Interview by Scott Isler. Published in Musician no. 126, april 1989
HE'S VERY MUCH a private man," says one of his associates; "he keeps his own counsel." "He's amazingly articulate," says another, adding, "He's also incredibly humble." "He's a perfectionist... he knows what he wants," the first counters. The various viewpoints aren't surprising, considering the subject: John Cale has baffled, shocked and thrilled people with his music for over two decades. He plays "Dirty Ass Rock 'n' Roll" (the genre and the song, which he wrote) and symphonic sketches with orchestras. He prefers Brahms and Jirnmy Reed to hip-hop - or Philip Glass. He knows viola, keyboards and guitar; insists he's a classical composer; and tours clubs with hard-rocking little groups inevitably featuring guitar wizard Chris Spedding. In the early '60s, while performing at Tanglewood, Cale chopped up a table. Over a dozen years later, performing more visceral music in a less effete atmosphere, he chopped up a chicken. In short, a well-rounded musician.
But there's more to Cale than chops. His studio expertise keeps him active as a producer. His taste in projects has shown a discernment justified by
history if not record sales: Cale produced the debuts of Iggy Pop (with the Stooges), Jonathan Richman (with the Modern Lovers), Squeeze and Patti
Smith. His four albums with the enigmatic singer Nico, who died last year; embrace some of the most profoundly unsettling sound ever marketed as "pop."
And yet, for all his achievements, there is one albatross Cale can't get off his neck. From 1965 to 1968 he was a member of the Velvet Underground, a
band that-though little heralded at the time-has so grown in stature over the years that it is now considered a crucial turning point in rock music. Cale was
second in the group only to main singer/songwriter Lou Reed; but while Reed's wildly uneven solo career has received lots of attention, Cale-to
paraphrase a Reed song-has done his growing up in private.
John Cale is a legend who would rather be famous.