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.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Cheers for the link!