John Cale is an understated artist. As part of the transforming and influential band The Velvet Underground, Cale became one of the most prolific forces for alt-pop greatness, he pushed the musical boundaries beyond repair and even turned Leonard Cohen’s sprawling ‘Hallelujah’ into a hit. Yet most people don’t realise that one of the Kings of New York cool, the effortless leader of the underground, is actually from Garnant, Wales.
Cale’s influence on music, however quietly astute, is undeniable. The musician can be cited as a touchpoint for most of rock and roll since the seventies and it’s a reputation which saw him come face-to-face with another British institution, BBC’s esteemed radio show Desert Island Discs. It was there that he selected one song that he simply couldn’t live without.
The premise of Desert Island Discs is a fairly simple but utterly compelling one. As well as a luxury item (in Cale’s case a coffee machine with coffee beans—a smart pick), the complete works of Shakespeare, a Bible and another book (Cale picks Repetition by Alain Robbe-Grilles), guests are asked to pick eight songs which they would take with them to an inescapable desert island. It is the same premise which has faced Prime Ministers, world leaders, actors, musicians and John Cale back in 2004.
During the conversation, artists are expected to pick eight songs and tell the audience a little bit about why and how the song became important to them. It offers a keen insight into the minds of those selecting the songs and it becomes extra tantalising when that personality is a musician. It means we are given the key to unlock quite a chunk of what makes them such brilliant performers and songwriters in the first place, for John Cale, this was no different.
Across eight songs, Cale selects a heap of tracks which mean a lot to him, from Leonard Cohen to The Beatles and Brian Wilson to the Velvet Underground, Cale traverses the great and the good of rock’s golden years for his favourites. But they aren’t the favourite. As part of the entire Desert Island Discs schtick, which you can read more on here, ‘castaways’ are also asked to select their absolute favourite of the bunch. Usually framed as if the records were being washed away into the sea, which one would you dive in to save, for Cale he simply responds: “I think I’d take Bob Dylan.”
Earlier in the conversation, Cale remembered the inner-workings of The Factory (Warhol’s famed arthouse where he and the rest of the Velvet Underground were given their freedom to work) and how Dylan, having to sit for one of the artist’s ludicrous “screentests” was, according to Cale “the only one who got up and walked off.”
Cale continues, “everybody was looking sideways at Bob because they were astonished at all this power that was coming out of his lyrics. We knew that Nico had just come down to be a member of the band and she used to hang out with Bob in Woodstock. So when this song came along everybody looked at each other and said ‘Wait a minute, this is about somebody we know.’”
The song in question, and arguably John Cale’s favourite song of all time was Bob Dylan’s track, ‘She Belongs To Me’. It’s a classic track from Dylan’s repertoire and given the extra connection Cale has to it, we’d say it was a sure-fire contender for the top spot in Cale’s own mental list of best songs. For that reason alone, it deserves another listen below.