Friday, August 31, 2007


blackAcetate is an album of funny contrasts. After the ethereal "Gravel Drive," Cale tosses in one of the album's most rudimentary garage rock tracks, "Perfect." That's not meant as insult, but it is strange. There's nothing dangerous about this music: the underlying song is a poppy little confection about compulsive love of one form or another, the rocking is restricted and somewhat ironic, the drums don't do anything subversive. I think it's a shameless attempt at getting on the radio. There's nothing wrong with that. This one pops into my head more often than anything else on the album.

The real meat of the song lies outside the verses and chorus. The growl and stop-time delivery on the first bridge, "I've- been- wai- ting- for- the- mo- ment- uhhhh" works beautifully. The lyric on the second bridge is my favorite in the song, and the melody attached to it is really charming: "And I'm sitting next to you / in the corner of the room / getting writer's block from calling you / is all I wanna do." And on the third bridge, martially rigid in its chant of "It's a different kind of love," Cale vocals overlap and rise above you like a vaulted ceiling. Finally, the coda, repeating the same lyric in a completely different way, wholehearted and enthusiastic: "It's! A! Diff! Rent! Kind! Of! Love!" The song is bursting with odd little bits of melody - the subversion is in the song's construction, rather than the performance. Well played, Mr. Cale.

Though a few of lines give it body, Perfect is in the end a slight song lyrically. About some kinda love in old age. There's not that much emotional heft to it: the verse lyrics are so generic and interchangeable our man seemed to be rewriting them on the spot when he performed the song on Jools Holland. But the video, allegedly the first released promo clip in John Cale's career, effectively shows the darkness latent in the song's premise. I feel that the song's only half-complete without the death-and-decay-obsessed video, described here as "disturbing, like pre-Eraserhead David Lynch." Watch it if you can. (Sorry, it's in RealMedia. I'm working on getting it converted so I can put it on YouTube. Any suggestions?)

Anyway, the video made me think that the song was about procreation: about seeing your children grow up and have children of their own. It is a different kind of love! The song lacks the edge of eros; it feels paternal and proud rather than seductive. I hear it addressed to a young granddaughter. Odds are that interpretation is way wrong (the more conventional reading fits better with the general theme of the album) but I like it dammit and I'm sticking with it.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Grandfather's House

Like "Cordoba," Wrong Way Up outtake and One Word b-side Grandfather's House uses lyrics taken verbatim from Spanish in Three Months, a textbook from the Hugo language series. Like Cordoba, "Grandfather's House" seems to tell a story of crime - this time, the story of a white-collar criminal from a good family. It's as detail-oriented as Cordoba, recounting family activities, dinners, flights and scenery. It conjures up a very intriguing story for me: the man, whose grandfather was a magistrate who oversaw the construction of the city's courthouse, embezzled money from his employer (the city?) to relieve his financial woes. I don't know what Cale and Eno saw in the text, but that's my reading. As with Cordoba, many gradations of meaning can be read into this small patch of found text.

Unlike Cordoba, though, it lacks a convincing musical development. It seems as if they couldn't figure out the right way to approach the song, so they just threw their favorite techniques and noises at it: stop-start construction, tinkling synth, electric piano, ethereal guitar, bass, a background drone. The vocal melody steals liberally from
Music for a New Society's "Broken Bird," but the performance recalls Last Day on Earth's "Broken Hearts" - unctuous, rich, with an uncomfortable feeling of insecurity (or insincerity?). The song's one transcendent moment: the wordless Eno/Cale duet with viola accompaniment on the middle eight.

Since this track wasn't included on the US release of Wrong Way Up, and since the CDEP is long out of print, I'll post an MP3. It didn't deserve a spot on the album, but it's worth hearing. Enjoy.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On a Wedding Anniversary

For my money, the supreme accomplishment of John Cale's Dylan Thomas project Words for the Dying is "On a Wedding Anniversary." Though Thomas's symbologies can seem random, this poem, examining the falling-apart of a young marriage, is razor-sharp. With economical language, it evokes a very complex set of ideas and feelings. Marriage is one of the most interesting and controversial institutions of human society, and the poem explores the ideal of it ("down the long walks of their vows") and the reality ("this anniversary of two").  It suggests that, regardless of catechism and other fantasies, marriage is not a true union but an alliance of two individuals - though the final verse's "their heart/their brain" seems to suggest a true union through suffering even as the institutional union of marriage is broken. It achieves a great deal with the device of the pathetic fallacy: "The sky is torn across this ragged anniversary." I read in the poem of the death of a young child, "Now their love lies a loss," and I think of the early Robert Frost poem "Home Burial."

Even lying on the page these words can lacerate, but when Cale sings them these shards of glass are hurled. On Fragments of a Rainy Season, to devastating effect, he hits just the right emotional notes on each lyric. The piano feels like sheets of rain. The vocal melody winds around the chord progression unpredictably. I think it seemed a little random when I first heard it, but now it feels natural, even necessary. As the "rain" tapers at the end, Cale's repetition of the second verse over a sinister two-chord vamp ushers out the song (and connects it to the middle song of the suite, "Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed").

It doesn't fare as well in the orchestrated original version, but it does better than the other tracks. Cale's vocal is delivered well (though not as well) and fits with the orchestra better than his other vocals do. I'm not that happy with the horn parts, which seem out of sync with his vocal, and I don't care for the ending, but it would be an entirely acceptable recording.

That is, if it weren't for the temporally and emotionally out-of-sync choirboys. They sing the key word of the lyric Cale is singing throughout the last few verses. They're fine when they're repeating "brain" endlessly over the end of the third verse, they're at least effectively creepy when they're chanting "Death strikes their house" at the end, but when they sing "chain" and "too late" and "windows" and "door" it's like someone (pardon the Americanism) blowing a raspberry. Ach! Cale should have had them sing bouche fermée (i.e. hum).

Thank goodness this stuff got a do-over.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Sleeper

Larry "Ratso" Sloman (publishing industry itinerant worker and author) was Cale's writing buddy (and presumably partner in crime) during the period that produced Artificial Intelligence (as well as an album's worth of tracks that came out here and there). It's hard to identify a specific change in the resulting lyrics, but the overall feeling is different: the old intensity is channeled into poppier digressions, verses are more coherent and polished, and the weird stuff is more predictable than before. The topics the songs cover, in general, are a little more normal and digestible.

Which has a bad side, I suppose, but also a good one. The Sleeper is a fascinating ditty that seemingly tries to use the human intelligence idea of a sleeper agent to explore a (of course) sordid, disastrous failed romance. It doesn't really succeed, as the connection between the two ideas still eludes me, but it's evocative and thought-provoking anyway.

It's about lovers and enemies who can't stay separate. The narrator goes so far as to compare himself to Jesus and the amour to Satan and implies, by a delightfully subtle use of the subjunctive mood, that despite his hateful rant they, uh, fell to conjugating. Word choice is good, with evocative and paradoxical phrases ("I was the moth stuck on your pin") and twisted syntax that works anyway ("it isn't me that's what's wrong with you"). The solid vocal delivery helps the lyrics work - Cale sounds a bit detached, but not overly, and certainly not bland.

The vocal melody itself is remarkably gentle - not what you'd expect for the lyrics. The inescapably 80s backing track doesn't hurt it too badly. For some reason the electric piano here doesn't sound as insipid as it would ten years later - probably because it's not the central instrument of the track. The percussion (is it live or is it Memorex?) sounds like a typewriter, an interesting effect. The electric guitar and bass play repetitive riffs, seemingly within the same chord for the duration of the song.

It's a good little noir song. Like the album, it's not essential, but like the album it's a rewarding listen.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sylvia Said

B-sides are funny things. Some bands don't do them - Pink Floyd, for example, once they'd dissolved in Roger Waters's bile. Some bands bury their best songs there - Radiohead's "Cuttooth" being one example. And some (most?) issue studio wankery or songs they don't like as b-sides. These categories are fluid, though, and artists regularly switch from one to another.

John Cale never put out many non-album b-sides, and hasn't in a long time (except to someone else's a-side). On the rare occasions he has, though, he's seemed to move randomly between categories B and C. "Rosegarden Funeral of Sores" certainly fits in the latter category. Fear-era Sylvia Said (the b-side of, unbelievably, The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy), despite some nice touches, goes into category C.

The proto-R.E.M. instrumental work and the bittersweet though makeshift viola part are cool. But it's the slightly drunken and definitely demo-quality vocal that drags the song down. Then there's the seemingly improvised lyrics. It's also the vocal melody, which sounds awfully reminiscent of something. (And what's with that Lou Reed trademark-infringing title, eh?) It's all very ad-hoc, moreso than some contemporary tracks that stayed in the can for another two decades.

It's got a certain Dennis Wilson charm to it, and the instrumental work is very enjoyable, but it didn't deserve a spot on an album. You can pick it up in its proper place on The Island Years.

Note: This exclusively covers the Island Years version. I've read at least once the actual b-side is a different take. I don't have the single, so I can't verify that or judge its quality against this release. Please weigh in if you can compare.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Casey at the Bat

Casey at the Bat is a political allegory. An impassioned song about John Cale's favorite professional sport, baseball*. A pure pisstake. An on-the spot improvisation that Cale didn't think much about. A rant about a friend or enemy or acquaintance or musical accomplice. None of the above. Take your pick. This Even Cowgirls Get the Blues track is notable on the strength of the vocal, which is a full-out screamer despite some note of mischief and humor in Cale's voice.

Like the wonderful namesake 1888 poem (this is a very lowbrow lit album, isn't it), it's about a failure. The difference is that this is an indictment of an intransigent guy who lets down his team and the fans by not showing up. That could describe any number of musicians! I like the idea of "Muddville" as an allegory for the Mudd Club (according to that Wikipedia entry, named after the previously discussed Dr. Mudd), and "Casey" as the star of an important band. It's an amusing idea, anyway.

It's an expansive and hard-rocking song that's musically a wee bit reminiscent of the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" (but that ain't no Mudd Club). It starts out with dueling guitars, surprisingly enough. An aggressive electric organ takes the lead once the vocal starts. Cale sounds like he's enjoying himself on this one, maliciously and mercilessly swinging away at the hapless Casey. It breaks down to simple piano to lead into the coda (apparently fooling the mastering engineers at ROIR - they cut it into two tracks). Electric organ and guitar come back with a vengeance, chain-gang backing vocals start, and Cale starts in on Casey again. It ends with lungs-out screaming: "You're a coward, Casey, a coward!"

Hell, try it out on me (login required; no-login AUTOPLAY! streaming version available here; suggestions for file hosts gratefully accepted). Anyway, it's one of the better tracks on an awfully difficult to find and difficult to like album.

* This is highly unlikely.


Monday, August 20, 2007

The Second Fortress

I haven't reviewed any of these yet. They're intimidating. There are more questions in the New York in the 1960s series than answers, and I don't have the training in Stockhausen and Xenakis and friends to speak meaningfully about how or if this stuff fits into the detonation of the Western music tradition that occurred in the middle part of the 20th century. I'm not really sure that La Monte Young & Co's drony antics really had a meaningful connection to their mathematical forebears, for that matter.

Questions I wish I could answer:

  • Is it music?
  • Is it really meant to be listened to?
  • Was the performance the point and the recording just chaff?
  • Is it some kind of practical joke? (Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music undeniably has a significant "joke" component, but this stuff was recorded before the Velvet Underground, before John Cale had anyone to piss off except his friends and neighbors.)
  • If you listen to eleven minutes of the same electronic organ chord, distorted this way and that, are you opening your mind or boring a hole in it?
You have to understand, too, the state your mind is in by the time you get to the final track of the first disc of the New York in the 1960s box set, Sun Blindness Music. You've heard 43 minutes of the same incredibly overdriven electric organ chord. You've heard a solid eleven minutes of an electric guitar chord being thrashed to death. Your nervous system has done things that it really shouldn't be doing: chills going this way, chills going that way, some atavistic tingling at the back of your skull, all in response to changes in the sound that you can't really perceive directly.

And then Cale takes a drill to your ears. While the so-called "Sun Blindness Music," the 43-minute track, adds and removes tones from the chord, providing a more accessible listen (at least in any given 11-minute block), "The Second Fortress" is a more direct aural equivalent of staring fixedly into the sun. You hear the same set of tones throughout, but there are some phase differences you hear as the track wears on. The sound is filtered, cut up, strangled, shaken. Any structure in this piece all comes from what is done to the sound. It's inexorable and meaningless. It fades out, but you still hear the tone in the surrounding silence, just as you see the sun after it has burned into your retinas.

It is very easy to make fun of attempts in all the arts to make things as primitive and stark as they can be. I've been known to do it. Blank canvases and Rothko don't move me. Last Year at Marienbad seemed so pretentious and stupid I couldn't even keep up a running parody after the first hour. I haven't heard many of the premier musical minimalists, but I don't see why musical minimalism or structuralism would be any less risible. (Iannis Xenakis seeming much smarter than me notwithstanding.) But this stuff directly engages my nervous system in a way that less devolved music doesn't. It's uncomfortable, it's rather frightening, and I don't know that it's healthy, but it's undeniable.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

So Much For Love

Do you want to know why I hate Walking On Locusts? "So Much for Love" might be the very worst track on it, but it's bad in a representative way. It's lumpen, leaden, vague, clichéd, tuneless. I don't get it. It's so banal lyrically nobody has even bothered to transcribe lyrics over at Fear Is a Man's Best Friend. I'll do it, though, just to prove a point.

Since you've been gone
Many things have changed

The days get longer

We spend our nights alone

Before you took
The time to see
You didn't let me down

You're a phone-call away

Now the time has come

To think of you a while
I cannot leave you now (I cannot leave you now)

Though the door is open wide (oh open wide)

You're in my mind and soul
And I've said it before

So much for love
So long for now
So much for love
It's been good to know you

We'll meet again
Where it all began
A souvenir of the past
And I guess it's the last

So much for love
So much for love

Let's start with the music. The song is a 70bpm affair, dilating time via its porn-groove bassline and pointless Kenny G-sax-like electric guitar wanking. The ubiquitous poor-quality electric piano (one of the major limiting factors on Cale's performances in the 80s and 90s) is über alles on this album, raining a golden shower of insipidity down upon the listener on this song as on most others. The horns that come in after the bridge don't do a thing to help, either. There isn't a single decent melody here, though the bridge might be acceptable in a better song.

And, well, the lyrics speak for themselves. There's none of the usual imagination, inventive detail, perceptive characterization. It's just one cliché after another. I don't get it.

A few possible explanation for the failings of Walking on Locusts (which is admittedly still half-decent - it's the half that isn't that kills me). Either John Cale circa 1996 was suffering from a catastrophic lack of taste, he'd developed a hatred towards his fanbase, he'd gotten the idea that only pap for the toothless sells today (not that this sold!), or he was trying to write from the heart for once and couldn't take the knife to himself. I have no idea which of these, if any, are true. But the result is uncharacteristically awful.

If you're getting into John Cale, avoid this album at all costs. It's a "for completists only" sort of album; it's a shame that it's among the most common finds in used music stores. The really mystifying thing is that not only was he proud of it at the time, but he was dismissive of his earlier work! Maybe it was just a momentary lapse of taste. I don't get it.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Captain Hook

Happy Independence Day, India! (And, belatedly, Pakistan.) Today's the day, sixty years ago, that the sun set on the British Empire. This isn't the place to get into the morality of British colonial involvement or the terrible failings of the partition, but it was more than time for them to get out. While India and Pakistan weren't the first colonies to gain independence (ahem), they were the first of many dominoes to fall.

Er, right, this is a John Cale blog. Today's track is about the decline of British colonialism. Captain Hook, which leads off the second side of the vinyl Sabotage/Live, seems to owe nothing but the title to J.M. Barrie - the title character/narrator is a bitter parody of British nationalism.

There isn't much ambiguity in "Tried to break India's back, but she broke the back of me." Yet it's not entirely unsympathetic - you get the idea, with lyrics like "Past the Cape of Good Hope, but there's no hope for me" sung in a way that indicates a partially identification with the mindset. The chorus lyric is even more mysterious: "I can't keep living like this no more / Oh can't you see you're losing me again?" Screeds are seldom more interesting than contradiction and unresolved tensions, and this song benefits from its obscurity. Maybe I give it too much credit - some of the lyrics seem not very polished, and Cale introduces it with, "Take it with a pinch of salt." Still, it works for me.

The music is the real substance of the song. It's divided into three distinct segments. The long instrumental intro is built around fluttering piano, echoed by guitar, backed by a sliding bassline and inventive drum fills. There's some of the evil overdriven organ that appears elsewhere on Sabotage. The tension built here is huge. Everything goes quiet, and Cale goes into his piano intro to the main body of the song. Mark Aaron's scalding guitar is initially the lead instrument, replaced by a wordless vocal from Deerfrance, then Cale's verse vocal. The chorus features nearly the whole band on backing vocals. And the coda works in a new melody from Cale, one he sings for all he's worth. That a sonic picture this complex was created live on stage is impressive - in terms of "orchestration," it's one of Cale's greatest achievements. The band is in top form throughout, and Cale's hoarse vocal couldn't be better. It's an astonishing eleven and a half minutes long - by nearly three minutes the longest rock song in the catalog.

Now, why Robert Christgau calls it the dumbest song on the record, I can't say. I think it's great. A villain hasn't gotten a song this good since Pete Townshend gave up on Lifehouse the first time, I'll tell you.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007


This piece, a soundtrack to the film Eat by Andy Warhol, was composed by Cale in the early 90s and, along with its companion, Kiss, was first performed with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison at the Warhol Museum in 1994. It was recorded with some revisions the next year, after Morrison's death. I'm regarding it as a single work and only as an audio track, since I haven't seen the film.

The first movement, for pedal steel and 12-string guitar, is a glacial exploration of minor chords. After the first few notes sound in the silence, like a Bach fugal theme, the 12-string plucks through one chord after another, slowly, disconnectedly. An synth or organ interjects "boat horn" sounds (yes, John Cale is on keyboards). Weird, rippling infinite guitar hangs like a canopy over the middle of the movement before gaining its own voice and injecting a new melody into the last quarter of the movement, as the boat horn is silenced.

The transition into the second movement is imperceptible. Suddenly, Cale's voice rings out - the first time on the disc, so it's all the more surprising. The slide guitar gains a more sinister metallic edge, and moves into the back left; the 12-string moves right (but keeps playing the same sort of arpeggiations). Cale's voice hangs at center, the central instrument of the movement.

He dispassionately and thoughtfully reads the parable "Melanethon", by Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century renaissance man, amateur mystic/theologian, and accidental founder of a religion. It's an excerpt from Swedenborg's most famous work, Heaven and Hell, detailing the damnation of a theologian for his belittling of the virtue of Charity. In tone, the writing is closer to Kafka or Stanley Donwood than Christ. It's a haunting little vignette.

After the final word ("demons") has passed from Cale's lips, sinister strummed chords sound. You know, like the "dun dun duhhhh" of movie soundtrack cliché. The infinite guitar spirals around like a metallic buzzard. But then the 12-string modulates up, begins strumming nice, comfortable major chords. A violin joins, banishing the slide guitar, and starts singing a pretty song. Soon enough, Moe is adding a light drumbeat and the rest of the strings join. Yes, movement three is an elegant little hot club shuffle. (Well, on downers - this is all very slow music.)

It all fades for the last movement. The slide guitar started singing at the end of the third movement, and it oversees the transition into Cale piano work. It's pensive and graceful and slight, this waltz duet. And then it's over, the audience claps and we can all go home.

I don't know how this music matched a home video of a guy eating a mushroom, but maybe you had to be there. It's interesting that Cale's mentor and nemesis, La Monte Young, did the soundtrack for a group of Warhol excerpts including Eat and Kiss. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not?

It's interesting music, but the first two movements are a little too loose and the last two are rather conventional. It's fine listening, but it doesn't really stand up to "Kiss." Cale's reading of "Melanethon," though, is definitely worth a listen for Kafka fans and lovers of creepy radio serials. The guy's voice is just mesmerising.

By popular demand, here's the 'Melanethon' segment. High quality flash player, low quality MP3.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Spinning Away

To be honest, I don't really think Cale had much to do with "Spinning Away", a beautiful little song from Wrong Way Up. It's a song about sketching under a dark night sky: feeling the earth turn, watching the dome of the sky move. It's just a moment in time, but it conveys the feeling terribly well. It has Eno all over it.

So why discuss it, given that I said I was only doing the obvious "John Cale" songs from collaborative albums? Well, it illustrates a certain lack in Cale's own oeuvre. Cale's songs are always about people. There are a few minor exceptions: "Big White Cloud," a cute little Vintage Violence track (but that sounds more like an LSD trip log), "Lie Still , Sleep Becalmed" (the vastness and scale is right, but the words aren't his). In general, though, if nature or the universe at large intrudes upon a song, as in "Barracuda", it's only as a tableau to put actors in front of.

Cale isn't interested in engaging with the non-human world on a personal level; for all that he illustrates the defects of human relationships, he never really goes beyond them. Which is fine, as there are lots of awful "awestruck" songs about the world, and anything that prevents atrocities like "Be the Rain" is alright by me. But in a forty-year songwriting career that has covered many recherché topics and many genres, the absence seems a little strange.

Advertisement! The peak of the Perseid meteor shower is this weekend. If you're in the northern hemisphere and can escape light pollution, consider heading somewhere dark and looking up. Brian Eno would want you to.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

Darling I Need You

We'll segue outta this arc real easy-like, you get me, podner? By moving over to Galveston, Texas, 1899 or thereabouts. This island, the Manhattan of the west, was the center of Western American culture and industry and wealth, before it gets wiped out by the great hurricane of 1900. The sinnerman who's saying that "Darling I Need You", he's been drinkin' all day and all night and raisin' who knows what kinda hell. And when he finally wakes up, his godfearing and longsuffering honey is gone, gone away to join in the Pentecostal revivals going on back east.

The straight-talking lyric is matched with a straight-shooting piano-based tune. It's a frankly pleasing song that doesn't do anything innovative or surprising. I love it anyway. It's a great little character study, one that makes up for the lack of narrative depth with closely-observed detail. It's one of the highlights of Slow Dazzle (an album, admittedly, with many highlights that just don't gel). The song really turned my ear when I first heard Fragments of a Rainy Season - it's a real change of pace from the rest of the album, but a convincing and well-executed one that somehow feels natural as the link from Cordoba to Paris 1919. (As usual, the Fragments version is the definitive recording.) Not typical John Cale, nor essential on its own, but it's always welcome on my turntable.


Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bring It On Up

Cale's predilection for the Wild West was evident even from the beginning. Back in 1970, his debut Vintage Violence was host to the first I'm aware of, Bring It On Up. It's more rock'n'roll than many of the other songs, though still in the genteel and restrained way characteristic of the album. The song is an encomium to that mainstay of popular Western lore: the saloon. Yes, girls and boys, we have a drinking song here. Shame it's not more interesting.

"Just one bottle left, standing on the shelf / I'd better bring it on up," goes the chorus, and indeed he'd better, what with locusts and guns and sheriffs and jails being all the rest that's on offer. It's a fluffy song, lyrically, but I love the line "Standing in the desert with a gun in my hand / and the locust's gonna come devour me." Locusts being one of my favorite symbols in songwriting. Anyway.

This song is indicative of the problems of Vintage Violence. The chorus has a nice enough hook, but the verse melody, while pleasant, isn't very unique. It's not very unique in comparison with the rest of the album, especially - many songs have similar, bouncy vocal tunes. His band sounds a LOT like The Band on this track (not a bad thing, but a little strange to hear). It's a cute, enjoyable little ditty, but rather forgettable.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

The novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins, has nothing to do with this song. That I can see. Nor does the Gus Van Sant film adaptation of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, narrated not by John Cale but by Tom Robbins himself. Having especially little to do with this song is the album Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by k.d. lang, the soundtrack to the film (though you have a better-than-average chance of receiving that album if you try to order this one on Amazon). There ain't no whooping crane in this song.

And yet, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is the first line of the song's single verse, repeated again and again and again, over an audience-driven clap beat that merges with a muted electric-guitar cough, then a kick-drum thud. And Judy Nylon's repeated, drawn-out, cat-in-heat moan. I don't mean sexy, I mean a sound from deep in hell.

It might have been improvised on the spot - the CBGBs audience clap seems to start before the instruments, I think someone calls "Encore!", the lyrics in their entirety are "Even cowgirls get the blues when they're living down in Peru, moving on to Caracas on their bellies just like little rats. But it's only love.", and the whole song feels like a malaria-induced hallucination. Maybe it's a shot at someone he knew, maybe it's free-association, maybe it's just a Greek chorus for a Pynchon-lite anarchohippie novel.

Why'd they name the album after it? It's sick and unbalancing and will appeal to very few. Oh, right, I guess it is appropriate after all. Like the album in general, I find it an intense experience - unpleasant but worthwhile.


Monday, August 6, 2007

The Cowboy Laughs at the Round-up

This little synth composition is found on the "Paris S'eveille - suivi d'autres compositions" disc. The album, as that "followed by other compositions" implies, is a compilation of Cale's late-80s/early-90s film and ballet scores, along with some oddities. (It's also the most widely available of his French-issued "classical" discs.)

This track is one of the oddities - it doesn't seem to have been written for anything in particular. It starts with a "glorious vistas" segment, rolling electric piano chords that sound like a gentle, good-natured parody of Western soundtracks. It transitions into a more pensive segment, still on electric piano. The thoughtfulness here is appreciated. It's emotionally engaging in a way the soundtrack work often isn't.

Then comes the laughter - synth horns and a chugging synth bass. Then a drum machine. The third section sounds like a poor cover of a evening news or Sunday sports show theme, and it kills the composition stone dead. It's an interesting practical joke, but an irritating one.


Saturday, August 4, 2007

Buffalo Ballet

Buffalo Ballet”-- it’s a wonderfully perverse image, isn’t it? Dances with Buffalo, a Wild West version of the “Dance of the Hours” sequence from Fantasia. Anyway, there’s not actually anything about buffalo or ballet in the lyrics to the song. Instead, Mr. Cale takes us back to old Abilene, the final destination of the Chisholm Trail. Or is it? Anyway, the tune's spare and piano-based, but Cale introduces strings and a choir on the chorus of “sleeping in the midday sun.” This isn’t a rollicking cowboy song-- the sound is both dry and expansive, evoking the sun-drenched dusty plains rather than smoky saloons and gambling halls. It’s worlds away from, say, Bob Dylan’s old west. Neither dancing girls nor gunfights, just cow skulls bleached by that midday sun and the tumbleweeds rolling by.

Abilene is a city “young and gay,” but again Cale’s emphasis isn’t on the nightlife, it’s on those cattle, sleeping-lying-rotting in the sun. And then the “broken old men” of the East lay railroad tracks across the plain, and the town grows, and soldiers storm through the town and kill the inhabitants. Those who survive the massacre end up drowning in their own wealth anyway. Or they’re just drinking themselves to death. Hmm. This isn’t exactly evocative of Wild Bill Hickock, Luke Short, and John Wesley Hardin. It is also not raising the image of Abilene’s most famous son, Dwight David Eisenhower. This business of the evil men and their railroads and soldiers running down the people sounds like something else altogether.

It sounds like the Johnson County War.

It’s not a total stretch. This ugly little episode in Wyoming history was the inspiration for both Shane and Heaven’s Gate (the Michael Cimino film, not the cult). In brief, the immigrant population had issues with the cattle barons (who were mostly rich Eastern men), the peasants resorted to cattle rustling and the landowners resorted to hitmen and lynching, and the US cavalry got called in-- to protect the landowners, not the peasants.

Cale’s Old West, like his Old Europe, is his own creation, another Invisible Cities job. I’m not saying he definitely watched Shane or Heaven’s Gate (though his contemporary Roger Waters of Pink Floyd certainly was influenced by Shane, so it’s possible), but he’s taken the name of Abilene, a name nearly as rich in connotation as Deadwood, South Dakota, and done something with it that just doesn’t gel with Abilene but does transpose onto Johnson County fairly well. I’ve no proof one way or another, but it does make me wonder.

FWIW, I don’t care for the choir and much prefer the solo version off Fragments of a Rainy Season. Cale’s matured voice suits the song even better than do his vocals circa Fear.


Friday, August 3, 2007

Cable Hogue


Finally, we'll look at a new Western: Cable Hogue, a Sam Peckinpah remake by Welsh auteur John Cale.
Ibert: He gets his shots in, but does he get his man? Let's see.

Cut to clip:
I just wanted to say goodbye
I wanted so much to say goodbye
I wanted to say goodbye to all my friends
In case I die

Ibert: You know, even with all the remakes in recent years, I didn't think we'd be seeing one of this film. Peckinpah's 1970 original, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, was the director's favorite, but not anybody else's, I think. A fine film, but a minor one.
Shackle: I agree with you there, Reg. This is an odd choice for a remake. Cale succeeds, though, by changing the story in surprising ways. He really makes it his own, especially with original scenes like this.

Cut to clip:
Please don't leave me here... like... this...

Ibert: He took a Romantic film touched by revenge, and turned it into a revenge film.
Shackle: Yeah, he really changed it. Now it feels like Poe. The Cask of Tequila or something.
Ibert: It doesn't seem as original or honest as Peckinpah's, to me.
Shackle: I think its honesty is one of its best characteristics.

Cut to clip:
Something inside me tells me that you won't show
I know you carry heat, but what for God only knows.

Ibert: The most impressive thing to me is that he has a coherent movie that splits its action across three settings. In the setting closest to the original, it's a straight, direct movie Western: barroom piano, guitar, a little bass, lots of clumsy mumbled words. Evocative of the old West. In the next setting...
Shackle: It's like Aeschylus.
Ibert: Greek tragedy, yes. Simple staging, oversized characters...
Shackle: Fate.
Ibert: Fate. And then the third setting, it's modern, it's about how we live now. Technology interferes; there's phased instruments and echoes, a clattering, modernistic drum track - a simulacrum of train wheels.
Shackle: That setting seems forced to me, I have to say. And it's a mistake to end it so slowly - the other settings cut off abruptly. Like life. The majestic guitar solo is way out of place here, and it leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Ibert: It's a clumsy mistake in the midst of some very high-quality work.

The film as a whole is not as good as its source material, but I give it a thumbs-up. Jean?
Shackle: It has its warts, but it's unique and meaningful. I give it a big thumbs-up.


The settings described by my guests were the 1975 original from Helen of Troy, the 1992 solo piano version from Fragments of a Rainy Season, and the 2006 Circus Live recording.

Me, I'm in favor of Greek tragedy. Take a listen to the Fragments version here, or download a low-quality mp3 here.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Streets of Laredo

At the center of Honi Soit, an album obsessed with foreign affairs and all the sordid relations of men, lies a cover of an ancient cowboy ballad: "The Streets of Laredo." Why?

Back in 1974, Cale had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Nico to record a cover. Seven years later, he recorded it himself. Why did an overexposed Traditional song, already performed and recorded and arranged to death, hold appeal for so long?

The arrangement here is terribly slow, stop-time with a dragging beat. Each instrument sounds as if it's playing in its own world, only dimly aware of the others. A two-chord synth part drones on in the background, bass and drums occasionally play at roughly the same time, an acid guitar call bursts forth once per measure. The only thing pretty on the track is the mournful, passionate viola cadenza, but it's played over the ugly, metallic strumming of muted strings (a sound used prominently on Music for a New Society).

The production recalls his work on The Marble Index and foreshadows the sound of his next album, Music for a New Society. What merits so much investment of the John Cale Sound?

And why is such a shambolic performance of a tired song one of the most arresting things on the album?