Thursday, May 24, 2007


I tend to prefer accessible Cale. While I first heard this song on the excellent and accessible Fragments of a Rainy Season, it wasn't until I heard the studio original that "Cordoba" really grabbed me. The live version may technically be superior, but I can't say I prefer it. The studio take of "Cordoba" unfolds with a quiet, eerie menace; while I grokked that something bad was going down in the Fragments version, in the sense that something bad is almost always going down in a John Cale song, the Wrong Way Up track grabbed my attention, made me sit up and say, "What the heck is happening here?"

Bombs in suitcases are happening, from the sound of things. This one ranks with Talking Heads' "Listening Wind" as a tune you probably shouldn't be blasting on the car radio whilst going through a border crossing. And especially on the coda, it shows how subtle Cale can be more powerful than angry, screaming Cale; compare the recitation of "the lift stops between two floors... I'll walk towards the station... you walk towards the bus" on here with the more ranty vocals on Fragments. The quiet, detached, perhaps faintly sorrowful vocals on the studio track hint at something horrible yet inevitable-- events are in motion, and cannot now be stopped. It's a cinematic sequence, highly visual in the way many great Cale moments are. The tinkling little backing track reminds me somehow of the ending theme of Koyaanisqatsi (the bit with the burning satellite), and the resemblance to a music box gone wrong makes it all the more affecting. So, while the Fragments "Cordoba" may be another solid track off a stellar live album, I'll take the flawed but involving original.

See a slow and ghostly performance from Amsterdam in 2004 at Fabchannel or listen to the audio:

[Audio Flash Player][Low-quality download]


Anonymous said...

I agree, the final of Cordoba is one of the finest moments in Cale´s recording career.

Jack Feerick said...

I meant to mention this when you first posted, but got sidetracked...

When I saw Cale live, he mentioned that this lyric began as an exercise in assembling banal lines from a Spanish-to-English phrasebook. I think "Grandfather's House" was written the same way—it sounds that way, anyhow.

I'm betting that the idea for the technique came from Eno—it's a dada/"found poetry" kind of thing. Eugene Ionesco did the same thing with his play The Bald Soprano

ZephyrJW said...

I love this song inordinately, unreasonably. But it's an unreasonable song. I've never been sure what it says as opposed to what it compels me to bring TO it. I'd heard the Spanish-English lessonbook story, too, and I think it helps explain some of what's going on in these lyrics. But we must leave room for Fate and genius in our explanations...

Never has so much been wrought from so little. An organ-y keyboard, a drum-machine woodblock, big reverb and that's it. But listen to that busy little tambourine/clock sound, and how, at 1:48, it morphs into very ominous crickets, and the lyrics begin to come to the point, the planning for the rendezvous.

Then, in one of the most exquisite moments in any music EVER, our narrator says "Leave the parcel on the top deck," and suddenly, at 2:48, the most lovely, warm, fondly recalled, reasonable, reassuring string quartet appears. I think the beginning of those strings corresponds with the bomb going off, so I take that sound to be the moment when all the poor victims see the White Light, see their lost relatives waiting for them on beautiful green lawns, and their flying-limbs pain becomes only a memory. Those strings are the sound of civilization, and used as they are, represent an elegy for order and sanity and safety. They may well be the sound of the past.

I find it a heartbreaking passage, and one of those occasions when music expresses what words never will. When it's over, we're back with our banal, sociopathic narrator, totally unchanged by the explosion reaching skyward behind him as he walks away, towards US.

Sometimes inspiration is so blinding that you wonder if the authors have any idea of how many levels on which their art is operating . Cale and Eno being who they are, I'm sure they had more than a clue, but I'll bet this song scared even them.

Christopher said...

When I saw him in 1995 he mentioned the textbook story and then followed that by saying "the bomb is in the suitcase."

Fremsleysballoon said...

This is also one of my favourite Cale tracks, but also a stunning review in that you mention my favourite Talking Heads song AND my favourite scene in perhaps my favourite film.
So this had to be my very first comment on this amazing site, though I've been reading it for years.