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10 Reasons to Rediscover John Cale

Here’s something from the more avant-classical side of Cale: a long, gloriously cacophonous composition driven by piano and not one but two drummers, from “Church of Anthrax,” a collaborative and mostly improvised album he made with the experimental musician Terry Riley. “Ides of March” basically sounds like a bunch of stuff falling out of a closet for 11 minutes straight, in the most compelling way possible. I’m a huge fan of this album and was delighted to find in my reporting that Todd Haynes is, too — it’s one of the more obscure in Cale’s discography, but we enthusiasts are quite passionate about it. (Listen on YouTube)

As I was researching Cale, this album, “Honi Soit” from 1981, was my most thrilling discovery. (Hey, the guy has released 17 solo albums; even a fan like me can’t always keep up!) Cale’s approach was so consistently ahead of its time that he was easily able to slot into various emerging genres as the decades went on. “Fear,” along with his production for Smith and the Stooges, heralded him as a godfather of punk, while “Honi Soit” proves he understood post-punk and new wave just as intuitively. The refrain in this pummeling track is “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” an old Anglo-Norman phrase that is still the motto of the British chivalric Order of the Gartner; it’s roughly translated as “shame on anyone who thinks evil of it.” Leave it to Cale to make something so esoteric sound immediately catchy. (Listen on YouTube)

Reed and Cale met up again for the first time in years at Warhol’s funeral in 1987; their friend’s unexpected death hit them both hard and they wanted to find a way to pay tribute. Their offering was the 1989 album “Songs for Drella,” which they workshopped at various locations around New York City, like St. Ann’s Warehouse and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (a John Cale superfan) told me that the album’s starkly minimalist production had an impact on him. “Up until then I didn’t know you could leave a song like that and be confident enough to say it was done,” he marveled. I, too, love the clean outlines of Cale’s antic piano and Reed’s insouciant guitar, all the better to hear them clash. (Listen on YouTube)

Before it was the woefully over-covered, culturally ubiquitous standard that it is today, “Hallelujah” was a semi-obscure Leonard Cohen track that hadn’t made much of an impact when it was first released in 1984. It was, however, the song that Cale chose to cover on a 1991 Cohen tribute album — which turned out to be the version that initially caught Jeff Buckley’s ear. The rest, for better or worse, is history. Cale and I discussed the song quite a bit, and we both bemoaned the way “Hallelujah” has transformed into a solemn, self-serious dirge. Cale’s expertly inhabited version certainly gets at the wry, Cohenian humor that most other interpreters miss, especially in his delivery of the line, “There was a time when you let me know what’s really going on below/But now you never show it to me, do ya?” Said Cale, correctly: “It’s cheeky, isn’t it?” (Listen on YouTube)

Though their time in the studio together was contentious, Cale and fellow art-rocker Brian Eno created something compelling and unexpectedly accessible in “Wrong Way Up,” a collaborative album released in 1990. The album is best known for the songs that Eno sings — especially the bright, poppy “Spinning Away” — but I like this more laid-back, poetic number that Cale sings in a cool murmur. (Listen on YouTube)

And here’s one more Velvets classic for good measure, from the final VU album Cale appeared on, the caterwauling “White Light/White Heat.” With all due respect to Reed, I love the few moments when Cale sang lead with the Velvets. There’s something so deliciously creepy about his vocals here, but at the same time they’re always imbued with a signature elegance. (Listen on YouTube)

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