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:

7 comments:

Jack Feerick said...

Huh. The liner notes for Seducing Down The Door says the song is about Anita Bryant, the American singer, orange-juice shill, and (most pertinently) radical anti-gay activist—fundamentalist Christianity as fascism. Dunno where that one came from.

Inverarity said...

Heh, that must be where I got the idea. But how Bryant turned into Pallenberg in my memory, I cannot say. The connections to Ibsen, Hitler, and a murderous mother seem even more remote, though. Oh well, such is art.

I'll have to correct my post. Thanks!

Ian said...

That's a pretty sweet live version. I mostly know of the Melkweg for hosting Spacemen 3's superb live album Performance - it's kind of weird seeing the term in any other context.

Hans said...

This show was at the Paradiso. One of the highlights of an otherwise pretty boring show.

Inverarity said...

Corrections made. Boy, I'm really batting 1000% today. Uh, I was just checking if you guys were reading! Yeah, that's it.

I loved that show, Hans. I thought it flowed much better than Circus Live and am still sorry they didn't release it in its entirety instead.

Ono said...

Oh yeah the ending of "Hedda" is one of the highlights in Cale´s oeuvre. It sort of releases the despair of the song. Beautiful. He´s generally good at endings I think.

I have uploaded some of the Rockpalast show on youtube. Enjoy.

Jack Feerick said...

See, I don't hear the ending as sympathetic or absolving; I hear it as Cale dancing on the dirt of this miserable bitch's grave, celebrating because she and the sickness she represents are dead and in the ground.