Health-conscious hostesses: queue here

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The Independent Culture
TWENTY MINUTES into John Cale's "literary reading" at Filthy McNasty's regular "Vox'n'Roll" event, the ex-Velvet Underground legend interrupted himself abruptly: "There's no way I can stop you smoking, is there? There's a really toxic atmosphere in here." Pause. "Though I love you dearly..." Amazing. Embarrassed smokers stubbed out their fags immediately.

What was particularly impressive was that Cale managed to inflect this request for cleaner air with an edge of menace. He has reinvented himself as the number one party guest for health-conscious hostesses.

Of course, the very idea of a veteran Welsh rock musician reading extracts from his own semi-ghosted autobiography at an Irish bar called Filthy McNasty's sounds like something from the more far-fetched parts of Anthony Burgess's Enderby novels, but it really happened when, with a Sergeant Dixon-like "Evenin' All", the unfeasibly healthy-looking Cale strode confidentially to the lectern on the tiny stage of this much-loved watering-hole within staggering distance of King's Cross.

Cale, now in his fifties, has quite a complex, disjointed story to tell, and he tells it with what seems like painful honesty in What's Welsh for Zen?, a collaboration with Victor Bockris, who transcribed and edited Cale's words from tape, and Dave McKean, the comic-book artist whose Gothic page designs twist and carve type and pictures into a large-format book that is more design object than riveting read.

It was a neat twist that Cale should declaim the anecdotes and confessions that began life as words on tape. The experience was largely entertaining, informative and gossipy. The "no smoking" incident reminded us of the latent theatricality in Cale's life since he first left the steady routine of avant-garde music for the risky world of rock and roll showbiz.

In an hour-long performance, Cale regaled us with five or six sections from What's Welsh for Zen?, his delivery accelerating throughout, whether through nerves or impatience wasn't clear.

The extracts he chose covered his childhood, where music and study provided respite from a bleak environment; the early days of New York squalor; his marriage to Betsey Johnson and the break-up of the Velvet Underground; and a vivid account of drug-taking with Lou Reed in Seventies London. Perhaps Cale has an eye on the current popularity of Irvine Welsh.

Cale's final extract covered his late-Seventies work, delivered at break- neck speed - perhaps reflecting that era, or because he sensed that the audience really wanted to hear more dirt on Lou Reed. The Reed anecdotes certainly attracted the biggest laughs as Cale's descriptions of that peculiarly overrated songsmith were full of exasperation, affection, and regret for the music that might have been.

A version of this review in the later editions of yesterday's paper

John L Walters