At 82, John Cale Still Has the Velvet Touch
Pop Culture

At 82, John Cale Still Has the Velvet Touch

There would be no Velvet Underground without John Cale, who heard an aspiring folkie named Lou Reed strum a song called “Heroin” in 1965 and immediately grasped its avant-garde potential. Together, the classically trained Cale and the city rat Reed revolutionized rock and roll—according to everyone except Cale, who once wrote that the “attempt to see their influence everywhere” struck him as “fatuous.”

Andy Warhol took the band under his wing, paired them with the Germanic ice queen Nico, and made them part of his performance art “happenings.” Warhol would project his films onto the group while the superstars of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable danced and acted out S&M scenarios.

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Lou Reed performs live on stage with Welsh musician John Cale (in centre) and German singer and musician Nico at Le Bataclan Theatre in Paris, France on 29th January 1972.


Cale says he found the Factory “freakishly enjoyable.” He had an affair with Edie Sedgwick, took all the drugs, and adopted Warhol’s relentless work ethic: “You just get your nose down and off you go.” But the fun ended when Reed cut ties with Warhol and kicked Cale out of the band.

Disappointed but also a bit relieved, Cale tried producing and had a hand in such legendary albums as Patti Smith’s Horses and The Stooges’ eponymous debut. He also embarked on a restless career as a solo artist. As Reed morphed into the Rock n Roll Animal, Cale refused to be pinned down. He followed up 1973’s lush Paris 1919 by charging into the art-rock future with Brian Eno. He married and divorced three times, including a short-lived union with the designer Betsey Johnson, and had a daughter at age 43. Her birth inspired him to get sober.

By 2016, he had released 16 solo albums.

Cale was touring Brazil when the pandemic hit. He had a nearly finished album in the can but decided to rework it. Released last year to critical acclaim, MERCY features an array of ultracool guest artists like Weyes Blood, Animal Collective, and Sylvan Esso. The album addresses our collective contemporary insanity but also includes odes to Marilyn Monroe and his old bandmate Nico.

But MERCY doesn’t capture the full scope of Cale’s frantic creativity during the pandemic. “He began writing new songs as if it were the only thing keeping him alive,” says his longtime manager and coproducer Nita Scott. “I think the pandemic shifted something inside of him and it came tumbling out.”

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John Cale, 2024; POPtical Illusion, Cale’s 18th solo studio album.COURTESY OF THE LABEL.

“I ended up with 70 or 80 songs,” Cale says. The world outside his LA studio offered an endless parade of surreal and disturbing material. “You’ve got the crazies running around trying to change people’s minds about what medicine is for,” he says. “It’s remorseless.”

On the resulting album, POPtical Illusion, this consummate team player is on his own, and those who know Cale from the ’60s and ’70s may be surprised to hear how modern he sounds. Programmed beats skitter and loop as synths bounce and swirl. On the lead single, “How We See the Light,” his Welsh-inflected baritone booms over staccato chords reminiscent of the Clash sample in M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”

When I ask if he keeps up with his old Factory friends, Cale says, “Unfortunately, there aren’t too many of them around.” At 82, he’s focused on what’s next. He’d love to produce a hip-hop album with Tyler, the Creator or Earl Sweatshirt, and he says he’ll never stop making music. “I can’t do anything else, and I’m still learning,” he says. “It’s a wonderful life if you can live through it.”

Originally Published Here.

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