I don’t remember if I discovered Andy Warhol or Lou Reed first, but I know I never knew who John Cale was until college, when my roommate played me Paris 1919 in the spring of my sophomore year. It’s an album that’s about style above almost anything else, and because I didn’t know what to make of it, I dismissed John Cale after the first few songs. I knew Cale had been in the Velvet Underground, which for me at the time was still the coolest band in the world, but that wasn’t enough to make the album cool. But how could someone who was in a band with Lou Reed write a song like “Paris 1919,” with its dated, slightly pretentious orchestration and throw-back Englishness. Where was New York in this music? Like, I understood he was Welsh, but what? John Cale did a lot of drugs. I wanted “Heroin,” which he didn’t write, OK, but he had to be able to do something close to it. Instead he wrote lyrics like “The continent’s just fallen in disgrace. William William William Rogers’s put it in its place”—I couldn’t understand it.
In the summer after my sophomore year had ended, I thought more about John Cale and how I should give him another shot, if only to finally confirm that he wasn’t any good and that my roommate was totally wrong. One night in June I downloaded Paris 1919 on iTunes and listened to him again—and again and again until, finally, out of his fuzzy superficiality (I mean this in the best sense) this creeping feeling that John Cale is really, really great finally seized me. As I played the album for the third time in a row, I realized that John Cale’s music isn’t just about affect, it’s about the lush Surface and, like his friend Andy Warhol, the Concept. John Cale copy and pastes styles, attitudes, and music, and that was something I could understand. Pastiche.
I saw this photograph while browsing around Tumblr recently and it reminds me of another thing I realized about John Cale that ultimately made him so appealing to me: he’s always out of focus (in photos, music, history, everything), present but slipping away, from collective memory (the Velvet Underground is Lou Reed, right?) and anyone’s interest until it’s almost like he’s not there, and maybe was never there in the first place. It’s a kind of disappearing act, a performance of his absence in the popular narrative of counterculture music in order to forefront an otherness within the self, to say “I’m here, but I’m not me,” I’m Graham Greene, I’m a rock star, I’m a dandy, I’m Welsh, I’m New York, I’m an avant-garde composer, I’m wearing a mask that’s my own face, I’m everyone. “Somewhere between Dunkirk and Paris … Most people are asleep, but I’m still awake …” I see John Cale in this space, the psychic flatlands between the waking world and the dream world, where the differences between you and, say, the book you’re reading or the song you’re listening to crossfade, the edges bleed and, for the length of a song, you’re sort of not you. I don’t want to say that John Cale exists in (or allows for) some utopian inter-subjectivity, only that his work forgoes a stable image of its author for something else, perhaps a multiplicity of authors, which makes his work so much more compelling than most of his contemporaries. When my third play of Paris 1919 ended around three in the morning, I went to sleep in a haze of admiration. I wanted to be John Cale.
David Bowie called himself a collector once in an interview: “I collect personalities.” In some ways, it’s like John Cale collects genres as well as personalities. And rather than use them to design an aesthetic that ultimately signifies a coherent body of work, like Bowie does, Cale sublimates them into a much less coherent oeuvre that fails to point to any one characteristic aesthetic. If David Bowie is about one man trying to be different, John Cale is about different men trying to be the same.
I guess I like the idea of pretending to go away even if you remain in place. John Cale’s never the same person twice, and he’s rarely the person you think he should be. In Paris 1919, Cale begins by setting Dylan Thomas to music in “Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a deeply personal song that must’ve spoken to something in Cale. It comes off, to my mind, as though he wrote it, like, it has that honesty I think a lot of writers prize. Autobiographical honesty. But he didn’t write it. In fact, it was written some twenty years before Paris 1919. The album shifts through styles (rock in “Macbeth,” honky tonk in “Half Past France”, classical-ish in “Paris 1919, to name a few), but ends brilliantly with “Antarctica Starts Here,” maybe my favorite song on the record. It’s a smooth conclusion to the album: a lush electric piano and bass guitar that evoke late night lounge clubs in Los Angeles, little white candles on round tables and red curtained walls.
The song’s about this prototypical late 60’s Warhol superstar, actually, somewhat like Lou Reed’s name songs (“Lisa Says,” “Caroline Says,” “Candy Says,” etc). Presumably she’s a gorgeous woman entering the late stage of her wobbly, glamorous life. Everything’s fading, and the pain of it is so unbearable John Cale had to make it into calm, atmospheric music that raises above a whisper only for a moment at the end. I guess the title means everything that surrounds her has grown cold. But what’s important about the song is that it’s not so much John Cale as it is Lou Reed. It has the feel of Berlin and Reed’s post-VU work (“Street Hassle,” right?), all these sad superstars fading into the wallpaper of the end of the 1960’s.
I started playing “Antartica Starts Here” while I was writing the previous paragraph. I normally don’t play music while I write, but I hoped that listening to Cale’s music as I wrote about it might inspire me. Not really thinking, I switched the song to “Caroline Says 2” by Lou Reed. I listened to the chorus about how cold it is in Alaska, and it occurred to me that the two songs are basically the same.
I’m pretty sure John Cale copied Lou Reed, maybe even consciously translated or rewrote the song into his own album, but then I realized Berlin came out three months after Paris 1919. In linear time, I guess I’m wrong, which really throws a wrench in my theory because it’s essential that Cale would copy Reed and not the other way around. Lou Reed is the steadfast original. He’s not interested in having anyone else write his songs for him.
But then, OK, I took a nap to clear my head for this essay, and while I napped I had this dream in which John Cale came to me. The dream was brief, but before I woke up John and I had this exchange: “Andrew, while Paris 1919 came out before Berlin, ‘Caroline Says 2’ is actually an old Velvet Underground song that Lou repurposed for his album. I did in fact rewrite his song.” I woke up and realized my proposition wasn’t wrong at all. I remembered exactly why I thought Cale rewrote the song: even though Paris 1919 came out after Berlin, “Caroline Says 2” is itself a rewrite of the earlier Velvet Underground song, “Stephanie Says.” So Cale rewrote a rewrite and got “Antarctica Starts Here.” Lush Surface, Concept. Thank you, John Cale.
When I write that John Cale is about genre play, I’m probably being very selective of his long career. I don’t mean to say my argument doesn’t hold water. The diverse range of genres listed on his Wikipedia page probably attests to what I’m talking about: John Cale plays art rock, classical, drone music, experimental rock, folk rock, and protopunk. He’s a spoken word artist. He plays the viola, violin, vocals, guitar, bass guitar, organ, piano, harpsichord, keyboards, harmonica, cello, double bass, saxophone, mellotron, and the celesta. He’s worked with Lou Reed, Nico, La Monte Young, John Cage, Terry Riley, Cranes, Nick Drake, Mike Heron, Kevin Ayers, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, The Stooges, The Modern Lovers, Art Bergmann, Manic Street Preachers and frontman James Dean Bradfield, Marc Almond, Squeeze, Happy Mondays, LCD Soundsystem and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
John Cale knows a lot of people, but he’s still pretty elusive, right? Like, what do you make of the fact that the man who started his career by making pretty hard-edged trance for the Factory ended up writing a totally-earnest song titled “Hanky Panky Nohow,”
and later moved into pretty safe classical territory—even though it’s billed as experimental—with his record Eat/Kiss, which accompanied the rerelease of a Warhol film? But he’s had (many) great moments, like the album The Academy in Peril. It came out the year before Paris 1919 and it’s pretty wonderful, like weird instrumental music with a point of view: although edgier than Van Dyke Parks, The Academy in Peril has the same curious anti-pop pop of Song Cycle. Lit pop. There’s even a track on it called “John Milton.” And wasn’t John Milton all about style? And maybe how style can be a kind of content? Milton forced English to obey a Latin grammar it doesn’t favor because it made the language do new things. John Cale made rock music do the same thing when he forced the genre to absorb others unaccustomed to it.
Recently I had this other recurring dream in which I’m standing in my apartment in Brooklyn and it’s spring. John Cale comes into my living room in the middle of the night to tell me that traffic in the city is finally easing up. (I’ve also been reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, FYI.) “OK, what does it matter? I don’t own a car,” I tell him. “You can do what I do,” he says, “just borrow your friends’ cars.” The apartment is almost completely dark except for this little light just behind his head, not a halo, exactly, but something close enough to startle me. Then I wake up.
I don’t think John Cale is here, really, or anywhere for that matter; I think the point is maybe the void the question of authorship raises in his work. I mean, not to retreat too far into Barthes & Foucault, but I really do think it’s a legitimate question re: John Cale. Who are the John Cales that move me in “Child’s Christmas In Wales,” “Ship of Fools,” and “Antarctica Starts Here,” each such different songs? It’s the same voice in every song, sort of, but a voice that’s always at angles. And then it’s not.
My mouth is a blessed fractal
Tho I don’t understand anything about fractals except that they, in their endless perpetuation of themselves, are a blessed correlative to my influence on everyone who listens to me speak. I can’t stop
Across the screen while everyone waits for a surprise
That will come as denouement
To my last act
The wind wants to make everything a desert
The city I am ravaging is on fire tho it was already on fire when I arrived
Andrew Durbin co-edits Wonder, a publisher of artist books, ephemera, pamphlets, and glossies. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Antennae, the Brooklyn Rail, Web Conjunctions, Washington Square, West Wind Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.