NEW YORK -- Technically speaking, David Cale is a performance artist, but he's the first to turn up his nose -- and a rather large nose, it is -- at the term.
"That sounds so very kind of bleak and pretentious," he says. "You know, lots of fuming and screaming and throwing oneself around. I've been called a monologuist, which is more accurate. But that's such a strange word. Generally, when people ask me what I do, I change the subject. But I've got to get a new passport soon and I'll have to put something down. Hmmmm, what am I?"
There ensues a long silence, rife with existential implications. Cale furrows his broad British brow and assumes an air of introspection that is partially contradicted by his passing resemblance to Tiny Tim. Finally, he says, "The way I see it is ... I just sit down and write little pieces. I put them together. And I act them out. Yes, that's it. I write and I act. I'm a writer slash actor."
Which is a little like saying Mae West was a hostess slash talker. Cale's work, more than one critic has noted, gets at some of our most primal needs and subconscious desires.
At 28, he is one of the fast-rising stars to emerge from the loosely knit community of performers, poets, filmmakers and musicians who in recent years have invigorated lower Manhattan with their experimental ways. After two solo shows, "The Redthroats" and "Smooch Music," and a bit part in Woody Allen's "Radio Days," he is being favorably compared to such reigning purveyors of loquacity as Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian.
Now Cale's limited, albeit enthusiastic, constituency is about to get bigger. With a handful of performance artists and Bette Midler, he recently taped an HBO special entitled "Bette Midler's Mondo Beyondo," to air in early spring. He's got a small part in Paul Mazursky's upcoming movie, "Moon Over Parador." Random House will publish the texts of "The Redthroats" and "Smooch Music" in the fall. And last month Cale embarked on a five-month, cross-country tour of "The Redthroats," which will bring him to Washington's Studio Theatre for two weeks, beginning Wednesday.
"The attention is wonderful," he concedes. "But I'm at a delicate point and I don't want to get stunted. I did a run of 'The Redthroats' this summer and I got so much more press than I'm used to -- all these different interpretations of my work. I found it was creeping into the performance. I was performing the reviews. I thought, 'This can get out of hand.' I just want to do this stuff and put it out for people to see, do some more and put that out."
This from a man, who, as a child in the sooty London suburb of Luton, told a school counselor, "I'm going to be a legend ... I'm going to be like Judy Garland." The counselor suggested accounting instead.
To be candid, the latter is from "The Redthroats," an hour-long account, wildly surrealistic in places, of a young man growing up alienated in England and escaping from his embittered lower-class parents -- hat makers by trade -- by shutting himself up in his room and listening to Garland records for hours at a time. "It's not healthy for an 11-year-old to listen to a dead woman sing," snaps his mother.
When tensions under the family roof turn murderous, he jumps the coop for London and flirts with male prostitution for a while before deciding to emigrate to the United States, because "all the legends live in America." Midflight, he has a mystical vision of his future self, while a stewardess, who reminds him of "Karen Black in 'Airport '75,' " provides him with a credo for his life to come. "Reality," she says "is something you rise above."
The young man's name is Steven and the family is called the Weirds. But there's no mistaking the biographical parallels to Cale's own life. His parents did work as hat makers; his childhood in Luton was fairly grim and solitary. At 16, having flunked out of school, he fled to London for a succession of dreary jobs, although hustling was never one of them. Then at 20, with "a little bag, not even a big one, a little one," he boarded a jet for America, his relief at leaving England forever behind apparently overcoming any trepidations he had about starting anew in a country he knew only from the movies.
"Parts of 'The Redthroats' are drawn from my life, but it is not an autobiography, although it's been reviewed as such," Cale allows, with the hesitancy of one not yet accustomed to dissecting his art in public. "It's very personal; all my work is personal. It's the same with any writer. Yes, I did fish in this little stream for redthroats. They were these little fish that gathered under the bridge. And one day, they were all gone. Like one day Steven was gone. But I've fictionalized so much, extended the truth to such an extent. I just hope that what I'm doing rings emotionally and psychologically true."
Another reason Cale has stopped reading his reviews is that he is invariably described as "racoon-eyed," "balding," "hollow-cheeked" and "jug-eared." "The horrible things they say," he moans. "I have them all memorized. I can't remember anything positive. Finally, one reviewer wrote, 'David Cale can look like this and he can look like that. And he can also look suavely handsome.' Suavely handsome! I was so happy I wanted to call him up."
In fact, Cale has a rather engaging, if odd, face that takes on its full measure of appeal when he laughs, which he is disposed to do often. He is dressed this particular afternoon in black shirt, black pants and black boots -- the mandatory uniform of motorcyclists and performance artists, both of whom seem to appreciate its intimidating aspects.
"Oh, yes, we all wear black. Anybody who's anybody wears black," Cale intones with mock gravity. "Actually, I said to my manager, 'I can't possibly go to this interview wearing all black. It's so pretentious.' But I just got back into town and I have no clean clothes."
He also discovered that he'd neglected to pay the phone bill and the phone company had cut off the service in his apartment -- a squalid little flat on the Upper East Side. "The hotel rooms I've been staying in are far larger than my apartment," he acknowledges ruefully. "I said to myself, 'I can't continue to live like this. I've got to move.' Easier said than done. I've had so many loans from friends to pay back first, there isn't any affluence yet. I don't have a VCR. I don't have a credit card. I don't even have a driver's license. It's ludicrous."
For all the intensity Cale projects in performance, his offstage manner falls somewhere between self-deprecating modesty and boyish sheepishness. Whenever he's been hired for a television commercial, he notes, it's usually for his apparent goofiness. Casting directors tend to see him as a variation of Ernest ("Hey, Vern") Worrell.
"For a while that became my big fear," Cale says. "I thought, 'I'm gonna end up like him with my face plastered on the back of delivery trucks.' The commercials I've done are kinda weird. I get cast as Americans, but I think they do something to the camera lens to pull my face out of shape. It reached a point where I thought, 'I can't do this anymore.' "
Until recently, Cale seems largely to have bobbed through a life in which happenstance has prevailed over design and instinct has won out handily over reflection. Success is forcing him to be analytical and he's not sure he likes that part of it. He failed English at school and he's never had acting lessons. He seems to be the last to know where his inspiration comes from. His only prior experience in the theater was as a stagehand for the London production of "Annie," a job he took for the money, not the experience, although it, too, crops up briefly as an episode in "The Redthroats."
Mostly, Cale yearned to be a singer. Booted from school, he joined a rock band that changed its name regularly in a bid for notoriety that never materialized. Vowing to come at the music business from another angle, he took a few lessons from "the woman who taught Lulu" and started singing pop tunes in pubs. "I'd see there was a talent contest in a particular pub," he says, "and I'd go over with my sheet music and get up on the stage. I did what I thought was the definitive version of 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered' -- drawn out, extremely labored with great Pinteresque pauses. I wasn't successful by any means. Oh, nobody ever booed me. They just didn't particularly listen.
"I remember I did 'Fool on the Hill' once and I started moving. People stopped to look -- not because I was singing well, but because my arms were waving. It was sort of like 'What is he doing?' When I stopped waving my arms, they stopped looking.
"My father came to see me. He couldn't watch. He said, 'I don't know how you can do it,' and he left. The only person who was convinced I was going to be big was the manageress of a pub in the East End of London, a real tough pub. She thought I was going to be the next Peter Allen. I didn't know at the time how loaded that was."
Finally, the general indifference got to him. "I didn't like living in England. There's no energy there, no joy," he says. "I hate generalizations, but what the hell. It's a cold, articulate, cruel little country. I wasn't happy there, although I didn't realize how unhappy I was until I left."
Fresh off the plane in New York and starry-eyed, Cale got a room in the YMCA and five days later, landed a job as a messenger at the British consulate. In his spare time, he began making the rounds of the clubs and showcases with his sheet music only to discover that the competition was "10 times better than it was in England."
Others would have thrown in the towel. Cale figures naivete' kept him going -- sometime four, five nights a week. He still retains an aura of gentle innocence that may, in fact, lie at the heart of his storytelling gifts. Eventually, however, it began to dawn on him that he might be on a one-way street to nowhere and he resolved to make a final bid for singing stardom.
"This club called Folk City, which used to exist in the West Village, had a Monday night open program," he explains. "So I decided to enter. But this time, I thought, I wouldn't sing other people's songs. I'd buy a guitar and write my own. I gave myself a deadline of six weeks to prepare. It was like the prison sentence had been lifted.
"For six weeks, I bashed out these things on a guitar and then got up and performed them. I think because all I could do was strum this electric guitar, I sort of ended up talking the songs over the chords. But I found people listened much more than they had in the past."
Encouraged, he entered his songs in an open evening of poetry readings at St. Mark's Church. "I had been floundering so long with this music stuff that I just spoke the lyrics, hurled them out, actually. And people clapped. It was not 'A Star Is Born.' It was a four-minute performance. But it was what you might call a mini turnaround."
Working up more pieces, stringing them together, then acting them out on a bare stage, Cale was carving a niche. In 1983, he was performing segments of "The Redthroats" around Manhattan. Two years ago, in preparation for his first solo show, he quit a full-time job in the mailroom at the Australian consulate -- rash as it seemed at the time.
"When I first starting writing this stuff, I wasn't thinking about pleasing an audience. It was so personal to me I thought nobody else would get anything from it. But that seems not to be the case. The first time I performed 'The Weirds' section from 'Redthroats,' people laughed so much it threw me. I just talked through the laughter. I didn't know how to handle it at all."
He's since learned. His mellifluous speaking voice, combined with a chameleon's ability to change personas, give him a strange hypnotic power onstage. Watching him, as Steven in "The Redthroats," take briefly to the ways of prostitution, is, one critic noted, "like watching Mr. Rogers turn into David Bowie."
His versatility was put to an even greater test earlier this year in "Smooch Music." In that show, Cale, playing against a jazz score, single-handedly enacted two dozen or so overlapping vignettes about contemporary lovers and other kinky strangers -- among them, a shy English teen-ager who gives himself hickeys with a vacuum cleaner. That show is currently on hold, awaiting further refinements, but he's recorded bits of it on an album entitled "The Uproar Tapes, Vol. 1."
Part of Cale, one senses, still doesn't believe what's happened to him. "I was just in Upstate New York at the performing arts center in Elmira. 'La Cage aux Folles' in one theater and me in another," he says, " 'La Cage' has a much larger audience, I'm sure. But all of a sudden I realized I was doing a tour. Yeah, I was on this five-month tour that had just sort of come together. I don't know how.
"I've never been calculating about a career. I've just worked. But one thing has lead to another and everything's catching up with me. Now there are all these options. It's very important for me to hold on to a certain purity and remain true to my instincts."
In "The Redthroats," Steven vows "to take my life and shake it and shake it until all the dead parts fall out." Cale puts it more prosaically. "I just want to get better and better," he says.
He looks mildly, if agreeably, dazed. Then, after a pause, he adds, "I think I left England with a big inferiority complex."