Cale’s New Autobiography Falls Short Of Answering Its Questions
Reading Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale’s new book, “What’s Welsh for Zen: The Autobiography of John Cale,” you never really learn the answer to that question — or any others, for the most part.
In the book, Cale tells his story of growing up in a small Welsh village and his development into a musical prodigy, rock legend, producer extraordinaire, junkie/alcoholic and composer.
Along the way, we meet his family, teachers, bandmates, friends, proteges, several wives, his daughter and assorted others. But you really don’t get time to stop and get to know them. And by the same token, you don’t learn much about Cale himself — except for the fact that he’s usually short on details.
Leaving his Welsh village behind, Cale came of age in the late 1950s and early ’60s as a disciple of avant-garde composers like John Cage, Aaron Copland and Lamonte Young. He then made an abrupt right turn to co-found one of the greatest bands in rock history, the Velvet Underground, with Lou Reed.
After a few years and a pair of albums, he was ejected from the group and became a solo performer/producer-for-hire. His stellar producing credits include manning the boards for the debut album of Iggy Pop and the Stooges and for Patti Smith’s “Horses.”
Throughout the ’70s and into the ’90s, Cale released solo rock albums, collaborated/produced countless others and dabbled occasionally in movie soundtrack music.
Cale co-wrote “What’s Welsh for Zen” with author Victor Bockris. Bockris has achieved fame (or infamy, depending on who you ask) for writing unauthorized or semi-authorized bios of Blondie, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Keith Richards, William Burroughs and Lou Reed.
And despite the co-credit, Bockris’ hand is nowhere to be found, except in maybe some of the insightful interviews that were conducted with collaborators, friends, etc., and dispersed throughout the book.
As you would expect from such an avatar of the avant-garde, Cale’s book doesn’t look like an ordinary biography. The layout of pages, mixed with song lyrics, sketches and haphazardly cropped photos, looks like pictures were spread over a coffee table and photographed and text was printed on top.
The only problem is that the text has been poorly copy-edited. There are plenty of typos and misspellings.
But all these innovative elements can’t really save the book. What John Cale offers is a somewhat blurry and terse overview of his career, and he really misses all the important stuff.
It’s not that he doesn’t slowly and methodically chronicle his life in the Velvet Underground, but he really does fail to discuss what is happening. He doesn’t really concern himself with rethinking the forks in his life.
This book is a bit of a disappointment. Cale is disarming early on with several insightful comments about himself, his upbringing and his general mental modus operandi.
After revealing that he was sexually molested early on, he discusses how a critical psychological mechanism took root: his dependence on a collaborator. (He attributes it to the fact that his mother — a central figure in his early life — was always in the room when he took his piano lessons.)
Like detailing a list of past loves and flings, it is Cale’s creative partners who provide most of the books excitement. (What remains frustrating is Cale’s passivity. He spends most of his time reacting to his collaborators and to what is happening around him.)
And although he seemed to have meditated quite a bit on his early years and about his psychological makeup, he then tells his story of how he really abandons any understanding of himself and makes a series of personal and professional mistakes. (Maybe it’s because he’s looking back and this was still unconscious).
Throughout his career, long-simmering animosity or creative friction is often only told after the battle. They way he tells it, everything is moving along when an apocalyptic battle sort of drops out of the sky. He never really identifies his creative problems Reed or Brian Eno.
Of course, the other key figure in this book, whether Cale likes it or not, is Reed. Cale all but validates it when he mentions Reed’s birth in the second sentence of the book, right after his own.
Reed, the streetwise, bisexual, malevolent poet and leader of the VU, will forever be tied to Cale. The two founded the group with the idea of combining Reed’s gritty and sinister lyrics with a soundtrack that pushed the rock music envelope. Cale’s use of viola, in addition to his work on organ, piano and bass guitar, gave the Velvet’s music that hypnotic drone. The pairing was the central creative force behind the group’s early work, before Reed ultimately ousted Cale to hijack the group in a more commercial direction.
Cale does discuss the extent of Reed’s mind games, but never really shares any memories or moments with him. You hear the about them sharing an apartment, needles and women, but not what he liked about Reed, besides his musical ideas. Why did he hang out so much with someone who could be so mentally abusive? And later in life, why did he agree to reunite with Reed on the “Songs For Drella” album and the disastrous Velvets reunion in the early ’90s?
Reed himself is never quoted in the book.
Another blunder is how Cale treats the other two members of the Velvet Underground, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker. In the early part of the book, they’re treated like scenery: He tells of how they joined the group in a couple of quick sentences each, but never talks about them again until the group reunites briefly 30 years later.
After discussing Morrison’s sudden death shortly after the reunion, Cale said that Morrison was one of the few people to whom he could talk about anything, anytime. And yet, in his book, he can’t even mention the man, discuss his creative input to the group or even what he was like.
Instead, Cale keeps the focus on Reed throughout the Velvet period. Reed is the catalyst, and Cale reacts to him.
One fact that does get some much-needed ink is Cale’s relationship with one-time Velvet sponsor Andy Warhol. In most of the books about the group, Warhol’s relationship with the band — how he “produced” their first record, invited them to become part of his crowd at the Factory and made them an element to his artistic expositions — is mostly told through his relationship with Reed.
Cale documents the mutual respect that he and Warhol shared. Warhol remained friends with Cale until his death, occasionally providing him with album covers. It might not have been coincidence that soon after Cale left the Velvets, Warhol’s association also ended.
Rock autobiographies are rarely anything except a slightly glorified version of what you’d hear over a drink. Like a murder mystery, it has its classic elements: drug abuse, dozens of sex partners, songwriting disputes, cleaning up, ignored “masterpieces.” And although these accounts are often short on details, people read them for some insight that only an eyewitness can provide, the personal information, the feelings.
Cale’s book doesn’t really break the mold. You get some idea of the man’s thinking, but the question of “why” is consistently left unanswered, as are any real feeling of what or how things were unfolding. It’s as if Cale doesn’t want to dredge up all the issues that come with looking at a point in his life, and so he moves on with his story.
Furthermore, the book’s overall tone and flow is eerily reminiscent of his monotone vocal delivery.
This book’s saving grace comes from the overall lack of books about the Velvets and/or Reed. While every year brings more books about the Beatles, there are still only a handful of books about the VU. Although you’d do better to read Bockris’ book with former Warhol associate Gerard Malanga, “Uptight: The Story of the Velvet Underground,” or even Bockris’ bio of Reed, Cale’s book does give a portion of the story from the horse’s mouth.
It’s just that while his book looked to fill the lack of information about the group, in its lacking, it makes you feel that even more is missing.
For more info:
- The Velvet Underground and Nico filmography
- Polygram’s official Velvet Underground site
- Velvet Underground Archives
- Lou Reed’s official site
- Maureen Tucker’s Taj Moe Hal (official site)
- The Velvet Underground: Links & Internet resources
- The John Cale Homepage (unofficial)
- Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend – John Cale (unofficial)
- What’s Welsh For Web? (unofficial)
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.