Tim Mitchell's Sedition and Alchemy
Sedition and Alchemy: A Biography of John Cale.|
Peter Owen Publishers, 2003.
238 pages, $29.95 (paperback).
As one of the founding members of The Velvet Underground, a successful record producer, and a consistently daring solo artist, John Cale is a musician deserving of real attention. His VU counterpart, Lou Reed, has been the subject of several biographies, so it seems only fair that Cale finally receive the paper treatment.
Cale's is a life not easily distilled, but that isn't the only challenge facing his biographer. First, there's the trouble of maintaining interest in a subject who, though undeniably important to the history of rock, lacks the pop cachet of eminently bio-friendly figures like Kurt Cobain, Elvis—even Lou Reed. And in this case, there was that extra pressure on every biographer who knows his subject might never see another treatment.
Tim Mitchell does a fine job mapping the circuitous route Cale traveled from classical musician to rocker. Aaron Copland, Iannis Xenakis, and La Monte Young all played a personal role in his musical development, and Mitchell skillfully traces how that training influenced Cale's subsequent work. Cale is a musician who travels freely between the high and low, across a normally closed border guarded by the worst kind of culture police. This is the meat of Cale's story, and Mitchell keeps his teeth in it.
But despite its fascinating subject, Sedition and Alchemy has a difficult time sustaining the energy necessary to keep readers engaged. The biography presents a wealth of detail about Cale's life, but his personality somehow gets lost in the mix. It's a shame given the seeming ease in which Mitchell profiles the eccentric members of Cale's motley posse (Warhol, Reed, Nico, Eno). Cynics might be quick to identify here the potential for self-censorship whenever biography is produced "in full cooperation" with the subject.
No doubt possessed by free-associative spirit of Surrealists and inspired by the indeterminacy of John Cage (both significant influences on Cale), Mitchell punctuates the text with random facts, figures, and quotes. For instance, immediately before Mitchell describes Cale's engagement to his first wife, the fashion designer Betsey Johnson, the following appears in bold: "On March 9, 1902 Gustav Mahler married Alma Schindler." Other asides resonate even more faintly. A sentence in bold type about Pablo Cabral sailing with his fleet to India in 1500 had at least this reader scratching his head. Some might applaud Mitchell for his willingness to stretch the biographical form. Other readers will find that instead of providing real insight into Cale's life, Mitchell's post-modern, intertextual detours too often read like the circumstantial products of a Google search.
Every music bio should inspire the reader to pull out old records and re-examine them. This one had me reaching for Academy in Peril and Sabotage/Live. And even with its significant flaws, Sedition and Alchemy: A Biography of John Cale happens to be the only comprehensive resource on this gifted and influential artist available. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but it should be enough for die-hard Cale fans, and those of us who insist on dancing about architecture.