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Posts tagged ‘John Cale’

John Cale in the round

John Cale RoundhouseThrough his contribution to the first two Velvet Underground albums, John Cale was one of the people who shifted the tectonic plates of popular music in the 20th century. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect more. But I always believed, based on his work with La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate, the three albums of archive material from 1965-69 released by Table of the Elements a few years ago, his arrangements on Nico’s The Marble Index, his collaboration with Terry Riley on The Church of Anthrax, his instrumental music for the Warhol films Eat and Kiss, and various other pieces of evidence, that he had the potential to go a long way beyond the rock and roll template into which he settled with Vintage ViolenceParis 1919 and their various successors, whatever his occasional flirtations with punkish sedition (such as the line “We could all feel safe/Like Sharon Tate” which so upset the Island Records hierarchy in 1976).

The weird thing about Cale was that so much of his post-Velvets music sounded like the Velvets had never existed, which was why it was so pleasing to hear the way he treated “(I Keep a) Close Watch” at the Roundhouse last night, during his spot in a week-long series called In the Round which has also been featuring Marianne Faithfull, Edwyn Collins, Mulatu Astatke, Scritti Politti and others.

Even if, like many of his songs from the mid-’70s, it sounds as though he never quite got round to completing it, “Close Watch” remains Cale’s most poignantly affecting ballad. It’s perfectly fine when sung straight and solo, as he did with the version included in the excellent Fragments of a Rainy Season, recorded during a 1992 tour and released by Hannibal that same year. But last night he and his three-piece band subjected it to a complete overhaul, stretching its sturdy sinews and ligaments almost to snapping point with an arrangement based on waves and surges of growling, shrieking electronic sound. It was a mighty noise, and it gave the song a devastating impact.

Wearing a conductor’s black tail coat, black T-shirt and jeggings and brown lace-up ankle boots, with his hair dyed silvery blonde in a sort of Small-Faces-circa-Itchycoo Park style, Cale was in relatively genial mood, although he didn’t say much. There was a “Hello, London — good to see you” and an unsatisfactory introduction to his keyboards-player (doubling bass guitar), guitarist and drummer, both of whom doubled on electronic bits and pieces: “This is Nick, this is Dusty, and this is (indecipherable).” Given the attitude with which the three musicians approached arrangements that required not just precision but commitment, and in the absence of any other way for the audience to identify them, he might have done better.

The repertoire in his 100-minute set included “Coral Moon”, “Changes Made”, “Hemingway” and a densely propulsive final pass at Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso”, a reminder of what a creative rearranger of other people’s classics he can be. But, with the exception of “Close Watch”, it was still mostly generic rock and roll. At 73, and seemingly in good nick, there’s time for him to stretch his capacious intellect and wide range of technical skills in other directions once more. I do wish he would.

Nico, Eno and John Cale in Berlin, 1974

Nico, Cale, EnoFrom the look on their faces, the Grepos guarding the East German side of Checkpoint Charlie had never seen anything like Brian Eno. This was October 5, 1974, and I seem to remember that Eno had dyed his long hair green. They looked askance at John Cale, too. But somehow they let the three of us through the barriers and barbed wire and past the lookout towers that marked the official crossing point in the Wall, enabling us to stroll up the Friedrichstrasse and turn right on to the Unter den Linden for a taste of the Cold War from the other side.

Nico couldn’t come with us. It was something to do with having a West German passport, but I don’t think she was at all upset. To her, Berlin was the city in which she had lived with her mother between 1940, when she was two years old, and 1954. The young Christa Päffgen had worked as a seamstress and a salesgirl in the famous KaDeWe department store before leaving for a new life in Paris, and a new name, at 16.

We were there because the three of them were performing that night in the Neue Nationalgalerie as part of the Meta Musik-Festival. This was month-long event which also featured Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Musicians, the Philip Glass Ensemble (performing “Music in 12 Parts”), Tangerine Dream, Alvin Curran, Musica Elettronica Viva, Tony and Beverly Conrad, a group of Tibetan monks exiled in Switzerland, Ustad Vilayat Khan, and various others. Quite a line-up.

The festival’s director, Walter Bachauer, had taken note of the well publicised event at the Rainbow in London four months earlier, when Nico, Cale and Eno shared the bill with Kevin Ayers. At Island, to whom all four were all contracted, we got our fingers out and got a live album titled June 1, 1974 in the shops within three weeks of the concert. They repeated the event in Manchester and Birmingham, if I remember correctly. When the West Berlin date came up, Ayers wasn’t available. But Bachauer was happy to take the other three, presented under the heading British Rock of the Avant-Garde.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is a classic piece of Bauhaus design by Mies van der Rohe, a low steel and dark glass building erected in 1968 in the middle of what was then a wasteland just south of the Tiergarten (the physical scars of Berlin’s wartime devastation had yet to heal completely). The audience, mainly students, sat on the floor, on white expanded-polystyrene cushions supplied by the museum.

The room was darkened, with three spotlights picking out the performers. Nico had her usual harmonium, Cale had a beautiful grand piano, and Eno had his VCS3 synthesiser plus a card table on which he placed a couple of dozen wine glasses, filled with water to varying heights, all miked up.

The idea was to split the evening between the songs of Cale and Nico. She sang “Frozen Warnings” and “No One Is There” from The Marble Index, “Janitor of Lunacy”, “The Falconer”, “Mutterlein” and “Abschied” from Desertshore, and three tracks from her new album: “You Forgot to Answer”, “Innocent and Vain” and the title track, the Doors’ “The End”. He performed “Guts”, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, “Buffalo Ballet”, Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Fear”, the title track of his new album.

For me, “Fear” was the real first high-point, not least because the point of the card table and the amplified water-filled wine glasses became apparent. Eno tapped on the glasses to make tintinnabulatory noises and then, as Cale’s dramatic song neared the point of explosion, he started to smash them. Fluxus had come to the Bauhaus.

But that was just a start. A certain amount of restiveness had been apparent in the audience from the start, in the form of mild heckling and booing. Back then Berlin audiences had a marked tendency to make their feelings known, and — given that 1974 was the time of the Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhoff and the Red Army Fraction — this lot probably spent as much time at political demonstrations as at concerts.

What really set them off was Nico’s decision to sing “Das Lied der Deutschen”, the old national anthem, with its tune by Haydn and its triumphalist words by August Hoffman von Fallersleben. It had been readopted by the Bonn government in 1952, using only the third verse: a hymn to peaceful unification. The verses about “Germany above all in the world” and “German women, Germany loyalty, German wine and German song” were omitted. Nico, inevitably, ploughed her way through the lot, seemingly oblivious to the gathering crescendo of disapproval. Cale responded as one knew he would, by hammering Rachmaninoff-style arpeggios up and down the keyboard, while Eno gamely produced a variety of lurid war noises from his little synthesiser. The booing and the heckling became shouting and chanting, and dozens of the white polystyrene cushions were hurled (quite harmlessly) towards the stage.

As the cushions flew through the spotlights in the darkened space amid that anarchic din, with Nico imperturbable at the centre of the storm, you could not help but think of the events of 30 years earlier, and what she must have witnessed as a small child. I never knew what her motivation for performing that song was, and I never felt like asking.

Meta Musik 2