First Night: Velvet gossip edged with menace

John Cale Filthy McNasty's London
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The Independent Online
TWENTY MINUTES into John Cale's "literary reading" at Filthy McNasty's regular "vox'n'roll" event, as he breathlessly recounted the fascination of AM Pop Radio for Sixties New York avant-garders, the former 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 danger and 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.

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-f ormat book that is more design object than riveting read.

So Cale was reading words that were originally spoken, and 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.

Cale regaled us with five or six sections from What's Welsh for Zen?, his delivery speeding up in the brief hour on stage - whether through nerves or impatience was not 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 and the break-up of the Velvet Underground; and vivid account of drug taking with Lou Reed in early Seventies London. Perhaps Cale, ever the shrewd producer, has a weather eye on the current popularity of Irvine Welsh.

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

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