Music

John Cale on The Velvet Underground, teaching Bowie the viola and why drugs aren't the creative stimulant

The teen viola prodigy went from a Welsh mining village to NYC and changing rock’n’roll with The Velvet Underground

John Cale

Image: Madeline McManus

John Cale was born in Garnant, Carmarthenshire, Wales in March 1942. He joined the National Youth Orchestra of Wales at age 13 and went on to study music at Goldsmiths College, University of London. In 1963, he travelled to New York to continue his musical training under composer Aaron Copland.

In 1965, Cale co-founded The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed. He would play a pivotal part in the hugely influential band’s first three albums before leaving in late 1968. Cale went on to produce classic albums including The Stooges’ self-titled debut album, Patti Smith’s Horses and Squeeze’s debut album.

From 1970’s Vintage Violence on, John Cale released a strong of classic solo albums including Paris 1919 (1973), Fear (1974), Slow Dazzle (1975), Helen Of Troy (1975), Music For A New Society (1982) and HoboSapiens (2003). His new album, POPtical Illusion is out now.

Speaking to the Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, John Cale looks back on a youthful obsession with music, leaving Wales for New York, and the beginnings of The Velvet Underground.

I think 16 was my teddy boy era. I only dabbled in it. But it was about getting the right haircut and figuring how to keep your hair upright for hours. But it was really a quest for young ladies and charming them. I chased them a bit – I was fascinated, like everybody else my age. And there was a weird dodge I was doing between soccer and rugby. I was so focused on music that I wanted to avoid injuries and not lose too many teeth. So I went for football because it was less dangerous. And it worked. 

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My family were ensconced in music. My uncles were all plugged into a musical parameter that really meant a lot to me. One of my uncles was a composer, some of them were coalminers. My father was a coalminer. Variety is the spice of life. And I really liked all the varieties of music that were around. The local cinema in Garnant had suddenly popped up with Rock Around the Clock with Bill Haley. So all the kids in the area were full of it, jumping up on the stage, dancing. It was frowned on, but it was great. 

Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol and John Cale in 1966
1966: (L-r) Poet Gerard Malanga, artist and moviemaker Andy Warhol and John Cale in NYC. Image: Getty

There was a school orchestra and I really wanted to play the violin. But they ran out so I learnt the viola. It was by fortune, not by design. Until I got the viola, I was a timpani player and I’d whack away at these tubs as loudly as I possibly could. But it wasn’t a great, combative place to be in the orchestra. You were only busy for a little bit and then you’d have to stop playing. Most timpani parts were rigorously patrolled. 

I was already heading towards the avant garde. I was playing a lot of viola. I picked it up fairly quickly and I got to play the Telemann viola concerto with the school orchestra. I wasn’t sure if music could be a career. But I kept pushing the viola. On Saturdays I’d get the train to Cardiff to the music school. The National Youth Orchestra of Wales was great for me. And at my local book library, a little miners’ community library, you could ask for the score of anything and they would get it sent up from Marylebone Public Library. So I ended up with a lot of modern music and I lapped it up. I was fascinated by it. There was a Hindemith viola concerto, a Walton viola concerto and some craziness like Paganini’s violin pieces, that I played for viola. It was nuts. I didn’t get very far with that. But I did toil with it. And toil is the right word. 

I stayed as late as possible in school. I was 17 and still fiddling around and pushing buttons for new music. But I had to take the next step. Was it Oxford or Cambridge or another school? The local minister would run sociology classes once a week so I would go there. But I didn’t have a plan for university. I got timid – there were restrictions on what a miner’s salary could stretch to and what studies you could undertake without a sponsor. But I had a sponsor. I went to the Royal Academy of Music and Goldsmiths, and it was fabulous. I started organising performances. It was exactly what I needed to do. 

I was annoyingly independent and free-spirited. I would bother people with it. Once I saw the sources of all this new music that was coming out, I zeroed in on it. I wanted to continue the pursuit of all that strange music. It was coming from all parts of the world. I wanted to find out more about John Cage and Stockhausen and all these composers I followed. I was glued to it. 

Waving to my mother and father as I was getting on the plane to New York in 1963 is one of those scary moments. You really wonder, am I doing the right thing? But I got a scholarship to Tanglewood [music college] and it meant a lot. This was the place where lots of up-and-coming composers went. I’d managed to catch [influential American composer] Aaron Copland’s ear and explain what I wanted to do and they provided the ticket. Iannis Xenakis, who taught the masterclass in composition, was trained as an architect. He’d worked for Le Corbusier’s pavilion. So his music was designed on stochastic principles [mathematical models]! It was unbelievable I could come from Garnant and be there. 

I generally look back at the fun side of The Velvet Underground. One of my closest friends in the Dream Syndicate [the avant garde group formed by La Monte Young, which Cale played with from 1964] was Tony Conrad. He had introduced us to the electronic pick-up, which changed the landscape for everybody. Tony and I were at a birthday party with this collection of musicians. They’d heard we played bowed instruments. Terry Phillips, who was working for Pickwick Records, said they had an interesting experiment going on in rock’n’roll. So we all perked up. One of the people was hired as a songwriter to write songs in the style of all the hits on the charts, and that was Lou Reed. Lou offered me a cup of coffee. We talked…

We had a ball and went on a small tour up the Hudson Valley. The group was painters, sculptors, a very different group of people than you normally find with musicians. It was a florid combination of sensibilities. We used the Pickwick studio and Lou wrote the song The Ostrich. It didn’t go anywhere but then Lou said: I’ve written all these other songs they won’t let me record. Sure enough, that was Heroin and I’m Waiting for the Man. I said, come on, we’ve got to form a band. We can’t just fart around like this.

When I got into the room with The Velvet Underground, I said, we had to hurry up. Iannis had taken us to Carnegie Hall to meet all the young New York composers that had made it. Everything was coming together. And I’d just got back from London where The Who and the Small Faces were doing the same thing. So we needed to get on with it. The Ostrich was not going to do it, but if we focused on Heroin and I’m Waiting for the Man, I knew it would go somewhere. 

John Cale and Lou Reed jamming in 1975
1975: John Cale jamming with former Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed. Image: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

It felt like the centre of the artistic universe for a while. The sense of humour was rapacious but there was also a lot of generosity and goodwill. When I look back at those days, we had run into this hidden source of talent. It was the strangest collection of people but also the most inspiring. Andy Warhol and everybody there was working very hard. It was the right atmosphere. 

Collaboration is not a war. It’s a combination. I would tell my younger self you have to really listen to what your partner tells you. If you collaborate, you need to pay attention. Patti Smith was already a poet and had made her presence felt in the poetry scene in Lower Manhattan. Iggy Pop was just a really good entertainer. As it turned out, a lot of people understood what they were doing when we made those records, so it didn’t take long to get an understanding. 

I can’t say I have always been clear-headed about love. A lot of it is by chance. But if you keep going, you will find the right person. That’s what I’d tell my younger self. And that’s where I am happy to have arrived at.

Drugs are not the creative stimulant. If you want to get where you think you are going, you are going to have to do what everybody else does, which is nose to the grindstone. You may think you are doing a lot of work, but you are not. You are really wasting time. So the sooner you understand that great fact of life, the more work you will get done.

I will always have my mother to thank. I learned how to get some really good mechanical engineering books from my father… and my mother taught me the principles of good living. Which is make yourself heard, but don’t deafen people with it. That’s been a very useful idea.  

John Cale onstage with The Velvet Underground in 1993
1993: John Cale performing in London on The Velvet Underground’s brief reunion tour. Image: Herbie Knott/Shutterstock

Where I grew up it was always Labour. It makes it more difficult to understand what I’m doing in America – I don’t always understand their approach to politics, with all that wealth. They trash their own ideas. There are tonnes of ideas and they get waylaid so fast. I look at the quality of the thinking and how atrocious the end results are. They have some great ideas, but for some reason, they just drop the ball.  

David Bowie was always in good humour and always fascinated. I showed him how to play viola for one of my concerts and it took a bit of scratching around, but he was really interested in the same angular approaches to musical thought as I am. And he was always very busy. Bowie didn’t let up at all. I would tell my younger self don’t stop. Just keep going. And that is a message I’d say to myself now as well. I’m on a writing splurge – it started during lockdown and it’s kept going. I’m happy with the direction it’s gone.  

If I could relive one day, it would be the first time we did the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Everybody was in the Dom [on St Mark’s Place, on 1 April 1966]. And everybody was using broken down equipment and just making it work. It was raucous. And everything felt absolutely new. There were so many ideas. And they all had some real sparkle to them. 

POPtical Illusion by John Cale is out on Domino Records on 14 June 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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