A Time of Recognition
'Death Meets the Velvet Underground'
Frankly, it just wasn't enough. John Cale's four-song Sterling Morrison tribute during this year's Austin Music Awards, a heartfelt South by Southwest panel dedicated to the same, an attendant SXSW 2000 showcase, and two booksignings of his new autobiography, What's Welsh For Zen, just wasn't enough. The Chronicle has more Cale. Following the in-depth interview with Patti Smith two weeks ago, we thought it only appropriate to run a similarly revealing piece from/about the man who produced the punk diva's first album nearly 25 years ago, John Cale. Hailed as an "uncommonly literate, expressively revealing, and darkly humorous" work in the Chronicle's SXSW rock & roll books section, What's Welsh for Zen is not only destined to become one of the best, most candid modern music autobiographies, it has already begun to shed new light on the workings of Cale's beloved legacy, the Velvet Underground. Taken from the last chapters of the beautifully illustrated Zen, we've excerpted part of "Death Meets the Velvet Underground," a vivid, behind-the-scenes accounting of the VU's 1993 reunion that both neatly encapsulates Cale's disarming writing style and serves as bookend to Margaret Moser's groundbreaking Chronicle cover story on one-time Austinite, forever "Velvet Underdog" Sterling Morrison. What's Welsh for must-read? -- Raoul Hernandez
The Cartier Foundation approached Sylvia Reed with the idea of a reunion of the Velvets, inviting Lou and me to play at the opening of its Andy Warhol Exposition outside Paris on 15 June 1990. Many problems remained in that scenario. First was Sylvia's awareness of Lou's need to be treated as a separate and unequal entity to the band. This was overcome with the award to him of the "Chevalier" -- A Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. Second was the terms under which we would all agree to appear in the same vicinity. This was negotiated during the Warhol tribute at the Cartier Estate. The event also included a multimedia homage to the Velvet Underground. Third but not least was the long-simmering feud between Sterling and Lou. Sterling had apparently never forgotten the role he was given in 1968 when he delivered the news to me that Lou was disbanding the group. The subsequent self-banishment to Texas and academia had left him embittered at the true love of his life, rock & roll. No one knew how he would react to Lou until the luncheon at Cartier's. Within seconds Sterling's natural ebullience got the better of him and he became his old turbulent self. The conversation flowed, not least because of Billy Name's contribution. He seemed more than anyone to be attuned to Lou's loathing of playing second fiddle in the band. At every turn in the conversation, Billy would intone with a Greek chorus' clarity what was troubling Lou at that precise moment and would go on to explain it to himself, Lou, and the rest before things got worse. This was exactly what Sylvia needed: someone to address each and every minute feeling, reaction, and thought that went through Lou's head, and say it in a jovial, disarming way before Lou could think of a rebuttal. It was all admirably done at arm's length. (In retrospect we should have taken Billy on the tour.) The food was great. A good time was had by all. We agreed to play one song together.
As I got off the stage after playing "Heroin," I was at the point of tears. I did not know why. I mentioned it to Lou where we sat on the edge of the stage and he was indignant enough to give me second thoughts. There was a hidden agenda at work and I knew it. This one-time reformation of the group and the writing of [Songs for] Drella were a preamble to the group's resurrection ...
During a solo performance at New York University in 1992, Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison joined me for a few songs. The previous weekend, the four of us had rehearsed. We were doing that more often. Not to make a smart career move, but simply to see if we still could play together and if we had fun doing it. Maureen played her drum part, I just kept playing that bass, and Sterling and Lou joined in on guitar. Slowly we found that hypnotizing sound again, and you could hear everybody clearly. It turned out to be fantastic. All the original enthusiasm was there. That's always kind of the way things happened with us, anyway. There was no massive agenda and there was no great determination. It was four people wandering around in a daze and suddenly they decided to do something. We were going to have to have a meeting to deal with Velvet Underground business and to see how we could improve matters. Talk naturally drifted towards playing together. Lou and I wanted to sing "White Christmas" and do the arrangements where the modulations would get lower and lower and lower until we couldn't sing it any more. Then I realized that if we were going to do anything we should do it for a lot of money. Sterling was talking in millions of dollars. But how about a million hours of rehearsal? We were in the business of remythologizing, not demythologizing, and we were pretty cold-blooded about it.
Nothing would have got done without Lou thinking it was a good idea. There was nothing scheduled for him in 1993, so he decided to try it. In November 1992 I appeared on The Tonight Show and said the VU were going to get back together, for the money. I was joking. Money has always been a consequence of what we've done, not a goal. And it remains that way. What was ultimately gratifying was that people would get to see what contributions people other than Lou and I made to the sound we had. That was very important. They saw what role Sterling had, and reinforced everything they understood about Maureen.
We all agreed from the get-go that we were not going to parody ourselves -- as Lou had for 20 years. I didn't want to do this unless there was new material. What happened was that Moe and Sterling, being awfully helpful and not seeing much into the future, came up with a list of about 35 songs to choose from, even going into bootleg stuff. We came away with 23, a large portion of which I had to learn from scratch, because I wasn't around when they first came about. Sterling was very up, but Maureen was the one who disciplined us. She didn't say very much, but when she did, she was cracking the whip. When it came down to what the ideas were, Maureen was the bastion of purity.
One afternoon in the first week, I was sitting around with a bass riff and I looked at Lou, and Lou said yeah and started playing guitar through this echo machine he had that was just making gorgeous noise. He wasn't playing chords, he was just playing. It was floating around in a miasma and then he started singing. I said, "What did you say? You said 'coyote'?" He said, "Yeah. That's a good idea." So that song got done. But there were three weeks of rehearsal. We learned the set in the first week; the following two weeks were dedicated entirely to Lou finding out which guitar sound was going to work. We started to perform groups of songs: four, five, six songs in a row, until we'd built it up and it became like a second skin. Then we threw away the ones that didn't work. And I expected that when we got out on the road, we'd start trying new things -- an improvisation, a song we hadn't rehearsed.
In the middle of it all, I brought up this thing about publishing. All of a sudden, Lou stopped the rehearsal, went outside and got on the phone and started screaming at Sylvia to get up there. Sylvia showed up and came up to me and said, "You can't talk like that to Lou. If you do, you're going to be very disappointed."
"This is band business," I said. "Are you a member of the band? You're not, are you? Right, so why don't you stay out of it?"
She said, "I manage Lou Reed."
And I said, "Yeah, you do, you do not manage the Velvet Underground, so there's a slight adjustment of your sights here."
There was a dead end. I tried several different times instigating new songs, new ideas. But Moe and Sterling basically locked it up by saying they would like to do all the old material. And Lou was happy to let it happen. He thought he was doing everybody an enormous favor by putting up with us, by playing songs that he was longer interested in. I saw it as a ploy by Lou to rehabilitate the old catalogue and negotiate his way out of a divorce.
We knew we would attract a lot of ambulance chasers, people who wanted to see us fail. I read this thing in England that said, "There are some bands who shouldn't even think about re-forming." We were one of them. The British press was always like that.
When the tour began in June 1993, we set up our levels on stage so that we could hear each other. And that was a good discipline, but it meant that no one should take off on his own into a vortex of loudness. One thing that Lou was doing that he didn't normally do in his own work was wail a lot on guitar -- he was going to have fun. The homogeneity of the sound of the band was really in jeopardy when we had the capacity for separation. If that happened here, it could have spelled the death knell of what we were really about.
On top of that, if we gave the lighting guys just a little bit of leeway, they'd come back at us and try to re-order our set. They said they created atmospheres around us, but I'm not sure atmospheres were really what we wanted. We used to play in the dark. And I was afraid that the way we looked now was a bit slick and MTV.
We recorded three of the shows in Paris for the live album; I think we hit the home run on the second night. It had a feel of musicality and interaction. By the time we got to the third night, we were pretty weary. The benefit, though, was that some of the songs were very solid, and I believe a couple were extraordinary. The album version of "The Black Angel's Death Song" came from the third night.
When I later listened to "Hey Mr Rain," I realized it was 15 minutes long. At about 10 minutes, I thought, 'Well you've made that point,' and then we all start up again for another five minutes. You can hear segments where somebody's getting a third wind or whatever. I think we were glad to drop it after a while, because it just felt like sheer indulgence.
Lou tried to get me to scream on "Waiting for the Man," the way I did in my own shows, but it never got to that point. When I look back on it, that performance was hysterical, because the tempos were always changing. It was one of those times when everybody looks at the others wondering who's got the beat. There were some moments of panic. It was the only time during the whole set when we were at all indecisive. But it was pretty funny every time we did it, because we came off stage wondering what the hell had happened.
As the tour progressed, Sterling was not around. He was on his own. I don't know if he was under doctor's supervision -- he was afterwards. The pain and anger Sterling had faced in Texas was nothing to what he would find during the tour. What had begun as a gesture by Lou to assuage his personal difficulties after Drella was to become no more than a dismal footnote in personal abuse. The evenings on tour spent listening to Sterling rant at the treatment meted out by our fearless leader was an aggravation that blossomed into even further recriminations. It meant the end of many things. What was offered as an equable realization of each of our talents, led to demands that erased the very equality that each of us had insisted and agreed to before starting as long ago as 1965.
One of the things that shocked Moe was that she didn't believe Lou could play the songs. I said I thought he could play the songs, but he couldn't control his instrument. It was too loud and he would step on the wrong pedal. There were too many guitars being changed between songs because some of the stuff was in open tuning, some of the stuff was in regular tuning. We had people running on and off stage handing us different guitars. Lou was trying to control everything and I knew a storm was coming. One night in Italy, I think it was Bologna, I was doing "Waiting for the Man" with a huge orchestral introduction, and I was trying to give them the tempo from the piano, but I was too far away. Lou went and told my tech to turn the piano off. At that point, I was ready to knock his teeth down his throat. He was getting stranger and I couldn't deal with that.
We supported U2 for Swiss stadium dates. As soon as we did that, we were no longer the focus of attention and Lou could not bear the fact that he was a small fish in a big pond. Everybody else was having a great time, U2 were fun people to be around.
While on a trip on Lake Geneva at Lausanne (when we were treated with magnanimous generosity by U2 and their manager), I had a conversation with Edge that I immediately brought to Lou's attention. Edge had suggested that our next album be recorded on site with a remote truck in a disused cinema. That was a golden opportunity to engage some excellent musicians (like Edge) in a project in the most relaxed and constructive way. It didn't happen. By the time the boat docked, Lou had already hired a limousine to drive him upon arrival at the hotel directly to the next port of call, Basel, rather than travel with us in the plane. He spoke to no one and seemed at pains to avoid us.
That night at the hotel bar, Sterling vented his deepest feelings about the abuse he felt from Lou and his guitar tech. We had heard these alcohol-sodden diatribes before, but never as plaintive and sour as that night. The wail was loud and persistent. I felt sorry for him, and tried the next morning to formulate some plan with Sterl to advance the idea that enough was enough.
To my surprise he remonstrated with me: "Give it up, John, forget it. He's crazy, what're you going to do?"
The entertainment value of Lou's mental aberrations had finally run out. As soon as the tour was over, Lou was completely lost. He had no idea what to do with himself except that he wanted to capitalize on the possibilities. I looked at him on the plane back from England to the U.S., and I realized: this guy is empty. He does not know where to draw the line. He's completely adrift.
When we got back, I went to Long Island, and Lou came out there for a day. He arrived around noon in a white limousine. I took photographs of him sitting by the pool draped in white towels, looking like an outpatient or an old-age pensioner. The reason for his visit was that MTV wanted the Velvet Underground to make one in their series of "Unplugged" albums, and if we did that, there would also be an America tour. Lou was insisting that he had to produce the "Unplugged" album. "I'm the only one who can produce the VU," he said.
I saw immediately what that was about -- everybody would be taking orders from Lou Reed -- and I pointed out that we could have Chris Thomas or George Martin or any producer we wanted. Lou likes to obsess over things. I have different production values, in that Lou will go for the audiophile situation and I will go for the excitement. I have a lot of respect for the way he produces his own albums, but when it comes to the Velvet Underground's music, that's a different matter altogether. It was a beautiful day and we all went to the beach in his limousine and sat on the sand, looking at the sea. Everybody left Lou alone and he was very quiet, saying only, "I must produce."
"Absolutely not," I replied.
Lou got back in the white limousine and split. That night I dreamed he did not drive back to Manhattan; he swam away, just drifted off into the wild blue yonder.
I don't believe in controlling people, but there's a certain way, which has more to do with Zen, of presuming that an artist like Nico is one half of her work and when we are making a record I can provide the other half. It's been said of Andy Warhol that as a director, he completed his greatest stars, like Taylor Mead, and I think that's astute. The thing about being a star is it's so one-sided that it's corrosive. You have to have a megalomaniac programme to support it. Nico, for instance, was really in need of being completed, and at the same time, she could hold that grandiose position of being a star. Lou attempted to do the same, but he wasn't truly elegant enough in his demeanor to pull it off. People laugh at Lou a lot, but the thing is, Lou doesn't know when he's funny. He can be absolutely hysterical and have you rolling on the floor grasping your stomach, begging him to stop, and he still doesn't know what's going on. I like that quality. The point is, I don't think that Lou would like it if you told him.
As a solo performer, I had been earning an income the equivalent of what we each could have expected from the reunion tour. What attracted me to the reunion tour, therefore, had not been the financial bonuses that were on offer, but the artistic stimulus of recreating the still uncompromised values of the original entity. It had still been a goal at the end of the tour. However, having seen the promises of that tour reneged on within a week of their being made, I felt sure that any agreement made with Lou was not going to be honored, and in that event there was no U.S. tour and no "Unplugged" recording. Here was where the future foundered. Lou and Sylvia had earlier insisted that the reunion tour would only happen if everyone refused to cooperate with Victor Bockris' work on his Lou Reed biography. And now they demanded that the mixing and production of any Velvet Underground recordings be Lou's domain. This implied that fees were no longer to be shared equally by the band, as had been the case since the Sixties, and was thus a direct assault on the economic basis of the band. It was also yet another way of separating Lou from us. In view of the abuse he meted out to all and sundry during the tour, the last thing on anyone's mind was granting Lou the right to exercise further control. To me, if he did not want our input, fine, he would not get it. Certainly our only reason to refuse him was our conviction that we were best served by an outside ear.
This was not an answer that we expected him to tolerate, however. The final stroke in this conflict was a fax Lou wrote Moe in reply to a gentle note from her suggesting another producer. Moe told me it said something like, "Moe, of course your drums sounded great because I made them sound great. John of course doesn't realize that, because his viola never sounded better, because I picked the amplifiers and the PA system. Your drums sounded so good, because I made them sound great. Because I," blah blah blah, very close to what he'd done in 1968 about "Stephanie Says" when Sterling said to him, "That's a beautiful viola part," and Lou said, "Yeah, that's what I wrote," kind of claiming authorship of the viola part. And now he said to Moe, "Of course, Moe, you don't know the difference, because you won't ever get this opportunity again in your little gigs."
I wanted to say to him, "While you were making holes in your arm, Maureen was raising four children single-handedly, so fuck you. And as far as making remarks about my knowledge of recording and production, I've been known to be copied for producing people and I've been a little bit successful at it, so I'd be careful if you're accusing me of not knowing what goes on in studios too, because I have my own studio that's fairly well equipped and I know what I'm doing down there." So I said, "If you don't stop doing this, you're not going to have me as a friend any more."
Moe called me up again and said, "I just got a very nice fax from Sylvia."
"Yeah, what does it say?"
"Well, it says, 'John's a musician, don't listen to him.'"
After all, if Moe could see her way to face Lou again, how could I not let her lead the way? She was the one maligned, not I. The resentment I felt at the end of the day was the same I had felt throughout the years. Lou had this unerring ability to bring out the worst in people. The situation with him and Sylvia just went on and on like that. I don't want to see him and I don't want to talk to him and I don't want to hear anything about him. I'm a collaborator and there was nothing there for me. I went through the roof. My subsequent letter to him was intended to purge him of even the slightest doubt of what I saw as his motives, which were to destroy and injure. Moe could not have known how deeply offended I was by the meanness of his tone. She, as always, was forgiving. I was not. There had been other moments of equal seriousness during the reunion when withdrawing could have been a solution. I could not do that without injuring innocent parties. Now I could. I wrote Louis a nine-page fax that I knew he wouldn't get up from and he hasn't.
That Lou could speak in such a demeaning way to Moe, who had (while maintaining a close friendship with him) looked after a family of four without a note of complaint, was reprehensible. This is the point that I return to day in day out whenever the illustrious (and distasteful) past is mentioned. There comes a time when recognition of a wrong takes precedence over art. There was no misunderstanding. The language was clear and insulting. It closed the door for me on any further involvement. As happened too often in the past, there was such a lack of control in Lou's behavior that I couldn't see any possibility of his improving.
Towards the conclusion of every project, Lou and I would have ceased to cooperate. I suspect that our anger was due to fault-finding as much as to impatience and frustration. Although we realized that the work was being damaged by the fury of the moment, we had not reached a sufficiently enlightened state of consciousness to see the error of our ways. There were many blow-ups. I'm sure there will be many more. The fax machine should really be taken away from Lou and me. We have shouted at each other as effectively as anyone over the fax machine.
When we've worked together, however, he never left me in the lurch. We dragged each other into some interesting spaces. So there's some kind of meeting of the minds and souls there that's very important, and I don't think it'll ever go away. I read an article on Art Garfunkel in which he remarked that some of his problems with Paul Simon never got solved, but at least both men enriched their lives in the process of collaboration. And I think Lou and I both realize that's true of us.
From What's Welsh for Zen: The Autobiography of John Cale. Copyright © 2000 by John Cale and Victor Bockris. Reprinted with permission of BloomsburyUSA Inc.