Well, everybody in this life knows a little about self-medicating, and maybe even more about theatrics on the stage, but perhaps none knew it so well in the seventies as that alluring Welshman, John Cale. All I knew is, I walk into this place down in Tribeca BEFORE it was even called Tribeca -- the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club – on Chambers Street, I think. There’s a long bar in when you walk in, to the left, and maybe some small tables (deuces) to the right. The bar/restaurant is long, like a shotgun shack. Tables are filled up, the bar is packed four deep, and the hum of business is punctuated by ringing cash registers.
It’s a hoppin’ night at the Ocean Club; artists, hipsters, musicians, scenemakers – the regulars -- and of course, the music press all cram the joint. At the far end of the room, a small stage is set up and a show has started. The music’s loud, but it’s good, “Dirtyass Rock and Roll.” Or maybe the song was “Leavin’ It Up To You.” And on the stage is the greatest entertainer of the scene – yes, I’ve seen it now and even though the Ramones are very compelling, they don’t have this man’s charisma and passion. Or sexiness.
Giving his all at the Ocean Club that night was that one-of-a-kind, mesmerizing madman, musician John Cale. He had dark hair in a sort of Prince Valiant haircut, a long expressive face, big, dark, doleful eyes, a baleful expression when not howling like a werewolf, black leather jeans, and “Man Maryjanes” (!!) on his feet. (This was the era where Capezio shoes -- dancer’s shoes – briefly reigned as the epitome of cool rock footwear. They were soft and light and felt almost like wearing nothing on your feet. . .)
I’d never seen anything like Cale in his glory. This possessed composer and singer played rock ‘n’ roll guitar, piano or bass while he blubbered and slobbered and slurred his words, almost seeming to have a nervous breakdown on the stage. It was electrifying; this guy was amazing! I don’t really think I’ve seen anything more intense since. I really had no idea of his past with avant-gardist LaMonte Young, or his stint on viola and vocals with the Velvet Underground, or his work with Garland Jeffries.
He was rumored to have gotten the nod to produce Patti Smith’s first album, so of course I wanted to see him in action and decide for my Trixie self whether he’d be worthy of working with the queen of the boho poet rock goddesses (Patti, of course).
Whatever my limited preconceptions, they were blown out of the water. The show was crazy intense, but being the avid young reporter, when intermission came, I shimmied my way downstairs to the impromptu “backstage” (a storage area under the restaurant) and eyed Cale from across the room, talking with Jane Friedman or Lenny Kaye. Friedman would look at him adoringly from time to time; I think they were doing more than working together -- but who could help falling for that inarguably magnetic, magnificent man?
Every now and then, I’d notice (or imagine) Cale’s eyes on me, boring into me from across the dank, dark basement backstage. This was a rare occasion where I couldn’t speak. . . Cale was SO larger-than-life to me. . .
A few months previous, I’d interviewed his old partner-in-crime in the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed. I’d never seen Reed live in concert – and he was certainly more commercially successful at the time than Cale, having had a hit record with “Walk on the Wild Side.” I had no idea about the Velvets (yet), but I really did like the music that both Cale and Reed made (“Sally Can’t Dance” was one of my fave elpees), so it was only a matter of time before I checked out the Velvet Underground in retrospective and became one of their biggest fans, after the fact.
In the second set, David Byrne from the Talking Heads joined Cale onstage, and things calmed down as far as intensity went. Cale was a good enough musician and team player to listen to and acknowledge another singer/focal point onstage, although Byrne played theoretical second fiddle to Cale’s big presence.
I left the Ocean Club later that night , running and screaming out the door after that introduction to John Cale’s music. I’m not sure why; sometimes when things got really intense I couldn’t stand it (and maybe an illegal substance pushed me over the edge?). At any rate, that was a memorable night.
As for the day I interviewed Lou Reed, that was an entirely different story. . .