In his memoir, “What’s Welsh For Zen,” published in 1999, John Cale tells a story about a party that Columbia Records threw for Bob Dylan at the Whitney Museum in the mid-eighties. Beneath a bank of televisions showing Dylan’s face, a staggering assortment of stars queued up for photo ops: Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, Yoko Ono and Judy Collins. Somewhere in the line was John Cale, very drunk. “It was one of the times when I completely lost self-esteem,” Cale writes. Lou Reed, his estranged friend and former bandmate, walked by and shot him a look, “as though to say, Fuck you,” Cale recalls. By the time Cale reached the end of the line, he was standing with Talking Heads, “but it seemed to me that all the photographers were really taking pictures of Talking Heads and Bob Dylan, and I was excluded.”
Cale, who has released more than a dozen solo studio albums—among them “Paris 1919,” “Fear,” and “Music for a New Society”—and composed the scores for dozens of films, including “Basquiat” and “American Psycho,” is something of a musical Zelig. Born to a miner and a schoolteacher in Wales, he took to music early, joining the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, as a violist, when he was thirteen. After studying at Goldsmiths, in London, he came to the United States with the help of Aaron Copland. Cale was an early enthusiast for the work of John Cage and, in 1963, joined La Monte Young’s avant-garde group, eventually called the Theatre of Eternal Music. Two years later, with Lou Reed, he co-founded the Velvet Underground; the band came to work closely with Andy Warhol. Cale has also produced albums by the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, and Patti Smith, among others. He’s conducted an orchestra of drones and he has even walked the runway for Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto.
Despite all this, he seems oddly underappreciated. (David Bowie once called him “one of the most underrated musicians in rock history.”) When I asked him about this recently, he said it didn’t bother him. “What I did was work very hard and do as much as I could in spite of all the difficulties, so I don’t have an axe to grind,” he told me, on Zoom, from his recording studio in Los Angeles. Cale, now eighty, will release “Mercy,” his first album of new material in a decade, this month. A slinky, nocturnal collection evoking bombed-out buildings, seedy bars, and vampiric criminals, the album is steeped in the paranoia and madness of contemporary American life. It is also a testimony to Cale’s enduring appeal to younger artists: Weyes Blood, Laurel Halo, Animal Collective, and others make guest appearances. In late December, we spoke not only about the new album but about growing up in Wales, his friendship with David Bowie, the ways in which he and Lou Reed’s legacies are forever entwined, and the rapacious appetite for the new that keeps him going. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I was really struck by how apocalyptic the new album is—not only lyrically but even the sound of it, with the glassy synths on “Time Stands Still,” for instance, or the droning strings on “Marilyn Monroe’s Legs.” How much of what was going on in the world over the last few years informed your songwriting?
Oh, very much so. I mean, it’s something that climbed up my neck. This album started about two and a half years ago. I didn’t want to go that route but in the end it was impossible to avoid it—what happened in the world took over. The medical side of the world and the noisy side of the world with guns going off. Some of these songs were not a direct reaction to what was going on, but it had all the elements of it.
The opening lines of “Mercy”—“lives do matter, lives don’t matter”—recalls that period, in the summer of 2020, and the protests against police violence that were raging at the time.
You couldn’t avoid it. The album was really dictated by what was going on with COVID and the hurt that everybody was feeling, and I just went with it.
The album has these rather sinister images—melting ice caps and animals migrating and liquor and guns. But amid all of this you manage to convey a sense of hope as well.
There was the reacting to the world side of it, and then there was also the fantasy side of it—like in “Marilyn Monroe’s Legs,” which came from being in the studio with a bunch of string players. I was really happy with everything they were doing. I had them improvise drones. There was a lot of intensity in how they approached the task. Pain and anger are beautiful in the right strokes.
Another striking thing about the album is how contemporary it sounds. Some of the beats evoke hip-hop, and you recruited a number of younger artists to collaborate with you on it. What keeps you pushing and challenging yourself at this point?
There’s a lot of reasons for going in this direction. The approach was not to write a song and then have so-and-so participate. I knew a lot of these artists before from participating in some Velvet Underground retrospectives over the years. I thought that the structure of the thing was something they could all approach and enjoy.
What made you think of Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood for “Story of Blood”? It’s a great pairing, with her voice sort of gliding around yours, creating this spectral feeling.
Yeah, the range—her vocal range is great. There were many different aspects to the song that were really pinpointed by how she sang it. She has a very elegant and passionate approach to singing. It may be raining outside, but her voice transcends all of that. Her tonality was the perfect fit to bring the dark and the light into the thread. Her appreciation of harmonic dissonance was exactly what I was after.
On “Moonstruck (Nico’s Song)” and “Night Crawling,” songs about Nico and David Bowie respectively, you conjure these dear people from your past and pay homage to them. Was there something in particular that compelled you to revisit them in this moment?
In the case of “Moonstruck,” I didn’t really know it was about Nico until I finished it. And it was bothering me that I didn’t quite know where it would sit in the album—but then all of a sudden there it was, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. The main character in the song seemed bent on self-destruction, but all the while she actually left an artistic footprint that only grew as time went on. I wanted to illuminate her groundbreaking contributions to true independence. She craved respect but only on her own terms. That’s when I knew it was about Nico.
I was thinking a lot about how she evolved as a songwriter, and it slapped me in the face, thinking about these songs she wrote and how they just got better. And I started laughing about it—here was this German national writing songs in English. I was happy to see that she spent so much time developing something that was, I think, really for Jim Morrison. She was always happy to talk about his role in her development.
You’ve said that “Night Crawling” is about the times you spent with Bowie in New York in the seventies, collaborating and partying together—and maybe a bit more of the latter than the former. Like you, Bowie constantly evolved. Did you feel a kinship with him?
Absolutely. He was someone who was not gonna go away. He deliberately went for categories of songwriting, and there was a depth to what he did. He patterned himself after a type of overt musical-theatre genre, but deconstructed it so it became something particularly his own. He crafted his images so carefully, as specific identities where those songs lived. They were notated by character names, like Ziggy, Thin White Duke, et cetera. So I wanted to take that on.