THE ACADEMY IN PERIL: AN EVENING WITH JOHN CALE AT MOMA
Through a Welsh burr punctuated by a burnt-out stutter, former Velvet Underground member and punk pioneer John Cale devoted most of his recent MoMA lecture to a discussion of his video installation Dyddiau Du/Dark Days. Cale said much of the video was inspired by the view from his childhood bedroom window of the black mountains of Amman Valley—as a child, he would run up and down the stone quarry steps until he was exhausted. He spoke of travelling back to his native village in the Welsh Amman Valley to put to rest some ghosts from his childhood. While he would do well to stick to music, this flirtation with art solidifies his role as an elusive icon. Cale’s career hasn’t always been consistent, but something should be said for his fierce tenacity.
I arrived at MoMA thirty minutes early to secure my seat in the front of the auditorium. Some familiar faces scattered the room—Julian Schnabel was a couple seats to my left and Yoko Ono was a row or two back. I spotted a beautiful Steinway piano next to the stage in the far left corner. I had to squint to even see it; I had forgotten my glasses and it was tucked under a velvet case. I was immediately reminded of a performance I had seen of Cale covering my favorite Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” But at MoMA the piano was the elephant in the room, unlit, untouched, unplayed. Cale never even glanced at it, and I didn’t get my song.
To kick off the lecture, we were shown footage of Cale on a 1963 episode of the game show I’ve Got a Secret. Cale’s secret: participating in the first full-length performance of Erik Satie’s eighteen-hour-and-forty-minute Vexations, along with fellow musicians James Tenney, John Cage, and Christian Wolff. Straight-laced and reserved, Cale and off-Broadway actor Karl Schenzer (the only audience members to sit through Vexations in its entirety) remained aloof throughout the show despite the game-show audience’s giggles.
However, the MoMA crowd was older, and some looked a bit too washed-up to laugh. The overtly genteel nature of Dyddiau Du/Dark Days eclipsed the aggravated spirit that I had loved Cale for, whether I heard it in his production (via Patti Smith’s 1975 Horses) or his own work (1974’s Fear). Dyddiau Du/Dark Days is centered around the baggage of not being able to speak to his father for the first several years of his life. Thanks to an overbearing grandmother who wouldn’t allow the “brutish” English language to be used in a Welsh-speaking home, Cale’s relationship with his family seems to have been an icy one. Attempting to come to terms with his inhospitable childhood through video and sound, he went back to his old stomping grounds in Garnant.
Cale babbled for an hour about the camera logistics and filming technicalities. This was dry and indulgent, but understandable because a) he’s a producer—of course he’s concerned with all the mechanics, and b) this was his first foray into visual arts. I woke up from my nap when I heard a door opening, a sound coming from footage of his chapel in South Wales. The score for the chapel scene consisted of ambient sounds of the church itself (the roof settling, doors closing, outside traffic) cloaked over an orchestral drone of violins. Cale revealed that the music, convincingly mature à la Marian Zazeela, was performed by a group of eight-year-old students whom he had taught how to hold a note. I was woken up by the dense, jingling harmonies, which created a quivering sense of time with no vanishing point in sight. This thoughtful and solemn moment was rudely interrupted by a rock-ish track with a spoken text clumsily thrown on top. (It sounded dated, too, like a bad cut off his Honi Soit.)
The Dyddiau Du/Dark Days lecture was disheartening. The more retrospective Cale got, the older and older he seemed to me. I’m well versed in Cale’s work, and even when his albums take a dip (Caribbean Sunset, anyone?) I’m right there with him. But this overly poetic relay of unsettled burdens strayed too far from his discipline. Like Karl Schenzer, the untiring audience member who watched all of Vexations with Cale, I also felt compelled to sit still and watch out of respect and admiration. Cale was like a deadbeat dad who never showed up for a bowling date, and if he did, I’d expect him to be drunk.
As a self-proclaimed Cale fanatic, it’s hard for me to write this article. While his ability to weave in and out of genres is notable, the transition isn’t so smooth when it comes to visual arts (or public speaking, for that matter). But I’m not deterred completely. At MoMA he was relentlessly eager and enduring, ending the lecture with some words of wisdom for all those half-asleep young ones in the audience: “You don’t need to plop change in the middle of a song to make it work, you need to just listen harder.”