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.


Jack Feerick said...

From the boys' choir to various sets of woo-woo girls, Cale has been cursed with some of the most intrusive backing vocals ever recorded. There's something to that, I'm sure—some psychological need for him to support/frame his own voice—but the results are frustrating; he's consistently able to put instruments together in unique and arresting ways, but effective arranging for voices seems to elude him.

One of the things that really came across in the Words for the Dying documentary (which I still haven't digitized—I'll get to it, I swear!) is how fast and cheap this project really was. The decision to record in Moscow was entirely financial, rather than aesthetic, and the sessions seemed really unhappy and frustrating. The boys' choir (recorded later in Wales) seemed underrehearsed, but the logistics and expense were such that there was no time for them to really nail it; the choirmaster didn't seem to be on Cale's wavelength at all, and Cale was too withdrawn and uncommunicative to force the issue.

The tentative nature of the vocal in the studio vs the live version is something I hear a lot in Cale, and doubtless it's because he does most of his writing in the studio. There's an agonizing sequence in the film where Cale is alone in the booth singing this; his vocals are the last element to be added to the track, and he's thrashing it out with the tape rolling, groping for the melody, creating it on the fly.

Now, sometimes that works emotionally—Music for a New Society gets a lot of its charge from that first-take feel of melody coalescing from nowhere, that improvisatory sense that anything could happen—but the Thomas texts need to be declaimed with a certain authority that only comes from singing them over and over, night after night.

That's one of the reasons I like Walking on Locusts, BTW—the vocals are pretty strong throughout. I saw Cale live shortly before he recorded Locusts, and he was already playing some of the songs live. That showed in the finished recording—the melodies had a lived-in feel.

Inverarity said...

I found a copy of the documentary - very impressive material though frustratingly constructed and maddeningly incomplete. (Rather appropriate for Cale!)

For some reason, I hadn't realized that the three "parts" were recorded separately until I saw the documentary - though it seems obvious in retrospect. It's like three voice actors, unpracticed in the process, recording their parts separately: the emotions just aren't in sync and the crucial connections between the three performances are wooden or broken. I plan to work this ground more thoroughly later.

It did seem to me that the bulk of the melody of the track was in place, though Eno seemed to give a lot of phrasing direction.

Jack Feerick said...

I'm glad you've had a chance to see the film! Very illuminating, in a lot of ways, and left me with a lot of sympathy for Cale (who had previously seemed a very foreboding character). He seems a rather lonely fellow, kind of awkward and out of his depth, and gifted with the ability to say exactly the wrong thing ("I like your music—it sounds very American").

A lot of that is down to the video-editing, I'm sure, but the same threads came out in What's Welsh For Zen—how he always seems to be reaching out for artistic collaboration, but he can never hold one together for long—a long litany of self-sabotage and repetition of destructive cycles.

So what do we learn from that? The world turns 'round.

Maybe that's why the woo-woo girls are mixed so high; because e can't stand to sing alone.

Anonymous said...


Hi, I thought you might be interested to know that I just produced a DVD for the 1990 doc "Words For The Dying" which focused on the making of that album.

I will include the press release below.

Best, Noel

For Immediate Release
Press contact:
Noel Lawrence
Email: noel@microcinema.com
Web: http://www.microcinemadvd.com/product/DVD/845/Words_for_the_Dying.html

Provocateur Pictures Releases Rob Nilsson’s WORDS FOR THE DYING

(Los Angeles, CA) Provocateur Pictures proudly announces the upcoming DVD release of WORDS FOR THE DYING by acclaimed director Rob Nilsson (“Northern Lights” – Camera d’Or, Cannes, “Heat and Sunlight” – Grand Jury Prize, Sundance).

A revealing cinema verité portrait of the former Velvet Underground musician, John Cale, in creative collaboration with Brian Eno. Director Nilsson follows them to Moscow, London and Wales for the recording of a new album, “Words for the Dying”, built around four Dylan Thomas poems.

This is not your typical "making of" documentary. Once in Moscow, Nilsson discovered that Eno wanted no part of the filming. The film becomes a clash of wills as Nilsson tries to cajole Eno back into the project. It is a subtle internecine battle, the camera crew tiptoeing through a minefield of bursting egos.

“WORDS FOR THE DYING is a great documentary. One need only compare it to the superficially similar Phil Joaneau’s US: RATLE AND HUM to see how far under the skin Nilsson has gotten. This fine movie deserves a place beside D.A. Pennebaker’s DON’T LOOK BACK about Dylan and the unreleased Stones film COCKSUCKER BLUES as brilliantly accurate life-of-rock musician portraitures.”

-- Dennis Harvey, Variety/Bay Guardian

Rob Nilsson
Words For The Dying
81 minutes
Price: $24.95

Special Features
∑ Interview with Rob Nilsson
∑ Foreword by j. poet
∑ Featurette – Direct Action Cinema

For more information or to arrange interviews with director Rob Nilsson, please call 415-290-0401 or e-mail noel@microcinema.com

Home-use and institutional copies of the DVD can be ordered online at http://www.microcinemadvd.com/product/DVD/845/Words_for_the_Dying.html

For wholesale purchase, please contact Microcinema International at 415-447-9750 or info@microcinema.com.

About Rob Nilsson

A San Francisco based director, Rob Nilsson and co-director John Hanson won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for NORTHERN LIGHTS and Nilsson won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for HEAT AND SUNLIGHT. He is the first American film director to have won both awards. He is also the creator of the Direct Action style of digital filmmaking taught in the Tenderloin yGroup Actor’s Ensemble, San Francisco and featured in workshops conducted around the world.

In recent years, retrospectives of Nilsson’s work have taken place at the Pacific Film Archives, Berkeley, Chicago Institute of Art, Resfest, Seoul, Korea, Digital Talkies Festival, New Delhi, India, .MOV Festival and Cinemanila, Manila, Philippines, Hong Kong International Film Festival, and the Kansas City Filmmaker’s Jubilee.

On August 20, 2008, he will receive the eponymous “Rob Nilsson Award” from the Filmmakers’ Alliance in Los Angeles.

About Provocateur Pictures

Provocateur Pictures champions the practice of cinema as an art form. We promote alternative visions from the contemporary underground as well as oddities from the archives that challenge, stimulate, inspire…provoke.