Around 18 years ago, I think it was the night after my 40th birthday, my friend Damian and I emerged from the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall having watched John Cale in concert, the solo “Fragments Of A Rainy Season” show he toured for years showcasing the best of his redoubtable solo catatalogue.
Damian, who from the late 70s onwards began to resemble Cale’s one-time bandmate Lou Reed so much that it was almost as if he had willed his own features to assume the look of our hero, turned to me with a wry, curl-lipped smile.
“We’ve been following the wrong Velvet for all these decades,” he grinned.
Although it wasn’t quite accurate in either of our cases, I knew what he meant.
We had been among a small but dedicated bunch who had slavishly followed both. Jeez, I even bought Mo Tucker solo albums.
The Welsh iconoclast had put out a series of largely acclaimed albums which begun and remained steadfastly ignored by all but a tiny minority of the record-buying public – Velvets completists such as Damian and I basically – and his live performance work was almost always exemplary.
This had not always been the case with Reed, whose post-Berlin (1973) output was almost uniformly patchy and inconsistent save for the odd moments of focus (ie Side One of Coney Island Baby plus the closing track, the New York album) and buying a ticket to see Lou during certain periods was an act of faith you hoped was rewarded by an odd on-it night rather than a Springsteenesque guarantee of a high-level act at the top of his game
Following Lou was hard work at times even before realising in adulthood that he was pretty much an unpleasant person, particularly if a British journalist had been hired by a PR – and believe me, no act ever paid more PRs to put him in more rooms with more journalists – to sit across the room and attempt to strike up a rapport with him.
The fact that their one genuine post-VU collaboration – I’m discounting the reunion tour of the original four including Mo Tucker and now-departed Sterling Morrison as more of an exercise in nostalgia than quality – “Songs For Drella” commemorating their one-time mentor and “producer” Andy Warhol was such a success and an artistic triumph only heightened the frustration that boys-in-bands rivalries forced Cale out of the Velvet Underground after two albums which I still regard as deserving a lofty place in any top 50 of the most influential rock/pop records of all time.
(A little biased, I believe their third and fourth albums do too, but that’s possibly overkill in most folks’ opinions.)
Tonight I’m off to Liverpool not knowing quite what to expect as Cale, now in his 70’s and the bearer of the torch following Lou’s passing, presents his 2017 50th anniversary “re-imagining,” as the hipsters say, of what was possibly the third or fourth LP I ever bought.
I don’t know if my original vinyl copy of “The Velvet Underground and Nico” had lain unpurchased in the racks at Reidy’s in Blackburn for the five years since its release or whether it was a reissue in the early months of 1972 in the wake of Bowie’s ascension to Beatlemania-like worship.
Bowie had dropped Lou and The Velvets by name into every interview I’d devoured and I’m almost certain that after Ziggy became the second album I bought with my own cash*– with money raised selling pen-pal ad replies from a Disco 45 Songwords magazine ad I’d placed to my school pals (2p each, 5p if a pic include) – for precisely £2.18, the iconic (I use the word reluctantly and with disdain for those who abuse it, but fuck it, it’s right in this case) banana-sleeved, blue and gold MGM labelled, Warhol-imprimateur-endorsed very, very heavy vinyl long player was my third.
I’ve no idea what to expect tonight, but possibly slightly more idea than I had when I placed the needle on my screwed-in legs Dansette mono turntable back in our dining room in Cherry Tree after the time-honoured excitable bus ride home studying every minute sleeve detail.
And boy, was there detail on the marvellous fold-out thing.
Various reviews written in fledgling 60’s rock-writerese which I could barely comprehend.
There were phrases that might have even struck terror into me about what I was about to hear. “The flowers of evil are in full bloom….” one of the quoted reviews said “when The Velvet Underground are playing”
Of course they weren’t despite the band’s association with the seamier side of the Lower East Side and the more salacious aspects of life at Warhol’s Silver Factory, any more than they were when Christians were condemning Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” quip or when folks were conjecturing that the Stones’ dalliances with his Satanic Majesty had precipitated the Altamont slaying of Meredith Hunter
The flowers of evil were of course in full bloom on Monday night at a pop concert attended largely by little girls and pre-pubescent secondary school pupils, many of them taken along by their parents.
My daughter and her friend were in the building when the bomb exploded but purely by virtue of the fact that we always park at the opposite end of the Arena to the main entrance foyer and that they followed, as teenage girls sometimes fail to do, our specific instructions to use an exit on the far side from the foyer in which the bomber committed his atrocity, they emerged into the night to be reunited with us before it had even registered for certain that the inordinately loud noise we had heard from outside on the street wasn’t simply a pyrotechnic finale to their night out
Others of course weren’t as lucky and we doubt that we will ever let our kid enter an arena such as that without us again until she’s old enough to decide for herself whether she does or doesn’t
I couldn’t bear for her to be hurt or in darkness and terror without her mum or dad or both of us to hold her hand or just be close to her and comfort her if such a murderous act happened again and we survived
I thought about giving it a miss tonight. One of Lou, John (and Nico’s) First post Velvets réunions was at The Bataclan in Paris in 1972, the place where terrorism’s attack on rock’n’roll began
When the Bataclan was attacked it shook me to the core. It was a place and name I associate with music history as much as any venue I’m familiar with or have stood/sat in myself.
Last night with some trepidation I went to a small gig at the Cavern, a similarly claustrophobic space where there would be barely any prospect of escape from disaster
My initial thought in the aftermath of Monday, with a teenage daughter quite traumatised by the nearness of her brush with horror, was not to go
An underground rock club can often be sweaty and unpleasant at the best of times and this is clearly not the best of times. A fire or pipe burst would be enough of a catastrophe without human beings charged with hatred wanting to inflict harm on others
But in another of the world’s defiantly fuck-you musical cities we’ve decided that as natural causes gradually will claim all of our 60s and 70s heroes soon enough, we will pay homage to the album that more than even Ziggy or Born To Run or any of them shaped my musical path
Yes I was one of those who bought the banana album and formed a band. They were crap and we managed one gig.
I did cop off with a girl in the audience who helped me carry my guitar and amp home and dated her for a couple of years but she talked me out of going to see The Sex Pistols at The Lodestar a few months later so even my one taste of groupie adoration ended up an entertaining high-scoring draw at best
Having lost Lou, Leonard and Bowie last year I’ll pay homage to the 75/year old Cale who helped fashion two classic albums I could happily listen to every day
I’m too long in the tooth for Isis or anyone else to make me wait for all tomorrow’s parties
*First album bought for me (in BlackburnRecord Exchange when it was behind Richmond Terrace) at Christmas 1970 I think – and it’s a great album – was ABC by the Jackson 5.
The Cale gig was a disappointment. The venue was well below average, the facilities completely overrun, the set bore no relation to the sequence of the album, Cale was very late on, the set shorter than advertised (perhaps a mercy) besides an initial greeting he had nothing to say to the audience and his vocals, so stentorian and strong on his own compositions, wasn’t up to the standards set by Reed and Nico on these songs
The guests, largely unknown to me other than a bloke out of Super Furry Animsls, sounded unrehearsed and in some cases incapable of carrying a tune
The very worst moments seemed like audience members had been asked up to do a Velvets karaoke and read off an autocue
They largely went in-introduced. Even a caption. On the screens would have helped if nobody was prepared to do us the courtesy of telling us who they were
I got to see Cale play viola for the first time live, a thrilling sight in itself, but even Venus In Furs and The Black Angel’s Death Song failed to ignite as a driving opening salvo of “Waiting For The Man: White Light White Heat” had briefly threatened to before all momentum was strangely lost
Thousands poured out before the end as the muddy, swirly sound bounced around on the louder numbers while subtleties of quieter ones were just lost in the dusk
But as a defiant gathering of music fans it was a moving and healing coming-together.
Ushered in with the disturbing (but unfailingly friendly) sight of armed police on the street to a run-down former dock space Everton hope to make their home, a minute’s silence (Cale in my view disappointingly declined even to call for it and left it to a guest) was impeccably observed – unlike at the previous night’s From The Jam Cavern gig I’m afraid – and entirely appropriate on an evening our daughter and friend felt drawn to return to Manchester and lay flowers to pay their own respects to the Arena victims.
This morning in Liverpool – and even last night walking back to our hotel – was one of those life-affirming experiences you get in any major European city – and this is a positively cosmopolitan, multicultural, inviting European city these days.
Teeming with athletes preparing for tomorrow’s full and half marathons, some trotting round this morning’s less punishing 5k curtain-raiser, Velvets fans recovering from the long walk, Take That fans and bustling locals, it felt warm, inclusive, generous, good-humoured and inspiring as the sun sparkled off the Mersey and buildings old and new were spectacularly silhouetted against cobalt blue skies
A runner from Spain exchanged pleasantries with two more from Skegness as we guiltily got stuck into the breakfast buffet among the slim creatures measuring out their carbs ahead of their taxing efforts on the roads of the city
We went to a wonderful exhibition, The British Music Experience at the Cunard Building that hosted the Jam’s stunning About The Young Idea extravaganza a couple of months ago
It rather made up for any lingering crestfallen emotions over the gig
Not only are the interactive stuff and the exhibits wonderful, you can actually pick up any number of Gibson guitars, acoustic and electric, and listen to yourself in headphones. Roland synths too, and you can record your own voice in a studio booth and listen to it back.
A young lad shouted the chords of Yellow Submarine for me out as we played together
It’s a steal at £16
So despite the slight emptiness about the Cale performance the overnight break was a success
It was important to shake off the bemusement and incredulity we felt after Monday’s misery and the healing and redemptive powers of the rock’n’roll music some see as a Western evil played a huge part in that.
Home for hugs with our girls, younger one as deeply moved by the outpouring of compassion in Manchester last night as she was rocked by the terror of Monday and Ariana
In the end the love you take….and all that, in the city that gifted the world that Music’ finest exponents
Fear is a man’s best friend, sang Cale in one of his better known solo songs and in these dangerous times one sees his point. But sometimes we find it hard to believe the beauty we are
If the Cale adaptations weren’t perfect, thank you Liverpool for showing us the best of ourselves.