By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The company you keep
Few artists move between genres--let alone worlds--with the ease of John Cale. Who else has been featured in a 1963 New York Times article on the performance of an 18-hour-long John Cage avant-classical composition and then, 16 years later, fronted a punk band at CBGB's, down on all fours and simulating fellatio with a beer bottle?
Best known for his stint in the Velvet Underground, the viola-, guitar- and piano-playing Cale has also worked with former Velvet vocalist Nico on a series of eerie albums and produced the classic 1969 punk lodestone The Stooges. Solo, he has brought an uncomfortable combination of classicism and "Dirtyass Rock 'n' Roll" to the table, shot through with thick ribbons of dread and unease. His cover of the Elvis classic "Heartbreak Hotel" conjures up what no other version has touched quite so tellingly: loneliness and isolation so extreme as to be like death. His "Gun" is as telling a story of inner dissolution under the weight of urban horror as Bad Lieutenant or Taxi Driver.
Cale performs songs that jump from almost-true covers (Chuck Berry's "Memphis") to Henrik Ibsen heroines ("Hedda Gabler") and historical musings ("Paris 1919," "Jack the Ripper"); long before Jason, he appropriated the anonymous menace of the hockey mask (the cover of 1977's Guts) and the militaristic trappings of global conspiracy. Although his output in the '80s was uneven, there was always a gem or two buried in the sometimes-unrealized ambition.
With 1994's Last Day on Earth, a more stable creative persona emerged, sort of a classically trained pre-apocalyptic cabaret entertainer. That's the guy you get when you go see him nowadays, but he can still pull out all the old characters: the paranoid ("Fear is a Man's Best Friend"), the parodist ("Pablo Picasso"), or the oddly distanced sentimentalist ("Child's Christmas in Wales"). Look for these appearances to be scattered among songs from his 1996 release Walking on Locusts, an album of more accessible, pop-structured songs. For Cale, at least.