Tuesday 19 November 2019

Cale's still the king of cool

'John Cale has turned 70 -- and he's still cooler than you'. That was one of the messages posted on an internet tribute page to the great man in March.

If the alternative music world were to have its own Mount Rushmore, John Cale would be a shoo-in as one of the icons whose sculpted likeness would be etched into the stone.

Yet as his facial features become craggier and the laughter lines grow deeper, the singer, songwriter, producer and Velvet Underground founder takes it all in his stride.

A new album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, is out next Friday and a tour which takes him to Dublin's Button Factory on October 3 is about to kick off.

But don't expect any rheumy-eyed trip down memory lane; if recent set lists are anything to go by, his live show will be typically experimental and lean towards his new material, which is a playful mix of gutsy punk and ditzy synth pop, a cross-breed which actually sounds in sync with current musical fashion.

Indeed, the video for last year's Catastrofuk single looked like a dream that Adam Ant might have had about Lady Gaga.

And we were reminded of his versatility when Carlow man Dave Donohoe screened his absorbing documentary about Cale's collaboration with a Russian symphonic orchestra, a Welsh choir and Brian Eno on the album Words For The Dying at the Electric Picnic earlier this month.

A heady tribute by one great Welshman to another, the project saw Cale put music to the words of poet Dylan Thomas. Some of the resulting songs such as 'On A Wedding Anniersary' and 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' would go on to become mainstays of his live shows.

He included them when he played some of the best gigs ever seen in Vicar Street in the late 1990s. Accompanied only by a piano or an acoustic guitar, Cale left us spellbound with a performance that included his hugely influential version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'.

Cale had rescued the song from obscurity in 1991 by choosing it for a tribute album to Laughing Len, titled I'm Your Fan, featuring left-field indie rock acts.

In his extraordinary and highly recommended autobiography, What's Welsh For Zen?, Cale explains how he wrote to Cohen asking for permission to cover his song, and requesting a lyric sheet as a guide.

Cohen wrote back and included many pages of extra verses that never made it on to his original version, which appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions.

Cale's stately, dignified and unforgettable solo piano version of the song was then reinterpreted by Jeff Buckley in 1994, whose haunting, quivering take on it -- this time played on a lone electric guitar -- became a slow-burning classic whose popularity grew and grew until something deeply strange happened: Simon Cowell chose it as the centrepiece of the X Factor Final, sending teenager Alexandra Burke's glass-shattering cover to the top of the charts.

This of course sparked an all-out culture war that led to an online campaign to get Buckley's version to topple Burke's at the chart summit.

Cohen himself now includes it as one of the mainstays of his live show, as he demonstrated in Kilmainham last week. But even his 2012 version defers mostly to Cale's edit.

Of course, Cale's influence is more profound and pronounced than the resurrection of 'Hallelujah'. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the release of the seminal debut album by the Velvet Underground & Nico -- a record that is hailed as the Rosetta Stone of indie rock, setting the template both musically and stylistically for generations of moody guitar bands.

Cale's partnership with Lou Reed lasted only two albums, after which he was kicked out of the band -- though they later collaborated on a tribute to Andy Warhol and decades later the Velvets briefly reformed.

It's clear from his memoir that Cale remains furious that Reed was listed as the sole writer on most of the songs on the so-called debut 'banana' album, arguing that his creative input was far greater than acknowledged -- which, given his background studying at the feet of avant-garde American composers such as La Monte Young and John Cage, is credible.

Of course, Cale's influence on modern music spreads far and wide, not least in his role as producer and/or collaborator with such seminal artists as Nico, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Nick Drake and Happy Mondays.

Even at 70, John Cale is himself refusing to go gentle into that good night.

Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is out on September 28. John Cale plays the Button Factory on October 3.

nkelly@independent.ie

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