John Cale and Bob Neuwirth started off in different worlds. Cale was born in Wales. He was a child prodigy on the viola and piano who was playing on the BBC by age eight. He won a Leonard Bernstien scholarship to come to the United States to study. Although classically trained, he wound up falling into the avant garde music scene in New York City in the mid- '60s.
Neuwirth on the other hand was from a small town in the Midwest who was working his way through art school by performing, or, as he puts it "farting and tap-dancing to make a living."
Each of these men have worked with incredible people during their extended careers and each have left their different marks upon the music world.
Cale has studied with Aaron Copeland and John Cage, produced The Modern Lovers and Patti Smith, and performed with LaMonte Young and Lou Reed. He was one of the founders (with Reed) of The Velvet Underground, a band whose work musicians are still trying to catch up to, 30 years later. His impressive solo career is now in its fourth decade.
Neuwirth has written songs for, or produced such artists as The Doors, Janis Joplin, T-Bone Burnett, and Bob Dylan. Recently, some of his improvisational solo work has also been recorded.
art + performance had the honor of being able to talk to Cale and Neuwirth in separate interviews about their new album which was released some four years after the original performances. They can tell you more about the project and themselves.
a+p: How did Last Day on Earth come about?
Neuwirth: Well, John and I had worked together, well we had known each other since the early '70s, late sixties, what ever you want to call that. About 15 years ago we had recorded some songs together and developed a style of working together for a label John had at the time. Due to legalities, the music never really saw the light of day. So about ten years after that we were looking for something to do, and the opportunity presented itself.
a+p: What kind of approach did you take to putting this together? Did you do it one lump?
Neuwirth: Well a lot of it was written in Espresso bars as John and I kept crossing paths. Then Brooklyn Academy of Music gave us a loft for about three weeks in November of 1990 and we cobbled it together there.
a+p Why did it take so long for this to make it to album form?
Neuwirth: Well, have you tried to get an album deal lately? It's not exactly the kind of project that record companies are clamoring for. I don't know of any album that is sort of like it either in content or in length. It's almost 70 minutes of music. It almost takes up a complete CD's capacity. So it's just not the kind of project that record companies are looking for. In fact it's rather a miracle that we were turned loose in the hen house so to speak, unhampered in our creating the recording.
a+p: Do you like working in smaller venues like St. Ann's (where Songs for 'Drella, Cale's 1989 collaboration with Lou Reed, and Last Day on Earth were originally performed as works-in-progress)
Cale: St. Ann's is a special places. It is a very good place for putting on works-in-progress which was what 'Drella was at the time.
As a funding institution they have put themselves in a good position in New York to present new works by a great variety of artists
a+p: How was it arranged on stage?
Cale: It was very simple. We had lighting and there were three of us... A percussionist Gerry Hemingway, and Bob and I, and we switched instruments... and there was some of it that was in computer.
a+p: Because the original Last Day on Earth was performed on-stage several years ago., what sort of changes were made to put it on album?
Neuwirth: Well, we tightened it and rearranged some of the songs, we changed it lyrically to remove time-sensitive references. In the live performance we were reading from current newspapers. So we wanted to make it as timeless as possible and then we tightened it so that it would bear up under repeated listening. And we shortened it so that it would fit on one disc.
Cale: There was a certain amount of re-ordering. So that when you got the record it told you up front what the situation was... [the first line in the liner notes reads "Last Day on Earth is a blueprint for theater"] It set you up for the piece. When we do it live there's a lot of things that you don't see.
We gave up on the idea of trying to make the record a good representation of the live performance. That's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to make something that would intrigue people to really want to see, or to invite them to use their imagination to see, a theater piece around all these songs. Maybe there's more than one theater piece in there but there's certainly the way it's set up right now is better for a listening audience. There's no way we could have re-created what was on stage.
a+p: Do you have plans for touring?
Neuwirth: nothing concrete although I can see it as a theatrical proscenium stage production, se it as a strip down (as it was in the original presentation) minimal rough recital. I can also see it as either a kind of long-term video/film or even an animated film.
a+p: How would you do it as animation?
Neuwrith: I don't know... That's why all options are open. I think it could be a combination of live action and animation in the sense that live footage animation. I wouldn't want to draw any comparisons because I don't think it really compares to anything else. Nothing springs to mind to compare it to. It's a little bit Weill, a little bit Prairie Home Companion, a little bit radio play, a little bit classical concert. I don't know what it is. I really don't know. I don't think you can have an incorrect reaction to it. I think it requires that you bring something to the table but I don't think you can have an incorrect reaction to it.
a+p How would you describe Last Day ?
Neuwrith: I think of it as a kind of aural Mobius strip. There's no real beginning or real end to it. I don't think of it as apocalyptic as some people have described it. I think of it as relatively hopeful. And I think that it is not time sensitive. In other words I don't think that it exists in any particular point of time. Although, I don't think that it's nostalgic either. I suppose it's post -millennium. And it's definitely a blueprint for theater. Kind of a road map for a road of life.
Is that arty enough? Let's see if I can really pump it up.
a+p: What are some of the dominate themes in Last Day?
Cale: Loss. Loss and time.
There's a number of songs about how time plays a role in almost every decision. And how some decisions define your attitude about time. And there's a lot of longing in this piece and that comes from... loss.
a+p: Why is it called Last Day on Earth?
Cale: We picked it as a good way of pointing the emotional impact of this piece toward a ??? landscape. To a Bladerunner situation.
a+p: I realize that theses are fictional characters, but they present some fairly strong opinions about society. How much of this is your opinion and how much is pure fiction?
Neuwirth: I think it's all fiction but I think it's all like real life too. It's all like true stories. I think that you have to realize that all the lyrical and musical content was written for characters. It's written like lines in a play are written. So in other words it's not John being John it's John as a character and myself too. And Jenny (Muldaur, one of the guest vocalists) she's like mother ocean talking that way. Although it's not an ecological morality play. She is part of the female presence.
If I had to what is most successful about this project, it's that it's multi-layered, that it keeps revealing itself on repeated listening. I would single that out about any musicality or individual lyrical glibness. It's like a painting.
Cale: These are not personal songs for either of us. We wrote this for other people to sing. I mean there are things that reflect our views but there not special personal statements by us.
Neuwirth at one point turned the interview around and started to ask question about my view of the work. Then he described the reactions of others to the piece. When the piece was first put together, he said, people would comment, "yeah, but there's nothing here that people can play." He disagreed.
Neuwirth: I think there are songs that kind of jump out at people. And it's proven to be the case. It's funny. Some people like one thing some people like something totally different. I know this girl who edits films in Los Angeles, she's very 'with it' like this 26-year-old blue-haired girl, very punk you know, and she's like "Well, I like a lot of it, man," 'Well, what do you like?' The stuff that she like I would never have guessed it. "Well it like really started to crank there toward the end." Guess she likes the distorted guitar.
After discussion of the new album, I took the chance to ask Cale about his work with the Velvets, and each of them about their solo work.
a+p: During the Velvet Underground reunion tour last summer, you had to play a number of songs recorded after you left VU. What was that like?
Cale: Well after a while it got a bit tiresome.
a+p: Do you have any regrets about the reunion?
Some, yeah. It's over. It happened. It showed that it can't happen again and that's it.
a+p: What do you think about the new generation of John Cale fans?
Cale: I am about to find out about them. I haven't toured here myself for a while. I can answer that in June.
I've been trying to follow what the audiences have done over the years and Mo [Maureen Tucker, VU's former drummer] has also noticed a change. It's like four years ago something happened and all of the sudden the audiences started getting younger and the spread of the attendance was really wide. And at the same time VU records started selling more. I think it's as a result of the records selling more that they started following our careers.
I mean Lou of course was above and beyond that. He had his own following and was well set-up in the star system of rock 'n' roll.
a+p: What's it like working with Lou? Is it rough?
Cale: Well, I, I. (laughter)... what's done is done.
a+p: Do you think that some of the recent success is because of newer bands who show heavy VU influence?
Cale: I can't see that. The trouble is that we had an opportunity here with the live album to really show what the band sounded like and it really doesn't give it to you. Some of the bootlegs that came out of the tour are almost a truer vision of what the band sounded like than the well recorded one, because the well recorded one really didn't take advantage of the ambiance of the room in the mix of the music. And that's what we were always pushing at. We wanted to fill the room up with this noise. Unfortunately it wasn't quite as present in the mix as I would have liked it to be or others would have liked it to be either.
I'm not criticizing Mike Rathke [the album's producer] for the production. I think Mike did what Lou expected him to do. He was in a terrible position. The only consideration I think from his point of view was not to show any partiality to any member of the band. We left the project to Mike. Mike on the other hand was not about to step out and do anything with the mixes that would be contrary to what he knew Lou's ideas to be.
I really can't criticize Mike Rathke. He was really a prince on the road and helped us a lot.
a+p: [to Neuwirth] How did you get into the folk scene?
Neuwirth: Quite by accident, but I hope that this isn't going to lead up to discussing old folk singers. I don't really want to talk about the past. I just think that we need to get into the future. The past is such a sorry kind of state of affairs. Some people sit around and are nostalgic for the past they think they remember. And other people just can't seem to get past what they think they achieved in the past. I know that it is kind of interesting for really young people to try to have a bird's eye view of what happened 25 years ago, but I think it's mostly irrelevant.
I got into performing putting myself through art school. I didn't have any money. I came from the midwest and I came to the East Coast and there was folk music there and I knew a bunch of hillbilly songs and they thought that was quaint and they gave me money to sing them. And after a while I ran out of material so I had to start making songs up because I just couldn't remember anyone else's. And no one was writing songs in those days with the exception of one or two people who were really really good, like Bob Dylan and maybe Lightning Hopkins.
I could never remember anyone's songs anyway so I just got into making things up. So I got into improvising performance. Which is in contrast to John Cale who comes from a very classical, very structured and disciplined background he was performing on the BBC at the age of 8. Then he accidentally fell into the Velvet Underground.
a+p: [to Cale] I was reading somewhere that during one of your shows in the '70s you cut the head off a chicken...
Cale [nonchalantly]: yeah, with a meat cleaver...
a+p: ...and then you were explaining to a group of vegetarians....
Cale: No, no. My band was vegetarian. They got all upset. And walked out and left me in the middle of a tour. It was a gesture at the time to the spirit [of the audience] to the gobbing and the slam-dancing that was going on. The chains and the spikes and **congress*.
a+p: Do you prefer a more sedate crowd?
Cale: No, I mean it didn't bother me at all but it was just a strange, a very awkward sort of mix happening.
Well, the band was one way and we were playing music that was another way and the audience was a third way. It was absurd the whole combination. And I thought, "well, you like slam-dancing, you like gobbing on the stage, you know all this pseudo-violence that's going on how do you react to this?" And I took out the chicken, cut its head off and threw it in the audience.
Did they like it?
Cale: No they were revolted...and the band split
The band split and I explained it as being a tribute to Col. Sanders.
Cale is now on tour in Europe with a string quartet. Neuwirth also is doing some songs with him. Cale plans to release a box-set on Rhino Records early this summer before going back into the studio with former Velvets Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. They are going to record some music for the re-release of Two films by Andy Warhol (the Velvet's original producer) and then try to put together a rock album.
Neuwirth is producing works by Alvin Crow (whom he describes as the last of the great honky-tonk Texas real no-**congress* redneck players. A ropers meet dopers kind of guy) and Vince Bell whose music is not wimpy country folk at all it's just kind of vicious, sweetly vicious.