The Boston Phoenix
July 20 - 27, 2000

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More than rock

John Cale's creative uncertainty

by Chris Fujiwara

Soon after John Cale and Lou Reed first met, in early 1965, Reed heard the Welsh-born musician play classical pieces on the viola, whereupon he said, "I knew you had an edge. I knew you had an edge on me." At the heart of the collaboration that formed the Velvet Underground was a bitter rivalry. Even after Reed forced him out of the band, in 1968, Cale lived in a kind of tacit comparison with Reed, as if each man were looking nervously over his shoulder at the other. By force of will more than by natural inclination, Cale turned himself into a rock star too. But he's always been more than that, and as far as mere rock stars go, he was the most perverse, unpredictable, and challenging of them all.

In What's Welsh for Zen, John Cale's marvelous autobiography (co-written by Victor Bockris), his memories jump from track to track and circle back on themselves. Dave McKean's design keeps up with him: the copiously illustrated, oversized book has typographical and layout surprises on every page spread. Cale writes intelligently about things that matter, like how music is made and how it communicates, rather than just giving us then-I-did-this-album-and-then-I-slept-with-so-and-so, though that sort of thing is in the book too -- and why not, it's a rock autobiography. But at the book's core is an urgent and troubled introspection. Nicholas Ray says in Wim Wenders's Lightning over Water, "The closer I get to my ending, the closer I get to rewriting my beginning." Cale, too, rewrites his childhood, trying to make sense of his confused life. The near-total invisibility of his miner father, whom he calls "a blank page," was an impetus. "I had to be my own father," he writes, "deriving as much experience as I could from those whose own experience had been garnered close to the edge." His compulsive avoidance of success may have grown from a desire not to embarrass his dad. He ends the book with a remorseful homage to his mother, whom he calls his "first collaborator."

Every phase of Cale's career is rich and vital. When he closes his account of, say, his early-'60s work with avant-garde composer La Monte Young or his '90s soundtrack work (he did the music for two of the best French films of the '90s, Olivier Assayas's Paris s'éveille and Philippe Garrel's La naissance de l'amour), I want to go and wring him for more anecdotes. And though by now everyone's sick of hearing how the VU were the best rock band ever (Cale certainly is: he calls the band's cult "fatuous"), people who've forgotten why that's nonetheless a legitimate claim will remember again after reading Cale's account, the most detailed and interesting ever given of the band. He settles doubts over the importance of Andy Warhol to the group, lovingly recalling the fun, collaborative environment of Warhol's Factory. As for his grim analysis of the failure of the VU's '90s reunion, it's not likely to patch up his relations with Reed.

What's Welsh for Zen is also a great, if inadvertent, advertisement for drugs. Cale isn't proud of his substance-abuse problems (heroin, cocaine, alcohol); he sees how they spoiled his relationships and his career, and he gives examples of some of the "uglier" incidents. But he's also a spokesman for the heroism of self-destruction -- as passé a concept as that may be in an age when cigarette smokers line up outside office buildings as if they were waiting to be shot. Cale did drugs like an athlete: "There was always this competition to see how low you could go and how fast you could rise." What would his music of the '60s and '70s have been like without drugs?

Of course, that was only part of his tactic of creating uncertainty in order to heighten effect. In his live performances of the '70s, he cultivated confusion and danger to create excitement. In his production work for other performers (which included two of the greatest albums that have any connection with "rock and roll": Nico's The Marble Index and Patti Smith's Horses), he exploited musical and interpersonal conflict. And if you're uncomfortable with the self-destruction thing, chew on this thought from Cale: "People's inadequacies, their ability to make mistakes, is the magical thing in them." John Cage said something close to this when he advised artists to make their weaknesses into strengths. What's Welsh for Zen is as inspirational as a Cage book -- is there higher praise?

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