I’m waiting for John Cale to take the telephone. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t mumbling mantras to myself in an attempt to wrestle my nerves into submission after his manager put me on a brief hold. “I am confident. I am worthy!”
A co-founding member of the ’60s avantgarde band the Velvet Underground, Cale is an icon—a musical demigod whose debut album with the Velvets is widely considered one of the best rock records of all time. Heck, he even taught David Bowie to play the viola. “‘Taught’ is a curious word,” Cale says, laughing, as he carefully walks me through a memory. “At our Town Hall concert, he wanted to play on ‘Sabotage.’ He said, ‘Hey, can I play viola?” Cale tells me, emulating Bowie’s shy tone. “I said, ‘Yes, come here, let me show you how to do this.’”
There’s a laid-back electricity about Cale. The multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer is chatting with me from a recording studio in downtown Los Angeles. And his Welsh accent is ever present, despite decades as an ex-pat. “It was a fleeting friendship,” he says of Bowie. “Two ships passing in the night.” One that Cale examines in the animated video for his single, “Night Crawling,” off his new album, Mercy, out now. In the video, the two prowl the streets of 1970s N.Y.C. “That’s kind of a dark moment,” he says. “We didn’t really get a lot done. We were more into partying than we were into writing songs, and we paid the price for that.” “I realized how much time I’d been wasting,” he tells me of the years prior to his sobriety. “The most important thing I learned from having a hard look at myself was how to make things potent.”
Now 80, Cale has a remarkable six-decade-long catalog of work. Despite writing dozens of albums and film scores, and producing debut records for both Patti Smith and the Stooges, he’s managed to always maintain his curiosity. “How do you carve a really elegant mess out of strange emotions?” he asks. “When COVID happened, I didn’t know what to do…but what I didn’t do was lose a sense of melody. Certain things came out in songwriting that I was really happy I still had,” Cale says of writing Mercy.
As the conversation turns to one of the album’s standout tracks, “Moonstruck (Nico’s Song),” Cale transforms a little. “Everybody suddenly has started realizing that she gets better all the time,” he says, speaking of his late bandmate Nico’s life in the present tense. “How she handles herself lately and how she handled herself years ago is different, but the songs themselves—and you might appreciate this as a songwriter yourself, Kelly— she really got better.”
“I was just there trying to help her [Nico] and understand what the solution for her issues with music may be, but it got better and better and better. It’s important to help people see a way out.”
Cale is kind to me, uncovering my musical background and weaving me into his stories. “I mean, she wrote in English even though she was German. It was a strange world but the more I let her continue, the better she became,” he says. “I was aware she was having intonation issues, but it never prevented her from coming up with a melody that worked,” he tells me of the challenges Nico’s partial deafness presented.
His admiration for Nico is palpable, having produced most of her solo albums and even composing a ballet based on her short life. “I pushed her. She was so insecure,” he says. “I was just there trying to help her and understand what the solution for her issues with music may be, but it got better and better and better. It’s important to help people see a way out.”
Empowering others through music is a theme Cale echoes throughout our conversation. “Don’t be frightened of mistakes. You learn a lot more by making mistakes in your songs than not having them,” he says sincerely. “You have more to think about, more to hear, and it pays off.”
Top photo: Jeaneen Lund (@jeaneenlund)
Kelly Kathleen is a writer, musician, and podcaster based in Los Angeles. When she’s not authoring strange and shocking stories about women, she’s the lead singer and guitarist of the garage rock trio the Shamalams. Her podcast, Pink Princess Phone, takes a deep dive into the secret psyche and shadow self of her celebrated guests. You can also catch her DJing in L.A. and waving back at people who aren’t actually waving at her. Her turn-ons include drive-ins, metaphysics, wet chemistry photobooths, back-seamed stockings, and the DSM-5. Follow her on Instagram @mskellykathleen for witty observations and upcoming performances.