The Velvet Underground’s John Cale Plays Erik Satie’s Vexations on I’ve Got a Secret (1963)

Few of us today, in search of uncon­ven­tion­al artistry, would imag­ine mid-20th-cen­tu­ry CBS game shows as a promis­ing resource. But look­ing back, it turns out that Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion of that era — a time and place when more peo­ple were exposed to the very same media than any before or since — man­aged to bring a sur­pris­ing num­ber of gen­uine cre­ators before its main­stream-of-the-main­stream audi­ence. In 1960, for instance, exper­i­men­tal com­pos­er John Cage per­formed Water Walk, his piece for a bath­tub, pitch­er, and ice cubes, on I’ve Got a Secret.

Three years lat­er, Cage’s near-name­sake John Cale took the show’s stage to play Erik Satie’s “melan­cholic yet dead­pan, eccle­si­as­ti­cal yet demon­ic” Vex­a­tions. Though Cage did­n’t make a reap­pear­ance for the occa­sion, he did have a con­nec­tion to the music itself.

Dat­ing to 1893 or 1894 and unpub­lished dur­ing Satie’s life­time, Vex­a­tions’ score con­tains a note from the com­pos­er: “Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se pré­par­er au préal­able, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immo­bil­ités sérieuses,” tak­en by the piece’s inter­preters to mean that they should play it 840 times in a row.

Or at least that’s how Cage and col­lab­o­ra­tor Lewis Lloyd inter­pret­ed it when they staged its first pub­lic per­for­mance in 1963 at the Pock­et The­atre in Man­hat­tan. Its rotat­ing ros­ter of play­ers, under the ban­ner of the Pock­et The­atre Piano Relay Team, includ­ed a 21-year-old Cale. One week lat­er on I’ve Got a Secret, the young Welsh­man’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in this dar­ing per­for­mance con­sti­tut­ed the secret the play­ers had to guess. Hav­ing deter­mined that his achieve­ment has some­thing to do with music, one lady asks the crit­i­cal ques­tion: “Does it have any­thing to do with endurance?”

Yes, replies Cale, although the episode’s oth­er secret-bear­er, Karl Schen­z­er of the Liv­ing The­ater, may have per­formed the real act of endurance as the sole audi­ence mem­ber who stayed to watch the whole eigh­teen hours and forty min­utes. (He cer­tain­ly got a deal: Cage, believ­ing that “the more art you con­sume, the less it should cost,” gave each audi­ence mem­ber a five-cent refund for every twen­ty min­utes they stayed.) I’ve Got a Secret’s home view­ers then saw and heard Cale play Vex­a­tions, or at least 1/840th of it. They would hear from him again in his capac­i­ty as a found­ing mem­ber of the Vel­vet Under­ground — a band some of them would learn about a cou­ple years lat­er on the very same net­work’s Evening News with Wal­ter Cronkite.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nico, Lou Reed & John Cale Sing the Clas­sic Vel­vet Under­ground Song ‘Femme Fatale’ (Paris, 1972)

Lou Reed, John Cale & Nico Reunite, Play Acoustic Vel­vet Under­ground Songs on French TV, 1972

Watch William S. Bur­roughs’ Ah Pook is Here as an Ani­mat­ed Film, with Music By John Cale

John Cage Per­forms Water Walk on US Game Show I’ve Got a Secret (1960)

A Son­ic Intro­duc­tion to Avant-Garde Music: Stream 145 Min­utes of 20th Cen­tu­ry Art Music, Includ­ing Mod­ernism, Futur­ism, Dadaism & Beyond

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • padre says:

    Why 840 times? Sim­ple; 839 was not enough.

  • Julie Biddle says:

    Edu­ca­tion stan­dards were much high­er then and peo­ple val­ued knowl­edge and an appre­ci­a­tion of cul­ture.

    At around the same time Wayne and Shus­ter were pop­u­lar comics in Cana­da. They did a won­der­ful skit play­ing off Julius Cae­sar as a crime dra­ma.

    In one scene a char­ac­ter goes to a bar and orders a Mar­t­i­nus. The bar­tender says “you mean a Mar­ti­ni?” and gets the answer “If I want two I’ll ask for them”. The humour depends on peo­ple know­ing some­thing about Latin and plu­rals which audi­ences at that time did. The joke would fall flat today.

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