The first memoir by a member of the Velvet Underground, the cult band that could, John Cale’s perversely entertaining trip through the past darkly will interest almost exclusively — will often only make sense to — those already interested in his music. But qualified readers will have a good, gossipy, sometimes enlightening time, in spite of the book feeling somewhat cobbled together. What’s Welsh for Zen? joins an already substantial body of literature concerning the Velvets and Andy Warhol’s Factory, the primordial soup in which they formed; but Cale’s story runs back as well to his poor childhood in Wales, London school days, an apprenticeship in Manhattan’s classical avant-garde, and forward through a 30-year career as a recording artist, producer (Stooges, Modern Lovers, Patti Smith) and composer more consistently adventurous than his more celebrated, cranky ex-partner Lou Reed. Cale’s love-hate relationship with Reed (whom he damns, one might say, with great praise) is the book’s leitmotif; their latter collaborations — the Warhol memorial Songs for Drella, and the brief Velvet Underground reunion — seem to have been as inevitable as they were inevitably ill-fated. Not that Cale, who appears to have spent some time in therapy, or anyway in a library, lets himself off the hook. He’s honest and interestingly analytical about his own worst impulses — his (past) drug addictions and failed marriages, including one to designer Betsey Johnson, and his penchant for self-sabotage — and turns a perhaps too-critical eye on his art. But he proves remarkably good company nevertheless.
WHAT’S WELSH FOR ZEN?: The Autobiography of John Cale| By JOHN CALE, with Victor Bockris | Bloomsbury USA | 272 pages | $25 hardcover
© Robert Lloyd 2000 and 2011