John Cale, The Velvet Underground And The Lost Mystery Of Music

Before the internet dumped an information overload on us, the stories behind our favourite bands had to be found out through hard-work and dedication. Being a fan meant a lot more than just a "like" on Facebook...
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Before the internet dumped an information overload on us, the stories behind our favourite bands had to be found out through hard-work and dedication. Being a fan meant a lot more than just a "like" on Facebook...

Seeing John Cale live at the Royal Festival Hall performing songs from his recent fine album Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood album provoked something in me. Something that made me feel very young and very old all at once. Something similar to nostalgia. But I don’t like nostalgia. So let’s not call it nostalgia.

It wasn’t a place or a moment that Mr Cale conjured up, but rather a sensation of secrecy.

When I was a young man, information reached me in a curious variety of ways. For example, around the time of Daydream Nation there was a South Bank Show profiling Sonic Youth. On the show, Steve Shelley proffered a copy of Big Star’s Sister Lovers and talked about his appreciation of it. I’d seen that album on the wall of a record shop in Wolverhampton and by some miracle, I had enough money to buy it the following Saturday. And so I was introduced to Big Star.

I reached the Velvet Underground by similarly unconventional methods. At the time of my discovery, in the mid 1980’s, the momentum activated by the death of Warhol and Nico, the release of the VU collection and the Songs for Drella collaboration was just emerging. I’d probably initially heard of the band via Bowie and the Ziggy Stardust version of White Light/White Heat. Then I heard of someone in the small town I grew up in who possessed a copy of Uptight, the biography of the Velvets. I was forced to go and befriend this person to initiate a relationship to get into the position of borrowing that particular book and learning more about them. It was the steampunk version of the internet.

This was the thing about the Velvet Underground and the release of information in general at this time. Everything had to be slowly pieced together on your own, or with a couple of like-minded collaborators

At that point, all I could surmise about the Velvets, was that they were American, probably perverts and certainly junkies. Uptight filled in some of the other gaps. In fact, they were junkies and perverts. And American.

This was the thing about the Velvet Underground and the release of information in general at this time. Everything had to be slowly pieced together on your own, or with a couple of likeminded collaborators. Rather than having all the facts presented to you in an easily accessible web page, nuggets of knowledge were gathered together over time. And the over-riding fact about the Velvet Underground, was their story made absolutely no sense. One of them was Welsh. They had a female singer, but only sometimes. Andy Warhol was involved in some vague undefined way. They were gay, or possibly not. While I now had their story presented before me in book form, it was still unfathomable.

To my knowledge, bands formed, usually at school or college or with link-minded friends, played shows, got noticed, made records and then died or split up. But The Velvet Underground was the puppet outfit of a famous artist. Or were turned into some kind of living art installation. Or some crazed rock and roll band taken over by the New York art scene. Or none of the above. And they had a girl drummer. Who played standing up. It was infuriating to me.

By some miracle, the record lending library in Wolverhampton had a copy of the oddly titled double album collection Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground featuring Nico. And I fell in love with ‘Sister Ray’. I fell in love with the song ‘Sister Ray’. There were noises in that song that I still don’t understand and are still frightening to me. It was challenging to walk around the Mander Centre with that on your headphones.

We now live in an age where people that were once just rumours and legends and probably dead, annually pop up on the South bank or the Barbican and tweet about their travel plans

Then Jonathan Richman was on Whistle Test. He did ‘Chewing Gum Wrapper’ a capella and then there was a live concert on Janice Long’s show the next night. I was smitten. I’d seen the ‘Roadrunner’ single for £1 in Oldies Unlimited. And it was produced by John Cale! More intrigue! And it sounded like Sister Ray! It was all coming together in some vague, indefinable way. I loved raking over these clues, uncovering another line of enquiry. Everything was starting to add up. But what did it all mean?

So I guess it was this ride into the mystery that I miss and seeing John Cale provoked. Over the years, the various layers and connections of the Velvets and their ilk have been revealed to me. His Paris 1919 album became as important to me as Loaded and I was lucky enough to see him perform it live last year. Which was peculiar in its own way, that we now live in an age where people that were once just rumours and legends and probably dead, annually pop up on the South bank or the Barbican and tweet about their travel plans and stick their noodlings up on Bandcamp and crowdsource the financing for their latest release.

Of course this is all WONDERFUL. It’s wonderful to see John Cale. Or Roky Erickson. Or fucking Jandek. Just different. It’s sad, I know, to miss disinformation and murkiness. It’s preferable to have all the answers you could possibly need, instantly at your fingertips rather than uncovering some gem that is purely your own and wondering if anyone else on the globe has made the same discovery. I miss that mystery. But then, I always wanted to be a detective.

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