At his best

‘Paris 1919’ never topped the charts. Yet the chal­leng­ing, nu­anced 1973 al­bum is con­sid­ered John Cale’s mas­ter work.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - cal­en­dar@latimes.com

BYMATTDIEHL >>> Whether fea­tur­ing Pave­ment, the Pix­ies or the Po­lice, re­union con­certs have be­come the de­fault when it comes to live mu­sic. John Cale’s restag­ing of his clas­sic 1973 al­bum “Paris 1919” — hit­ting UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thurs­day — tran­scends a mere nostal­gia trip, how­ever.

For one, “Paris 1919” doesn’t have the main­stream con­sumer aware­ness of, say, “Zeny­atta Mon­datta”: It re­mains as chal­leng­ing a work as it is gor­geous and nu­anced. In a 9.5 Pitch­fork re­view of the al­bum’s 2006 reis­sue, critic Matthew Mur­phy praised the al­bum’s “stately, haunted grandeur,” con­clud­ing, “For bet­ter or worse, Cale has never again made an­other record quite like ‘Paris 1919,’ at least in part, one sus­pects, be­cause so many in his au­di­ence have since longed for him to do so.”

As such, many con­sider “Paris 1919” the idio­syn­cratic pin­na­cle to Cale’s thrilling yet per­verse ca­reer, de­spite the fact it never topped the charts. “Irony doesn’t re­ally sell records,” Cale noted in a re­cent in­ter­view at his labyrinthine stu­dio tucked in an of­fice build­ing in Los An­ge­les’ fashion district.

Sport­ing a bleached blond surfer hair­cut, striped RVCA hoodie and

skinny trousers, Cale, 68, re­sem­bles a hip Ja­panese skate­boarder more than a griz­zled rock leg­end, but his bona fides are with­out com­pare. Clas­si­cally trained, Cale was men­tored early in his ca­reer by Aaron Co­p­land, but he first gained fame in the ’60s “se­ri­ous mu­sic” scene along­side icon­o­clasts John Cage and La Monte Young.

Cale’s great­est legacy, how­ever, came in co-found­ing the Vel­vet Un­der­ground with Lou Reed, with whom he made two ground­break­ing al­bums, “The Vel­vet Un­der­ground & Nico” (1967) and “White Light/ White Heat” (1968). PostVel­vets, Cale be­gan a fas­ci­nat­ing ca­reer that’s proved vi­tal right up to to­day. In­deed, like a pop Zelig, he has been present for many cru­cial mo­ments in rock his­tory. As a pro­ducer, he has worked with a di­verse lot of artists span­ning the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Mod­ern Lovers and Happy Mon­days.

As a solo artist, Cale has also proved com­pellingly un­pre­dictable, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween the im­pen­e­tra­bly avant-garde and edgy, nu­anced rock right up to to­day.

His mas­ter­piece, how­ever, re­mains “Paris 1919” — a mes­mer­iz­ing mélange that co­a­lesced in a sur­pris­ing man­ner. At the time it was cre­ated, Cale, steered by mu­sic-biz icon Clive Davis, had made his first two solo al­bums for Columbia; how­ever, he’d also been lured to Los An­ge­les as an A&R/in­house pro­ducer for Warner Bros. by an­other le­gendary mu­sic exec, Mo Ostin, which led to “Paris 1919’s” com­ing out on that im­print.

Ac­cord­ing to Cale, pro­ducer Ted Tem­ple­man sug­gested Cale use the L.A. group Lit­tle Feat as his back­ing band. Ini­tially, it seemed a strange pair­ing — Cale the se­vere, black-clad, vi­ola-slash­ing mav­er­ick merged with Lit­tle Feat’s funky hip­pie groove.

The re­sults proved in­spired: Lit­tle Feat’s coun­tri­fied, or­ganic pocket im­bued Cale’s re­gal melodies and fan­tas­ti­cal im­agery with un­ex­pected beauty. “I didn’t know how it was go­ing to work,” Cale says now. “I didn’t know how flex­i­ble they were mu­si­cally, but they let it rip.”

Lit­tle Feat’s Bill Payne was equally wary of the 1973 col­lab­o­ra­tion at first: “I must have thought the same thing John Cale thought when he saw us: How would a guy from the Vel­vet Un­der­ground re­late to Lit­tle Feat, and vice versa?”

Cale and the al­bum’s pro­ducer, Chris Thomas, hired USC clas­si­cal mu­sic stu­dents to pro­vide sym­phonic back­ing. To re-cre­ate the al­bum at the Royce Hall per­for­mance, Cale will be backed by the UCLA Phil­har­mo­nia. Cale will also play a set of non-“Paris 1919” num­bers and will be joined by spe­cial guests, in­clud­ing Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gib­bard.

Cale’s re-cre­at­ing “Paris 1919” in L.A. proves an apt choice: Its com­bi­na­tion of ’70s Cal­i­for­nia rock with Con­ti­nen­tal sym­phon­ics proves time­less, en­hanc­ing its com­plex essence. The al­bum re­ver­ber­ates with odd, provoca­tive jux­ta­po­si­tions: Self-con­scious lit­er­ary ref­er­ences run ram­pant — “Gra­ham Greene” is the ti­tle of one song, “Mac­beth” is an­other, and the opener, “Child’s Christ­mas in Wales,” pays homage to the po­etry of Dylan Thomas.

Else­where, his­tor­i­cal and fic­tional fig­ures col­lide in the lyrics, in­clud­ing the Queen of Eng­land and Norma Des­mond. The ti­tle it­self comes from the Treaty of Ver­sailles that ended World War I, yet the har­monies stem from Cale’s ob­ses­sion with the Beach Boys.

Cale claims the com­bi­na­tion of these dis­parate el­e­ments re­flected his con­tra­dic­tory ex­is­tence at the time. “All the songs are about this Welsh guy lost in the desert of L.A., feel­ing nostal­gic about all the things he loved about Europe,” he says.

“It was dur­ing the height of the Cold War, and I started think­ing, ‘How did we end up here?’ In the ’70s, ev­ery­where felt like a tar­get — ev­ery­one was run­ning to Ar­gentina, be­cause that was a nu­clear-free zone. And that was all be­cause of the Treaty of Ver­sailles.”

Strangely, Cale’s for­mer band­mate and ri­val Lou Reed also re­leased an ac­claimed Euro­pean-ob­sessed song cy­cle, “Ber­lin,” in the same year “Paris 1919” came out. “It was un­canny, ac­tu­ally, that that hap­pened,” Cale says. “We were not talk­ing at all in those days.” (Nor ap­par­ently are they now: When asked to­day about a pos­si­ble Vel­vet Un­der­ground re­union, Cale re­sponds with an un­equiv­o­cal no.)

“Paris 1919’s” in­flu­ence con­tin­ues to re­sound: Its ec­cen­tric DNA can be found in artists as var­ied as the Flam­ing Lips, MGMT, Griz­zly Bear and R.E.M. Nick Cave’s dark per­sona clearly owes Cale a debt. LCD Soundsys­tem re­quested he cover its hit “All My Friends” for a B-side.

Mark Lane­gan, who ap­peared dur­ing a se­ries of Cale-or­ga­nized trib­ute con­certs in honor of for­mer Vel­vet Un­der­ground chanteuse Nico’s 70th birth­day, will also be per­form­ing with Cale on Thurs­day night. “When John asked me to do the Nico shows, I said, ‘Ab­so­lutely,’ ” Lane­gan says. “I’ve been a huge fan for­ever. In fact, in 2003 I tried to get him to pro­duce an al­bum for me. I’ve also cov­ered his song ‘Big White Cloud,’ which I’m re­leas­ing soon.”

Be­sides the “Paris 1919” shows, Cale re­mains busy. In 2009, he was asked to rep­re­sent Wales at the Venice Bi­en­nale, cre­at­ing a multimedia show that has since trav­eled in­ter­na­tion­ally. At the be­gin­ning of 2010, he served as artist in res­i­dence at Mona Foma, an arts fes­ti­val in Tas­ma­nia.

This year he was even made an of­fi­cer of the Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire, an ironic honor for an anti-es­tab­lish­ment mav­er­ick. Hollywood has also been sur­pris­ingly wel­com­ing: Cale has cre­ated scores for films such as “Amer­i­can Psy­cho” and “Basquiat,” and his cover of Leonard Co­hen’s “Hal­lelu­jah” fea­tured promi­nently in “Shrek.”

He’s also work­ing on a new al­bum in Los An­ge­les, which Cale con­sid­ers his home for the few weeks he’s able to spend here be­tween en­gage­ments. “The weather is in my bones,” he says. “The city’s changed a lot from 1972, when I made ‘Paris 1919,’ but the vibe you get from bands here is still the same. You go to any of the clubs, and you see it’s a liv­ing, breath­ing or­gan­ism.”

ODD COU­PLING:

Mel Mel­con

Los An­ge­les Times

John Cale says he had doubts about team­ing with Lit­tle Feat on “Paris 1919.”

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