“This is not a Velvet Underground revisit,” John Cale immediately blurted out. The Los Angeles-based singer was discussing his return to New York for a pair of shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week, a collision of the past and present. The first, “Life Along the Borderline,” is a tribute to Nico, the marble-mouthed chanteuse whom Cale played alongside in the Velvet Underground and collaborated with as producer and musician during her run of solo albums in the 1970s. The idea for a tribute first came to Cale in 2008, right around the time Nico would have turned 70 and on the 20th anniversary of her tragic death.
“When we first started doing this I was amazed at how many young female singer-songwriters loved Nico for her songwriting,” Cale, 70, told ARTINFO in a phone interview. “Up until then I thought that was a niche. All of a sudden the floodgates opened and there were all these young artists who really loved what she did and wanted to participate.”
New York, as it turns out, is an appropriate place to stage the tribute. Cale first met Nico here, after she had arrived from Europe and began hanging out with Andy Warhol, who at the time was managing the Velvet Underground. Warhol thought making Nico the frontwoman of the band would give them some much needed stage presence, much to the chagrin of singer/songwriter Lou Reed. After a heated battle, it was Cale who eventually convinced Reed to accept Nico as part of their group. Even after her death, Cale would go on to collaborate with Nico’s former lover, the filmmaker Philippe Garrel, on music that, at times, evoked the sound of his former collaborator.
In Brooklyn, Cale will step to the background, joined by artists as diverse as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Peaches, and Sharon Van Etten, to perform reinterpretations of Nico’s songs. It’s a comfortable role for Cale, and a common one in his relationship with Nico, whom, he said, was “like a ray of sunshine every time we started recording.”
The second show, later on in the week, will see Cale performing his classic album “Paris 1919” in full, accompanied by the Wordless Music Orchestra. It’s a task the singer was hesitant to take on at first. “Maybe Sting can do it with an orchestra, but John Cale can’t do it with an orchestra,” he laughed, describing the first conversations about the show. Cale is being cheeky, of course: an accomplished musician, he studied classical composition at the University of London and at Tanglewood with Aaron Copeland before falling under the spell of avant-garde visionaries LaMonte Young and John Cage and is, certainly, well qualified to play with an orchestra. He’s even played BAM before, with Lou Reed in the 1990 “Songs for Drella,” a tribute to Warhol, their mentor. But other problems still remained.
“You know, the album is only 35 minutes,” he said. “You can’t really do a whole evening like that, so we started doing the second half [of the show] with the band, and it didn’t feel right to me so I just started adding more material.” For a startlingly original artist like Cale, who in his solo work over three decades has made it a mission to take chances and not dwell on the past, the back end of the show seems the most exciting, and most important, part of the evening.
“This is not a rock ’n’ roll concert, so the space is perfect for it,” Cale said. “‘Paris’ remains what it is. You know, people expect ‘Paris’ to be ‘Paris,’ and that’s fine. But the other stuff, there’s leeway. That’s where the fooling around comes in.”