Adrian Cooper has been unwell

Old reviews that are no longer available online, or from sites that no longer exist. The pen is dead, long live the camera.

Monday, November 09, 2009

John Cale

Recent musical history can be a horrible thing. Okay, so in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t really have what it takes to be classed an atrocity, but early interviews with the Stereophonics are at least a galling memory. But what really niggles here is not their ploddingly pedestrian rock, but the much more horrific realisation that they not only idolised Tom Jones, but were going to be largely responsible for yet another undeserved revival of his fortunes.

In this instant, they confirmed what we had already begun to suspect, that they were nothing but a bunch of musically stunted valley boy rock dullards in love with the idea of being in love with music, while having no concept of what being in love with music really meant. To them, it meant following tradition, being part of the pantheon of same old same old, rehashing the same songs based around the same chords that channeled the same sole emotion. But more than anything else, it meant challenging nothing. If they had had the slightest interest in breaking away from the established notions of music, then there would have only been one name that they could have mentioned, a musician and Welshman of whom they should have been proud. A man without whom the course of both contemporary and modern classical music could well have turned out to be very different. That man is John Cale.

But they didn’t even mention his name. Fucking numbnuts.

John Cale grew up in Ammanford, South Wales, just outside Swansea, which, as coincidence would have it, is where I went to university. Just before I graduated, BBC Wales screened a documentary about Cale, timed to roughly coincide with the publication of Victor Bockris’ collaborative effort with Cale, ‘What’s Welsh For Zen?’. Before this, I knew he was Welsh but didn’t know from whereabouts in Wales he came. The documentary showed the village, the street, and the house in which he grew up. I’ve never been one to idolise anyone, but, for the first time ever, the temptation to go and find this house arose. It would be one of those one offs – my friend, also a big Velvet Underground fan, and I would drive to Ammanford, find the house that Cale lived in, and leave it at that. Of course, given that we were students and that it was a rather pointless crusade on which to set off, it never happened. But the inspiration was there.

When you consider the distances involved, it was a rather pathetic cop-out on our behalf. We only had a thirty mile round journey to make. Cale’s voyage through music started in his rural Dyfed home, took in Goldsmiths College in London before heading to Boston and New York, where he worked with the composer LaMonte Young and formed his own avant-garde ensemble, the Dream Syndicate, before a session recording backing tracks for the Pickwick record label led to a chance meeting with Lou Reed.

General opinion has it that, despite now being a mild-mannered and patient man, at this time Cale was a cantankerous, belligerent and curmudgeonly individual, who also displayed a raft of other character traits that generally mark a person out as someone whose company you might not enjoy for a single minute. Thankfully, these were all the attributes necessary to make bearable spending more than a minute in the company of Lou Reed. If Cale had been a less domineering force in his early years, we may have lost out on some of the greatest music ever made.

Cale’s career since has been well documented, so let’s just skip briefly over the parts about the Velvets and Andy Warhol; the tales of suffering bone-crunchers after injecting water in vain attempts to catch any dregs of heroin left in their syringes (but remember, you read that first in Bockris’ biography of Lou Reed, just in case any lawsuits are pending); the inevitable fall out with Reed; the sessions spent playing guitar for Nico; the parade of solo albums; his work as a producer; ‘Songs For Drella’, the 1990 collaboration with Lou Reed recorded to honour Warhol’s death; and the horrendous and thankfully short-lived reformation of the Velvet Underground.

‘blackAcetate’, his 22nd solo album, continues Cale’s challenge to himself. Despite being a more traditionally rock record than much of his back catalogue, ‘blackAcetate’ is only the second album that he has recorded on ProTools and sees him trying to push the boundaries of how he writes and records music. Once again, the album jumps between styles and influences, always looking for a new way to express itself without merely repeating what has gone before. Which is a lot more than could be said for the last Tom Jones album.

As far as the land of your fathers, your daffodils and your pissing rugby goes you can stuff it all up your ass. It’s all about the Cale, and it always will be.

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