The outsider’s outsider: John Cale by Cate Le Bon, Gruff Rhys and James Dean Bradfield

Before they take to the stage with Cale for his 80th birthday concert, the three reflect on how Wales’s greatest living musician subverted what it means to be a Welsh musician

One afternoon a few years ago, Cate Le Bon opened an email that made her shake. Before she knew what was happening, she was crying. “It isn’t like me to have that kind of reaction to something,” she says. Its message was simple: “John Cale is looking for you.”

Le Bon was raised 30 miles or so from Cale’s home village of Garnant in Carmarthenshire, but the invitation to play with his band at the Barbican in London during the spring of 2018 reached her at a furniture-making school in the Lake District, where she was studying following the release of Crab Day, her fourth album of prickly psych-pop. “I spent a long time trying to explain to the master craftsman who John Cale was and what he meant to me,” she says. “We had to compare it to football players.”

It has always been this way. Since forming the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in New York in 1964, Cale has squared the circle between being wildly influential and defiantly inaccessible. His solo career, which continues with next year’s Mercy, home to collaborations with Weyes Blood, Animal Collective and Sylvan Esso, takes in stately pop, scabrous sound experiments, bleeding-edge electronica and soundtracks for film and ballet. A few months on from turning 80 – a milestone that he will mark with a concert at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, alongside Le Bon, Gruff Rhys and Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield – Cale remains an outsider’s outsider.

John Cale and Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground performing at Cafe Bizarre, New York, December 1965.
John Cale and Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground performing at Cafe Bizarre, New York, December 1965. Photograph: Adam Ritchie/Redferns

That dynamic is keenly felt in Wales. He is perhaps the country’s greatest living musician and yet his profile is dwarfed by the more easily digestible hits of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. For Le Bon, the fact that his rise occurred on the other side of the Atlantic, amid the arthouse glamour of Andy Warhol’s Factory, gives his music an otherworldly edge that is unique among Welsh artists, who are often celebrated because they are “just like us”.

“He was part of such an iconic movement that there’s this unattainable-ness about him that is unfamiliar [to Welsh people],” she says. “When you’re Welsh you end up working with a lot of Welsh musicians, and it’s a beautiful thing, but John seemed to be on a different planet.”

Cale has remained unknowable at home not only because he makes difficult music, but because he retains a complex relationship with the place. Born in 1942, he was frequently ill with bronchitis as a child and was treated with mind-altering opiates; aged 12 he was molested by an organist at church. His early life was dominated by his grandmother, who weaponised the Welsh language out of spite, furious that her daughter, a schoolteacher, had married an English coal miner. Welsh was the only language to be spoken at home, and Cale was seven before he could converse with his father after learning English at school. Music was a way to process this trauma. “[It] allowed me to communicate without requiring anybody’s permission,” he said years later.

A gifted pianist and viola player, Cale performed with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and studied at Goldsmiths in London, interpreting avant garde works such as X for Henry Flynt, by his future collaborator La Monte Young, to the bemusement and anger of his peers. Then, in 1963, it was to America, firstly for a scholarship to study with the Boston University Orchestra, and then New York, the city that had long suggested 24-hour access to fun and chaos and creativity. “He had to run away from Wales to make sense of himself,” Rhys says.

John Cale: Story of Blood – video

In Cale’s world, ideas are there to be interrogated with regularity: you can’t make sense of yourself once, you must do it again and again. He has made a habit of breaking his songs apart and reassembling them when playing live, and his understanding of home also exists on shifting sands. In Dyddiau Du/Dark Days, an audio-visual piece he produced to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Cale welded arresting images of the landscape to a sequence where he was tortured. At one point, he sits at a piano in a chapel without making a sound, suggesting that this anti-establishment terror is part of a tradition he cannot escape.

“There is something about his piano,” Bradfield says. “When I was in church when I was young, songs would weigh on me, especially Welsh hymns. I hear that when he’s playing. There’s experience there that you can’t wash away.”

As a teenager in Blackwood, Bradfield discovered Cale’s music through The Gift, a song on the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat in which he reads an absurdist tale of infidelity and manslaughter in his commanding Carmarthenshire accent. Bradfield was already aware of the Velvets thanks to their lionising in the 1980s music press, but now he had a way in. “You hear that voice and you go, ‘That’s from Swansea way,’” he says. “It blew the doors open.”

In Bradfield’s own work, Cale’s influence presents itself in the belief that, whether surrounded by the Velvets’ nagging drones or the Manics’ early glam-punk snottiness, the right melody can connect with a listener. “He can take the avant garde and traditional songwriting and atomise them,” Bradfield says. “There are little explosions where you think, ‘Oh, this is a good song,’ and then he starts tearing it apart.”

Rhys’s career has more directly reflected this creative restlessness. A pillar of Cool Cymru in the mid-1990s as the frontman of Super Furry Animals, his later work has comprised concept pieces, soundtracks and sleek electro-pop; live, he is more concerned with the personalities of his fellow musicians than sticking to any blueprint. Five years ago, he joined Cale for a set reimagining the Velvet Underground and Nico in Liverpool, and saw up-close just how committed he was to a similar ideal. “I was playing Lady Godiva’s Operation, I’d learned the guitar parts from the record,” Rhys says. “He was reassuring me, ‘You don’t need to worry about that.’”

Rehearsals are under way but precise details of Cale’s Llais festival performance, which will also feature the House Gospel Choir and, mirroring his own experience, the under-30s orchestra Sinfonia Cymru, are being kept diligently under wraps. For his collaborators, that element of surprise is something they will have come to expect. “If I was to sing a John Cale song, I’d want to sing it how people remember it, and that’s where John’s a bit different,” Bradfield says. “I need to see that emotional reaction in people. He doesn’t. With Ship of Fools, with Buffalo Ballet, with I Keep a Close Watch, he can be as tender as a mother hen. But then he can be brutal as well.”

In 2019, Le Bon returned to Cale’s orbit for a three-night stand at the Philharmonie de Paris. While in rehearsals he grumbled about being told to perform Sunday Morning, from the Velvet Underground’s debut. “He seemed annoyed that he had to throw in a crowd-pleaser,” she says. “We rehearsed it, and I was singing when he started laughing and taking the piss out of my accent. I said, ‘John, you’ve got the same accent.’”

• John Cale, James Dean Bradfield, Gruff Rhys, Cate Le Bon, Sinfonia Cymru and House Gospel Choir perform at Llais festival, Cardiff, on 28 October.

Contributor

Huw Baines

The GuardianTramp

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