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Remembrance of thangs past

After he left the Velvet Underground, John Cale went off and did his own thing. So why, 30 years on, is he furiously revisiting those days by writing music for Andy Warhol's films?
When the Velvet Underground split, John Cale flew the coop most effectively. While his partner Lou Reed (who evicted Cale from the band in 1968) used his solo career to continue the themes and style of his Velvets work, Cale moved restlessly on. The apocalyptic elegy of the era- defining Paris 1919 (1973) was replaced by the proto-punk, gleeful assault of Fear (1974), the synthesised enervation of Music for a New Society (1982) by a side-step into classical experiment. Deprived of his band, he sought out new collaborations on which pop music briefly pivoted, producing The Stooges, Jonathan Richman and Patti Smith at the dawn of punk.

In recent years, though, the pull of Cale's past has proved too much for him. This month sees the release of Eat / Kiss: Music for the Films of Andy Warhol, compositions performed live last year to accompany Warhol's typically self-descriptive films, with a band including Velvets drummer Mo Turker. The band's bassist, Sterling Morrison, died before he could contribute to the record. Playing as the films ran behind them, creating disjunctions between sound and vision, the friends were revisiting the epochal events of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Warhol multi-media show at which the nascent Velvets had been house-band.

Eat / Kiss isn't Cale's first return to those days, nor will it be the last. In 1990, Songs for Drella brought him back into tense collaboration with Lou Reed, fashioning a complex musical tribute to Warhol, three years after his death. In 1993, the Velvets themselves reformed, before Reed's mania once more tore them apart. Cale continued to work with Morrison and Tucker, convinced they could still do more, till Morrison's death stopped them cold. This year has already seen Cale soundtracks to I Shot Andy Warhol and a biopic of a Warhol protege, Basquiat. He will soon begin work on a ballet about Nico.

"I can't turn my back on it," Cale says simply. "I can't deny that it was there. I'm not scouting for projects about my past, it's natural that I'm asked. You keep thinking it's over, and guess what? It never is." There's something inevitable about this shift in Cale's concerns. From the severing of the partnership between Cale and Reed halfway through their band's career to the shooting of Warhol by Valerie Solanas in 1969 (the end of Warhol's nerve and most intense creativity), the Velvet Underground was a story of amputations, unfinished business. It was the deaths of Warhol, Nico and Morrison in quick succession which seemed to drag Cale back into its narrative, Warhol's needless end, drowning in his own fluids after a routine operation, which made a musical response compulsory.

"I just felt so bloody helpless," Cale remembers. "I felt helpless when he was shot, but this was worse. That hospital has such a tawdry reputation, I'm surprised it keeps going. The insurance companies must really have a vested interest in it. You don't realise how close you are to someone until they're gone. That's what happened with Sterling. He was the only one I could talk to incisively about music, art, anything, at any time." The deaths seem to inform Eat / Kiss, give it a quality of mournfulness. "It was to do with that, I haven't been able to avoid it. But I'm not a mournful person generally. I'm quite a sunny individual. It's Welsh soul, that's what you're hearing."

Songs for Drella was Cale's attempt, with Reed, to give Warhol's life more dignity than his death, fashioning a record which, in passing, showed how potent the pair could still be. The Velvet Underground reunion followed, an attempt to continue a project which Cale at least felt should never have been abandoned, to heal a wound and start again. Reed's rampant need for control, which two decades hadn't dimmed, soon wrecked such hopes. "It was agreed upon early on that we were to do whatever we wanted, that we were to do new material, rather than go out and be a parody of ourselves," Cale sighs. "But then Mo and Sterling decided this and that old song should be done, and it became an exercise in rehabilitating Lou's catalogue. We wasted two good weeks when we could have done anything. And in those two weeks, we managed to help Lou pick his guitar solos. It became so boring."

Does it sadden him that Reed's actions have cut him off forever from a partnership that was clearly still vital? "Yeah, it does." He catches himself. "I don't look at it as sadness. I'm probably very fortunate that the experiences of the past are not going to be repeated. I gave it a chance, and it was just... recidivist. And it would be recidivist of me if I got involved in it again." There's a line on last year's Cale album, Walking on Locusts: "If we could work it out, we'd have left it where it was." Was that his bitter admission of the reunion's misjudgement? "Yeah." And "You turned me into jelly, treated me like a soupcan" - would that have been his kissoff to Reed? He doesn't answer.

Reed hasn't been Cale's only problem in the Nineties. Walking on Locusts was touted as his first pop album in a decade, a return to the arena he once ruled, if only from the sidelines. Its reception was tepid at best. From a musician who once seemed a crucial step ahead of the rest, a man whose intuitions were revered by bands from The Stooges to the Happy Mondays in an extraordinary career as a producer, it sounded bland, bored. Listen more carefully, and the AOR trappings become less pronounced, Cale's claim that it was seeing Beck on Top of the Pops that inspired the record becomes more credible. Shifting in rhythm and texture, a commentary on fading identities and dying friends, it's a deceptive work. Eat / Kiss, within its more classical boundaries, continues Cale's renewed interest in pop, as ghosts of Sixties melodies drift by. But neither record was ever likely to graze the charts, or, more importantly, be heard by those who do. After 30 years of restlessness, Cale's work may still burn with unpredictable fire. But, increasingly, it's burning in a vacuum. For a man who first left the comforts of the classical avant-garde because he wanted to communicate to the masses, the spectre of irrelevance can't be comfortable. The very mention of his place in pop music today makes Cale bullish. Ask him if he still wants to twist pop out of shape and the answer is instant.

"Yeah, I do. But the only way I feel comfortable doing that is to be myself, not to apologise for things, not to put something in someone else's language. I wanna use my own language. It's an individual voice you're relating to, and I can't just hop, skip and jump around present tastes. Loops are what people are interested in nowadays. My next album will have a lot of that, I'm really getting to like them, but what I like about looping is not what everybody else likes about looping. I really love drums that are slowed down, and that's all I need. That's not neccessarily what people who listen to Michael Jackson records are into. If I don't love what I'm doing, I haven't got a chance in hell of persuading anybody else to."

Still, he did enter pop music, all those years ago with Warhol and Reed, to gain an audience for his work. Would he ever soften an idea, compromise it, to give more people the chance to hear it? "Heh-heh-heh," he cackles. "I certainly hope not." Does he thinks there's something useful in the way pop success has eluded him? "No," he says with finality. "I'm interested in art and ideas. If I find an idea which interests me in rock 'n' roll, I give it everything I have. I'm committed. Intensely."

`Eat / Kiss: Music for the films of Andy Warhol' is out now on Rykodisc