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John Cale & Nico

Shards of Velvet Afloat in London

by Robert Greenfield

originally ran in Rolling Stone/February 18 1971
All Images Copyright © 1969 - 2024 Phil Franks, All Rights Reserved.

John Cale reaches too hard for the pay phone in the lobby of his hotel. Bang. It explodes into the soft corner of his forehead, just above the eye. Someone watching nearby laughs out loud, then apologizes. "I'm sorry, it was just so... outrageous." "Ah yeah," John smiles, understanding. He turns his attention back to the receiver, pausing now and then to gently rub the sore spot above his eye.

[Photos © Phil Franks]

Backstage at the Roundhouse, Nico sits alone on a flight of wooden steps that lead up to the stage. A black velvet cape over her shoulders, one leg up and the other extended, her chin resting on her hand resting on her knee. Under empty beams and open blue lights on Sunday night. Waiting until it is time.

Let this first be an epitaph, for a group everyone was hip to but no one had enough time or energy to save, and then some notes on two survivors. After five years of trying, the one, the only, unique Velvet Underground is no more, finally finished; over and done. Although there may be a band that will still use the name, only Sterling Morrison remains from the original group. Lou Reed, lead guitar, words, music and atmosphere, is back living with his parents on Long Island. Maureen Tucker, who beat the drums, gave it up six months ago and didn't even work at the Velvet's long-overdue gig this summer at Max's Kansas City. John Cale, viola, left the band two and a half years ago. Nico, who sings, left before he did. Until a week ago, the only way to hear these people together was on the first Velvet Underground album. Separately, John is also on the second and his own album, Vintage Violence. Nico has made three albums, Chelsea Girls, The Marble Index, and the latest, Desertshore. And then, last week, a small announcement in a hip London magazine said: "John Cale - Nico, Roundhouse, Sunday." An old-time rush, like when you first went to the Fillmore and found out that Janis Joplin was a person.

[Photos © Phil Franks]

John Cale is staying in a white faced hotel in South Kensington. The hotel features a downstairs dentist and a hall of mirrors. The smell of anaesthesia hangs heavy and the mirrors reflect John Cale, moving through the lobby towards the door.

"Take good care of him, " his lady calls out from atop some stairs. John keeps moving. "We're only going for a walk. What could happen... in London?" "People get lost on walks, don't they?" John says without stopping, moving out of the lobby into the rain and then into a pub.

John Cale's face is soft. fleshy. He looks like he's wearing a suit even when he isn't. Since leaving the Velvet Underground, he's been in New York "twiddling thumbs" and working with quadrophonics for CBS. He produced the first album for the Stooges and did the arrangements and producing for Nico's last two albums. After seven years, John will soon be leaving New York for L.A., a terrifying prospect. "They say I'll have to learn how to drive a car. I will, won't I?" He's going to work for Warner's Reprise and will also be doing the soundtracks for films. But now, on Friday night, he is two days away from working his first gig since Boston, 1968, with the now-dead Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground was a whole other dimension in the rock world. New York, New York, sweetheart, strungout vicious and twitching in spangled pants and see-through shirts coming into your living room to destroy your middle-class sense of propriety and well-being. Andy Warhol, of course, found the Velvets in a Greenwich Village nighthole and made them the band in his traveling freak show, the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable".

To this day, you may hear it said that the Velvets were just another Long Island rock and roll band. Yes and no. Songs like "I'm Waiting for My Man", "Heroin", "Sister Ray" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" do not come from hanging out at Nathan's in Oceanside (at least not back in 1967). One day Brian Jones brought Nico around to Andy's factory and the whole other dimension acquired another wrinkle, a lady with a unique voice. There in the background was John, bending and distorting notes on the viola so that you can hear the smack flow in "Heroin" and "go rushing on a run" right along with the music. Another wrinkle. Not many classically-trained musicians get as involved in the pop jungle as John, who also plays organ, and guitar, and writes words as well as music.

[Photos © Phil Franks]

"In Chicago, I was singing lead because Lou had hepatitis, no one knew the difference. We turned our faces to the wall and turned up very loud. Paul Morrisey (later the director of Trash) and Danny Williams had different visions of what the light show should be like and one night I looked up to see them fighting, hitting each other in the middle of a song. Danny Williams just disappeared. They found his clothes by the side of a river, with his car nearby... the whole thing. He used to carry this strobe around with him all the time and no one could figure out why till we found out he kept his amphetamine in it."

"We worked the Masonic Hall in Columbus Ohio. A huge place filled with people drinking and talking. We tuned up for about ten minutes, tuning, fa-da-da, up, da-da-da, down. There's a tape of it. Played a whole set to no applause, just silences."
"In San Francisco, we played the Fillmore and no one liked us much. We put the guitars against the amps, turned up, played percussion and then split. Bill Graham came into the dressing room and said, "You owe me 20 more minutes." I'd dropped a cymbal on Lou's head and he was bleeding. "Is he hurt? " Graham said. "We're not insured.""

"Seven Darden brought this young chick up to meet me there and he introduced her as "one of my ardent admirers." This was a long time ago and I didn't know about such things, so I said, "Pleased to meet you," and walked off. Two days later in L.A., here comes Severey again with this girl. I say hello again and leave."
"We're all staying at the castle in L.A., and things are very hazy, if you know what I mean. Well, this girl is there too. I smile but I still don't understand. About two in the morning the door of my room opens and she walks in naked and gets into bed. Went on for five nights. I don't think I even got her address."

The Velvets suffered from all kinds of strange troubles. They spent three years on the road away from New York City, their home, playing Houston, Boston, small towns in Pennsylvania, anywhere that would pay them scale.
"We needed someone like Andy", John says. "He was a genius for getting publicity. Once we were in Providence to play at the Rhode Island School of Design and they sent a TV newsman to talk to us. Andy did the interview lying on the ground with his head propped up on one arm. There were some studded balls with lights shining on them and when the interviewer asked him why he was on the ground, Andy said, "So I can see the stars better." The interview ended with the TV guy lying flat on his back saying, "Yeah, I see what you mean."

Two days to his first live gig in almost three years and John does not yet have anyone to back him up. "We need a band. There's one that might help us," John says, looking as if he is thinking about something else, something that is just out of focus and unclear. "Traffic. Worked with Stevie Winwood once in a studio. I was outrageously drunk. He kept plinkin' away and I yelled at him, there was a row... it was outrageous. But I don't know. We'll have to get somebody..."

Sunday night at the Roundhouse. A guy is swinging back and forth on a weighted rope, transcribing great circles across the whole backstage area, putting people's lives in danger. "Hey man, can you move?" an usher asks someone. "This guy is swinging on a weighted rope." "The guy who moved," a bystander says. "That's Mike Heron." Mike Heron, of the Incredible String Band, and John Cale are going to play together.
Nico comes through a door. People who want to speak to her move towards her. They circle around. She remains standing still, perfectly secure, surrounded by talking people yet totally alone.
She goes on stage first, before a large and noisy crowd packed in to see Pink Floyd, who will follow. "I don't know what mood you're in", Nico says to the audience in her unreproducible voice. "I suppose you're in a very peace-loving mood."

[Photos © Phil Franks]

She begins with "Janitor of Lunacy" from her new album, pumping away steadily, her legs in high leather boots on the harmonium pedal, her shoulder bag hanging from her chair. The combination of her voice, syllables stretched to madness and dropped, and the cavernous repetition of the harmonium slow the Roundhouse crowd down. The stage goes all black except for soft purple and green spots high above her head. The light show flickers down to a single picture, all grainy and glowing. The people stop talking. A great hall becomes a mediaeval cathedral.
John plays viola in the background, then switches to piano. "I'm glad you like it," Nico says, after some applause. "John is going to sing some songs now. Maybe I'll be back for one more."
She leaves, taking her shoulder bag with her. John plays a song at the piano and comparisons with Randy Newman are not unfair to either of them. Mike Heron comes out. No one introduces him. The crowd cheers and applauds. They do "Gideon," "Macbeth" and "Please ", all from "Vintage Violence".

"Please" begins:

Won't you help me, please?

I'm growing old

A billion years ago

Won't you help me sneeze?

I've caught a cold.

     It ends:

But it can't be that bad

Back in Trinidad

Come and see me soon

If ya get back from the moon.

They end the set with "Bring It Up" and Heron does remarkable things with his voice and his fingers. Nico comes back, does two more songs, and leaves.
Backstage, someone asks John Cale, "Did you get off?" He stammers for a moment. "Aw, it was lovely," the admirer says.
"Why didn't you say that right away?" John asks, "I can never tell." His hair is a little damp in the back and his face is flushed and the first gig is out of the way and over.

Nico is in London and the grey light and constant traffic stream outside her hotel window with the rain. The light is soft in her room, the room is long and narrow, vertical lines dance off the wallpaper. Another hotel room in the city.
Her speaking voice, like her singing voice, comes from the far side of death. Often, she has trouble understanding what is said to her. Much of her time is spent floating down thought-rivers inside her own head.

"If I had a back-up group now," she says, "I would do the old songs like "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "I'll Be Your Mirror". I don't think I would do "Femme Fatale". "I haven't that much of a sense of humor."
"Back then it was all right. It was a part I was playing. My hair was blonde and I..."

She turns and looks at the wall.

"It has changed. Now. I don't know what part I'm playing."

People have decided in 1971 it is time for Nico to work regularly, to be known. The publicity flow is cranking up and people from the trade papers have been in and out all day. At the end of the day, she is tired: "I feel like marshmallows."
Coming in from out of the rain the next day, she pauses in the hall of mirrors to wipe some drops of water off her face. She does it quickly, impersonally, like the owner of a new Rolls-Royce polishing away the dust from its shiny finish.

"I have done a radio interview today", she says. "Why are your songs so morbid and decadent?" the man asked me. They are not morbid, I told him... Then he said something about acid."
" All the people I knew who were doing acid and drugs have turned into wine." She smiles. "I mean to say towards wine."

"No," she giggles, "I was right the first time."

Nico will be in Rome tomorrow. If she drives her van straight through, she can be back in her hotel room in Paris in two days. But it is very warm in Spain now.
The dress she has on is red and embroidered. It comes from Mexico. Her boots are Spanish. The passport she travels with is German. Perhaps she will return to Egypt. She feel at home in the desert, in New York too because "it is so crowded, it is another desert." She picks up the phone to change the flight she is leaving on. "Hell-o," she booms into the phone. "Yes, yes," she says, "I will come to pick up the ticket. The name?... Miss Nico." Tomorrow, she will be somewhere else. It matters little.

Wherever Nico goes, she finds the same thing.

© Copyright Robert Greenfield, All Rights Reserved.
Reproduced here with the author's permission.

More pictures of John Cale & Nico @ The Roundhouse.
Pink Floyd also played at the Roundhouse that night.

* New: John Cale in Spain - 1997! *

This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author. Robert B. Greenfield has recently published a book, "Dark Star: an Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia". He is currently working on another about Timothy Leary and is involved in several theatre and film projects.


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