Although it is often a quote wrongly attributed to David Bowie, it was actually Brian Eno who once declared, “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So, I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”
The reason that the quote is often attributed to Bowie is because he often said the exact same thing in different words, as did a thousand other bands that followed in the Velvet Undergrounds footsteps once their unmitigated commercial failings had been resurrected from the ash heap of history.
Central to the Velvet Underground’s pioneering musical iconoclasm was a young classically trained lad from the Welsh valleys. That lad was John Cale and he continued to inspire Bowie throughout his entire career.
Speaking to the BBC after Bowie’s passing, Cale remembered his times with the Starman fondly. “I remember going down to the Mud Club,” he recalled, “Doing a lot of drinking, chasing a lot of ladies, having a lot of fun.”
Their musical paths crossed on more than a few occasions but there was one in particular that stood out for Cale. “I taught him how to play the viola,” he declared. As it turns out Bowie was backstage at a Tibet Society concert when Cale approached him, he quickly taught him the ways of viola in the definition of a crash course and then Bowie followed him out to play it.
“We had a gig at the town hall for the Tibet Society,” Cale said. “I was playing a song called ‘Sabotage’ on that also and he was there, and I said, ‘why don’t you play viola’.”
Later, at a BBC Proms tribute to Bowie that Cale led, he said: “There’s always been something special about him. Any artist who defies categorisation and thrives throughout deserves every accolade and then some. From the beginning, until the very end, originality was his muse. It’s an honour to celebrate his work at the BBC Proms.”
You can check a clip from the iconic tribute performance featuring Laura Mvula, Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien, Amanda Palmer, John Cale, Marc Almond, Paul Buchanan, Anna Calvi and the musicians’ collective s t a r g a z e conducted by André de Ridder, below.