Monday, August 30, 2021

Bigger Strings: The Black Angel’s Death Song

Velvet Underground: The Black Angel’s Death Song

John Cale is another musician whose work I’m aware of and have enjoyed, but never (until now) spent much time learning about his life and career. I knew he plays the viola, among other instruments, that he was one of the founders of the Velvet Underground, put out some solo albums, at least one of which I played back in my WPRB days, and did an album with Brian Eno a couple of decades ago (gasp!). This turns out to be, somewhat embarrassingly, a pretty pathetic summary. So, in brief (and admittedly, mostly gleaned from Wikipedia), Cale was born in Wales in 1942, adopted the viola as his primary instrument and studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Cale once described the viola as the “saddest instrument of all and, no matter how adept you get at it or no matter how fast you play it, you can’t get away from the character of it.” 

Cale quickly became enamored by the more avant-garde and experimental classical music becoming popular in the 1960s, including organizing a Fluxus concert in 1964 and conducting the first U.K. performance of a John Cage piece. He obtained a scholarship to work with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, but they “fell out,” and Cale then moved to New York where he participated in an 18 hour performance of an Erik Satie composition and joined La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music. 

OK—enough with the classical music (I mean, really, two posts in a row writing about classical music which I know basically nothing about…. I’m really not trying to pull a Metal Machine Music and alienate you all). 

Cale also liked rock music, and joined up with Lou Reed to found what became the Velvet Underground in 1964. Cale’s taste for the experimental, particularly drones, when combined with Reed’s penchant for rock and poetry (and manager Andy Warhol’s Andy Warhol-ness) resulted in early albums that were kind of all over the place. 

One of the more experimental songs from the debut album, Velvet Underground & Nico is the cheerily named, “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” which, for the most part, features Cale’s droning and dissonant electric viola with Reed and Sterling Morrison each playing away on guitar, while Reed chant/sings wordy lyrics in a style that had to be influenced by Dylan. There’s also what sounds like feedback, but was actually Cale hissing into the mike. I know that description doesn’t make it sound all that appetizing, and the song got the band fired from their residency at Manhattan’s Café Bizarre. But while it isn’t something that I’d listen to regularly, there’s something intriguing about it that made me glad that I checked it out again for this piece. 

So, what’s the song about? It is hard to say. Reed himself has said that “The idea here was to string words together for the sheer fun of their sound, not any particular meaning.” But the imagery is so strong, I find that hard to believe. I’ve seen claims on the Internet that the song is about life’s choices, heroin, suicide, the Holocaust, and Communism. Check it out, and let me know what you think. 

Eventually, Reed and Cale fell out over the direction of the Velvets, and Cale was replaced by Doug Yule (I guess you had to have four letters in your name). Cale went on to a career as a producer (for, among others, the Stooges, Jennifer Warnes, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, Squeeze, and Alejandro Escovedo), collaborator (including with Reed on Songs for Drella in 1990), and solo and soundtrack artist.