John Cale is an understated artist. His role in The Velvet Underground saw him became one of the most prolific forces of all the alt-pop greats, pushing the musical boundaries into a whole new sphere. While he is rightly viewed as one of New York’s kings, Cale was actually born and raised in Garnant, Wales, a setting that helped shape him into the man he is today.
Cale’s upbringing in Wales was far from perfect. A complicated family life, coupled with the premise that he had always felt like an outsider – which wasn’t helped by the fact that his mother banned him from speaking English in the home – meant that he couldn’t communicate with his father, further adding to the sense of alienation. He always dreamt of escaping from Garnant, and you won’t envisage a home much more polar opposite to the small Carmarthenshire town than the hustle and bustle of New York City. Even though his early years in Wales were painful, Cale still regularly returns home and shares a bond with the country that’s impossible to shake.
“It was all about being brought up in mixed household and the pain caused by certain members of the family who didn’t appreciate you at all,” the former Velvet Underground man said to WalesOnline in 2016 about his difficult upbringing. “My grandmother didn’t want me around at all, she really ruled the roost at home. What is more, she really didn’t like the fact my mum married an uneducated miner who didn’t speak Welsh, it made for a lot of tension. She didn’t like, and I got the same treatment – life was very uncomfortable because she banned the use of English in the house and it left me unable to really talk to my father,” he added.
Escapism was something that Cale found himself longing for from an early age, and his mind was the tool that allowed him to forget about his dark and dreary surroundings. New York remains antithetical of Carmarthenshire, but the bright lights of the American metropolis and the great aspirations attached to the city that never sleeps couldn’t keep the budding musician away. “I’d forever listen to foreign radio broadcasts as a kid, my mind was always somewhere else – that notion that the grass is always greener some place else, you know?” Cale recalled. “The notion of places like New York as this 24-hour society where you could work as long as you liked, stay up as long as you liked was fascinating to me. To end up in America had always been my aim, even before I got an offer to go there.”
Tragically, Cale’s challenging upbringing wasn’t just restricted to his household. The musician has openly discussed the trauma he suffered after two different men shockingly molested him as a child, an incident that leaves an immovable scar on the victim for the rest of their life. The idea of leaving Wales behind, going onto somewhere unknown, was a desperately desired clean start. It was the one thing that kept the musician going throughout his adolescence.
Cale was talented musically from a young age, and his viola skills led to him enrolling at Goldsmiths College in London at 18-years-old, which was the first step on his journey to New York. After finishing music school in 1963, Cale travelled across to the Atlantic and finally made the move he’d been dreaming of for most of his life. After relocating to New York, Cale started moving in artistic circles with influential composers and meeting like-minded individuals such as John Cage. It didn’t take long for his reputation to grow, and when he returned to Britain in 1965, he fell in love with bands like The Who, The Kinks and Small Faces.
With a wealth of cultural knowledge under his belt, Cale once again returned to America later that year, desperate to follow his musical interests in the rock world and formed The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed. Cale’s elaborate musical background helped give the band an edge that their counterparts lacked, and, coupled with Reed’s irradiate lyricism, they created a dynamic musical partnership that few can compete with. Although the Velvet Underground’s sales and chart numbers were not astonishingly high during their tenure, their impact on rock music planted a foundation during the 1960s, inadvertently inspiring others and eventually becoming one of the most influential rock bands of all time.
With the relentless desire to keep things fresh, Cale made the bold move to leave the group in 1968 after growing tired of Lou Reed’s dominance over the creative control. The Welshmen immediately became one of the most sought-after producers in music, working with bands such as The Stooges and taking flight on an illustrious solo career. In fact, his solo adventures are still going strong today and, unlike many artists of his age, Cale is still experimenting more than ever. The 79-year-old released his last album in 2016, MFANS, a reworking of his 1982 album, Music For A New Society. Still, and he embraced change once more to deliver an experimental effort that heavily drew from modern electronic music. The album is the story of Cale’s life; he is never comfortable driving in one lane for too long and sleeps with one eye open, glaring at the future producers in music and imparting his wisdom in the process.