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Welsh terrier - rock musician John Cale

John Cale, a formidably huge man, has always seemed too large for rock music, but it's been his medium of choice and it would be much poorer without his civilised brutality. Capable of some of the most hymnal, gracious music and then putting it next to almost nihilistic outbursts of violence, Cale has always gone his own bull-necked way through his work. Pushing 60, he has been around for an unfeasibly large part of pop history.

Cale was already a seasoned scholar of music - having studied in London and New York, including spells with John Cage and LaMont Young - when he met a struggling songwriter, Lou Reed, at a party, and was prevailed on to join his new group, the Velvet Underground. If Reed provided the streetwise poetry and rock'n'roll snap to the band, it was Cale's sensuous understanding of harmony and texture that gave it a budding beauty.

As an individual writer and performer, Cale has wrestled with his angel across many records. He likes the bloodiness of rock, but he's too smart to settle for its three-chord poverty, so his music is tense with the contradiction of subtlety and sledgehammer confrontation. A love song might be bronzed by a structure of classical rigour. Though Cale has lived and recorded primarily in America, European culture walks through his work like Banquo's ghost, starting with the lyricism of his fellow Welshman, Dylan Thomas.

The album that every Cale admirer recalls with the greatest affection is his 1973 masterpiece Paris 1919, which starts with a Thomas reduction ("Child's Christmas in Wales") and proceeds through a cycle of threnodies for a vanished old world. But his subsequent progress found him deliberately looking into sometimes frightening extremes. Songs such as "Guts", "Hedda Gabler" and "Wilson Joliet" offered a theatre of cruelty made more painful by their undercurrents of lushness: Cale can't help but write eloquently gorgeous music. But as often as he struck gold, he tossed the treasure aside: so many of his records seem deliberately sloppy, unkempt, as if he found the whole medium insultingly easy.

There was another unmarked gem almost a decade after Paris 1919, the melancholy but elegantly composed Music for a New Society. I once suggested to Cale that this was his blueprint for a new kind of lieder; he demurred, but enjoyed the thought. He has tended to drift through various media since, without quite capturing a wider audience or delivering a resonant masterwork.

The rock albums have won him his following, but he has tinkered with trying to create great works outside that area, often hinting at the experimentation he tackled in Church of Anthrax, a buzzing drone created with the trance-musician Terry Riley. This month sees an unaccustomed burst of visible activity, including the publication of an autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen?, the appearance of music from a ballet dedicated to the Velvet Underground singer Nico, Dance Music, and a solo tour.

If he is a more temperate performer than the one who once appeared in Cambridge dressed as the then-notorious Cambridge Rapist, one can still anticipate fireworks. A record of a 1992 one-man show, Fragments of a Rainy Season (Hannibal), shows off Cale's in-person charisma, his stentorian baritone and clattering piano in ragged accord. He shapes "Heartbreak Hotel" into a Schubertian meditation but elsewhere turns to pure dementia in "Fear (Is a Man's Best Friend)". As Thomas would have wished, there is little chance of him going gentle into that good night.

John Cale appears in Cardiff (16 January), Cambridge (17), Liverpool (18), Glasgow (19) and at the Royal Festival Hall, London (21). A compilation of his recordings for Island, "Cale Street", appears at the end of February. "What's Welsh for Zen?", co-written with Victor Bockris, is published by Bloomsbury at [pounds]20.

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