John Cale has had too many lives to count, but none of them seem quite the one he wanted. For decades he’s seesawed between the accessible and the avant-garde, furiously searching for an intangible sound just out of reach. Of course, he’s found quite a few things along the way. He produced seminal recordings by the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Nico, Squeeze and Patti Smith; did collaborations with John Cage and Terry Riley; and co-wrote two unfathomably influential Velvet Underground records. Oh, and he released dozens of solo albums along the way.
All these achievements have put the performer in a rather precarious position. He’s a working musician, long ago lionized, who’s quick to say that the greatest lesson he ever learned was to know when to quit. But he hasn’t.
Cale explains that he’s always interested in exploring new territory, but I think the real answer is in his newest album or, rather, in its failings. Black Acetate is a fine avant-rock record, a set of stomping tunes packed with off-kilter interjections. But it’s not a classic; it’s still missing something, perhaps the thing that lured him into the Underground, and then later pulled him out. In this interview he said that in his early days he thought: “If I could only have a collaborator that had rock’s verbal and literary side to them; we could put some really abrasive avant-garde ideas together. All it needs is a backbeat.”
This desire, mission, and tension is present in everything Cale has ever done. One gets the sense that he’s searching (and has long searched) for the place where rock and the avant-garde meet in perfect harmony. These are my words, not his, but this idea underlies every experience he recounts. It was only after I heard this interview played back that I realized that, under the conversation we had, there was another that we didn’t.
PopMatters: What surprises me about your new record is that there are a lot of straightforward rock tunes. Is there a tension in your creative process between that and more avant-garde inclinations?
John Cale: Well, the avant-garde makes more sense to me. It took a long time to get out of the habits [of the last record HoboSapiens]. There were still too many tracks, still too many overdubs, still too many beautiful ideas in one song. I’m thinking, “You’ve lost you focus. Where’s the minimalism gone?”
PM: Where has it gone? In your early days you were doing really interesting minimalist compositions with La Monte Young. Back then, would you have even sniffed at rock?
JC: When we were doing it, it was rock that really pulled me out of it. You have to kind of imagine what kind of atmosphere we were in, in the lower east side in New York when that was going on. I would wake up and have doo-wop groups in the doorway across the street. The Beatles landed and everything changed and I suddenly realized I missed out on my teenage years. I led a sheltered life. I was practicing scales instead of going out there and playing football.
PM: Do you have any regret about not becoming an avant-garde composer? A minimalist composer?
JC: I saw it close up. The unfortunate thing about the group that I was in was that it became an ever-decreasing circle of people. It became more and more focused on micro-issues. It was in direct contrast to the great excitement of rock ‘n’ roll. I thought, “Wow, if I could only have a collaborator that had rock’s verbal and literary side to them; we could put some really abrasive avant-garde ideas together. All it needs is a backbeat.”
PM: There’s been some tension with La Monte over releasing those old recordings. Are we ever going to hear that stuff?
JC: It’s essentially about copyright, about ownership. We were all working and then Tony [Conrad] introduced amplification into the band. As soon as we introduced amplification that was it — we were off on a different intonation system. That was the one thing that set up the rest of the body of work. And there is a body of work that represents something like a year and a half to two years of rehearsing and practicing every day. And we taped everything. We’d hold a chord for three hours if we could.
PM: So, are we ever going to hear that stuff?
JC: You can hear some of it. There are three CDs that I put out and one of those does have one of the sessions we did with La Monte, Tony, and Marian [Zazeela]. You can get acquainted with it. But the fidelity is what defeats you in the end.
PM: How do you think about those periods? That early period seems like a whole different life.
JC: Yeah it was a life of poverty [laughing]. I don’t like to think about it. The main thing about it is that there were certain concepts that I was really hanging on to, that I learned from La Monte and I’m applying nowadays. When you work on that micro level with La Monte – it was intonation systems and everything else – it give you a different outlook on reality, on what the atoms of reality really are.
PM: Are there natural problems that come up in working with a band? You’ve had some in the past. Have you learned to mediate them?
JC: There aren’t any natural problems. The thing is, if you pick the right musicians, you minimize your problems. It’s not the first impetus that they get along together but it certainly helps. And when you allow them their own druthers to really play what comes naturally to them and you show them that it works in the context that they’re in, it can’t get better than that.
PM: Is it better to have one central creative force? Some would arguer that tension between you and Lou Reed may have brought out better things from each of you.
JC: I don’t know about that.
PM: What would you say your most successful collaboration is then?
JC: Without being cynical, I’d say the Happy Mondays. What was there was really fleeting.
PM: Do you feel like you have anything left to prove at this point?
JC: Yeah, I have a lot to prove.
PM: Like what?
JC: That … [pauses] that there are interesting things. I like finding new styles of expression, whether it’s with lyrics or music. I like the new combinations. I’m proving it to myself. That has to be the first consideration, because if I can’t prove it to myself I can’t hope to prove it to anybody else. That’s the rubric generally. If I’m interested in what I’m doing than I think other people will be interested in it.
PM: Is there a pressure to live up to the name you’ve made?
JC: I can’t think like that. I don’t know what that is anyway. It’s such a fickle concept. I mean I’d really be digging a hole for myself to pay attention to that.
PM: You say you don’t think about the past but…
JC: I don’t think about the past because I don’t learn anything from it. I learn from thinking about the future, what hasn’t been done yet. That’s kind of my constant obsession. “What hasn’t been done yet and can I make it into a catchy song?”
PM: Do you have advice or a model from anyone on how to have such a long career?
JC: More than anyone it was Marcel Duchamp. The main thing about Marcel Duchamp is he knew when to quit. When you’re really starting off, trying to be a composer, you’re going through all that suicidal angst that comes with teenage life: “Oh my god. My life is over. I can’t do anything.” The thing I got from Duchamp and from [John] Cage and his Zen precepts is that when its time to call it a day, call it a day. Duchamp just said, “Ok that’s it. I’m not doing that anymore. I’m going off and I’m gonna play chess.” And that’s what he did. Still, as a creative artist you say to yourself, “They can cut my arms off and my legs off and my tongue and I can lose my sight but I will still communicate.” Those are pretty good, angry positions to start from.
PM: You’re talking about a teen anger, being overwrought with emotion. Where do you find passion, new energy?
PM: What are you still angry about?
JC: I’m impatient. I get twitchy. I sit around and don’t … It’s impatience. Like: “There’s nothing happening. Oh my god!” When I get that feeling I just go out and make something happen.
PM: You’ve been a part of a few major cultural shifts. With that type of thing, is there a point when you looks around suddenly realize something big is happening?
JC: Yeah, it’s so exciting.
PM: Was it like that with the Velvet Underground?
JC: Yeah, but I was 21 when that happened. There was a cultural revolution going on. Everyone was chasing around on drugs, doing everything. Every night there was something going on. I’d go and rehearse with La Monte in the day. There would be happenings at night. Everybody was filming and showing films and creating events around the screening of the film — dancing with the film, reading poetry with the film. You suddenly realize that there’s all this energy that’s kind of directionless, but it’s so enthralling.
PM: Is there another time where you’ve recognized that?
JC: No, I missed it in London. Johnny Rotten was around and I split from there and came back to New York at the time when they were just breaking.
PM: Is there the potential for things that big to happen again? I always view the absolute uniqueness of those periods with suspicion.
JC: I don’t think you can deny the existence of CBGB’s. I don’t think anybody’s making that overblown. You’re talking about how much of the press can you actually believe. They’re the ones that drive it. They’re selling newspapers. At the faintest glint of a movement they’re all over it. There may be something going on in Taiwan and Shanghai and you don’t know yet because they’re burying it.
PM: Speaking of burying it. Have you ever done an interview without discussing the Velvet Underground?
JC: Yeah, I have, especially around this album. It’s kind of refreshing.
PM: Do you get frustrated when people focus on certain aspects of your career?
JC: It’s all part of me. It was part of my background. It’s not the most prominent part of my background, but when somebody grabs a movement you’re kind of locked into it. It’s all par for the course.
PM: Do you ever hear rumors about yourself?
JC: Constantly. Not just about the Velvet Underground, but about the rest of the stuff, the ’70s and ’80s in England. They were really interesting times. Post-Vietnam America was really scary.
PM: I’ve heard some crazy rumors. I read somewhere that your parents were both blind and deaf.