When we did that bootleg, it was like the good old bad old days. We were partying very hard. It was exciting working with him, as there were a lot of possibilities and everything, but we were our own worst enemies at that point…Did I ever want to produce Bowie? After spending time with him, I realised the answer was no. The way we were then would have made it too dangerous.
John Cale, Uncut interview, 2008.
John Cale first heard David Bowie in 1971, during Cale’s tenure as the “weirdo music” A&R man for Warner Records, but the two didn’t meet until years later.* Cale, in the interview linked above, said he had been startled and delighted when coming upon Hunky Dory, which he saw as the heir to Lionel Bart and Anthony Newley with bizarre SF overtones and a pinch of Neil Young. No one in America really got the record, particularly Warner’s (which, thankfully, wasn’t Bowie’s label), but Cale had heard a kindred spirit.
Finally, on April Fool’s Day 1979, Bowie and Cale performed together, playing Cale’s recent “Sabotage” during a Philip Glass and Steve Reich show entitled “The First Concert of the Eighties.” Bowie, wearing a black kimono, attempted to play viola for the first time in his life. Sadly, no footage has survived.
If one had the power to fork and twist history, it would be tempting to do all sorts of damage, but one very minor alteration would be, in the ’70s, to align Bowie with John Cale instead of Lou Reed. Cale and Bowie were far better suited and could have been fantastic collaborators, on a par with Bowie and Eno’s partnership. Time has done adequate justice to Cale, as there’s a general consensus now that his work in the ’70s—the cracked Whitman’s Sampler Vintage Violence, the majestic pop of Paris 1919, the “dirty ass rock and roll” trilogy Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy and the punk salvos with which Cale closed out the decade, the Animal Justice EP and his live CBGB document Sabotage—is at least the equal, if not the superior, of Reed’s work in the decade.
In October 1979, when Bowie was hanging around New York, Cale and Bowie finally tried to collaborate. It would be nice to say that the surviving demos from this session were glimpses of what could have been major works, but they’re just murky-sounding early drafts, weak shadows of songs; they exist only as lost potential.
The somber “Piano-la” or “Pianola” (a bootlegger apparently titled the songs) is a barely-audible Bowie singing place-filler notes while Cale sounds out ideas on piano. “Velvet Couch” is more realized, with Bowie, tracing together a melody, surfacing with lines like “we won’t do things like that anymore,” “we’ll be as we are,” “they never sleep and they never play guitar,” “a red velvet couch and no guitar.” The songs, at least in these early forms, have little connection to what Bowie was writing on Lodger and Scary Monsters: they’re more similar to Cale’s then-recent slow pieces like “Chorale.” Hearing these demos is as frustrating as it is tantalizing—it’s a glimpse of a path untaken, a ghost avenue.
Recorded 15 October 1979, Ciarbis Studio, NYC. Unreleased (first issued on the bootleg 7″ Two Gentlemen in New York in the 1980s). To hear, click on the link above and then on Player #4—they’re tracks 11 and 12.
* There’s a charming (and hopefully true) anecdote about Bowie visiting the US for the first time in 1971 and going to see the Velvet Underground play, excited that he would see Cale and Lou Reed at last. But of course, this was the “fake” VU with Doug Yule as lead singer. Bowie, however, mistakenly thought he had met Cale that evening.
Top: Cale and Nico at CBGB, 19 February 1979.
PS: For those unfamiliar with Cale, here’s a Youtube sampler I just threw together.