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.


Inverarity said...

Cale calls the song a "European version of the Old West." I seem to recall that he was shooting for an Aaron Copland feel to the song; he felt that Copland's best music captured the vastness of the great plains in a way that few others could.

I love the choir and the strings. They effectively amplify the expansiveness of the song, evoking endless blue, cloud-spotted Great Plains skies. The strings on the middle eight are composed brilliantly, avoiding cliche but tugging on the heartstrings.

The piano is miked amazingly, too, and there's just enough reverb to change the sound without sounding silly. And do you hear the metallic hissing in the background of each verse? It's terribly subtle, but once you hear it you can't miss it - it makes me think of railyards and steam locomotives.

The only sin of the studio version is Cale's pinched-sounding vocal on the first verse - but the first verse on the Fragments version is a little clunky too. So it goes. I think the studio version is the more definitive.

The version on Circus Live, with electronic percussion and floaty guitar, is interesting, but doesn't work for me. There's no piano; the song doesn't work without it. The acoustic guitar is barely audible and there's no interesting rhythm. It's overlong and too solo-heavy, too.

P.S. The length distribution is once again illustrative:
Fear: 3 minutes 29 seconds
Fragments: 2 min 47 s
Circus Live: 4 min 7 s

Anonymous said...

Have you heard the cover version by Penelope Houston (famously of The Avengers)? It's on her CD The Pale Green Girl. It is an exquisite version; while it trades off some of the intimacy of Cale's original, it has a piercing sense of pain in the vocal, offset by the magical arrangement.

I would say that the lyrics also speak to the concept of enclosure, which is a long-standing motif in English history. As is using the Army to transfer wealth from the inhabitants to the plutocracy. There's a reason why the key line in the bridge opens with "then soldiers came..."

Ian D said...

There's an excellent version also by Australia's legendary Paul Kelly. You can find it here:

Anonymous said...

“It’s worlds away from, say, Bob Dylan’s old west“

Could be.
But for me from the first listen, I always associate this song with “All the Tired Horses”

Anonymous said...

The Walkabouts also do a very fine version, on their "Satisfied Mind" record.