Sunday, September 30, 2007

Secret Corrida

Why don't I tell you about a song from Walking on Locusts that I love, then. Something that isn't schmaltzy, or draggy, or overwrought. Something like "Secret Corrida." The title, punning gently on "secret corridor," works well as a preview of the grace and ambiguity the track brings to its difficult subject matter. It's a meditation on the slaughter in the Balkans, you see, but Mr. Cale intentionally obfuscated it.

Not that the horror is completely removed. Cale describes a bullfight (La Corrida) in endless repetition. It's curiously bereft of action, just a sequence of still scenes: on the empty street on the day of a bullfight, listening to the crowd cheer; blood on sawdust, the door slammed shut, the crowd hungry for excitement (that is, death). There's no ranting about Milosevic, just meditation on human bloodlust and the monsters within us. And... though I feel cheated, a bit, by the evasion, I appreciate what he's done here in creating a subtle nightmare.

The music is gauze: somnambulant guitar coats the back of the aural picture, Cale's electric piano plays hypnotically repetitious three-note sequences throughout, and the vocal is restrained and nearly affectless. There are Spanish-inflected runs in the piano here and there. Trumpet (excuse me, mutantrumpet), gentle and as woozy as that guitar, takes the lead between each vocal section, and it nearly stops my heart each time. The Moroccan percussion works well on this track, adding to the circular and "out of time" feel.

This is one of the few pieces on the album where Cale's "less drama is more" approach really bears fruit. It's music for insomniacs, perhaps, but not for those who'd like to go to sleep. I love the song as a taste of what could have been: an album of songs like this would occupy an honored place in his catalog.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

All I Want Is You

Summer days are gone
And winter nights are closing fast
And no-one knows how long they'll last
Till daylight comes again

Welcome to the special autumnal equinox edition of Fragments. We'll be listening to "All I Want is You", a light and sprightly little song, a throwback to an older songwriting tradition, one somewhere between Stephen Foster and the British music hall. The first time you hear this song, filling the space between Fear and Slow Dazzle on the Island Years compilation, you'll swear it's some ancient song that Cale's covering for sport. But you'll look at the credits, and - gee! - it's a Cale original. At least that's how it worked for me.

The gentle, steady propulsion of the rhythm guitar and drum part keeps the song upbeat and positive, despite some sinister modulations in the more rhythmically free piano lead. And the basswork - sinuous and adventurous on the verse, bouncy on the chorus - is excellent. It's an elegantly and cleanly performed bit of music - benefiting, too, from a vocal that's top-quality, moving from minor to major key bits with aplomb.

And for such a simple, "classical" song, it's not a bad lyric at all! It's another exception to my overly-broad observation that John Cale doesn't write songs about the natural world - it's a pithily written goodbye to the summer sun. But the fascinating part of the lyric, to me, is the first part of the second verse:

Summer days are gone
And everybody's in the dark
And no-one seems to want what you and
I have anymore

The confused dejection of the lyric is very piquant, and, combined with the traditional build of the song, makes me suspect that it may be a genuine moment of self-pity for our boy John. (To his credit, the explicit ones are fairly rare.) It's the sort of thing you write, I suppose, when you've written a masterpiece (Paris 1919) that nobody bought and that your record company wasn't interested in. I usually try to stay away from the psychology, as I hate to project, but this feels very naked and sincere.

So anyway: despite the rather grim message ("Summer's over, nobody really likes us, and our future's not so bright. Well, let's fuck.") it's upbeat. Grim-and-upbeat is the recipe for many of my favorite songs, and it works here. I wouldn't say it's worth buying The Island Years for, but it's one of my favorite outtakes. Give it a listen, if you're able.

I hope you, fellow residents of the northern hemisphere, had a nice summer - 'cause it's over now. (You southerners are probably feeling good, though.) Me, I like all the seasons about equally. Bring on the cold.


Friday, September 21, 2007


One of the shorter tracks in the New York in the 1960s box set at only 5 minutes 4 seconds, "Ex-Cathedra*" makes its presence felt nonetheless. The sole instrument is rapidly pulsing Vox organ.

The right hand plays the high-pitched drone that you hear first, sounding for all the world like the beginning of Pink Floyd's Astronomy Domine, but this bit never moves on - it's played throughout the entire piece. It starts in the right channel and gradually takes over the left. Wrapping around it like a reverb blanket after a minute or so is the left-hand part, lower and more comfortable. This is where the action takes place. There's no force to it at first; it's much quieter than the high-pitched part and accents it by exploring adjacent tones. It starts in both channels.

After three minutes, the hands return to their respective parts of the stereo picture, and the left-hand part takes the lead, bobbing rhythmically. The right hand experiments with bringing in some melody (God does it sound like Rick Wright), until finally at 4:19 the left hand is booted out entirely. The Vox's low-pitched overdrive noise takes an important role here. Finally the song cuts out.

It serves as a palate-cleanser on Dream Interpretation, bridging effectively the 20-minute is-it-viola-or-didgeridoo title track and the 13-minute early-David-Lynch-soundtrack untitled prepared piano piece. Though it's more accessible than the material that surrounds it, it can still clear a room handily. Good stuff.

* There's some disagreement whether this is "from the chair" or "a former cathedral." I need to check my box set.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Baby, What You Want Me to Do?

The sole song that the repertoires of John Cale and Neil Young share is this Jimmy Reed chestnut. Many critics near and far have called both covers variants on "bad," but I love 'em! Maybe they "butchers the charm of the original." Maybe they're "sodden." But there's something about the song that does, Lord preserve us, call for playing it drunk, and these two covers - surprisingly similar in their 4AM stumblingness - heed that call.

Cale's version features tasty guitar playing from favorite guitarist and frequent touring companion Chris Spedding - I'm remembering that I really do love Helen of Troy, and Spedding is a major reason why - and a burbling rhythm track that really eases my burning heart. His vocal's not without charm, Starostin be damned - it's sung with the self-mocking knowingness of a guy who married the most unstable of the Girls Together Outrageously. Chagrin is the emotion on display here, but it's showed off with a wry smile, and that makes this a rare and worthwhile artifact in the Cale catalog.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007


A punk asked John, "How can I find Heartbreak Hotel?"
The head of the chicken landed in his Pimm's. At that moment the punk was enlightened.*

What's Welsh for Zen? is the title of John Cale's incredibly weird and often nauseating 2000 autobiography, and it's an interesting question. (Cale isn't really one to speak in koans, but the book is, like his life, an exercise in apparent contradictions and bizarre paradoxes.) In any case, the book's title foreshadowed this song, which would emerge three years later as the lead track on HoboSapiens.

And "Zen" has got very little to do with Zen, really -- the song is built around a litany of "Zen and the Art of" variants (Bollywood, forgery, sorcery, reality, algebra). I'd have called it "And the Art of...", but then how can the lotus bloom without pond scum? It's a very loosely connected series of images, but - aside from a few bum lyrics - it works well. There seems to be a political political edge to it, though possibly more with hindsight; there's the germ of a relationship song in there, too. I tend to mentally emphasize whatever angle I'm more interested in on a given day, but I always love the opening verses: "It's midnight, and our silver-tongued obsessions come at us out of the dark, scrambling to be recognized before tearing themselves apart." (As my coauthor can attest, it's something I often mumble come 12AM.)

A lot of the song's appeal comes from the dazed, stop-time track: bodiless female backing vocals being cut in and out artificially, a subterranean bassline, atonal piano twinkling, multiple treated Cales singing in unison. It sounds like a subtle nightmare, one without any outright horrors that just makes everything feel wrong. It loses that live, and becomes less interesting (though more pleasant) because of it.

I feel as if the song deserves more. ("Keep talking," said the snow-white Mandarin.) But I've got nothing to say.

* Like Mumon said,
Without revealing his own penetration,
He offered another's words, not his to give.
Had he chattered on and on,
Even his listeners would have been embarrassed.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler, the epic final track of 1977's bizarre Animal Justice EP, takes the structure of Mary Lou's lyrics and some of the lyrics themselves and turns them into a different sort of song altogether, a sprawling downtempo brooder that swells to an odd majesty. It's no accident that this b-side of an obscure EP has been a mainstay of his repertoire for nearly thirty years.

(The connection to Ibsen seems extremely tenuous - maybe he was just going for a self-destructive femme fatale idea. I've read somewhere that the song is "about" Anita Pallenberg, of whom it has been quipped that she was fluent in four languages and three Rolling Stones. [CORRECTION: Jack informs me that the Seducing Down the Door liner notes refer to Anita Bryant, late 50s singer and 70s anti-gay crusader. Huh. I still don't get it.] As far as self-destructive blond-haired northern European femme fatales go, well, I tend to think of someone else in Cale's life.)

The song is very similar in construction and feel to Riverbank: heavy, weary, and slow. A woozy, gauzy electric piano and almost-infinite slide guitar form a bizarrely comforting bed of fog for Cale's very straight, affectless vocal. Viola noises break up the verses. Drums and rhythm guitar (and church organ?!) break out at the first chorus, as a touch of menace creeps into Cale's voice. It's an odd menace, though, more resigned and regretful than anything.

The lyrics are rather terse, repetitive, and dour: tired of waiting, tired of the human race, down in all her misery. Her family doesn't brighten things: her brother is sitting around reading Mein Kampf (puts a different spin on Mary Lou, eh?); her mother hangs her banker husband in the closet (though the verb used means "suspend on a hook or hanger" rather than "suspend by the neck" - love that little bit of dark humor in the ambiguity!). And all we learn about Hedda is that she's miserable and tired (so tired of listening to the gossip and complaints). It's a character study with no character except the music itself.

And it's the music that's transfigured in the end. The coda lyric, "Sleep, sleep, sleep, Hedda Gabler" is an interesting gambit after what has come before, but the line would be nothing without the remarkably sympathetic cast of the whole coda: a gentle lullaby piano vamp, a towering and beautiful guitar solo, and ensemble vocals that really seem to mean it. It's an absolution and a purification, and it's amazing to hear.

Here's a video from that great show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam:


Monday, September 10, 2007

Mary Lou

Record labels add a smidgen of unreleased material to compilation albums to get die-hard fans to buy in. This has been going on for quite some time. John Cale's infamous collection Guts, which introduced hockey mask chic and Helen of Troy outtake "Mary Lou" to the world, was something of an exception, though: Island Records, you see, hadn't issued Helen of Troy in North America, and put this out by way of apology.

It's a very bizarre album, a sort of Songs in the Key of Death: side one is led off by the title track, from Slow Dazzle; then "Mary Lou" and three of the more raucous songs from Helen ("Helen of Troy" itself, Modern Lovers cover "Pablo Picasso", "Leaving It Up to You" - yep, it's back!); Fear tracks "Fear (Is a Man's Best Friend)" and "Gun"; and Slow Dazzle rave-ups "Dirty Ass Rock'n'Roll" and "Heartbreak Hotel." Now, I'd have put "Cable Hogue" on there instead of Helen, myself, but it's a pretty decent selection of the bloodiest tracks of the Island trilogy.

"Mary Lou", like Pablo and Dirty-Ass Rock'n'Roll, is on the album as leavening. Oh, it sounds threatening, but the lyrics are an innocuous and insubstantial imitation of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm." Mary, mother, brother, father, check. Though her father being in the government and not knowing the difference between right and wrong doesn't sound so innocent.

The woo-woo girls start the song out with threatening "oohs" that would pop up in a much less restrained and irritating version in the far future. Cale's vocal is pretty aggressive, especially on the chorus, and he throws in a scream or two for good measure. His screams don't really seem justified by the song's feel, but, hey. The guitar is choppy and pleasant, sort of reminiscent of "Pablo Picasso."

(In fact, very reminiscent of Pablo Picasso, which Cale did with this in a medley as the closer track on this year's Circus Live. "Mary Lou," slight as it is, did better in the medley than it does alone. They have the same turgid feel as all the other rock tracks on the album, but it's a fun pairing anyway.)

I don't agree with Robert Christgau that "Mary Lou" drags down the compilation, but it's not a track I crave hearing very often. It's just sort of there. However, it did lead to something stranger, scarier, and more substantial. Which is what we'll look at next time.


Saturday, September 8, 2007

Coral Moon

I don’t mean to be unfair. Sometimes John Cale wasn’t responsible for outtakes making it onto albums. In fact, in the most infamous case, one of his most famous scenery-chewers got thrown off an album in favor of a song that wasn’t really intended for release. The year was 1975, the album was Helen of Troy, and Cale’s turbulent sojourn with Island Records was coming to a bitter end.

If I read his autobiography correctly, Cale had successfully gotten his label to recall the first pressings of Helen of Troy. You see, they didn’t appreciate the finished tracks that were resulting. They decided to try an end-run on him, releasing (in the Netherlands) a version of the album consisting of tracks edited by Cale's two-timing engineer. He happened to be touring there, got a copy from a local record promoter, listened to it, and gave them a call. One presumes that shouting, screaming, kicking and biting ensued.

What’s weird, though - if Cale's version of events is correct and complete - is that Island Records didn’t object to “Leaving It Up to You” at that time. It’s a marvelously malevolent track, one well worth the attention it will be receiving at some future date. But some time after the album’s release, I believe after the first general pressing, they decided that not-very-veiled threats alluding to Sharon Tate wouldn’t do. Without consulting Cale, they replaced it with the previously unreleased and unloved pastoral “Coral Moon.”

And there’s nothing wrong with Coral Moon as an outtake, or a b-side, or a minor album track. It carries forward the flame of Cale’s crooner/mid-period Beach Boys side, directly following up “Sylvia Said” and recalling the debut’s “Big White Cloud.” It’s got the lush instrumentation, the cooing backing vocals, the thin and vaguely off-key crooning vocal, that satisfied refractory feeling. The lyrics aren’t anything to dwell on, I suppose, but in this they are not so unique. They’re simple, naturalistic, and pastoral, rather threatening the validity of my insight about Cale and nature. But they’re functional and not embarrassing, at least.

There’s really not much to complain about in this lovely if unexceptional track. I wouldn’t even mention flaws like the way the well-constructed bridge is wasted, the way said bridge’s melody rips off the better bridge of album opener “My Maria”, or the way the song peters out without a satisfying ending. It would be a pleasant surprise as an outtake, really cool as a b-side, enjoyable as filler.

But it replaced “Leaving It Up to You,” one of Cale’s most visceral and frightening songs. The keystone track of Helen of Troy, even. Pulling out that slab of violent paranoia and slipping in this slight amusement showed an insensitivity to quality and album construction on Island’s part that still rankles. It’s not fair to blame a song for the way it’s used, but life’s not fair, and “Coral Moon” will always carry an asterisk for me.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Experiment Number 1

Number 1? Don't be so modest, John. We've heard your previous albums, after all, and this is somewhere in the mid-20s. "Experiment Number 1" is experimental in the sense that it is a chord-changes-and-all studio rehearsal: improvised lyrics, improvised guitar, improvised piano ending, and, no ending coming to the players' minds, a clumsy fadeout.

It starts off with doomy, New Society-type piano, but - "Turn the guitar up." - some tasty guitar comes in quickly, and Honi Soit-style vocals start. It's a very slow song. "Come on, piano." The feeling is awfully close to Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd.'s "Sorrow." Cale doesn't really seem to know what the verse is - "G minor." - and what the chorus is. Or what the bridge is. "C." It really falls apart towards the middle, as Cale's lyric ideas run out and he has to call out - "B flat." - chord changes every few words. "Do it again." It's really the apotheosis of his approach to in-studio composition: the worst flaws of that method are made central to the song and, rather than work out the kinks and work out sensible lyrics, he leaves all of his ideas in in their initial form. "G minor. C'mon Dave. It's got a pretty good feel, just do a solo."

Which isn't to say it's unpleasant listening. The piano is miked well for once, the guitar tone (Dave Gilmour similarities aside) is delicious, and the drums are satisfying if unoriginal. The vocals are even OK despite - and I'm basing this on the slurring of words here and there - the rather intoxicated state of our man. In fact, it's the quality of the sound here that makes this track so frustrating. With a real set of lyrics and a few more run-throughs, this would have been a great song. As it is, it's just a very interesting outtake that made it onto an album.

And, even for Cale, it's a strange track to release on an album - but a stranger track to put in the second slot of Caribbean Sunset, an album that was intended to be commercially viable. But then we've talked about Mr. Cale's strange ideas on what's "commercial." I wonder if this track isn't a major reason that the CD release of Caribbean Sunset was abruptly scrapped back in 2001.

P.S. This song contains a strong contender for Cale's worst single line. "Christmas comes like breakfast once a year"?! Ferchrissakes, couldn't he have overdubbed that?


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Changes Made

The odd track out on Music for a New Society, Changes Made was added at the insistence of John Cale's record label, Ze. (Sez he: "... That shouldn't be there.") Given that Cale had founded said label (with his manager Jane Friedman) as Spy Records three years previously, it must have been an irritating turn of events. Also at Ze's request, he recorded a rather dire-sounding promo video that was never released.

One reason it doesn't fit is that it's the only song that features a band. The vocal and production do seem to fit with the New Society sessions, but otherwise the song would fit well onto Honi Soit. Musically, it's a syncopated major-key new wave skronk-and-squawk session (with three separate and extremely tasty guitar tones). The vocal is a typical Honi Soit/New Society vocal in that, due to odd pauses here and there, you can't tell whether he's making up the lyrics on the spot. It's an impassioned vocal but nevertheless fits well into the pop framework. The sole concession to noise and atonality on the track is the squealing viola that comes in at the 2:15 mark and stays for the duration of the track. (Oh, and listen to his vocal babbling on the fadeout - it's one of the most amusing moments in the catalog.)

The other reason it doesn't fit: its topic and emotions don't seem to fit the album at all. At first blush, it seems a straightforward ultimatum for personal change: "there's gonna be some changes made 'round here." Whether he's talking to himself, a friend or a lover isn't made explicit. The middle eight injects a bizarre metaphor by seemingly referencing the Children's Caravan - or was he thinking of the Children's Crusade? In either case, I have no idea whatsoever what that's about.

It's an outlier on the album, to be sure, and it shouldn't fit between the devastated "Chinese Envoy" and the gutting Beethoven pastiche "Damn Life." But it rather does, or at least doesn't stick out too much. I doubt that its addition forced a superior song off the album, as the only known outtake is "In the Library Of Force." In any case, I don't begrudge the song its place on the final album. It provides a moment of light and energy that the album needs.

(Listen to a sample here, if you're so inclined.)


Monday, September 3, 2007

Burned Out Affair

Outtakes are funny things. Some are stunning works that equal or surpass anything the artist was releasing during that period (Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”). Some are rank, embarrassing artifacts that only an obsessive completist could stand to hear more than once (Pink Floyd’s “The Doctor”). But most outtakes land in a grey area between the gem pile and the refuse heap. They can be interesting demos that might have benefited from better production, or needed a lyrical retouch to really work. Or they’re transitional pieces, the seedbeds for later, better-known works. And they can even be perfectly decent completed songs that didn’t really fit anywhere at the time.

Cale’s outtakes fall in all possible categories, and I’ll argue that “Burned Out Affair” lands squarely in the last one. The major outtake from Paris 1919 is easily the most interesting bonus included on the reissued album-- much more so than yet another version of “Antarctica Starts Here.” With a title like “Burned Out Affair,” the listener expects a jaded slice of Cale-life, possibly a pastiche on a theme of Graham Greene (but not “Graham Greene”).

“Everything was fine/ when all the girls were boys/ and singing/ was the usual thing to do.”

Yes, kids, listen up while Uncle Cale tells you about the good old days. Cale sings of juvenile burning and looting over a lazy pastoral. The music shuffles along, and while it has the prominent slide guitar of the Paris 1919 sound, the arrangement doesn’t cut deep in the manner of the authentic Paris tracks. It’s the missing sonic link between Vintage Violence and Paris 1919 (and here I thought the missing link was “Gideon’s Bible”).

Not that anything about the song feels unfinished. Structurally complete and featuring a nicely mirrored lyric, “Burned Out Affair” tells a proper little tale. The central strand of the lyrics is the same thread that runs through the phantom streets of Paris-- loss-- but the overall treatment is more in the lighthearted manner of VV. Cale’s fading memories of pilfered magazines don’t tap into the same vein of menace that leaks through the evocations of childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Growing up’s a bit sad, yes, but what can one do? We don’t cry over Cale’s spilled milk and childishness, and he doesn’t seem to be inviting us to. Maybe something sinister is going on with the clumsy-eyed rats, but nothing in the song entices one to dig beneath the surface. Unlike the great tracks from this era, the images don’t wrap around the brain. “Ghost Story” may truly haunt you for the rest of your life, but this burned-out affair might just get caught in your mind occasionally.

So, there it is-- interesting, listenable, pleasant but not really essential. Rather like most of Vintage Violence, really. Though the image of tin boys and young girls, melting away, seems an oblique reference to Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” I can’t imagine where Cale was going with that, and I’ll leave it to the steadfast Cale blogger Inverarity to ponder it further.