Besides blazing a trail with his solo work, Velvet Underground hero John Cale has collaborated with Nick Drake, John Cage, the Stooges and LCD Soundsystem. He received OBE honors from Prince Charles in 2010, at the age of 68, and dyed his hair pink for the occasion. This week’s Life Along the Borderline show at BAM is a celebration of VU cohort Nico, featuring tributes from Sharon Van Etten, Kim Gordon, the Magnetic Fields and Yeasayer, while next week has Cale playing his best-loved solo work, 1973’s Paris 1919, in full. We spoke to Cale from his L.A. studio, as he put the finishing touches to the show’s arrangements. He tells TONY, with cheerful gruffness, that he’s enjoying himself tremendously.
You first performed Life Along the Borderline in 2009, close to what would have been Nico’s 70th birthday. Why have you chosen to do it again?
Well, the one place that we hadn’t done it is in New York. We’ve gathered people from the locale and they all love Nico as a songwriter, and that’s what’s important to me. When we put the feelers out that we wanted to do this concert for Nico, everybody thought [it would be] “I’m Waiting for the Man,” the VU songs. But as soon as we said Nico’s songs, the floodgates opened and all these young artists popped up and said, “Hey, we love Nico’s songs, can we join?”
Why do people connect with Nico?
You know, she wasn’t a singer to begin with, and then Jim Morrison came along and turned her head around, and she suddenly started writing poetry, then she bought a harmonium and she really devoted herself to writing songs. That’s not an easy task—she’s writing in a foreign language for her. Some of the songs [at the show] are in German, and in this case Peaches, who was brought up in Germany, she’s doing a couple of German songs. Every one of [the artists] have songs that they attach themselves to, they feel akin to.
A lot of these musicians have stories like Nico’s, as tough, tenderhearted women who’ve washed up in New York…
There you go. Exactly. There’s that solitary, emotional mind. [Also] they don’t suffer fools gladly, and I don’t. And it’s really down to, how can we do this the best way? They’re all doing it for the right reasons, and that’s excellent.
Would Nico approve of being celebrated?
Yeah, I think she’d be gobsmacked.
Did she like attention?
No, she was a struggling artist and she made life difficult for herself, there’s no doubt about that. I think artists do that anyway, in a way, and they don’t need all the external extracurricular activities to make things worse.
Do you do that?
Yeah, a bit. I was on the wrong track because I thought that behaving in a certain way would really improve my output. And I found out when I stopped behaving like that, my output tripled.
How do your creative energies change over time?
Things happen to you during your life and you change your modus operandi. You really don’t have a button that you can push—it’s just you worry about things. So maybe that’s the button [Laughs], you know—you worry, How am I gonna do it? And you try and do something different every time. I’ve not run into a brick wall yet.
I was admiring the photo of you with your pink hair, and it made me think of David Bowie, and how curious it is that he’s officially retired.
Yeah, I don’t know how that happens. The specter of freezing and not being able to do anything is horrendous. [Marcel] Duchamp suddenly decided to retire, he became a chess player—and I thought, Wow, he knew exactly what he was about. But I can’t think of stopping.
Paris 1919 is your most swoon-worthy album.
Yeah, it’s full of nostalgia. And the subject matter, all of a sudden, was things I missed about Europe.
How do you feel about America now? When you first moved to the U.S., from Wales, you talked about being “seduced by the optimism.”
Yeah, and it’s been up and down since then. Nowadays there are a lot of really interesting and positive things going on. I think the fact that the election just got won by the right person is one of them.
Communication is an ongoing theme in your work, starting with the fact that you couldn’t talk to your dad in English as a child in Wales.
Well, my mother was always saying you’ve got to be a doctor or a lawyer and my answer was, I can do one thing really well, and that’s what I wanna do. She said, You can’t make a living at it. And I said, Well, wait a minute. You know the screenplay Johnny Got His Gun? It’s about a guy who’s in a hospital bed and he can’t talk; he can only see. The position that I ended up in was, You can cut my arms off and cut my tongue out and you can blind me, but I’ll still manage to communicate. So that’s the bottom line for me
In terms of how different you are now than in the days of the Velvets, would you and Lou Reed still have been friends if you met today for the first time?
It was time and place. I’d been spending a lot of time working in the avant-garde and doing experimental music, but fortunately for me, the Beatles landed, and I realized, Hey, I missed a lot of my teenage years. There was this extraordinary excitement and the melodies—I thought, Yeah! A melody! What happened to a melody? I’ve been holding drones for a year and a half. So then it became an interesting way of doing things, it was really important to break the rules and make it work.
John Cale plays BAM Wed 16, Jan 18 and 19. His album Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is out now.
Follow Sophie Harris on Twitter: @SophieMeve