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.


Netbooker said...

While the song does use the word "India" several times, where is there anything to indicate that it is about colonialism?

Looking at the first verse:

I lost my memory today
The day my ship set sail
Atlantic seas board east
To India

- Someone is going to India, but the only thing worth saying about them is that they have lost their memory. Are lost memories notably associated with the Raj?

The seven seas
East India Company
Pass the Cape of Good Hope
But there is still no hope for me

- Ok, the East India Co has been mentioned, which was colonial... but it was also very much associated with something else...

Tried to break India's back
But she broke the back of me
It was a painful sight
At least to me

- So this is a song about colonialism and the only person who suffers is the colonizer???

Isn't possible instead that India is being used for its associations with opium, which the EIC traded? This would make sense of the lost memory - "the purpose of being a beast is to forget the pain of being a man" - the lack of hope, the broken narrator, and the chorus:

I can't keep living like this this no more
I can't keep living like this this
I can't keep living like this this no more
O can't you see
You're losing me

..But the colonialism idea makes sense of nothing.

Inverarity said...

Excellent points all. I do think making sense is somewhat overrated, but I don't think my interpreation is any better than yours. I like to keep song meanings as a cloud of possibilities instead of anything specific anyway.

Thanks very much for your contribution!

gwja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gwja said...

If you take Captain Hook along with Only Time Will Tell then read Baa Baa Black Sheep, a short semi-autobiographical story by Rudyard Kipling you will gain a completely different perspective on the song.

Duncan said...

Has Christgau ever said anything that wasn't a massive heap of contrarian shit? This is the guy who thought calling a poll 'Pazz and Jop' was a totes hilarious idea.