JOHN CALE & TERRY RILEY Church Of Anthrax (Columbia)

This is an American vinyl reissue of the former Velvet Undergrounder’s collaboration with the avant garde composer Riley, probably most famed for his album "A Rainbow In Curved Air". Five tracks, most of them longggg instrumentals, one with vocals by one Adam Miller, "Church Of Anthrax" comes across as a mad scramble of "Tubular Bells" overdubbing frenzy and "Hot Rats" scripted improvisation, swerving between honky-tonk piano hoe-downs and seriously brutal free-form saxophone exploration. Fabulous.

JOHN CALE AND VICTOR BOCKRIS What's Welsh For Zen - The Autobiography Of John Cale (Bloomsbury)

"What's Welsh For Zen" is an object lesson in how to make a book appeal on a visual level as well as a purely literary one: between its cardboard covers the words - printed in a modish typeface - rattle roughshod over and around pictures or cascade down the page at points requiring extra emphasis. It's almost like a complete multimedia event compressed onto paper, with Cale's narrative broken up at salient points by the viewpoints of other key characters in the story, or underlined by lyrics or even cartoons. All credit to the designer Dave McKean, who created this ergonomic feast: I've never read a book that looked like this before, and with any luck it will start a new trend in the staid old world of publishing.

But then again, I've never read a book that read like this before. "What's Welsh For Zen" is the frequently amazing tale of how a child prodigy from the valleys, the son of a miner and a teacher, plugged into New York's avant garde classical music scene before cofounding (and later being sacked from) the most influential American rock group ever. Cale is measured on the subject of his old sparring partner, one Louis Firbank, with fulsome praise for Reed's genius but less explicit concerning the frictions that effectively halted their creative partnership, although certain incidents are recalled with a venom and intricacy that probably means little to anyone except the two protagonists themselves.

More interesting - since much of this ground has already been adequately tilled over by Victor Bockris in his definitive tome on the Velvet Underground, "Up-Tight" - is the discussion of Cale's later work, including his oft-praised but little-heard series of solo albums, collaborations with Eno (who at one point attacked Cale with a stick during the making of their "Wrong Way Up" album) and Lou Reed ("Songs For Drella" is featured in some depth), the shaky VU reunion and a selective trawl through his production work (The Stooges and Patti Smith are mentioned; the Happy Mondays are not). There's also the usual detailing of rock star sex/drugs/drink excess, which in Cale's case maybe actually adds to, rather than subtracts from, the resonance of the tale in question. After all, given the lyrical content of much of "The Velvet Underground & Nico" it pretty much comes with the territory.

If you're as fascinated by the music of John Cale as I am, or simply interested in what makes one of rock's great lost (commercially, rather than critically) talents tick, "What's Welsh For Zen" is thoroughly recommended reading - especially if you were lucky enough to nab a copy signed by the great man himself, like what I did!

JOHN CALE TRIO Cardiff St David's Hall, 16 January 1999

This was possibly the first concert I’ve attended that was designed to promote a book rather than an album (that book being Cale’s autobiography, "What’s Welsh For Zen?", my copy of which had been signed by the great man himself earlier in the day). Consequently there was an air of reading room reverence about this gig, accentuated by the sparseness of the stage décor – a few chairs, a grand piano and sundry other instruments scattered around; certainly nothing that you could call a ‘set’. Which may be a common occurrence in these post-prog days, but even the most punk of bands manage to fill the stage up with something, even if it’s just racks of equipment. Here there was bordering on nada.

Which of course counted for nothing when Cale arrived, fashionably late, accompanied by his American backing musicians Mark Deffenbaugh and Lance Doss, who between them added tonal colour with, among other instruments, a banjo, mandolin, jew’s harp, harmonica, lap steel, guitar and flute, Cale himself flitting between the piano and guitar. The first three songs were adaptations of Dylan Thomas poems, the opener using a cacophonous sequenced drum track that Cale summoned up from a little silver box of trickery parked by his piano – something of a rollercoaster lurch into the unknown, as his piano playing and singing seemingly collided off and bounced randomly over the metronomic drum patterns. He quickly segued into the more familiar territories of "On A Wedding Anniversary" and "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", which set the tone for the rest of the evening: sterling acoustic and semi-acoustic trawls through his rich back catalogue, with performances that, as with 1992’s "Fragments Of A Rainy Season" live album, impress by showing how consistently fresh and inventive his songs are in this stripped down context, when the original studio versions are, by comparison, hamstrung by the production trickery and trends of the times, (Who could have thought, for example, that something musical and tuneful could emerge from the aural wreckage of the "Music For A New Society" album?)

So he played "Child’s Christmas In Wales", complete with a terrific harmonica solo from Mark Deffenbaugh (one of the night’s rare displays of dexterity: most of the songs were pruned back to their barest rhythmic elements and dispensed with in three minutes or under – no endless widdly-widdly guitar soloing here!), "Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend" complete with the anticipated piano abuse at its close, Cale managing to conjure up with his left hand the same kind of bass thuddery that normally closes Massive Attack gigs (the piano is a percussion instrument, remember!), a sparkling "Ship Of Fools", a resigned and heartfelt "You Know More Than I Know", his gothic horror deconstruction of "Heartbreak Hotel", an angular "Ballad Of Cable Hogue", Cale reduced to whispering and spitting the words whilst seemingly slashing chords out of his guitar, "Cordoba", whose fractured lyrics of espionage were revealed to be hacked together from some Spanish/English phrase books he found at Brian Eno’s house, and closed with his ethereal cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah", the version the late, great Jeff Buckley took as the template for his own reading.

You could gripe at the fact that he was barely on stage for seventy minutes. You might feel cheated if you’d actually believed some of the ridiculous pre-show hype I’d seen, along the lines of "John Cale will be playing his own material and Velvet Underground hits" (Velvet Underground hits? Such as?!) But you would be missing the point entirely. Tonight John Cale held an entire auditorium in rapt attention using only piano, guitar, voice, a duo of understated but supremely accomplished multi-instrumentalists and nearly thirty years’ worth of one of rock’s great lost back catalogues. See his show (or at least try to hear "Fragments Of A Rainy Season", which is as fine an approximation to it as you’re likely to get unless he releases a live album from this tour), buy his book, marvel at the eloquence and articulacy of his muse. An amazing performance from the returning local hero.

JOHN CALE Fragments Of A Rainy Season (Hannibal)

As I strongly hinted in my review of the great man’s Cardiff concert, the kernel of his current live show is contained within this terrific CD, recorded in France (I think) in 1992. Hear one man perform open-heart surgery armed only with a battered, percussive piano and an acoustic guitar, with assistance from deftly selected highlights from one of rock’s most consistently wonderful (and almost completely ignored) back catalogues. Here lie definitive performances of Cale originals such as "Paris 1919", "Fear", "Ship Of Fools" and an especially divine "(I Keep A) Close Watch" ("This is a love song, so hold onto someone you love" says Cale in his introduction), a selection of surprisingly affecting and effective settings of Dylan Thomas texts and a smattering of cover versions (his legendary re-interpretation of "Heartbreak Hotel" and Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah") that succeed in improving immeasurably on the originals. If you’re a curious Velvet Underground enthusiast wondering how best to make sense of John Cale’s frighteningly diverse solo career, start here. The only caveat I would offer is that backtracking through his studio work could be a baffling and frustrating experience, as these freshly-minted readings don’t show the original recordings, hamstrung as many of them are with faddish contemporary production and arrangements, in a particularly complimentary light.

JOHN CALE HoboSapiens (EMI)

hobosapiens.jpg (8392 bytes)"HoboSapiens", Cale's first song album since 1996's apparently underwhelming "Walking On Locusts", begins with that modern marvel, the hidden track but, as with the similar inducement on the recent Luke Haines and The Auteurs collection, the game is given away in the packaging's small print. Perched somewhere between "Thoughtless Kind" and The Velvet Underground's "Coyote", "Set Me Free" mixes up that rusty old viola drone and sound effects of children playing with layer upon layer of shiny modern rock music, and it's great. It immediately vindicates the superficially strange choice of co-producer, Nick Franglen of ambient specialists Lemon Jelly, before the album proper even begins.

Products of prolonged ProTools trickery, most of these songs are built on luxuriant, shimmering music, over which Cale discourses with fierce intelligence on the kind of topics that are far beyond the conventional remit of popular music - you'd need an encyclopaedia to hand to decode "HoboSapiens" thoroughly, although it's no less enjoyable if you don't - or builds bizarre snapshots of nightmarish Burroughsian underworlds.

"Reading My Mind" is a cautionary tale in which an Italian test drive of an AC Cobra ends in a disaster recreated by a "Living For The City"-style playlette. "Look For Horizon" is built on a foggy jazz drum loop and Cale's own mournful electric viola, sounding like a pretty good approximation of the sun setting over a palm court orchestra at the end of the empire. The driest of wits is at work behind "Archimedes" ("The car antenna's gone missing/It's out there somewhere cruising the streets"), and "Twilight Zone" is a buzzing cacophony given perhaps unintentional comic value by Cale's stentorian enunciation of slogans such as "Kick out the jams" and "Bring out your dead" over the fade. "Bicycle" is slightly unnerving to begin with, seeming unusually fluffy and flip for a Cale track, but it grows on the listener. Built on a borrowed Eno drum loop, and featuring the Prof's daughters Irial and Darla on giggling, it's the one song on "HoboSapiens" that emphatically would not be sound better when played live, perhaps testifying to its essential non-songness. Despite the excellent efforts of all involved, I can't quite shake the concern that these songs might in future find themselves hampered by the trendsettingly now production: sure, they sound great at the moment, but in twenty or thirty years will they sound as heavy-handed as Cale albums like "Helen Of Troy", for example, do now? I can almost hear the kind of savage mistreatment Cale could mete out to a song such as "Things" armed with just an acoustic guitar, and it walks all over the two very fine versions presented here.

That quibbling, trivial point aside, for now and the immediate future "HoboSabiens" is fabulously dense, tightly woven, intelligent modern rock music, and shouldn't that make it compulsory listening for people like us?

JOHN CALE 5 Tracks (EMI)

Presented as a prequel to last year's mesmerising "HoboSapiens" long player, these five songs could have easily been submerged in that elegant, eloquent album to form a 75 minute masterpiece. They're blessed with the same Pro Tools-inspired mesh of synthetic instrumentation, and the familiar unsettling soundscapes that trip from lullaby to hurricane and back in the space of a stanza. Nevertheless, there's something typically bold and cantankerous about Cale's decision to release them separately as this brief and inexpensive mini album.

"Waiting For Blonde" finds an elliptical 9/11 tribute amongst New York's subway panhandlers, whilst the mysterious, brooding "Chums Of Dumpty (We All Are)" breaks for a palm court PR piece. The pick of this small but perfectly formed crop for me is "Wilderness Approaching": apparently from the film "Paris", it finds Cale in his most authoritative voice accompanied by the synthesised jangle of an out-of-tune pub piano. "Leave the lights on in the front room and the door unlocked/You want them to see all that you've got", he advises sternly, which must make the Welshman a controversial figure at Neighbourhood Watch meetings.

If you bought and enjoyed "HoboSapiens", buy and enjoy this as well. If you didn't, it's the perfect low-maintenance introduction to the 2003-model John Cale.

JOHN CALE Coal Exchange, Cardiff 21 November 2009 


Billed somewhat grandiosely (and nonsensically) as “When Past and Future Collide”, this rare home country appearance by the former Velvet Undergrounder is advertised as including a complete performance of his classic 1973 album “Paris 1919”. Well, still experiencing lingering bitterness at the “Astral Weeks” gig that wasn’t, just down the road from the newly reopened Coal Exchange at the Millennium Centre, I’ll believe it when I hear it. The venue’s bizarre policy of combining unreserved seating and opening the doors at 19:00 for a show that, I learn on arrival, won’t be starting until 20:45, means that I’ll be waiting for a while yet.


Given the excellence of Cale’s solo or near-solo shows (as anybody who’s heard his one-man live album “Fragments Of A Rainy Season” will hopefully concur) I’d be happy to hear him hammer out “Paris 1919” alone on acoustic guitar and piano. It’s a surprise, then, to see so many music stands arrayed on the Coal Exchange’s tiny stage, and when the musicians eventually file in I lose track as the headcount tops 20. There are string players crowded everywhere, a brass sectionette, a conductor, a drummer hidden away at the back, a bassist, guitarist and Cale himself, stationed almost centre-stage behind a keyboard. He helpfully explains the format of the evening – basically “Paris 1919”, an interval, more music, another interval and, finally, more music.


True to his word, the ensemble launch into “Child’s Christmas In Wales”, and inevitably it’s creamily gorgeous. The mini-orchestra plays unamplified, as far as I can tell, so the electricity is inevitably dialled down to balance them, meaning that everything, Cale’s vocals especially, can be heard, rather than disappearing into a fog of reverberation. Nitpicking, I might complain that the presence of the strings on every song - admittedly understandable in an “If you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em” kinda fashion – seems to flatten the dynamics of the album, almost like ladling golden syrup over an entire meal. The record’s most haunting moment, “Antarctica Starts Here”, is sapped by the way Cale now actually sings the lyrics, rather than whispering them in haunting and mysterious fashion. And pedants will blanche at the way the album’s sole out-and-out rocker, “Macbeth”, is relocated from the end of side one to the close of side two. Even so, it’s an amazing performance, especially considering that Cale appears to have convened and rehearsed this huge group of musicians for just this single show in this small, sold-out venue.

After a break, the core electric quartet return and wail through some material that I presume to be from Cale’s latest studio work, “BlackAcetate”, as yet unheard by me. They’re fine but not remarkable, congruent with the shoulder-shrugging reviews that led me to avoid that album.
  He’s soon back on more familiar territory, though, playing “Amsterdam”, from his solo debut “Vintage Violence”, arranged as a wash of electronica reminiscent of the “HoboSapiens” album, and then “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend”, replete with the expected and anticipated crashing, bloodcurdling conclusion. Off again and on again, the orchestra return for a very fine “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “Hedda Gabler”, a curious obscurity to end the evening with that proves Cale has in no way sacrificed his ability to confound expectations to the cosy glow of nostalgia

Lou Reed, John Cale & Nico

Velvet Underground