Monday, July 23, 2007

Chinese Envoy

Like many a former conspiracy theorist (don't ask), I'm a sucker for songs in code. Songs dressed up in political or historical trappings particularly appeal to me; I used to spend hours puzzling over "Games Without Frontiers" and pondered over the pseudo-Biblical vibe to "The Weight" (yeah, I know, there really isn't any code there at all-- I was twelve, OK?). So, I find the estimable Mr. Cale very satisfying in this regard.

Turning up first on the bleak and bereft Music for a New Society, “Chinese Envoy” is a mysterious little vignette, one that revolves not around the titular envoy but a “princess,” the “mistress of something, she thought.” The princess can talk to the French and the Germans, but they aren’t listening, and then the envoy himself shows up, and everything is ominous in a very Cale way (things galloping out of the darkness like furniture). Eventually we leave the Chinese envoy, or rather he leaves us, “in his brokenhearted pagoda.”

Terrible lyric, that. Probably the worst in the entire song.

The “hook” is what David Byrne called “plink plink plink Chinoiserie,” but in a subtle way, and it works. Musically, it bears the signature of classic Cale, with slide guitar and strings woven together in a haunting tapestry. The music grows so dense that Cale’s voice is half-submerged by the bridge. It’s atmospheric and melancholy and really quite beautiful; everything hints at a tragedy that is never made explicit-- this is one of Cale’s sadder songs, which is saying a lot. (An excellent piano version of this, with the chinoiserie less evident, is on Fragments of a Rainy Season.)

As for the lyric, “Chinese Envoy” belongs to that peculiar Cale Storybookland visited on Vintage Violence and Paris 1919. All times and all places are one; Cardinal Richelieu and the Chinese envoy and the “princess” inhabit a world that is neither here nor there. It might be the France of Louis XIV, or the declining Europe on the eve of World War, or maybe it’s some slice of Cale’s modern life, relayed in code a la Dylan. It strikes me, listening to this one, that what Cale seems to be doing, again and again, is crafting his own invisible cities. Some common thread links the shadowed scenes in his Storybookland. With Calvino’s cities, the key to understanding it all is Venice; I don’t know the origin of Cale’s key, and can’t say whether it’s New York, or Wales, or something far more obscure.

But, as literal meaning is not the point when listening to Cale, I can only say-- great song.


Ian said...

Up until the Calvino reference I was thinking of Pynchon's V. I'm not so much a former conspiracy theorist as a fan of conspiracy theorists, but I think I get what you mean.

Mark of the Asphodel said...

Believe me, it's much better to appreciate conspiracies on a meta level than to actively be theorizing them up!

Inverarity said...

Proverbs for Paranoids #3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.

I don't know what the song is about. It has echoes of coups d'etat, love triangles, lovers and politics. I have no doubt that the "she" the song is about is either dead or destroyed (ala "Damn Life", my favorite song from the album, which I'll be getting to soon). The Chinese envoy is apparently a former lover.

I like the "In his broken-hearted pagoda..." fragment the song is tagged with. I just wish Cale hadn't used the word pagoda, is all. The fragment hints at some future, and not a happy one. It's very Tarkovsky, sculpting time.

This must be one of Cale's favorite songs from Music for a New Society - it's appeared on four albums! On the original album, it forms a heartbroken diptych with "Broken Bird", my candidate for Cale's most gutted song. However, the intentional vocal error ("in one person's li... miserable life after another") in the studio take really confuses me. It's possible that "miserable" popped into his mind at that moment and he wanted to commemorate that (inspired) change to the lyric, but it sounds odd and sloppy. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don't.

On "Fragments" the song forms an "invisible cities" diptych with Buffalo Ballet and sounds much more detached - you never get the sense Cale is involved with the action, he's just a third party observer. The segue to "Style It Takes" - his favorite of the Lou Reed tracks - works, but it really shouldn't.

I can't comment on the "Cale Comes Alive" version off the top of my head. I really need to get a vinyl-ripping setup together.

Inverarity said...

I forgot a "collaboration" in "Lou Reed tracks" - it's one of the finer moments on Songs for Drella.

Also, "Calling out her name / You'd be surprised at what came / galloping out of the darkness just like furniture" has always left me with the impression that it's "her" who appears suddenly in the darkness. The substitution of "what" for "who" and the inanimate nature of the comparison is probably what makes me think of an empty-eyed wreck of a person or a corpse. It's the most surprising and effective part of the song.

Jack Feerick said...

Funny: I always heard that line as "bland miserable life." I never had any problem with it whatsoever. When you were alluding earlier to glitches on "Chinese Envoy," I assumed you were referring to the occasional clams in the guitar part—which I personally love precisely for its first-take, fumbling quality. (In fact, I never liked later piano-based versions of the song, which seemed a bit too facile, and actually emphasized the Charlie Chan cliché nature of the hook.)

New Society was my first Cale record—I came to it because comics writer Alan Moore had used a line from "Santies" as an epigram in WATCHMEN—and my first listen traumatized me a little, I think. "Envoy," like "China Sea," is a song of sheer beauty in the middle of a deeply unsettling/unpleasant album—but the end effect is very different, yeah?

Ian said...

Ah, yes:

"It would be a stronger world
A strong though loving world
To die in."

Moore actually misquotes it (according to the site that Inverarity and Asphodel use, at least), but those lines struck me powerfully at the time. Unfortunately in a small Canadian town, pre-internet (or at least pre-Napster) there was no way to follow up, although Watchmen did send me scrambling back to my dad's Dylan records.

Inverarity said...

Heh, I've been meaning to pick up Watchmen. Gives me an idea for my Sanities post.

Plagued by typos, that song: misspelled on several issues of the album as "Santies", misquoted by Alan Moore (though I misheard it as "stronger" for a long time), and the kicker is that it was titled "Safeties". An archivist at the studio misread Cale's label, and Cale liked the mistake better. So do I.

Jack Feerick said...

Yeah, Moore cited it as "Santies," with no second "i". And so did I, just there.

Now: compare and contrast with "Wilson Joliet."

Anonymous said...

I've heard Mr Cale mention Guy de Maupassant as a source for some of the imagery: specifically, that furniture, galloping out of the darkness.

The story in questions is perhaps Qui Sait/ Who Knows?

But, rilly, qui sait?

Netbooker said...

I don't think people should be so condemning of the famous "broken hearted pagoda." The lyric actually does a lot of a work. It's so obviously nonsensical that it's startling, alerting you that you can't assume anything you heard in the song is to be taken literally - and you realize, when you re-listen that you had accepted a lot of things that don't make sense - how can furniture gallop, even metaphorically? But you feel that the metaphor should mean something - it hits you emotionally. (I think maybe it's a reference to that Maupassant story?

..So I think the "pagoda" is Cale's way metafictional way of saying "This metafiction, not fiction - not even highly surreal fiction like Dylan's songs."

Inverarity said...

I don't disagree. Doing violence to language can be the most effective way of communication when no words work.