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POP/ROCK : RICHER THAN VELVET : Don't Worry About John Cale Eating Regularly; He's Got Plenty on His Plate

September 29, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Few rock musicians have pursued an agenda as diverse as John Cale's.

His hugely influential first band, the Velvet Underground, was marginal in its time (1965-70) but since has become a rock-cultural monument. The Velvets are recognized as the cornerstone of the "alternative" rock movement that, shockingly, has come to occupy a penthouse suite in the commercial edifice of '90s pop.

While Lou Reed, the Velvets' singer and songwriter, expanded rock's thematic possibilities by casting a witty or coldly journalistic eye on life in the urban underbelly, Cale played an important part in the band's sonic inventions. With Cale on viola, bass and keyboards, the band from New York City upped the ante on how assaultive, dissonant and challenging to an audience rock could be.

Its agenda was more open than those of many of its '90s heirs--the Velvets could turn a gentle ballad with the best of them, and the throbbing mania that Cale helped whip up on such songs as "White Light/White Heat" and "Sister Ray" was balanced by the stark, stately cast of his viola playing on "Heroin."

He left the Velvet Underground in 1968 after playing on the band's first two albums. In 1970 he launched a career of his own that has covered a wide swath of stylistic territory, proceeding in a zigzag fashion virtually guaranteed to limit his following to a cult.

His early university training in London, and a summer of 1963 fellowship at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, grounded him in classical music and avant-garde composition. Those strands have surfaced repeatedly to color such pop-oriented albums as "Paris 1919" (1973) and "Last Day on Earth," his recent collaboration with folk-based singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth.

At other times, on "The Academy in Peril" (1972) and "Words for the Dying" (1989), an album built around a suite of symphonic settings of Dylan Thomas poems, the classical or avant-garde influences have dominated.

Along the way, Cale has proven himself both a master of elegant pop craft and a mad wreaker of rock-as-mayhem. His first two albums of pop songs, "Vintage Violence" and "Paris 1919," still stand as highlights of early-'70s rock with their emphasis on tempered, roots-accented music and graceful balladry.

In the mid-'70s, he turned mean (or at least his lyrical personae did) and churned out raw, stripped down, attitude-filled rock 'n' roll albums widely acknowledged to have helped set the stage for England's punk revolution of 1976.

As the producer of debut albums by the Stooges, the Modern Lovers and Patti Smith--all of them punk precursors in their own right--he served as a flame-fanner for the underground rock movement that first had flickered with the Velvets.

Now, at 52, his musical agenda is as full and varied as ever.

Last spring saw the release of "Last Day on Earth," an enigmatic but frequently alluring cycle of songs and dialogue with a satiric or philosophical thrust and too many stylistic strands to catalogue briefly. Cale and Neuwirth toured together in Europe after its release, fronting an unlikely ensemble that included a string quartet, gospel singers and a pedal steel guitar.

In a recent phone interview from his apartment in Manhattan, Cale sounded at ease and fully self-possessed as he chatted in a speaking voice that, like his singing baritone, is full of his native South Wales. Not everybody would come across as calmly, given the assortment of current assignments that Cale is juggling.

In the works are a musical theater piece based on the Orpheus myth (including parts for a barbershop quartet) and an opera inspired by the life of Mata Hari, which Cale is pushing to finish in time for a December debut in Vienna. He also is putting the last touches on the score to a Spanish feature film based on one of his songs, "Antarctica Starts Here." Meanwhile, he is thinking about recording another album early next year, perhaps integrating rock band with string quartet.

With all that going, he will squeeze in a brief tour (including a show Monday at the Coach House) to draw attention to Rhino Records' recent release of "John Cale: Seducing Down the Door," a two-disc, 38-song overview of his post-Velvets career from 1970 to 1990. The tour finds him performing solo, as he has for most of his concerts since the mid-1980s.

The only musical possibility that he has crossed off his agenda--permanently, he believes--is anything having to do with Lou Reed.

While his tone remained even, Cale's words were bitter when the subject of the Velvet Underground's 1993 reunion tour of Europe came up. In his eyes, the reunion, which yielded the album "The Velvet Underground Live MCMXCIII," was diminished by a surfeit of control on Reed's part and a paucity of the experimental, improvisational playing that the band strived to achieve during its initial run.

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