What’s Welsh for Zen: The Autobiography of John Cale

I discovered What’s Welsh for Zen: The Autobiography of John Cale by John Cale and Victor Bockris while reading Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground. The author, Rob Jovanovic, had used it as a source and I wanted to read it. My thanks to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music for lending it to me as an interloan.

This was a large-format book of 272 very thick pages. I always had to check the pagination to make sure I wasn’t flipping over more than one page. The cover was made of corrugated cardboard usually found in boxes. It still had a soft cushy feel yet since this book was published in 1999 it now had a quarter century’s wear. As with a worn cardboard box lid, the cover bore noticeable creases however you can hardly see them in the scans I made of the actual covers. Since this was a hefty book I chose at times not to take it on public transit–deciding to bring along disposable magazines to read instead–although I did bring it on the bus and subway once. The reading experience was better suited to having it rest on my kitchen table with me poring over each page, appreciating it slowly in detail.

Full pages bore text in a variety of permutations: if it wasn’t draping the entire page from top to bottom, it was stylized into wavy patterns and in different fonts. Poems or song lyrics introduced each chapter. The pages always ended on full stops and text did not continue over the next page mid-sentence. This did not even occur when text graced two pages in an open spread. Generous photos and drawings also supplemented the work, which made the read even more of a pleasure. I could tell from the way Cale wrote that he was really speaking–his reminiscences were in the style of oral discourse, perhaps answering questions posed by coauthor Bockris. Some oral stylizations were left in, which might have been the intent yet could have been edited out if Cale wanted to present his work as more of an academic read. However leaving them in reminded me of the oral musique concrète found throughout Warhol’s a.

Cale took the reader from his childhood village of Garnant, Wales to the US where he continued his musical education. I was interested in his connections with the pioneers of the avant garde and their influences on him and his viola. He wrote about the establishment of the Velvet Underground and his love-hate relationship with Lou Reed. Cale was only a part of the Velvet Underground for their first two albums and wrote about acquiring Andy Warhol as a producer. Warhol apparently did serve as a legitimate advisor to the band and was not merely a producer in name only. Nico was brought in to sing on some of the tracks on their debut album and Cale established a relationship with her that involved producing her later solo work.

For fans of Cale’s music, his album-by-album analyses provided captivating reading. He covered, in depth, not only the first two Velvet Underground albums as well as all of his solo material, but also albums by the artists he produced. I gained new appreciation for his work and now have a desire to add more to my discography.

Throughout the book Cale wrote of his struggles with drug addiction, whether it be cocaine or heroin or both. He often used the little money he earned to fuel his habit. The band members were not rich–how can they earn royalties when their records sold poorly–so Cale found it more lucrative to produce others and take his music on the road.

Cale opened up about his personal life and shared the relationship he had with his parents. (He’s a dead ringer for his father.) His three marriages ended in divorce but the love of his life is his daughter Eden, who was fourteen at the time of publication. He included many photos of himself with her as a toddler and young girl. Cale could only become a devoted and doting father by sobering up first.

The text is an oral transcription and thus notable passages I cite tend to be on the wordy side. As I took notes I marked the following quotations of interest:

Emphasis in the original text:

“Lou and I had one of those rapports where you think the other guy is thinking what you’re thinking, but he’s not. He couldn’t figure me out, and I couldn’t figure him out. The only things we had in common were drugs and an obsession with risk taking. That was the raison d’être for the Velvet Underground. We both had tremendous drive and determination and we both hit out at anything that got in our way. Flower power? Get out of here! Acid? Fuck off! Give people hard drugs–heroin, amphetamine. It wasn’t so much the flavour of the drug; it was the mentality involved that we really resented. We thought doing evil was better than doing nothing.”

“There was a certain way in which the four of us worked together. The way we’d always start, I would sit around and play on my own and Lou would come around and I’d say, ‘Here, look, I’ve got this riff.’ And then Lou would do the same to me. We would jam and move from instrument to instrument while the jam was going on. That approach became part of what was going on on stage. Lou was happy writing songs that Moe and Sterling could relate to. He was happy to have them playing the songs in any way they wanted to play them. I was trying to push this thing in another direction, to try and have it represent everything that we were capable of doing, that would allow Sterling his role as an individual, Moe her role, Lou his role. ‘Venus in Furs’, ‘Heroin’ and ‘Black Angel’ are the supreme examples where everybody played different things but all four together gave you something unique.
“Not knowing what Lou was going to be like from day to day was important from a creative point of view for the band. With everybody else there was an instability but he was one loose cannon who was likely to go off in a very creative way most of the time. I mean, there were a lot of times when I had been going off and acting a little out of control as well, but I always assumed that I was doing it for effect really.”

“Andy had high aims and big plans for the Velvet Underground, but first he had to whip his act into shape and bring the focus and volume to a shattering level. To this end he arranged a week-long engagement in mid-February at the Cinematheque, where underground movies were screened. We were in this tiny little theatre, playing as loud as possible, just victimizing the audience more than anything. There was a barrage of films on the screen, four or five films coming on at the same time, colour, black and white; spotlights, strobes and all that deafening music. Well, the Cinematheque got a lot of publicity anyway, and it got to the point were the publicity gave us enough time to get money to put a show together. Under the title Andy Warhol Uptight, we developed the multimedia show.”

“The cult of the Velvet Underground is distasteful to me. I mean, all the promise we showed in those two albums, we never delivered on it. I’m sure Lou feels the same way–he’s as stubborn and egocentric as I am. Lou thinks that by sticking to his guns he’ll succeed, and he has. He’s got the whole sickness market tied up.”

“I’m getting sadder and sadder thinking about my lack of self-knowledge as I write this book. I’m distraught about my lack of any sense of my own worth, and about my visions of myself.”

“I found the resurgence of interest in the Velvet Underground, and in particular an attempt to see their influence everywhere, fatuous. I don’t think rock and roll is based on influence.”

“I’ve no business being in rock and roll. I’ve said it over and over again that I’m a classical composer, dishevelling my musical personality by dabbling in rock and roll.”

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