John Cale will celebrate both his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the release of the groundbreaking “The Velvet Underground & Nico” album across three nights next week (Nov. 16-18) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). While the first two nights will focus on the Velvets’ monumentally influential 1967 debut, the third — a “future-spective” — will look old and new material from Cale’s solo career.
For special guests, the VU founding member has invited members of Animal Collective, MGMT and Thee Oh Sees, as well as TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe, former Chairlift singer Caroline Polachek, Kurt Vile, Sky Ferreira and Connan Mockasin.
For an artist not usually prone to reminiscing, Cale moves quickly from chatting up his forthcoming new album to his interpretation of VU classics. “The first shows I did like this focused on Nico, and all these young female artists were there, showing how they appreciated Nico as a songwriter,” Cale says of previous shows in Scandinavia, Paris and Liverpool. “We’ve had guys sing ‘Heroin’ in the past, so maybe it’s time to have women sing it. You want to show off how adaptable this material is to different sensibilities.”
Lou Reed, who died in 2013, wrote the majority of the Velvets’ canon, but Cale’s arrangements and his menacing bass, viola and piano and brought the group its genuine avante-garde sensibilities (he’d worked with composer LaMonte Young before joining the band in 1965). “I’m interested in changing the possibilities of all the Velvets’ songs, even the instrumentation,” he says of the forthcoming shows. “Though that’s not really what I want to do for the anniversary, as I’m aware that people expect to hear things as they remember them — which isn’t going to happen anyway,” he added with a chuckle. “But we have a lot to work with.”
Cale briefly discussed a recent meeting with Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes, who is now in the early stages of a VU documentary — “It was just us reconnoitering, I don’t know where he’s going with it, but I got a good feeling” — before he recalled hearing Lou Reed playing such legendary songs as “Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” for the first time.
“We just got together on [the group’s early Lower East Side headquarters on] Ludlow Street and jammed. Slowly, it became clear that Lou was an expert at improvising lyrics — that was crucial. Dylan was already out there, coming up with new songs constantly, and I thought we’d go out and improvise whole concerts, give Dylan a run for his money. We could do a lot with our instrumentation, and Lou was intrigued by that, interested most in how his words could be portrayed.”
Cale says he and Reed mentored each other, with drummer Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison acting as integral if occasionally grouchy comrades. Ultimately, he says “being the Velvets” was too much for all of them, especially given with the hype provided by Warhol fame (“he was good at getting attention”), which failed to generate sales. “We snarled a lot,” he says.
Cale was forced out of the band in 1968 as a rift between he and Reed widened beyond repair. “It forced me into a corner,” he recalls, although he was very active as both a solo artist and a producer in the years following the band’s breakup. “I knew though that I had options to produce records, and fortunately for me, Iggy Pop [and the Stooges] showed up, then Nico, and I could express myself with my own music. When it came to us, the Velvets, it was done. We had a ball until a point, then we signed papers and I was gone.” Cale also went on to produce groundbreaking albums for Patti Smith (“Horses”) and Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers.
The Velvets had a full-blown reunion in the early 1990s, but it dissipated after a European tour as old resentments, particularly from Reed, set in. “I never thought we were there to recycle,” Cale says. “That was a shame. We could have done anything we wanted, but that got the kibosh right away.”
As for next week’s shows, Cale says, “I’m part of this situation and I’d like to show off and honor what we did back then. The album was a visceral look at American life, how the world really was. I did [this show] in Paris, but I have to do it in New York, where it started.”
The third night will feature both Cale’s past work and songs such as “Hatred” from his new album, which is due in 2018.
“The new album is funkier and covers a wider range of topics than my last works,” he says, noting that his recent albums, 2012’s “Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood” and 2016’s “M:FANS” were electronic, sample-heavy affairs.
He says that throughout the BAM shows, he wants the guest artists to find “their own ways in” to the songs. “I want to share this with other people, other artists, have them point out different feelings and sounds, along with making the past look forward.”