At the age of 82, John Cale still retains his soft features

There would be no Velvet Underground without John Cale, who heard an aspiring folk artist named Lou Reed play a song called “Heroin” in 1965 and immediately grasped the pioneering potential its. Together, the classically trained Cale and the city rat Reed revolutionized rock and roll — according to everyone but Cale, who once wrote that “trying to see their influence everywhere” made him feel “stupid”.

Andy Warhol managed the band, pairing them with German ice queen Nico and making them part of his performance art “event.” Warhol would show his films to the group while the superstars of Exploding Plastic Inevitable danced and acted out S&M scenarios.

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Lou Reed performs live on stage with Welsh musician John Cale (center) and German singer-songwriter Nico at Le Bataclan Theater in Paris, France on January 29, 1972.


Cale said he found the Factory “oddly interesting.” He had an affair with Edie Sedgwick, ran out of drugs and adopted Warhol’s relentless work ethic: “You just pay attention and go.” But the fun ended when Reed cut ties with Warhol and kicked Cale out of the band.

Disappointed but also a little relieved, Cale tried producing and had legendary albums like Patti Smith’s in hand. Horse and The Stooges’ self-titled debut. He also embarked on an ongoing career as a solo artist. When Reed transformed into a Rock n Roll Animal, Cale refused to be held down. He was chasing the lushness of 1973 Paris 1919 by entering the future of art rock with Brian Eno. He married and divorced three times, including briefly with designer Betsey Johnson, and had a daughter at age 43. Her birth inspired him to get sober.

As of 2016, he has released 16 solo albums.

Cale was traveling to Brazil when the pandemic hit. He had an almost finished album in the box but decided to rework it. Released last year to critical acclaim, MERCY featuring a host of super cool guest artists like Weyes Blood, Animal Collective and Sylvan Esso. The album touches on our collective contemporary madness but also includes tributes to Marilyn Monroe and his former bandmate Nico.

But MERCY doesn’t capture the full extent of Cale’s frenetic creativity during the pandemic. “He started writing new songs like it was the only thing keeping him alive,” says Nita Scott, his longtime manager and co-producer. “I think the pandemic changed something inside him and it exploded.”

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John Cale, 2024; POPtical Illusion, Cale’s 18th solo studio album.With permission from LABEL.

“I’ve written 70 or 80 songs,” Cale said. The world outside his LA studio offers an endless parade of surreal and disturbing material. “There are crazy people running around trying to change people’s minds about the usefulness of drugs,” he said. “There are no regrets.”

On the resulting album, POPtical illusion, This team’s great player is on his own, and those who knew Cale from the ’60s and ’70s might be surprised to hear how modern he sounds. Programmed beats slide and loop as synths bounce and swirl. On the lead single, “How We See the Light,” his rich Welsh baritone explodes over staccato chords reminiscent of the Clash sample on MIA’s “Paper Planes.”

When I asked if he kept up with his old Factory friends, Cale said, “Unfortunately, there aren’t too many of them around.” At 82, he’s focused on what’s next. He wants to produce a hip-hop album with Tyler, the Creator or Earl Sweatshirt, and he says he will never stop making music. “There’s nothing else I can do and I’m still learning,” he said. “It’s a wonderful life if you can survive it.”


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