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After the Velvets: John Cale Remembers Nico, Revisits Classic Solo Work in New York

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John Cale
John Cale in 2012
Jim Dyson/Redferns via Getty Images

"If you keep your heart open, it will beat forever," John Cale said as he left the stage after his second set on January 19th, the conclusion of When Past & Future Collide, a three-night retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The focus of the concerts was specific and eccentric.

The first, on the 16th, was an evening of collaborations celebrating Cale's long studio association with the late German vocalist Nico. Guest fans included the singers Peaches, Alison Mosshart of the Kills and the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli and the bands Yeasayer and Mercury Rev. Cale then gave complete performances on the 18th and 19th of his sumptuous 1973 LP, Paris 1919, with New York's Wordless Music Orchestra, followed by harder, darker music from later records, in particular Cale's latest release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (Double Six).

But in that pointed spread, Cale, now 70, covered an eternity in reach and risk, as an arranger, producer and solo artist since his forced exit from the Velvet Underground in 1968. Cale was that group's founding bassist and viola player, and his encore on the 19th was a version, with his own band, of  "Venus in Furs" from the Velvets' 1967 debut album. The throaty, slicing drone of his viola alluded to the Welsh-born performer's first major adventures in New York: his mid-Sixties immersion in the early minimalist underground with the improvising ensemble the Theater of Eternal Music. His singing, rounder and more supple than that of the song's writer, Lou Reed, affirmed the running themes in these shows: the romantic empathy in Cale's exploratory spirit and his lyric portraits of the bold, wounded and exiled.

Echoes of Nico, in New Voices

After the Velvets, Cale went on to produce and record with many of the band's most important disciples, including the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers and Brian Eno. But Cale's most consistent artistic project was Nico, a forbidding beauty with a voice so deep and impassive it was almost manly. She joined the Velvets as a featured singer in 1966, was gone by '67, then fashioned a vocal and emotional language of her own across infrequent solo albums until her death in 1988. Cale arranged and produced the best of them: 1968's The Marble Index, 1970's Desertshore, 1974's The End and 1985's Camera Obscura.

Cale remains a faithful steward of Nico's legacy. But he mounted the first BAM show, Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico, as an act of resonance as well as fondness, altering arrangements and allowing his guests generous interpretive license. Peaches put New Germany into Desertshore's "Mütterlein" with declarative singing and furious, industrial electronics. Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields performed "No One Is There" from The Marble Index with strings and a halting, literal loneliness. Cale and Dulli redrew the plaintive air of "Roses in the Snow," an outtake from The Marble Index, as New Wave R&B, closer to the thrashing drama of Cale's own 1981 album, Honi Soit.

The new extremes, which also included Mosshart's coyote-vocal glam on "Tanamore" and Mercury Rev's brightened, psychedelic "Evening of Light," were a reminder of Cale's careful genius on the original records. Nico expressed terror, challenge and eerie calm within drastic limits – that voice and the labored Gothic breath of her harmonium – which Cale heightened with low strings, accents of piano and sometimes less. Nico and Cale made rapture from restraint and a swallowing darkness. This show revealed how much light was always there, waiting to be let out.

Strings and Vengeance

Cale recorded Paris 1919 while he was a staff producer at Warner Bros. Records in the early Seventies. It was a job with perks. He made the album with the UCLA Symphony Orchestra and a rhythm section that included guitarist Lowell George and drummer Richie Hayward of Little Feat, a Warner act.

The result was finely wrought nostalgia with a bloody center: reflections on a newborn century already in ruins, wrapped in Cale's European symphonic evocation of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Paris 1919 never charted, but it is Cale's best-loved record, a concise negotiation of mid-Sixties pop and tortured art song. At BAM, Cale revisited the grace and peril in "A Child's Christmas in Wales," "Andalucia" and "Antarctica Starts Here" with refreshed energy and pathos, in his singing and the live gusto of the Wordless Music Orchestra.

But when Cale returned for the next set, with the orchestra, he immediately set a starker tone: the black march "Hedda Gabler" from his punk-charged 1977 EP, Animal Justice. In the Velvets, Reed took the poet's crown for his unflinching portraiture of New York dystopia, a broken Sixties of addiction, deviance and fatal desire. Cale's writing on his own albums was as blunt and gripping, a constant wartime of desperate reckoning, continental intrigue and slow healing. At BAM, he drew heavily from the recent dispatches on Nookie Wood: "December Rains," the title track and the hip-hop-flavored urgency of "I Want to Talk to You" (co-produced on the album by Danger Mouse). Cale also went back to Honi Soit for "Riverbank," a nightmare of civilian massacre and utter helplessness. "Safety first or safety last," Cale sang soberly, "I wish I could have helped."

There is ample material, not covered in these shows, for another career survey: Cale's orchestral work; the minimalist period; the rage and anguish of his 1974 progressive-rock masterpiece, Fear. But at every turn, even in the selected eras at BAM, Cale's heart was open, beating and determined. His forever is already half a century long. It is not over.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

David Fricke

Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke has more than 10,000 albums in his New York apartment. His first record review for the magazine was Frank Zappa's 'Sheik Yerbouti' (RS 290).

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