with it.
NOISEY: Not to go any further with what? Working with you?
NOISEY: It really just came down to money?
JOHN CALE: Yeah. I mean, you gotta understand, by that time, we were really struggling to get along with each other on the road, because there were so many things going on. So many chemicals in the air. Rational thinking was not something we were proud of at the time. That finally drove things to this point. He also had somebody that he suddenly discovered was really somebody that could help him deliver that circumstance. He found a manager.
NOISEY: Steve Sesnick?
JOHN CALE: Yeah. All of a sudden, Steve came in and said, “This is Lou’s band. You’re sidemen.” It was a big mistake.
NOISEY: I think that is the biggest mistake that Lou Reed ever made. You guys should have made many, many albums together.
JOHN CALE: Yeah. He’d also fired Andy without telling anybody around that time. So yes, I agree that it shut the door on a lot of possibilities. Lou had a habit of doing that.
NOISEY: I’m curious about what your personal relationship with Andy Warhol was like. He just seems so emotionally elusive and impossible to decipher. I’m wondering if there was a side of Warhol that you got to know that’s not reflected in the mythology that’s surrounding him?
JOHN CALE: No, I don’t think so. I mean, we never got that close, but there was a very warm working relationship, you know? This thing about work. We got to The Factory, and all that stuff that was going on around us, with all the stars walking in and out. It was head-bending, but at the end of the day it was this concentration on work, and how hard work was really how you do it. That’s what we wanted. We just wanted to play all the time.
NOISEY: I’ve seen the film footage of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, what was it like being at the center of that? Did you feel a sense of power and control that all of these lights and sounds and people were moving according to your dictates, or was it all just chaos and you just felt like one more cog in the machinery of sensory overload?
JOHN CALE: I think so. I remember Walter Cronkite came to see us at The Dom for a news piece about youth culture. You gotta understand that from a musical point of view: there were these four guys up onstage with their backs toward the audience, with shades on all night. This beautiful blonde chanteuse in the middle, and we had three amplifiers. All the guitars, all the voices, went through these three amplifiers. The speakers would blow because there was too much going on in them.
NOISEY: I’m trying to imagine Walter Cronkite standing in the middle of all this madness.
JOHN CALE: Yeah, and Jackie Kennedy.
NOISEY: Cher saw the EPI and her verdict was, in my opinion, the greatest moment in rock criticism: “It will replace nothing but suicide.”
JOHN CALE: Yeah, I agree. It’s fabulous. We were so proud of that.
NOISEY: Moving forward post-Velvets, you sort of become this Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll.
JOHN CALE: [laughs] That’s funny.
JOHN CALE: You were present for all of these touchstone rock ‘n’ roll moments. You produced the iconic debuts by The Stooges, The Modern Lovers and The Patti Smith Group. It’s a little known fact that you played on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter. Tell me about working with him. What was your take on the man? Was he inconsolable and mopey and depressed all the time?
JOHN CALE: Very fragile. And gentle. I was really in on the action after the basic tracks were done, and all of the singing was done. I just overdubbed a bunch of things on the album.
NOISEY: Can we talk briefly about the role that drugs played creatively? Was the drug use all negative, or was there positive things that came out of that? Was it able to open you up to new ideas, new ways of seeing or hearing things?
JOHN CALE: Well, at one point, I thought that was possible. After I stopped, I realized how much time was wasted, because as soon as I stopped, my output multiplied. I could get through more ideas, I could get through more songs, investigate more sounds.
NOISEY: By the mid-’70s, your music took a darker turn. Louder, more abrasive. You had a much more confrontational live approach. You performed wearing a hockey goalie mask. But that attitude of yours dovetailed with the rise of the punk scene. I read somewhere that during one gig in Croydon that you chopped the head of a chicken off with a meat cleaver, and the band walked offstage in protest? Tell me about that.
JOHN CALE: Unfortunately, my band were vegetarians. We were coming down from Oxford, and I had my tour manager stop at a farm and get me a chicken. I said, “Look, put the chicken in a box, and don’t show it to anybody.” Just come out with a box, and put the box in the gear van, and just leave it there.” So, of course, he went in, and what does he do? Like any roadie, he’ll say, “OK, now’s my time to screw the artist.” He brought it out, and showed everybody that he had a chicken there. Everybody in the band went quiet. Then the questions started, “What are you gonna do with the chicken?” I said, “Nothing.” They said, “Well, are you gonna hurt it?” “No, man, come on.” For the gig, I brought this beautiful meat cleaver.
You know, the thing was, at those punk gigs, slam dancing was going on and also a lot of gobbing going on. Everyone was drinking. It was a form of adulation, in a way. Everybody was hot and steamy onstage, and then you get a splat of beer or whatever it was. And you’d be soaked. So, I thought, well, you wanna think about this then. I brought up the chicken, chopped its head off, and threw it in the audience. The audience was like, “Holy shit!” After the show, I actually found the chicken’s head laying on the ground at the back of the room. Everybody stayed away from it. [Laughs]
NOISEY: Didn’t the band storm off in protest, though?
JOHN CALE: Yeah. The next day I spent the afternoon in the van teaching my new band the songs.
NOISEY: Have you heard this sample of “Venus In Furs” in the song “Ask Charlemagne” by the rapper Waka Flocka?
JOHN CALE: Yes, I have. It was great until the changes started happening. They should’ve used the drone all the way through it.
NOISEY: Has the new society you refer to on Music For A New Society finally arrived 34 years later?
JOHN CALE: No.
NOISEY: What is that new society you’re envisioning? Is it utopian or dystopian?
JOHN CALE: Dystopian.
NOISEY: It seems pretty dystopian to me, my friend.
JOHN CALE: [laughs]
NOISEY: Last question: Do you still think that fear is a man’s best friend?
JOHN CALE: Yes. Always keep one eye in the back of your head.