John Cale Talks Lou Reed and Remaking 'Music for a New Society'

Velvet Underground co-founder explains why he revisited the chaos of his 1982 LP to make 'M:FANS'

John Cale explains how he remade 'Music for a New Society' as 'M:FANS' and remembers Lou Reed. Credit: Shawn Brackbill

When John Cale looks back at his experimental solo album Music for a New Society, all he remembers is personal chaos and turmoil. Since exiting the Velvet Underground in 1968, he had explored different hues of art rock, minimalist classical music and straight-ahead rock on since-celebrated albums like 1973's Paris 1919 and the following year's Fear. He also produced records by the Stooges, Nico, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers and others. But in 1982, when he made Music, he felt lost, like he was at an existential impasse, and it tortured him.

"I was trying to figure out why I stopped doing avant-garde music and doing Paris 1919, and what really did I expect from rock & roll?" he tells Rolling Stone from Los Angeles on an early morning. "I just was getting lost as to what future direction my music was gonna be. So I started thinking about where I started, in Wales, and I went back to Dylan Thomas and started writing songs about Dylan Thomas. It was trying to figure out where in my background I got lost."

When he looks back on the period now, he's impressed by how hard he tried and "the fact that I stuck to it and pushed through," but he still senses the anxiety that surrounded the time. He'd essentially coaxed an LP from himself, forcing himself to record every thought he had. It all came out bleak. The characters in the songs felt trapped. They were aware of their shortcomings but did nothing to change. "If I looked right at it, I'd be honest and say, 'That's exactly what was happening [to me],'" he says.

Now Cale, age 73, has given Music for a New Society a second look and re-recorded most of it as M:FANS, an album of variations on his themes. A lot had changed in the three decades since he'd first sequestered himself in the studio. He had new technology to experiment with, a new friend to record with — Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman sings on "Close Watch" — and he had hindsight. When his Velvet Underground foil, Lou Reed, died during the M:FANS sessions, Cale went through a whole new set of extreme emotions. It's all present in the lush textures of his two new versions of "If You Were Still Around," the uplifting throbbing of "Changes Made," the electro R&B of "Thoughtless Kind" and the hip-hop beats of "Close Watch." He's coupled the new record with the original album for comparison, and the differences are staggering.

Here, Cale reflects on why it was all so difficult for him.

You've described Music for a New Society as a painful experience. Why revisit it?
I liked some of the lyrics. I liked some of the ways that the songs evolved. And organizers of European festivals have asked me to do Fear and Music for a New Society. Since people were asking for that, this was one way of dealing with it. No matter how harrowing the experience was, when I looked back on it, I was glad I went through it.

Why was the original album so difficult for you?
There were personal pressures and professional pressures. I wanted it to be a real honest album about what was happening "now," and I wanted to make it very "now." That's when I came up with the rubric of "It doesn't count unless the tapes are rolling." So you really improvise your way through the creative process; you don't stop and edit. There's a claustrophobia about the album that comes from [the character that's] singing the song and how the guy who's singing the song is presenting himself. There's this opportunity of really picking out the stuff that maybe was not as well done on the original one, and pinpointing the moment on the new one.

Is that why there are two versions of "If You Were Still Around" on M:FANS?
Yes. There's a stateliness about the song. When I did it on the original album, it had a really religious feel to it. I realized I could do a lot with those lyrics, so I tried to get more space in the song for the lyrics to sit, and you have to wait for the rest of the song to happen. So there are spaces in the original song where I can hear my brain grinding, trying to figure out where I'm going with this.

A year after Lou Reed died, you released your re-recorded "If You Were Still Around" with a video dedicated to him. Why?
It just felt right. It was kind of an oblique reference to a relationship. It just ticked all the right boxes to me. It wasn't proselytizing about anything. It just was kind of a mirror.

When was the last time you spoke to Lou Reed?
A few weeks before he died, I sent him an email telling him I hoped he was feeling better. It was funny. I found this mug shot of [Igor] Stravinsky from after he was arrested because he did an arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that everybody thought was treasonous. So the Boston police picked him up. I sent it to Lou and wrote, "You think you got problems?"

What did he write back?
Just, "Hahahaha."

You first met Lou about 50 years ago. You've said that he seemed so fragile and volatile then. How did that change with time?
I don't really know how it changed. I think it just got more. I think also a lot of very bad habits ate away at both of us and the resentment that went along with it. That's an old story.

I ask because you said in a statement about M:FANS that when he died, it upended this whole M:FANS album.
Yeah, it did. I mean, I thought what was always important to us was doing the work, and, look what's happened. It just doesn't work anymore. And I just sort of went, "Oh, man." The work was not preeminent anymore. I can't go on about it.

You said in your statement about the album that sorrow had turned to rage over the incident.
Yeah, yeah. It did. I mean, it got so dark. But then you find that was something you agreed to about 50 years ago. What do you expect to last 50 years? But it had lasted a good 40, 45, and then all of a sudden ... somebody decided ... it's all over now.

Did making that video help you heal?
I was happy with it, yeah. I mean it really defines something that was important for me. It was respectful.

You'll soon be revisiting the works you made with Lou.
Yes, I'll be celebrating the anniversary of the "Banana Album" [The Velvet Underground and Nico] in Paris in April. We will have a lot of young artists, and some French artists doing the material. We're just doing "Banana" and White Light/White Heat.

How does it feel to get back into that music again?
I haven't started much yet. I've done some arrangements. We'll be doing some different versions of the songs.

Will you be stringing your viola with guitar strings again?
No, I don't really need to do that. The guitar strings were necessary for La Monte Young's stuff [before the Velvet Underground], but the viola has some regular, old strings on it. Originally, I'd done guitar strings, then mandolin strings, then mandola strings. It's really the gauge of the string that matters because you really distort the instrument. I mean, they are so taut. In the end, I had to use a cello bow because it was heavier to grip the string.

Since you've been thinking about your past works so much, both the Velvets and Music for a New Society, do you ever think about your legacy will be?
Oh, I can't think like that. I mean, do you want me to write my own obituary already? Come on.

Well, what songs have you come to look at differently on Music for a New Society?
One would be "Changes Made." I was trying to have a single in there. This one has an added bridge in it, which really made the song much better. And there are a lot of different versions of "Close Watch." And I didn't think I was really going to be able to come up with a new one. But you never know when you sit down at the piano and all of a sudden you have a groove, and the thing changes, and then you have somebody like Amber [Coffman] come in and you be the ghost in the song. And suddenly there's a conversation going on in the song.

How did you meet Amber Coffman?
Oh, I've been a fan of Dirty Projectors. I used a vocoder on that track, and it makes microtones every once in a while. I wanted Amber to sing it, and damn it if she couldn't sing the microtones. I was really surprised. It was perfect.

"Close Watch" is built around a lyric from Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line," and it originally appeared on your 1975 album Helen of Troy. Why did you pick that lyric?
I don’t know. There are a couple of songs like that. "I'm Not the Loving Kind" [off 1975's Slow Dazzle] was another one. I can't remember; it was too long ago.

The original intent of Music for a New Society was to imagine where music could go. How did you approach that challenge again?
In those days, it was just how many different characters can you get into a record. I look back at it now, and it looks as if there are a lot of very similar characters. The claustrophobia comes from ideas that sound contradictory. On the new one, I just went for all those parts that I didn't really think were quite as strong. Now, there were a lot of strong ideas in there, and I felt like I could ignore those and let them happen. But there were others that really needed pulling out, like, with "Sanctus," it really needed driving. The original one was kind of operatic.

What was your mother like?
She was a high school teacher. She was involved in experimental educational programs for the Welsh educational authority. They would try new ideas. She was really good at showing patience with somebody, showing them different ways of doing things. She was a good example of a good mother.

Did she like your music?
[Laughs] I don't think I ever asked. She came to a concert I did after I had chopped the chicken's head off [in 1977], and [my parents] were interviewed by the BBC. It was a very funny interview. They tried to put them on the spot. "What do you think about your boy doing that to a chicken?" My father was great. But I didn't ask them what they thought. We would see each other so sporadically that it seemed more important to just spend time with them.

You said recently that by the time you were done with M:FANS, you'd come to loathe all of the characters on the original album. Why?
They're incorrigible recidivists.

Which character is the most reprehensible?
I think the guy in "Taking Your Life in Your Hands," because of his lack of sympathy with the idea of motherhood.

Women in this album are in a very difficult position. They're trapped, and don't ask me why that is. It just was an interesting persona to have: someone convinced that they were working their problems out and really doing nothing about it.

Did it feel cathartic to reshape these songs?
Yeah, it's shocking. Some of the beauty in those songs is really shocking. "Broken Bird" for instance has some real passion in it. It got more passionate the more we recorded it, which is interesting.

When you look back on Music for a New Society now, how do you feel it fits into your discography?
I just think that it really did what I set out to do, and I'm happy that it stood the test of time. It's really good and hard. The new one just builds on it.

Is this something you'd want to do with another record?
No. It's an interesting use of history, though.