Monday, November 26, 2007


Enough with sordid! How about something sweet, then. On the sweet, gauzy Andalucia, John Cale and his buddies from Little Feat create a modest little melt-in-your-mouth confection. It's soothing, quiet, and more reminiscent of Vintage Violence than anything else on Paris 1919.

Alright, instrumentally, it does borrow liberally from George Harrison's recording of Dylan's "If Not for You," but the vocal line is something else entirely. It's a strained vocal, and Cale seems on the verge of going out of tune the whole time. And yet this works, somehow - the weakness of the voice brings out a humble grace in a song that a more assured vocal might make cloying. On the other hand, too weak a vocal might make the song seem sickly (as does Ira Kaplan's on the otherwise graceful Yo La Tengo cover version). Cale walks the line between and makes it work.

The lyric mostly fits with Paris's continental diversions, though the "Farmer John" bit always strikes me as odd. Possibly because it makes me think of the 1959 song by Don & Dewey, but also because it doesn't seem to fit with the album's very Eurocentric namechecking. The lyric at large is more vague than most of the album, but gets a lot of mileage out of the ambiguity of the addressee - is it a woman or a Spanish state?

The real genius of the song: it gracefully ends the first arc of the album, offers ear candy to encourage repeat listens, and lulls the listener into a calm that Macbeth can more effectively shatter. It's perfect where it is, right at the center of Cale's best album.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wilson Joliet

Close the door and let's have some private light!

As mentioned earlier, Wilson Joliet is the equally evil twin of Sanities. Along with Strange Times in Casablanca, it defines the mainline of Honi Soit. Characterized by a paralyzing paranoiac tension, the songs build from a sinister beginning to a crisis point - or a psychotic break? - and culminate in an ecstatic bout of screaming gibberish. (Riverbank and Russian Roulette hew roughly to this template as well.)

Like Sanities, it starts with a woman terrified of her mother. However, this immediately and bizarrely detours into even stranger territory: "Before the clock slammed another door on the weary hours we were facing, a second-hand Shylock shylocked in, in on us." It's rather shocking to hear Shylock, the "evil Jew" of the Merchant of Venice, invoked in such a stark and simple way. It sounds, well, bad. What's worse, it's totally opaque, admitting to no analysis. You don't know where the words are coming from or what they're supposed to mean, so you don't really know how to react. I feel that I have to bring it up, but I've got nothing to say about it.

It then proceeds to, like Riverside, weave military atrocities of the past and their effects on society ("like the lovers below Bataan") into a modern context, though even more obscurely than that song does. Is a lyric like "mothers weep while children sleep like ancestors in the ground" too manipulative, playing the "dead kiddies" card for quick emotional resonance in an otherwise meaningless song? Or does it get points for pointing out the bitter irony of children serving the role of the old (fertilizing the soil) rather than of the young (changing, ha ha, the world)?

Even more than Russian Roulette, it has no shame about its political incorrectness. It's one thing to feature audio clips from the 1954 British WWII film The Dam Busters in which characters call to the commander's black dog Nigger, as Pink Floyd did in The Wall. It's another thing entirely to create a militaristic fantasy world and end the song by screaming about you and the dog blasting out of confinement. Imagine driving through the city, blasting John Cale on your car stereo, and sharing with the world at large repeated screams of "Me and Nigger blasted our way out!" Not comfortable. And you can't explain nor rationalize it.

Like Syd Barrett's solo ramblings, the song's value lies solely in the atmosphere the song creates and the thoughts that it evokes. I don't know whether it's the audio equivalent of a Hieronymous Bosch or of a Jackson Pollock, but this war word salad just does trigger feelings in me. Is it
  • the crashing background noises?
  • the cascading tribal/march drums?
  • the church organ hovering ghostly over the song?
  • the endlessly reverberating guitar?
It might just be the prostration of the almost tuneless vocal, just barely in the realm of song rather than spoken-word, delivering such unexpectedly moving lines like "Yesterday's streets, burned out buildings reduced to shells" or "We are shuffled like a pack of cards" (a lyric he reused in Zen).

I don't know which of these things in particular gets to me, what turns improvised babble into something moving. But something does get to me, and apparently to him too, given that the song was mystifyingly included on the Close Watch compilation. Does it get to you? Why, or why not?

And would someone please tell me what the title means?


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Academy in Peril

One of the most delicate works in John Cale's catalog is the title track of the underexposed The Academy in Peril. It's yet another of Cale's extremely slow meanders around the keyboard, but this one is more accessible than most, in that the rests aren't antisocially prolonged and the piece seems to have some composition behind it rather than being purely improvised.

The first half of the piece is an extremely poignant and arching exploration of two-note harmonies. For that duration, unless my ears deceive me, only two fingers seem to be needed to play the piece - is this the reason for the title? As silly as this sounds, it's music of immense beauty, and I tend to forget to breathe when I listen to it.

In any case, at that point it gets all 19th century French Romantic, like Fauré or something. It speeds up and turns dramatic/dynamic, though still very bare and unornamented. This isn't as impressive, and it's a little disappointing after the sublime first movement. Still, quality music of a type the man wouldn't come round to again for a long, long time.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Hello. As you may have noticed, we've got an actual domain name registered. You can still get here via the old address, but the new official URL is:


Monday, November 12, 2007


A piece originally called "Sanctus," "Sanities" was given its name* by an engineer who misread John Cale's handwriting. Cale approved of this change, as would anyone who heard it. True, it's the story of an exaltation, but it's also a story of insanity, paranoia, and espionage. It's the centerpiece of side 1 of Music for a New Society and maybe the defining moment of the whole album.

The track is a semi-remake of Honi Soit's "Wilson Joliet." At least, they start at the same point (a woman psychotically afraid of her mother) with near-identical lyrics. But there the similarities end. Where Wilson Joliet's tension builds to explosive catharsis, Sanities heaps up dread without release. Where Wilson Joliet gains steam, Sanities seems to leach energy from the listener. Its main ambition seems to be to stop you from breathing.

Finally, centrally, where Wilson Joliet is a screamer and a rocker, Sanities is a freakish spoken-word piece, told dramatically over sinister and random background music. Cale has rarely sounded as off his nut as he does on this track - but it's neither drug-fueled hyperactivity nor screaming into the abyss. He's calm, sober, careful with each word, and totally insane.

The "music" here defines the sound of the album. I don't know what to say about it... well, let me just relate Asphodel's off-the-cuff comments, live as we listened to the track just now. "That backing track is physically unpleasant. That whole thing is Sanities? I didn't remember how irritating it was. Worse than fingernails on a chalkboard. I will not listen to that again. Evil son of a bitch."

Well, he is! There's organ doing this, there's a barely audible Cale singing part rendering the same lyric, there are random strings doing that, there's percussion with a meter that could only be expressed using imaginary numbers, and on top there's a Welsh preacher on quaaludes calmly reading a David Lynch scene treatment . Where Wilson Joliet created a hostile and malignant atmosphere with volume and distortion, Sanities creates a far more destabilizing, distracting, disturbing scene without turning up the volume at all. It puts me in a place, mentally speaking, that nothing else does; a place I don't often like to go, but a place that I need to more often than I'd like.

The text of Sanities is so full of portent and doomy imagery that it's easily mocked. "In a friendship... no, it was more than a friendship, it was a marriage! A marriage made in the grave!" Yeesh.

But I can't mock it. There's something pure and terrible in the song, in the music and the words and Cale's delivery. It is very comfortable to shut yourself off to it. It may be impossible to open yourself to it, if you're not already. But if you are open to it - I realize how goddamn religious this sounds - you can't deny it. Hey, such is art.

The shivering night.
The searching of the river continued.

The bullet of searchlight,
That searchlight found her so cockleshell and sure,
Sick and tired of what she saw,
But cockleshell and sure!

Sure of what the world had offered a tired soul.
From Istanbul, to Madrid,
To Reykjavik, to Bonn,
To Leipzig, to Leningrad,
To Shanghai, Phnom Penh,
All so that it would be a stronger world
A strong though loving world

To die in.

* To be precise, the engineer mislabeled it "Santies", which sounds like some sort of feminine hygiene product. I prefer to forget that bit.


Friday, November 2, 2007

Dying on the Vine

It's Día de los Muertos. Why not enjoy a sugar skull with this post?

A note about Robert J. Widlar.

Besides many other distinctions, Bob Widlar was the father of the operational amplifier, an arrangement of transistors and biasing circuits that easily slotted into more complicated circuits, becoming a core building block of the technological revolution of the late 20th century. He did not invent it, but he set the standard for integrated circuit op-amps and designed some of the best and most versatile that have been created. After making Fairchild Semiconductor the leader in the IC market, he started the linear IC division at National Semiconductor.

This is where, over the course of four years, he established a reputation as an excitable boy. He brought a ewe in to mow the lawn. To stop people from raising their voice to him, he created and secretly installed in his office a device called the Hassler, which would echo any noise in the vocal frequency range at a higher frequency, on the edge of the ear's range; as the volume increased, the frequency offset dropped proportionally, making the echo more noticeable, and giving the effect of a ringing in the ears. He smashed nonfunctional components into a fine powder to ensure they had zero chance of causing him trouble in the future.

And then, after that four years was up, he got in his car and drove down to Mexico, to Puerto Vallarta, leaving no forwarding address. He took a single-room adobe apartment, where he could concentrate on his alcohol and write technical papers on electrical circuits without so much as an electric lightbulb around. National Semiconductor sent a mission down to track him and reacquire him. Eventually he signed on as a contractor, but kept his Mexican residence. He died at fifty-three during a demanding jog. He wasn't identified for several days.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled fragment.

I think of Bob Widlar when I hear this song. I don't only think of him - I think of the Katharine Anne Porter novel Ship of Fools, as well, and of Ambrose Bierce, charging down into Mexico despite his age to join Pancho Villa's army, disappearing from the face of the earth.

To be honest, I think of myself. Even though I'm not an alcoholic, nor a gringo in Mexico, nor hanging out among troops and criminals. I don't think it's self-dramatization; there's something about the song that reaches out and pulls you into it. It's an epiphanic moment, a passing instant of understanding crystallized into a song. Despite the very particular scenario, it's a song with a weird universal resonance.

That's a big claim, but consider this: "Dying on the Vine" is a fairly obscure song in Cale's catalog, its definitive version a live take, the studio album entirely forgotten. And yet I have heard from several other people who call it their favorite Cale song. It is my favorite Cale song. It is not his best song, it is not his most characteristic song, but it is the song that most reaches into my chest and clamps down on my heart.

Two albums feature this song: Artificial Intelligence as an inebriated slow-motion dance, a life observed from the bottom of the bottle; Fragments of a Rainy Season as a flood of illumination. The video above comes very close to a perfect hybrid of the two. Of all the versions, the Fragments version (mp3 here) is the most essential; it's the most accessible path into the song. (It's worth noting that the version included on the Close Watch compilation is indeed the Fragments version.) I was very disappointed by the studio version on first listen, but I've come to understand and appreciate it.

It's interesting to think about the choices behind Cale's different approaches to the song: play up the Spanish motif or not? play up the emotion or hide it? emphasize the choruses or the verses? what spin do you put on the narrator? and how much of him is you? I've gone through six solo guitar arrangements of this song myself, and tweaking each of these parameters has a substantial effect on the nature of the song. But the song stands up to everything! There are few songs I've encountered that can stand up to as much resculpting as this one does, and yet it always seems to retain its soul.

I'm not a reliable guide to the lyrics of this song; my interpretation is completely personal and extremely idiosyncratic. Just part of the magic of the song is the sentence fragment in the chorus: "I was living my life like a Hollywood..." A Hollywood what, he doesn't say, but it evokes so many Nathanael West-type possibilities.