Q&A: Talking Velvet Underground With John Cale

Artwork by JECTS

EDITOR’S NOTE: To mark the 50th anniversary of the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, we are excerpting the Velvet Underground passage of the career-spanning Q&A I did with John Cale for VICE/NOISEY last year. DISCUSSED: His opiated childhood; his abuse at the hands of a church organist; discovering Fluxus at the University of London; being taught the deafening power of silence by John Cage; exploring the infinite cosmic possibilities of drone and the raw power of an amplified viola with The Theater Of Eternal Music; inventing the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed; thriving amidst the mind-bending velocity of life inside Andy Warhol’s Factory; performing “Heroin” for Walter Cronkite; pissng off Cher; the real reason why he left the Velvet Underground; working with Nick Drake on Bryter Layter; the connection, or lack thereof, between creativity and recreational drug use; the time he cut the head off a live chicken onstage; and what he thinks of Wacka Flocka rapping over “Venus In Furs.” You can read read the whole thing HERE.

NOISEY: You met Lou Reed when you were hired to be a member of The Primitives, a band invented by Pickwick Records, a Long Island label and Brill-style songwriting factory that specialized in cheap knock-offs of the radio hits of the day. Lou had written and recorded a song called “The Ostrich” under the name of an imaginary band called The Primitives, in the hopes it would become the latest dance craze, like “The Twist.” And Pickwick sent you guys out to play high school dances in the tri-state area. How do you come into the picture?hqde2fault

JOHN CALE: Tony and I were discovered by Pickwick when we were at a party, they thought we looked like we were in a band. We got invited to Pickwick Records, and I went along and ran into Lou. All of a sudden, it became a discussion of literature, and who are the greatest writers in modern literature, and so on.

NOISEY: The Primitives were pretty much over before they began. But you and Lou start working on your own music, which would eventually become The Velvet Underground. There’s a passage in Transformer, Victor Bockris’ Lou Reed bio, about your apartment on Ludlow Street, where a lot of the early Velvet Underground sound and songs were born. I wanted to read this passage back to you, and you tell me if he got it right:

“The whole place was sparsely furnished with mattresses on the floor, and orange crates that served as furniture and firewood. Bare light bulbs lit the dark rooms, paint and plaster chipped from the woodwork and walls. There was no heat or hot water and the landlord collected the $30 rent with a gun. When it got cold, they often sat hunched over instruments with carpets wrapped around their shoulders. When the toilet stopped up, they picked up the shit and threw it out the window. For sustenance, they cooked a big pot of porridge and made humongous vegetable pancakes, eating the glop day and night as if it were fuel.” That about right?

JOHN CALE: I don’t know about throwing shit out the window, but yeah, that’s pretty much it.

NOISEY: I don’t know what’s crazier about that story, that the landlord shows up with a gun to collect the rent, or that there was a time when you could rent an apartment in Manhattan for $30. There’s another passage from Transformer that I would like to read back to you about this period, where it talks about how the songs evolved, and how they were written:

“Lou could be the sweetest, most charming companion socially, but he was virtually always a motherfucker to work with. His biggest problem apart from demanding complete control, and having a Himalayan ego, was a matter of credit. Just as The Rolling Stones had done when creating their music, The Velvet Underground worked up almost all their songs collectively. Reed, who composed the simple inspirational chord structures, or sketchy lyrics, was under the impression, however, that he had single-handedly crafted masterpieces like “Heroin,” “Venus In Furs,” “I’m Waiting For The Man,” “Black Angel’s Death Song,” etc. In truth, although Reed undoubtedly supplied the brilliant lyrics and chord structures, the various and greater parts of the music — Cale’s viola, Sterling Morrison’s guitar, Angus MacLise’s drumming — were invented by each individually. In short, Reed should have shared the majority of the credits with the other members of the band.”

JOHN CALE: We all agreed that on the business side of things that we should really share the publishing. That is, everybody had a piece of the publishing of Lou’s songs, of all the songs we did for The Banana Album, the idea was that we all got a piece of the publishing as long as we were a band. That was the driving factor in Lou deciding not to go any further with it.

NOISEY: Not to go any further with what? Working with you?

JOHN CALE: Well, when he decided “That’s it. I’m not doing this anymore,” he told [VU drummer] Mo Tucker and Sterling, “You can go with

VelvetUndergroundNicoJohn, but I’m not working with John anymore.”

NOISEY: It really just came down to money?

JOHN CALE: Yeah. I mean, you gotta understand, by that time, we were really struggling to get along with each other on the road, because there were so many things going on. So many chemicals in the air. Rational thinking was not something we were proud of at the time. That finally drove things to this point. He also had somebody that he suddenly discovered was really somebody that could help him deliver that circumstance. He found a manager.

NOISEY: Steve Sesnick?

JOHN CALE: Yeah. All of a sudden, Steve came in and said, “This is Lou’s band. You’re sidemen.” It was a big mistake.

NOISEY: I think that is the biggest mistake that Lou Reed ever made. You guys should have made many, many albums together.

JOHN CALE: Yeah. He’d also fired Andy without telling anybody around that time. So yes, I agree that it shut the door on a lot of possibilities. Lou had a habit of doing that.

NOISEY: I’m curious about what your personal relationship with Andy Warhol was like. He just seems so emotionally elusive and impossible to decipher. I’m wondering if there was a side of Warhol that you got to know that’s not reflected in the mythology that’s surrounding him?

JOHN CALE: No, I don’t think so. I mean, we never got that close, but there was a very warm working relationship, you know? This thing about work. We got to The Factory, and all that stuff that was going on around us, with all the stars walking in and out. It was head-bending, but at the end of the day it was this concentration on work, and how hard work was really how you do it. That’s what we wanted. We just wanted to play all the time.

NOISEY: I’ve seen the film footage of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, what was it like being at the center of that? Did you feel a sense of power and control that all of these lights and sounds and people were moving according to your dictates, or was it all just chaos and you just felt like one more cog in the machinery of sensory overload?

JOHN CALE: I think so. I remember Walter Cronkite came to see us at The Dom for a news piece about youth CALE_REEDculture. You gotta understand that from a musical point of view: there were these four guys up onstage with their backs toward the audience, with shades on all night. This beautiful blonde chanteuse in the middle, and we had three amplifiers. All the guitars, all the voices, went through these three amplifiers. The speakers would blow because there was too much going on in them.

NOISEY: I’m trying to imagine Walter Cronkite standing in the middle of all this madness.

JOHN CALE: Yeah, and Jackie Kennedy.

NOISEY: Cher saw the EPI and her verdict was, in my opinion, the greatest moment in rock criticism: “It will replace nothing but suicide.”

JOHN CALE: Yeah, I agree. It’s fabulous. We were so proud of that. MORE