Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ghost Story

John Cale got into music very young, legendarily composing a piano piece in grammar school that was taped and broadcast by BBC Wales. By the time he was finished with University (or vice versa), he had caught the performance art bug with such works as "Plant Piece", more popularly known as "Scream At a Potted Plant Until It Dies." Then there's nearly scaring Serge Koussevitsky's widow to death with his composition for axe and piano at Tanglewood in 1963.

Cale never really lost the itch for performance art - he hasn't gotten rid of the hockey mask just yet*. The intensity of it has varied over the years, but the minima so far have been 1970's underrated and underselling Vintage Violence and 1996's adult-contemporary papfest Walking on Locusts. On these albums, songcraft takes precedence over inspiration, personality, and anti-listener ordnance.

To my ear, there isn't much personality on display on Vintage Violence. Wonderful lyrical phrases, invitingly ambiguous music, wide-ranging topics... but no motivating theme or set of feelings. It also sounds more homogenous than nearly any of Cale's other albums. And then there are the problems of Cleo and Adelaide. It's a good album, don't get me wrong, but it's a calculated attempt at a "pop album." His heart wasn't really in it. It might be that the three-day writing and recording time hurt it a bit, the magic of improvisation be damned.

One song, however, particularly transcended its album of birth to become a staple of the live repertoire. Ghost Story is the earliest Cale song that uses the voice familiar as his (both as a singer and as a lyricist). It, like many of the songs on Vintage Violence, is an exploration of language more than any sort of story. I keep harping on Cale's use of "phonetically rich" language, but it's a crucial part of my appreciation of his work. His assemblies of phones are invariably imaginative and resistant to cliche.

"Evocative" is often a euphemism for "objectively meaningless," but some of the images presented here are almost worth short stories of their own: "Stood up, wished us good luck / he changed his attitude twice / the clock in the corner shivered in fear / tired and hungry for days." (Originally it was a box that shivered, but the change in live performance since the late 70s is entirely for the better.) Not to mention clever - "twice" sets your ear up to expect a rhyme, which you don't get until the end of the next verse. It could be that the Welsh background set him up as a great assembler of English sounds, as Russian set up Nabokov. (Not that the two are in the same league, but same idea.)

There are all sorts of great turns of phrase buried in here, "wasting away on advice" being particularly juicy. The final lyric is audacious, if perhaps a little undeserved: "It'll haunt you for the rest of your life." A fitting epigraph for a violent and memorable musical career, though.

Musically, it stands out on the album, with swooping electric organs taking the lead over an agitated and restless bassline and subtle rhythm electric guitar switching between clipped chords and delicate arpeggios. Now that I think of it, it sounds a bit like early post-Syd Pink Floyd, off the soundtrack to More or something. The drums come in and drop out in an alarming and uncomfortable way. It devolves after a restrained scream (the first on record!) to a heavily-drummed jam that suddenly (assuming I don't have a misprinted CD) cuts off mid-measure, tonally unresolved. Yum.

Here's a video of a live performance at the Amsterdam Paradiso in 2004:

Click here for flash-player audio, or here for a low-bitrate MP3.

* As you'd see on Ghost Story from the Circus Live DVD!

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