Speaking to the Observer a year ago to promote the release of his two-CD retrospective Seducing Down the Door, John Cale was as eloquent and dizzying as his music--alternately poetic and blunt, approachable but only from a distance. He spoke of his initial reaction to Lou Reed's music ("Lou would always be writing songs on an acoustic guitar, which to me was like death, like folk-singing"), why he eventually came around to Reed ("it was the lack of sentimentality"), what he sees as the ultimate legacy of the Velvet Underground ("we were so anti--so anti-romantic"). And most importantly, he struggled to give insight into a career that often seems to contradict itself--the classicist who plays "Dirtyass Rock 'N' Roll," the avant-rocker with a penchant for perverting perennial R&B standards like Chuck Berry's "Memphis" and "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Walkin' the Dog" into psychodramas, the neo-punk who has worked with everyone from Little Feat to Jonathan Richman to Jennifer Warnes.
"All the albums, from the very first one, there was a very concerted effort to make them different," Cale says. "From Church of Anthrax to Vintage Violence--one was instrumental, one was songs--and when I did those things I heard all sorts of warnings: 'You can't do that. You can't wear too many hats. They don't know who you are in the end.' But I thought it was important to find new styles of songwriting and new modes of expression. So if a new mode of expression comes along, what are you supposed to do? Ignore it and try and make yourself coherent? No."
Cale's solo work, dating back to 1970's Vintage Violence, defies easy definition--"though it's not for want of my trying to tell them what I was always doing," Cale insists. He began playing viola and piano as a young boy in Wales, influenced by a schoolteacher mother who taught him what was "beautiful and elegant in music," then fell in with the avant geniuses like John Cage and LaMonte Young who explored the tortured and ugly side of such beautiful music. Then came Lou Reed, then came the Velvet Underground, then came "Sister Ray" and "White Light/White Heat" and "Waiting for the Man" and other such stuff of legend and hero-worship.
Cale's solo work has played itself out to the smaller audience befitting cult heroes; much of it wasn't even released in the States till Seducing Down the Door. There has always been a madness to his method, one consistent throughout the past three decades: Whether he's performing an almost elegiac, hymn-like piece such as "Child's Christmas in Wales" or the near-noise pulp-fiction narrative of "Gun," Cale reduces life and music to their most basic elements--the place where both things are noise, be they groans or whispers or howls. He plays deceptively simple music, tells deceptively simple stories of doomed losers and dead lovers, gives deceptively simple answers (which are: We are all doomed). "You're better off being the devil's advocate than you are just wondering all the time," Cale figures, "because that's a waste of time."
John Cale performs December 9 at the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.