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John Cale celebrates the 50th birthday of the coolest New York album ever

Written by
David Chiu

Fifty years on, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the debut by the Velvet Underground, is still unlike any other rock record, a gut punch of galvanizing downtown cool, frontman Lou Reed’s dark, gritty and streetwise lyrics and multi-instrumentalist John Cale’s experimental fuckery. A commercial flop at the time (to put it politely), the album has become a landmark work. And this November at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cale pays homage to the record during two concerts with Wordless Music Orchestra and a bunch of surprise guests, as well as a one-off 75th-birthday concert of solo material. 

Why do you think the album resonates half a century later?
John Cale: As a rock & roll record in that time period, it was an awkward thing to listen to. The songwriting, the style of the performance and the musical ideas were a really awkward thing to present to people. I mean, people didn’t want to know that stuff.

Is there anything about listening to the record for you that still amazes you or conjures up memories?
Basically about how we tried to do as much with very little, and the value of the drone. Once you have a drone like that, it gives you a tapestry that you work against. It makes the whole thing a little more expansive, setting up more space.

Were your parts on the viola improvised or planned from the start for the recording?
Once we finalized that it was [drummer] Moe [Tucker], [guitarist] Sterling [Morrison], Lou and I [in the Velvet Underground’s lineup], we would meet [on weekends] for a year. So it was a whole year of just playing and playing. That was something that I picked up from [composer] La Monte Young, because we would play every day for a year and a half. That sort of embedded in me the idea that work is fun, that you really get somewhere when you focus and concentrate.

“Heroin” is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the record. What was your reaction when Lou introduced the song to you?
“Heroin” was a strange animal because it’s an accelerated performance that you start at one point and, slowly, it gets wilder and wilder. It would climb the hill and come down, climb the hill and come down. So you really had to figure out before these verses came along what you were going to do. In general, the tempos would change, and Moe would push us, and Sterling would follow Lou.

What was Andy Warhol like as a quote-unquote producer?
He was very good at reminding us that there were some ideas that we had forgotten and weren't paying attention to. [He'd say,] “So don't forget about that one.” But it wasn't something that Andy was [into] all the time—he was running the Factory, selling art and making art.

The addition of Nico to the record wasn’t warmly welcomed, especially by Lou.
While we were really working on getting ourselves better and better at playing these difficult songs, Andy [Warhol] pops in and says, “Hey, why don’t you have Nico sing some songs?” She would sing in this flat tone of voice, and everybody would look at each other. But it didn’t take long before Lou wrote three of the most beautiful songs he ever wrote—for her [“Femme Fatale,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties”]. That did it.

Given how radical the music was, did you have any inkling or hope that this album was going to be a hit?
I did. I looked at it as “Where do we sit in the pantheon right now?” We paid close attention to every record that came out [at the time]. We knew pretty much where we were and how we could be different, and we went after it.

What was your experience mounting The Velvet Underground & Nico concerts that started in Paris last year?
It was very interesting. We had a lot of different people doing some of those songs, and obviously some French artists. Then we did it again in Liverpool [this past May]. We found some new young artists—they reminded me a lot of when we first started. They were really intent on what they were doing.

You've featured younger artists such as the Kills' Alison Mosshart, Animal Collective and Wild Beasts at those previous shows.
That's what the excitement is, just watching these guys approach this material and have their own ideas, and how they want to do things. When [the Velvets] were doing it, we were trying to tear it apart, we were trying to break down all the rules. And here you have a whole slew of other musicians coming along and doing the same thing.

It's appropriate that you're doing these upcoming concerts at BAM since your music career really started in New York City.
I grew up in Wales and was dying to go to New York and live in the city. And sure enough in '63, they had this cultural revolution going on with the [Filmmakers'] Cinematheque, Andy [Warhol] and [filmmaker] Jonas Mekas. It was very exciting. There was something going on all the time.

At Brooklyn Academy of Music, 50th Anniversary of The Velvet Underground & Nico is November 16 and 17 at 8pm, and John Cale’s 75th Birthday Concert is November 18 at 8pm ( $35–$95. You can purchase tickets here

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