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John Cale: Imitating Violin

John Cale, now 66, was an unlikely candidate for a career in heretical, innovative rock'n'roll. Born in a village in South Wales, he showed prodigy-like musical talent. At 13 he was the viola player in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, having started on piano and been a church organist. At grammar school he studied Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, played dixieland jazz.

Then he heard Elvis.

He attended London's Goldsmith College, became friends with Cornelius Cardew who introduced him to the avant-garde music of John Cage and La Monte Young, and at 21 - after being interviewed by Aaron Copland who thought him something of a genius - attended Tanglewood in Boston on a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship where he studied under Iannis Xenakis.

In a different world Cale might have become a classical composer and a footnote in serious music texts.

But there was something else in his formative years: he grew up as a distant, rebellious and reclusive child who suffered from bronchial problems and was given an opium mixture to help him sleep. It induced strange dreams, so when the 60s rolled around he had no antipathy to mind-altering drugs. In fact, once he got past cider and Worthington beer, he embraced them. As he did equally, mind-expanding avant-garde music.

When he relocated to New York he fell in with Young and his experimental musicians, and through a friend met Lou Reed, an aspiring songwriter.

And the rest is rock history: with Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker they became the Velvet Underground, were Andy Warhol's in-house band, and extended the parameters of rock into dark, provocative territory.

Cale's left VU after a bust-up with Reed in '68, which has sometimes been repaired for their mutual benefit, but his intake of drugs and alcohol fuelled extraordinary behaviour and often created equally exceptional, literate and broody music. 

In the late 70s, this voracious intellectual wrote powerful and brooding music of alienation and the Cold War. He believed his studies of the CIA made him a target of their interest. He seems to have been right.

His remarkable life has been punctuated by rock'n'roll excess, poetic ballads, refined classical music and producing, among many others, Patti Smith's debut album Horses, albums by Squeeze, Modern Lovers and Mediaeval Baebes who sing lyrics from the Dark Ages. He wrote the soundtracks for I Shot Andy Warhol, Basquait and American Psycho.

Yet, despite author Mitchell having access to some key figures in Cale's life, and this biography written with Cale's co-operation, it reads like a journeyman account. Too often it becomes a litany of concerts and albums recorded. There is little direct speech.

When it does spring to life - Cale's maniacal and anti-social behaviour recorded in all its theatrical gruesomeness - it is enthralling. That, not the dogged prose, keeps you reading as Cale shoulders his way through life to emerge as a dignified elder statesman who even now rages against the dying of the light.

This book - somewhat pretentiously presented with breakout anagrams of Cale's name and with photos in which Reed is conspicuously absent - also comes in a limited-edition hardback edition of 500 copies with a single-song CD and a CD-Rom of artwork.

Read it and wonder at the remarkable creativity of the human spirit, and the survival instinct of a body tormented from without and within.

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