Thursday, July 26, 2007


Having learned very little about origins or substance of the China attraction, then, let's break this "theme" thing by jetting over to Vietnam. Or Great Britain. Or something. On Riverbank, Cale's major theme seems to be the suffering of those that soldiers leave behind, but the particulars are mysterious.

In concert he claimed the song was about Liverpool, home of shipbuilding and dockyards. On the other hand, the lyrics reference Madame Nhu, the disastrously powerful fascist at the heart of the corrupt and "Catholic" South Vietnamese government. 'Course, he may have been obliquely referring to another legendary Dragon Lady, Maggie Thatcher, but gentlemen never tell. (The comparison, if it exists, is manifestly unfair.) You might think the song was inspired by the Falklands War, but that's impossible: the album Honi Soit preceded the war by a number of months.

So out with historical context! This is a song with a magnificent melancholy and a straightforward first two verses that quickly careens off into "satisfied as heretic vicars" and "foulmouthed pupils, broken heart surgery creatures crawling back inside of you," only returning to the main topic in the last verse. Lyrically, it seems to be another child of the moment, with composed lyrics sitting alongside improvised ones in a marriage made in frustration.

Instrumentally, you can't knock it. A tentative, chiaroscuro piano part starts out the song with a single cymbal being tapped fast. Other instruments encrust the sound before the vocal comes in: organ and restrained bass, then finally guitar. The guitar meanders, a bit randomly but in counterpoint to the vocal melody. It's a committed and sincere vocal from Cale. The structure is funny: though no lyrics are repeated, a chorus-type section comes in once at the end of the first verse, then twice after the second. This "chorus" music, with choppy guitar and martial drumrolls, turns into the middle-eight. Then comes a final verse, and a vocal coda based on the verse music "the stones around their necks are the stones of the riverbank." And an instrumental coda, which sounds awfully like "Hey Jude" and, despite some nice arching guitar lines, doesn't make itself worthwhile. It's a good song but not a great song, and I'm not sure why it occupies valuable space on the only in-print compilation album, Close Watch: An Introduction to John Cale.

A much finer ending was used for the solo-piano renditions of the 1983 tour. Cale sings that same vocal coda with halting piano accompaniment, then ends the song with single-note piano stabs that seem to go on forever. An audience member keeps trying to start applause and Cale keeps playing. It's extremely uncomfortable. Despite the much rougher vocal, this is the version to listen to. I've posted a high-quality MP3 from the show in Hamburg here.


Moza said...

Thanks for the mp3, and the whole blog actually. I feel I haven't been listening to the lyrics enough. Feel free to throw a few more audio tracks in there. Cheers.

Inverarity said...

On the uncut Hamburg recording, Cale sez, "This is a song about a town very much like Hamburg... Liverpool." Don't know if it's just a Beatles joke or whether he was serious, though.