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John Cale will forever be best known as a member of the Velvet Underground, the band he formed with Lou Reed in 1965. While Reed was clearly the band's leader and guiding force, it was Cale, more than anybody, who gave the band its air of avant-garde edginess.
Born in Wales to a school teacher and a coal miner, Cale began playing the viola in grammar school somewhat by chance—when he went to join the school orchestra, the only instrument that was left was the viola. It's not a particularly easy instrument to learn, but Cale saw it as a challenge.
Early on, Cale was drawn to the margins of music. While studying at the Tanglewood Institute in Boston, he began corresponding with iconoclastic composer John Cage. In 1963, Cage used Cale in his production of Vexations, a composition written by 19th-century composer Erik Satie that had never been played before. Satie instructed the piano piece to be repeated 840 times—it took Cage's group of musicians 18 hours to complete the task.
Cale later worked with La Monte Young's influential Theatre of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate, which featured Cale, Tony Conrad, Terry Riley, and Angus Maclise, among others. The group explored concepts of drone, distortion, and amplification in now-legendary performances. It was not easy listening.
But it's easy to see why Lou Reed wanted to work with him. Cale bridged working-class Britain and rarefied European art circles.
In the Velvet Underground, Cale continued to explore some of the same ideas that Theatre of Eternal Music did, but in much more accessible ways. Combined with Reed's masterful songwriting and pop sensibility, drone and distortion wormed their way into pop culture. On songs like "Venus in Furs," Cale's droning, almost stabbing viola are the perfect accompaniment for a song about S&M. On "All Tomorrow's Parties," Cale uses a similar technique on the piano; it churns and grinds in the background, like time trudging on.
Cale quit the Velvet Underground after two albums, but he remained active in pop music. He produced several landmark albums, notably the debut albums by the Stooges, Patti Smith, and the Modern Lovers. He seemed to have mastered a way of making pop art sound and feel edgy. In his solo work, Cale embraced songcraft and emphasized his wonderful voice. For my money, his version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is the best. The Andy Warhol tribute Songs for Drella, a 1990 collaboration between Cale and Reed, is probably the greatest tribute album ever made.
Cale keeps experimenting and expanding his outlook, embracing new forms of production. But the live performance is where Cale finds the greatest freedom to innovate.
"That's when you have other people," he told one interviewer. "When you're up on a stage, you're not listening to what you're playing. You're listening to the audience. You're listening to the interaction between the music and the audience. That's what I'm always aware of, that's why I like live performance more than just sitting in a studio writing."
John Cale performs at the Tennessee Theatre on Friday, March 28, at 10:30 p.m.