John Cale & Nico
Shards of Velvet Afloat in London
originally ran in Rolling Stone/February 18 1971
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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."
"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."
"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.
Wherever Nico goes, she finds the same thing.
© Copyright Robert Greenfield, All Rights Reserved.