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?

4 comments:

Jack Feerick said...

Some interesting thoughts on "Streets of Laredo" the song (including, but not limited to, Cale's version) here.

(I hate saying in one place what I've already said at length elsewhere.)

Cymbalina said...

The Evolution of "Streets of Laredo" from the early ballad(s) "The Rake's Lament" is just fascinating. The truly interesting thing to me is that "Streets of Laredo" and "St James Infirmary" have their roots in the same song, and recordings exist that demonstrate precisely where the blues broke off from the country. I believe the critical hybrid was recorded by a guy named Alan Lomax, who was better known as a producer/record label owner. I have some articles saved somewhere that go into this inn great detail... the initial thing that caught my interest was in Salon magazine.

Inverarity said...

Alan Lomax was the son of John Lomax, the father of American roots music preservation. They traveled the country recording anything they could. I believe Alan worked for the Library of Congress for the rest of his life.

ZephyrJW said...

The evolution of Cale's "Streets of Laredo" is equally interesting. I saw him perform the song first at the Squat Theatre in NYC, October 1979. At that point, it was a gorgeous, rolling piano version, following the basic format of, say, the Burl Ives version, but injecting many minor shades into the passing notes. It turned into pure Cale music only at the ends of the verses, on "as cold as the clay," when it got all stark and dissonant. It was a thrilling song, a beautifully original take on an old chestnut, and very much part of what seemed to be a suite during that show, which featured a song called "Cold Country Comfort," which had a similar feel. The lyric kept saying "there's nothing I can do to help her." Nico was sitting behind us in the audience, and, when he got to that line, she said, loudly : "Oh, you're lying. You're lying, John." It was quite a moment!
When Honi Soit came out, I was gobsmacked by the difference between what I'd seen him perform and what "Laredo" had become over the next two years. But that's always been half the pleasure of seeing Cale play over time, hearing how things evolve.