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.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful piece of writing, Robert.

Anonymous said...


Inverarity said...

Just to show you where my head used to be, here's an (awful) version I recorded back in 2007. It proves a point, I'm just not sure which point.