Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Life is short and love is very sweet.

Why, John, how... romantic!

Look at all the people running for their lives in the street.

Well, I knew that wouldn't last.

What they running from? What they running to?
Goddamnit, ask them! I wanna know, too.

The title track of Sabotage/Live is one of the best songs in the John Cale oeuvre. It is also one of the weirdest songs in the catalog. I mean, it's not very songlike. The chorus consists of the title. The verses are spoken/sung. The various instrumental parts, for the first several listens, seem to have very little to do with one another.

And yet, you put it all together and let it gestate in your mind, and eventually the thing won't get out. If I'm going to be playing something alone with a heavily amplified guitar at 2AM on a Wednesday night, odds are very high it's this. (I'd like to take this chance to apologize to my neighbors.)

Read and destroy everything that you read in the press.
Read and destroy everything that you read in books.
It's a waste of time and a waste of energy.
It's a waste of paper and a waste of ink.
Whatever you read in the books, leave it there!

It's not as if the lyrics are particularly poetic, or tightly written, or sharply observed. I mean, they're striking, but they're also formless and a bit flaccid. ("in books"?) It must be the frenzied way they're shouted. There's malicious intent. Malicious, but morally ambiguous.

There's a word for that:

(For what? Wasting time and energy, paper and ink, you and me? Or leaving what you read in the books there?)


And yet, I don't know if there's any more glorious moment in Cale's catalog. It's the apotheosis of Cale's confrontational tendencies that first surfaced in his post-VU solo career on the coda of "Fear (is a Man's Best Friend)." With him and Deerfrance screaming "Sabotage!" over a churning set of solo performances: his outlandish bass part, the bizarre lead guitar, the stop-start rhythm of it all.

Military intelligence isn't what it used to be.

The lyrics are striking, and sort of one-of-a-kind. If I had to extract a message from it, it would be that the military industrial complex, aided and abetted by British and American governments up to and including the Thatcher and Carter (???) administrations, had created and perpetuated a climate of fear intended to batter consciences and spirits into submission, cogs sarcy cogs swrking round in the machine. This is hardly an original premise!

So what?! Human intelligence isn't what it used to be either.

(Pardon the American politics, but Cale was a genuine New Yorker by that point: OK, it seems to have been written in the summer of '79, so maybe it was inspired by the Reagan campaign. But Reagan didn't take a lead until the infamous second presidential debate, on October 31, which gave birth to modern-day campaign cliches like "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" That debate more or less cinched the election for Reagan - his election looked not especially likely until that point.)

Maybe not an original premise, but the implementation is unique in its mixing of carefully parsed New Frontiersman and Foreign Affairs language with atonality and controlled chaos. The arching vocal on

It's a riii-sing expecta-tion! It's a riii-sing of the tides!

is powerful beyond reason. And, what can I say, it's an atavistic, primitive, brutal song.

The wards will discharge all their patients in the street.
Are they hurting? Yeah, they're mine. (???)
There's a word for that: sabotage!

Er, atavistic, primitive, brutal, crazy song. (No idea what that last bit's about.)

All I know is that it tickles my lizard brain like very little else. And that it's a crime against the catalog that it's left off every anthology. And that it should be used as the theme song for the film of Watchmen, whose atmosphere it anticipates brilliantly (provided, of course, that the film is any good). Oh, yes, and that you should hear it. Download here.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Midnight Rain of Green Wrens at the World's Tallest Building

At the dig site, the architects squinted at blueprints and checked them with the drawings their eyes made on the air before them. The engineers peered and craned their necks and discussed the foundations, for the few hours they spent away from their desks and slide rules and reference books. The surveyors measured and checked and checked and measured.

Everyone concerned - except perhaps for the workers themselves, for they were lazy and short-sighted and could think of nothing but their immediate work, their upcoming lunch, and the bottles that lay waiting for them to come home - could see the finished structures in their minds. They thought of the day that they would bring their families to stand on an observation deck, when they would bask in the adoration of lower-city dwellers who finally understood what space meant. "I made this," they would say, and it would be true.

And the men with the heavy equipment and the bottles waiting for them at home, they knew there would be work beyond this building. They weren't much impressed that the building they were assembling from the bottom up would be the world's tallest, but they were pleased that there would be work for years to come. And then they would move on to a new building, and children would grow around them like trees to build new buildings and turn more wilderness into civilization and survey and engineer and architect.

The first one fell at eleven-thirty. Most of the men had gone home, and I and Riley were getting ready to. Riley was trouble, gentlemen, and he was proud of it. When that feathered lump dropped out of the sky, I thought he was somehow to blame. My back had been turned, after all. He might be hiding a slingshot in his overalls. I thought suspiciously about him as we talked idly about girls we'd known.

But another fell not five minutes later, in front of the both of us, and Riley hadn't moved. And another. We looked up into the sky. Like a rain starting, they drizzled down, and then the downpour came. My mind was having a difficult time making sense of what I saw before me, but more than anything the sound impressed itself on me: tens of thousands of feathers, rippling limp in the air, and then the small thump of impact. By the time it stopped, fully seventy-five hundred little green birds were strewn before us.

For the rest of the month, I stayed indoors, safe at my desk with my reference books and slide rule.
A melody-free exploration of modal development. It sounds very ancient - Greek in some spots, Baroque in others. One of the most normal and conventionally listenable pieces in the box set.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy

In honor of American greeting card holiday Sweetest Day (aka "Bribes for Sex Day"), here's a song about sex. Well, it's not about sex, exactly: it's about availability to orgy, which usually involves a wider selection of sensual pleasures. You might suspect from the title and the album it's on that "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy" is some Poe-laced account of the death of a cuckolder. It isn't - that was to come later, heh heh heh.

What it is: just a quiet little quasi-novelty number.
Who can afford to orgy:

  • The postman
  • The con man
  • The milk man
  • The butcher
  • The astronaut
  • The curate
Who can't afford to orgy:
  • The poor man
  • The sad man
  • The green man
  • The policeman
  • The snowman
  • The woman (?)
Who is he? John Cale, who's sorry to mention that he couldn't afford to orgy.
Do you believe him? Judy Nylon's come-on vocals for the "choruses" just about melt the vinyl, polycarbonate, or silicon they're played from. Do you?
Doesn't that sound like...? "In the Summertime"by Mungo Jerry? It sure does to me - "inspired by" rather than "ripped off from," but nevertheless...
Fun fact: This was the only single (b/w Silvia Said) released from Fear, a strong candidate for Cale's best album. Beach Boys vocals or no, this is not single material. Crazy man.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Gift

A word to the wise: I recommend you don't look at the lyrics of this piece unless you've heard it. It's a spoken-word story with an ending that's worth hearing in context.

The Gift (SPOILERS) is the funny, upbeat, accessible track on The Velvet Underground's 1968 sophomore effort, White Light/White Heat. (Given 1. the subject matter; 2. the eight-minute runtime; and 3. the fact that it's a spoken-word piece, that's a little surprising, but consider the album.) John Cale's accent and voice - nimble, underplayed, remarkably nonthreatening and even cute, are responsible in large part for its appeal - though the hilariously sick story and the groovy backing instrumental (also known as "Booker T.") account for much of the rest.

This piece was the first Cale vocal I'd knowingly heard. I'd heard his voice before on his cover of Hallelujah; I'd heard him play bass with Patti Smith on a cover of The Who's My Generation. But this was the first time I'd connected the Velvet Underground guy with the producer with the voice. It was great.

I don't want to give away the absurd plot, but both it and the writing show a sense of humor and a way with language Lou Reed rarely showed again in such force. It makes me wish for an anthology of Reed short stories or something. Cale's delivery certainly helps the text work, though: whether he's speaking from the perspective of Waldo or of Marsha, he makes the characters come alive with his use of tone and emphasis. The one interjection from the band ("awwww") almost makes the track for me.

I said "Booker T." was the backing track. Really, it's the side track: in the tradition of early Beatles stereo mixes, the vocal sits alone in the left channel, the music in the right. You can listen to either alone, if you'd like, by panning your stereo to one side or the other. (Believe it or not, this technique's not dead yet.) But I don't know why you'd want to - the vocal is perfectly timed to the music, and the interactions between the two at the end are highlights.

Listening to Cale's vocals on White Light/White Heat, you get the feeling that he was kicked out because Reed felt threatened, because Reed suspected that Cale would steal the spotlight. Reed may have been onto something there - I know which of the two I'd rather hear.


Monday, October 15, 2007

The Jeweller

The mid-period Cale track to stop your next social function cold.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

King Harry

Cannonfire in the distance? A xylophone, acoustic guitar, and trumpet-driven mock-Renaissance (or mariachi?) piss-take, King Harry is one of the most enjoyable pieces on The Academy in Peril. It's encrusted with sound effects, viola, and organ (reminiscent in the extreme of Rick Wright's style of improv). And it's got a vocal!

That is, snickers and vitriol. A whispered vocal, taunting Henry VIII. "Who are you, King Harry," John Cale hisses, "But a whisper of your former self. Sail away, sail away, sail away, King Harry." It's very amusing and very sinister. The narrator is malicious, but perhaps not evil - I mean, this dirty Harry was the bastard what annexed Wales! Not to even get into the business of the wives - who, the hissing taunter rather unnecessarily reminds us, "are all dead."

I'd hate to say much about a track that makes so much out of its brevity. It's great fun, something you can't often say about Cale. It provides a necessary breather between the two substantial classical pieces of side 2. The (spurious?) historical references and Anglocentrism of Academy make the album a nice complement to Paris 1919, but it's the album's variety and ability to surprise - exemplified here - that keep you listening.