HIGH FREQUENCIES: John Cale hosts a fête for 'The Velvet Underground & Nico'
At 75, the multi-faceted musician looks back 50 years- while forging ahead
With its iconic cover — original copies had a peel-able yellow banana that, once the skin had been removed, revealed a bright pink fruit — designed by famed Pop Artist Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground & Nico was as striking visually as it was audibly. Warhol is also credited with “producing” the album, though that term is used loosely. Nearer the point, Warhol was a sounding board, even a cultural agent provocateur for the band, it was under his tutelage the musicians found a home base at the original Factory and became a part of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable; engineer Tom Wilson was responsible for committing the music to tape.
Surely, at the time of its release no one expected repercussions from The Velvet Underground & Nico, with its layers of drone and feedback and songs of sadomasochism and drug use, to still be echoing in music five decades later. Such are the inauspicious beginnings of great art.
As part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2017 Next Wave Festival, John Cale returned to BAM for a three-night engagement at the academy’s Opera House.
The first two nights in the city where it all started, Cale hosted a tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico, the album released on an unsuspecting public 50 years ago. The third night, Cale, backed by many of the same musicians from the previous two evenings, showed the progression of his music since the VU days, performing compositions spanning his varied solo career in celebration of this, his 75th birthday year.
Those in attendance either of the first two nights experienced a cacophony of sound from Cale and his core band — Dustin Boyer, guitar, Joey Maramba, bass, and Deantoni Parks, drums — augmented by members of the Wordless Music Orchestra and younger, contemporary pop artists, whose participation was curated by Cale.
It started out simple enough, Cale and band ripping through “Waiting For The Man,” showing just how much dissonance four musicians could create. Then, joined by guitarist Kurt Vile and Thee Oh Sees, they launched into “White Light/White Heat” with holy abandon, Brigid Dawson’s vocals accentuating the revivalist leanings of the song while Vile and John Dwyer thrashed about on guitar. “White Light/White Heat,” one of three surprise songs from the VU’s second album, was followed by the anthemic “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” With Cale on viola, joined by MGMT, and members of the Wordless Music Orchestra on strings and brass, it became clear just how important Cale’s contribution was to the overall sound and density of the Velvet Underground on those first two albums. The beauty and desolate air of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” achieved with the drone of the viola on record, was pushed to new depths with the additional layers of sound added by the new cohorts joining him onstage.
As if to allow the audience a chance to collectively catch its breath, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” followed, Sky Ferreira’s lithesome vocals and the song’s upbeat melody a needed respite. “There She Goes Again,” augmented by Animal Collective and Connan Mockasin, also eased the tension, the vocals from the members of Animal Collective reminiscent of some street corner doo-wop of an earlier era, yet belying the still-contemporary nature of the song.
Before the audience was allowed to get too comfortable, Kurt Vile was back onstage, riffing with the band on a roof-raising “Run Run Run.” MGMT then returned with members of the Wordless Music for yet another layered sonic assault. As mesmerizing as it was disconcerting, “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” with its subliminal stops and starts of electronics, pulled the listener in and out of reality against a menacing drone of sounds. As before, just as the audience was about to be taken over the edge and into the musical abyss, it was pulled from the brink with another of the Velvet Underground’s quieter, more melodic Nico songs. “Femme Fatale,” sung by Caroline Polacheck, placed in the set immediately after “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” exhibited the beauty and the beast of The Velvet Underground & Nico, the band’s two musical styles pushing and pulling the listener into its world.
“Lady Godiva’s Operation” brought another reprieve, a syncopated somnambulist sensation of sound. Mockasin ambled onstage dressed in a nurse’s outfit, guitar in hand, as if in a dream state, before finding his place at the microphone, countering Cale’s didactic delivery with his own accented yelps.
The pace quickly picked up with Thee Oh Sees joining on “European Son,” Dawson’s vocals punctuating Cale’s urgent delivery while Dwyer’s manic guitar took the song to another dimension. Polacheck returned to the stage, once again emphasizing the bi-polar extremes of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s musical styles with her interpretation of “Sunday Morning.”
Drones from Cale’s viola drew applause as the opening chords of “Heroin” permeated the opera house. TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe walked onstage, and the room plunged into the despair and decision of “Heroin.” With the rumbling rush of Maramba’s bass and Parks’ drums, Cale’s plaintive viola crying over Boyer’s caterwauling guitar and the blips and beeps emanating from whatever electrical box Adebimpe had onstage with him, “Heroin” roared with crescendoing layers of noise before the run came to an end.
Had only songs from The Velvet Underground & Nico been performed, the show would’ve reached its logical conclusion. Yet having introduced material from White Light/White Heat, the Velvet Underground’s cataclysmic second album, Cale had one more trick up his sleeve. With the opening chords establishing the rhythm, the night’s guests made their way back onstage for a pulsating romp through what can only be described as a rollicking “Sister Ray.” Words collided with sounds, Brigid Dawson’s yelps wailed against Caroline Polachek’s screams, guitars clanged and clashed, a trumpet pierced the sousaphone’s rhythmic thrusts, all in a glorious noise and triumphant finale.
The Velvet Underground & Nico, for all its influence and inspiration, all it’s timelessness, had been reborn. Cale, who at the start of the performance acknowledged his collaborators no longer a part of this mortal coil — Warhol, Reed, Morrison, and Nico — and no longer performing — Tucker — not only breathed new life into the half-century-old masterpiece, but had handed it over to a new generation of musicians to call their own. Indeed, it did not go unnoticed earlier in the evening when Cale allowed one of the younger musicians to join him in pounding away at his keyboard, in essence initiating the transition that was now complete.
Both nights, the concert, simply put, was incredible. Amazing. For all the bands the Velvet Underground may have inspired, Cale showed that none of them formed over the past 50 years can beat him at his own game. The work of the Velvet Underground was as menacing, and as beautiful, as when the band first formed. Even the Velvet Underground’s “reunion” tour in 1993 could not hold a candle to the madness and the mayhem Cale let loose at BAM.
For all the looking back of Thursday and Friday night’s “50th Anniversary of The Velvet Underground & Nico entailed, Saturday evening’s performance, “John Cale’s 75th Birthday Celebration: A Live Audio-Spectrum from Dissonance to Deconstruction,” was a look into the future for the man who never stops stretching whatever limits get in his way.
Starting with a simple drone, the full Wordless Music Orchestra (again performing arrangements charted by Randy Wolf) joined Cale’s band for an evening that may having included songs from his broad and expansive solo catalogue, but other than one, the indomitable “Fear,” nothing was even remotely recognizable to their recorded counterparts. Cale once told me that the Velvet Underground attempted to “be a Dylan concert without being a Dylan concert.” With Dylan now regularly rearranging his material into unrecognizable songs reflecting where he is at the moment, Cale took his own compositions a step further, offering a look at what they might be in the years ahead. The songs may have been performed onstage, in the moment, but the arrangements took the listener light years away. Among the seventeen numbers to be reworked were “Gravel Drive,” “Hedda Gabler,” “Half Past France,” “Leaving It Up To You,” “You Know More Than I Know,” “Hanky Panky Nohow,” and “(I Keep A) Close Watch.” Cale ended the evening with three haunting new songs, the rousing “Pretty People,” the syncopated “Hatred,” and the cinematic “The Legal Status of Ice,” all which proved the Welshman is anything but ready “to go gentle into that good night.” Seventy-five years-old. A two-hour, 38-minute set. And he seemed to be just warming up.
With three sold-out nights of incredible, awe-inspiring music, Cale showed why the Academy has been, and always will be, in peril with him around.
Side bar dept. … Or, what was the influence of the VU in Atlanta? …
During “Sister Ray” I couldn’t help but think back to a conversation I had years earlier with Atlanta singer/guitarist Dan Baird, then just putting together the Georgia Satellites after playing in a number of garage bands. A straight-ahead, no frills rock ’n’ roller, he, too, had felt the influence of the Velvet Underground when charting his own musical course.
“It was liberating at that point in time,” he remembered, when I asked him recently about his first hearing the Velvet Underground. “I wasn't in on the Velvets when they (first) released their albums, I was five to 10 years late to the party, but I had been exposed to some of the 10,000 bands they started with that first record. It was kinda like finding the source of the Nile … And it was liberating. Couple of chords, an emotion to express, take it as far as it needs to go. John Lee Hooker comes to mind. The simplicity and conviction are the most important things,” he remembers about first hearing the Velvet Underground.
After “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” made the Georgia Satellites a household name, the band released the EP Another Chance with their song “Nights Of Mystery” segueing into a sultry version of “Waiting For the Man” as a B-side. The twin guitar attack of Baird and Rick Richards didn’t escape the notice of Lou Reed.
“Lou sent a nice letter, as we had sent him a copy of the EP,” Baird remembered. “I think I admitted I mashed up his five verses into three. He wrote back, ‘It sounds like you guys had a good time with it.’ We did!”
Bill Taft, currently with Will Fratesi, Brian Halloran, and Billy Fields in the Atlanta band W8ing4UFOs, also cited inspiration from the Velvet Underground, but in a more roundabout way, having first heard Cale’s Sabotage/Live and Reed’s Rock N Roll Animal in high school. The “performance was noisy, yet focused” he remembered of Cale’s live album, saying it impressed him “in a powerful way,” while it was the dual, twin-lead guitars of Reed’s live recording which struck Taft “as something worth creating in some way.
“I failed to achieve this goal as a guitar player,” he admitted, but he feels he came close to “the effect when playing cornet in Smoke. The cornet lines and cello melodies worked, to me at least, in the same way the two guitars work on Rock N Roll Animal.
“The Velvet Underground & Nico album never hit me in the heart like a jolt of holy inspiration the way the Beatles on Ed Sullivan seemed to hit other musicians, but I have probably listened to it more over time than Sabotage/Live or Rock N Roll Animal. The album holds up. Lately, I listen to it for the viola parts, noisy as hell, yet totally in tune with the song, and the drumming. Moe Tucker on “I am Waiting for the Man” delivers a timeless manic beat that is continuously playing in my skull. Whenever I am playing a guitar alone, I riff around with that song’s teeth-gnashing beat looped in my mind.”
Clare Butler, who, as part of Atlanta’s the Now Explosion brought music and theater together on stages in Atlanta, New York and elsewhere, was certainly affected by the VU.
“I believe the lore that everyone who bought that first Velvet Underground album started a band. That’s my story,” she recounted. “When I was in high school, my mom gave me a copy of the book, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.” I promptly covered my bedroom walls in tin foil from Woolworths to mimic the silver walls of the Factory and bought a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico. That was a defining moment when art, music and performance merged in my mind and informed all I would think and do after. Each song spoke to me in a highly personal way, and I knew I wasn’t the only one to feel this way. There’s never been a time in my life where I haven’t listened to the Velvet Underground. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
As a member of the Nightporters, many Atlantans saw Ray Dafrico learn to play guitar onstage over the years. It was that seeming naiveté of musicianship he first heard on The Velvet Underground & Nico which encouraged him.
“I probably heard the first Velvets record when I was 16 or 17. It was one of those records like the Sex Pistols first one that really grabbed you the first time you heard it. I remember it being a big influence on the Nightporters as we were just starting out and learning how to play and to be a band. It really spoke to us in the sense that it was very simplistic , yet powerful.
“It was music that you could actually go and play yourself, and of course we loved how raw it was, how different it was from the music that we were used to to hearing growing up as ‘70s kids.
“I would say that's it's one of the most dangerous records in the sense that it's so druggy and sexual and ethereal that it drew you in and made you feel a little more comfortable with those subjects and made you want to kind of experiment with some it. As with a lot of great records, it was one of those that people really loved or people really hated. For the people it spoke to, you instantly loved it. As a musician, it was right up my alley.”
Buffi Aguero, whose work with the Subsonics (she stands rather than sits while playing drums, not unlike Moe Tucker) was quick and succinct in her recollection. "I was 14 when I first heard the VU and Nico record,” she said. "It was like looking into a different world. I couldn’t get enough of it. Even though Florida was a shit hole, I was lucky to have cool friends with good records who turned me on to all kinds of stuff. Within a year, I left home, moved to England and started playing music.”
Guitarist Kevin Dunn, whose work with the Fans ushered in a New Wave sensibility to the Atlanta music scene, interestingly enough, was not immediately captured by The Velvet Underground & Nico. Surprisingly, he revealed that he “was late to the Velvets party. The first time I heard the VU I was in high school at Druid Hills, and though I could vaguely connect them with Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and all the rest of that breathtakingly terrifying sort of New Yorkery (I was a precocious Esquire fan, after all — I mean, it’s where I first read Christgau), they didn’t especially stand out for me amid the welter of stuff you could pay attention to then. I was a first-term college freshman when I encountered them next — White Light/White Heat on the 8-track (!!!) in the very cool fiat of a guy much more successful with the ladies than was I — and, being at that age all about sine-wave-fuzz guitar (Clapton on Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire; Hendrix generally) and dense harmony (e.g., the White Album, Procol Harum’s first two albums), I was really sort of disdainful of the jagged surface and (to the callow, advanced-apprentice’s ear I possessed at 18), haphazard execution.
“Anyway, I don’t understand what it was/is about white boys in the suburbs, but as with me and the blues, the true, titanic sources of which I sought out only after English aficionados provided direction (which whole business at present induces a certain shame, and fretting about appropriation), I had the clue about Cale, Reed et al. bestowed on me chiefly by Bowie, that sincerest sort of imitator, the one who confidently purposes in the first instance to move beyond mimesis straight to interpretation. The criticism I read concerning, and the evidence of the material on, Hunky Dory (plus my having obtained between 1969 and 1972 a much improved understanding of the drone niche of avant-garde serious music) made it possible for me to parse what I was listening to when I listened to the Velvet Underground. And that opened for me not only a portal into a whole different way of musicking but also, for not the first and most certainly not the last time, a passage into something as valuable: the chastened exhilaration that comes with being caught out dead to rights missing the boat for the shakedown cruise to Avalon. There’s a virtue attaches to discovering just how big a dope you can be, y’know?
You can contact Tony Paris regarding upcoming gigs; noteworthy news, rumor, and innuendo; or, if you just want to say, “Hi,” at firstname.lastname@example.org, since you already know he doesn’t read messages received on his Facebook account.