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.


Inverarity said...

I should have mentioned: the lead vocal is in strict time, which has a good feel on top of the stop-time track. Reminiscent of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House."

Anonymous said...

Keep talking said the slow-eyed Mandarin
I've got nothing to say


Inverarity said...

I know that's the lyric, but I like my mondegreen too much not to mention it.

Anonymous said...

Brillianto! I learn something every day. A mondegreen (also sometimes spelt 'mondagreen') is the mishearing (usually accidental) of a phrase, such that it acquires a new meaning.


Vagabond Sun said...

One of the best songs on Hobosapiens. Brilliant.