In the Mansion section of today's Wall Street Journal (go here), I took John Cale back to his old apartment at 56 Ludlow St. on New York's Lower East Side for an interview. The apartment is significant because it was there—in 1965—that John with Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison co-founded the Velvet Underground. They also recorded demos there in July '65 that became the basis for "The Velvet Underground & Nico," which Rolling Stone has ranked #13 on its "Greatest 500 Albums of All Time" list, calling it “the most prophetic album ever made.”
That's pretty much right as far as rock albums go. The music’s droning sound, extended tracks, controversial subject matter and pop-art minimalism influenced two generations of future art-rockers ranging from David Bowie and David Byrne to Patti Smith and Nirvana. This makes Cale the Elvis Presley of art-rock.
When I researched the Velvet Underground in the fall in preparation for my interview with John for an article on the re-issue of The Velvet Underground & Nico: 45th Anniversary set (Universal), I came across fascinating material on the apartment and the demos. Then in December, when I heard that John was coming to New York to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I pitched my wild idea to my editor. She said, "Let's do it."
Some of you may recall that I wrote a similar piece for the Wall Street Journal on tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins a few years ago, when we spent the afternoon visiting his old neighborhood in Harlem just before his 80th birthday concert at New York's Beacon Theater (go here). [Photo above of Sonny Rollins by Jamie-James Medina]
So I gave John a call. Now there's something you should know about him. Like all true artists who love improvisation and live on the edge, John understood the friction and out-there aspect of my out-there idea immediately. "Yeah, man, let's do it," he said.
After asking permission to visit from the apartment's current occupants—Germana Pucci, a musician-editor, who lives there with her multimedia artist husband Giancarlo Biagi and songwriter daughter Michelle—we were all set. John showed up a little early with his manager Nita. I was already there with Philip Montgomery, the photographer.
The building, which dates back to the turn of the 20th century, is in remarkably good shape. Today's, it is a co-op inhabited by artists similar in many respects to the musicians, painters, poets and filmmakers who rented space when Mr. Cale picked up his mail in the narrow vestibule. [Photo above of 56 Ludlow St. by Philip Montgomery]
When Germana came down to let us in, we were all introduced, and John bounded ahead, leading the way up the familiar stairs. “This was all raw brick then,” John said, slapping the plaster wall on the third-floor landing. “The staircase is new, too, much more solid now.”
On the fifth floor, John decided to continue up to the roof before visiting his old apartment. Darting around the outdoor space, John seemed in awe and emotionally overwhelmed. That's when I conducted a flash interview with my FlipCam...
Originally from Wales, Mr. Cale studied music and composition at the University of London’s Goldsmiths’ College. There, he met composer Aaron Copland, who in 1963 helped him secure a summer scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. At summer’s end, Mr. Cale decided to move to New York, where he began playing viola in an experimental performance group led by La Monte Young.
He had met Young through composer John Cage, and he and Young began rehearsing daily. In September 1963, John performed on piano in an 18-hour concert with Cage at the Pocket Theater, which stood on Third Ave. near 13th St. Then a week later, he went on TV's I’ve Got a Secret...
While playing in Young’s group, John befriended experimental filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad, who in January ’64 invited John to move into his 1½ bedroom apartment at 56 Ludlow. John took the living room and Conrad had the back bedroom—and they split the $25 monthly rent. Cutting-edge artists lived in the building at the time—poet Angus MacLise, filmmaker Piero Heliczer, abstract painter Jack Smith and actor Mario Montez.
At a party in ‘64, John and Conrad met Jerry Vance of Pickwick Records, which was a B-level label trying to ride the Teen Pan Alley wave. Vance liked John and Tony's edgy look and asked if they wanted to record and play gigs to support a new pop song called The Ostrich. John and Tony went out to the label's offices in Queens, where they met Lou Reed, who was a Pickwick staff songwriter. Here's the result, as The Primitives, with Lou Reed on lead vocal...
Up on the roof, John reminisced about the neighborhood and how bleak it was. Then the photographer set up some shots, including the one you see in the Wall Street Journal today. I begged Philip not to have John step off the five-story building onto a ladder, but John was game.
Down in the apartment, Germana encouraged John to walk around freely. He went immediately to the bedroom window facing Ludlow St. Sitting on the bed’s edge, he looked down at the street and spoke about the neighborhood and where he slept in the apartment (under the window). He also mentioned his starving artist diet of canned stew and milkshakes.
Looking out the window, John recalled hearing high school students singing doo-wop in the doorway early in the morning. Then he sprang up and walked into the living room, running his hand along a protrusion in the wall. He said the old fireplace was behind the plaster, where he and Conrad had burned crates and furniture to keep warm, since the gas stove was the apartment's only source of heat in the winter.
I asked if Lou Reed had moved in, as most books on the Velvet Underground claim. John said he didn't: "After graduating from college, Lou continued to live at home in Freeport, on Long Island. When Lou and I began working hard on ideas for the band, he’d commute in on the weekends to the apartment."
They called themselves the Warlocks at first and then the Falling Spikes. The group finally named the band after an S&M novel Conrad had found on the street: The Velvet Underground. But they had a rough time of it. After Maureen “Moe” Tucker joined on drums, their art-driven music had little in common with commercial transistor radio hits.
"Our songs ran longer, the topics we were singing about were controversial and we liked sound textures. We couldn't care less whether people were able to dance to it," he said. "That was the world of 45s. We were doing something completely different, something that hadn't really been done before."
By the end of ’65, Conrad moved out of 56 Ludlow and John soon followed, relocating to a loft on nearby Lispenard St. The band's association with Andy Warhol followed in '66, and the Velvet Underground was on its way, creating an urban avant-garde counterpoint to San Francisco's folk-rock scene of '67.
John Cale is significant. He helped start a movement powered by individualism, expression and art—not sales, conformity or media drama. This sensibility continues to this day, as evidenced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's New Wave Festival this week. John has never compromised in his recordings or his performances, and he always remains true to his performance-art and art-pop roots. By combining modern classical forms with drone music and Anglican edge, John is still one of the truly innovative and freshest rockers around, proving that avant-garde isn't pretend but a way of thinking.
Here's the Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967 singing All Tomorrow's Parties...
Here's John today in a video for Face to the Sky, from his new album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood...
So, how important is John Cale and the Velvet Underground in shaping the direction of rock history post-1965? This documentary, with rare footage, sums them up...
JazzWax tracks: You'll find John Cale's Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (Double Six) here.