Eat to the Beat: 'The Banana Album' and the meal of a lifetime
“Modern music begins with the Velvets,” the great rock critic Lester Bangs wrote when the Velvet Underground still was a going concern, “and the implications and influence of what they did seem to go on forever.” In the years since, that bold and prescient statement has proven unimpeachable. As the band’s co-founder, John Cale famously provided the avant-garde noise foil to Lou Reed’s songwriting craftsman, and though the Welsh-born virtuoso left the band after its second album, his now 44-year solo career has been every bit as rewarding and influential as his work on The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) and White Light/White Heat (1968), as well every bit as strong as the late Reed’s solo catalog.
For our third “Eat to the Beat” fundraiser, Sound Opinions is beyond honored to have renowned chefs Paul Kahan (Blackbird, avec, the Publican, Big Star) and Matthias Merges (Yusho, A10) cooking their interpretation of the Velvets’ debut, the timeless “Banana Album,” for none other than Cale himself—and, of course, for YOU—at Kahan’s newest restaurant, Nico Osteria, which not coincidentally was named for the chanteuse of the band’s early, Andy Warhol days.
This once-in-a-lifetime dinner takes place at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 12. More info and tickets can be found here. All proceeds benefit WBEZ/Chicago Public Media and help keep Sound Opinions on the air.
In honor of this auspicious occasion—and because I’m ridiculously stoked—here are a baker’s dozen of the most extraordinary moments from Cale’s career, presented more or less in chronological order, and with the footnote that I easily could have picked 100. (Cale also has appeared on Sound Opinions twice: on our very first show on Public Radio, and again performing live in 2012.)
1. “European Son” (with the Velvet Underground)
In this explosion of sonic chaos from the Velvets’ debut, Cale sets the standard for all noise-rock to follow, as well as presenting a startling contrast to the other sounds of the Summer of Love. That tremendous crash and explosion after the first verse is Cale banging some metal folding chairs and smashing a bottle.
2. “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”
3. “Gun”/“Pablo Picasso”
Three of Cale’s many high points from the mid-’70s punk era, which reinvigorated the artist who’d helped set the template for it, and which capture the depressing decay and paranoia of New York in the era of “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” That live performance of “Gun” folds in some of Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso”—Cale of course produced the debut by the Modern Lovers, as well as the Stooges and Patti Smith—and features my pal and sometimes Reed sidewoman Jane Scarpantoni on cello.
5. “Buffalo Ballet”
6. “Leaving it Up to You”
Cale wasn’t all anger and energy during the punk years, as these gorgeous, lilting ballads amply testify.
7. “Heartbreak Hotel”
It takes a lot of vision and personality to steal a song from the King of Rock and claim it as your own, but for many, this is the definitive version, and certainly the most horrifying.
8. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
From 1989’s Words for the Dying, written in response to the Falklands War, and using the poetry of Cale’s fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas. Here he performs in tuxedo with an orchestra and a boy’s choir.
9. “Cordoba” (with Brian Eno)
10. “Style It Takes” (with Lou Reed)
Though he has a reputation as a stubborn and singular visionary, Cale was part of two great collaborations in 1990: Wrong Way Up with Eno and Songs for Drella, a tribute to Warhol with his old bandmate Reed. Both of those artists were better for working with him. The way Cale channels Andy delivering the lines, “This is a rock group called the Velvet Underground/I show movies on them, do you like their sound?/’Cause they have a style that grates/And I have art to make” slays me every time, and I count the concert at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn where he and Reed premieried this song cycle among the best shows I’ve ever seen.
11. “Dancing Undercover”
12. “December Rains”
Cale’s recent output has not diminished in quality a bit, as these tracks from Walking on Locusts (1996) and Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (2012) demonstrate.
Another song—this one by Leonard Cohen—that Cale has forever claimed as his own. (And sorry, even if you love Jeff Buckley, his version does not top this one.)