OOne afternoon a few years ago, Cate Le Bon opened an email that made her tremble. Before she knew what was going on, she was crying. “It doesn’t suit me to have that kind of reaction to something,” she says. The message was simple: “John Cale is looking for you.”
Le Bon grew up about 31 miles from Cale’s home village of Garnant in Carmarthenshire, but an invitation to play with his band at the London Barbican in the spring of 2018 reached her at a furniture workshop in the Lake District, where she studied after its release. from Crab Day, her fourth album of spiky psych-pop. “I spent a long time trying to explain to the master craftsman who John Cale was and what he meant to me,” she says. “We had to compare it to football players.”
It’s always been that way. Since founding Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in New York in 1964, Cale has made the circle between hugely influential and defiantly inaccessible. His solo career, continuing next year with Mercy, home to collaborations with Weyes Blood, Animal Collective and Sylvan Esso, includes stately pop, mangy sound experiments, state-of-the-art electronics, and film and ballet soundtracks. A few months into his 80s – a milestone he will mark with a concert at the Wales Millennium Center in Cardiff, alongside Le Bon, Gruff Rhys and James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers – Cale remains an outsider.
That dynamism can be felt in Wales. He may be the country’s greatest living musician, yet his profile dwarfs the easily digestible hits of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. For Le Bon, the fact that his rise took place on the other side of the Atlantic, amid the arthouse glamor of Andy Warhol’s Factory, gives his music an otherworldly edge that is unique among Welsh artists, often celebrated for being ” just like us”.
“He was part of such an iconic movement that there is an unreachability about him that is unknown [to Welsh people],” she says. “When you’re Welsh, you end up working with a lot of Welsh musicians, and it’s a beautiful thing, but John seemed to be on another planet.”
Cale has remained unknowable at home, not only because he makes difficult music, but also because he maintains a complex relationship with the place. Born in 1942, as a child he often had bronchitis and was treated with mind-altering opiates; At the age of 12, he was harassed by an organist in the church. His early life was dominated by his grandmother, who weaponized the Welsh language out of spite, enraged that her daughter, a school teacher, had married an English miner. Welsh was the only language spoken at home, and Cale was seven before he could talk to his father after learning English at school. Music was a way to process this trauma. “[It] allowed me to communicate without anyone’s permission,” he said years later.
A gifted pianist and violist, Cale performed with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and studied at Goldsmiths in London, where he interpreted avant-garde works such as X for Henry Flynt, by his future collaborator La Monte Young, to the bewilderment and anger of his colleagues . Then, in 1963, it went to America, first for a scholarship to study with the Boston University Orchestra, and then to New York, the city that had long suggested round-the-clock access to fun, chaos, and creativity. “He had to run away from Wales to understand himself,” Rhys says.
In Cale’s world, ideas are there to be questioned on a regular basis: you can’t understand yourself once, you have to do it again and again. He has made a habit of taking his songs apart and putting them back together when he plays live, and his understanding of home also exists on shifting sands. In Dyddiau Du/Dark Days, an audiovisual piece he produced to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Cale read together gripping images of the landscape into a torture sequence. At one point he sits at a piano in a chapel without making a sound, suggesting that this anti-establishment terror is part of a tradition he cannot escape.
“There’s something about his piano,” says Bradfield. “When I was in church when I was young, songs weighed on me, especially Welsh hymns. I hear that when he plays. There is experience there that you cannot wash away.”
As a teenager in Blackwood, Bradfield discovered Cale’s music through The Gift, a song on Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, in which he reads an absurdist tale of infidelity and manslaughter with his impressive Carmarthenshire accent. Bradfield already knew about the Velvets thanks to their lionising in the music press of the 1980s, but now he had an entrance. “You hear that voice and you say, ‘That’s from Swansea Way,'” he says. “It blew open the doors.”
In Bradfield’s own work, Cale’s influence manifests itself in the belief that whether he’s surrounded by the nagging drones of the Velvets or the early glampunk snottiness of the Manics, the right melody can touch a listener. “He can take the avant-garde and traditional songwriting and diffuse them,” says Bradfield. “There are little explosions where you think, ‘Oh, this is a good song,’ and then he starts tearing it apart.”
Rhys’ career has more directly reflected this creative restlessness. A mainstay of Cool Cymru in the mid-1990s fronting Super Furry Animals, his later work included concept pieces, soundtracks and tight electro-pop; live he is more concerned with the personalities of his fellow musicians than with a blueprint. Five years ago, he joined Cale for a set re-imagining the Velvet Underground and Nico in Liverpool, and witnessed up close his commitment to a similar ideal. “I played Lady Godiva’s Operation, I learned the guitar parts from the record,” Rhys says. “He reassured me, ‘Don’t worry about that.'”
Rehearsals are underway, but precise details of Cale’s Llais festival appearance, which will also include the House Gospel Choir and, following his own experience, the Under-thirty Sinfonia Cymru Orchestra, will be kept diligently secret. For his employees, that element of surprise is something they are used to. “If I were to sing a John Cale song, I’d like to sing it the way people remember it, and that’s where John is a little different,” Bradfield says. “I need to see that emotional response in people. Not him. With Ship of Fools, with Buffalo Ballet, with I Keep a Close Watch, he can be as tender as a mother hen. But he can also be brutal.”
In 2019, Le Bon returned to Cale’s track for a three-night stand at the Philharmonie de Paris. While he was rehearsing, he grumbled that he had to perform Sunday morning from the Velvet Underground debut. “He seemed annoyed that he had to throw a crowd puller,” she says. “We were rehearsing it, and I was singing when he started laughing and terrifying my accent. I said, ‘John, you have the same accent.’”