“Lou Reed And I Were That Once In A Lifetime Perfect Fit…” John Cale Interviewed.

The Velvet Underground’s sonic architect and musical disruptor John Cale talks to MOJO about working with Lou Reed, Nico and “rapturous sonic adornment”.

John Cale

by Andrew Male |
Updated on

Portrait: Marlene Marino

John Cale is The Velvet Underground’s creator of radical atmospheres turned unique, unpredictable songsmith. In this extract from MOJO’s new exclusive interview with Cale, he talks about his role within The Velvets and working with Lou Reed and Nico...

Improvisation and surprise were key aspects of John Cale’s work between 1964 and 1968 with The Velvet Underground, a group in which he saw his role as that of composer and arranger, believing “the abstraction of instrumental music was more powerful than the songs”.

As a poet, Lou stands out as a stalwart.

When MOJO asks him if his Velvets’ foil, Lou Reed, appears as an influence or character on his new album Mercy, Cale demurs, saying, “there’s too much about religion [on Mercy] to really be able to place it in the lexicon of what Lou [was] doing.” But later, Cale singles Reed out as his greatest collaborator. “As a poet, Lou stands out as a stalwart,” says Cale. “I like seeing contradictions in prose – they enliven the pace of characters. [Lou and I] were that once-in-a-lifetime perfect fit. His words were deserving of something far more intriguing than a typical folk rock, blues structure. Heroin or Venus In Furs didn’t work as tidy folk songs – they needed positioning – rapturous sonic adornment that could not be ignored.”

If Reed is absent as an overt presence on Mercy, the group’s enigmatic German representative, Nico, is not. She appears as a character in the respiring overture of Moonstruck (Nico’s Song), but also as an ongoing influence on Cale.

“She’s a difficult subject,” says Cale, who had never previously devoted a song to Nico, despite their history, “but also rewarding. As a songwriter she’s getting better, she’s developing while we’re talking about her. Her style, language, her writing, seems more modern now than it ever did.”

Nico had an important piece of art-making advice for Cale: “Create your own time.” The motto came originally from her acting coach, Method guru Lee Strasberg.

“I was asking her, ‘How do you actually act?’” recalls Cale. “And she said, ‘Well, create your own time.’ But she does that inside her songs as well. It’s a strange world, a world of mystery, but it’s real. She was also the master of ‘the persona’ in song, which was something Lou did not have. Nico was indifferent to style. She had one identity now, another identity later. It’s how she grew and got better.”

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It is perhaps Nico, rather than Reed, who gave Cale direction and purpose as a songwriter. In his 1999 autobiography, What’s Welsh For Zen, Cale writes about his initial awkwardness in writing songs, an awkwardness rooted in his Welsh upbringing where English was his second language yet his father spoke no Welsh. MOJO suggests that in writing songs for her 1967 solo debut, Chelsea Girl and, more significantly, producing her 1968 masterpiece, The Marble Index, he recognised a kindred spirit, another artist writing in an alien tongue.

“I agree,” he says. “There’s always something incomplete about the English language but I don’t belabour it. I try and find different adjectives. A lot of that stuff I also picked up from reading Dylan Thomas, where you notice some awkwardness of language but you look at it again a little more carefully, and it’s not; it’s a lot of beauty.”

"Songwriting is an attempt at hypnosis..." Read MOJO’s exclusive interview with John Cale in full.

Mercy is out now via Domino.


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