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.


Mark of the Asphodel said...

I think the studio version is a turgid mess, myself. Maybe I'll have to punish myself with it to get the appeal. Inebriated may be the goal, but it sounds more like a song under the influence of barbituates.

Also, nice West ref re: "living my life like a Hollywood." I think that Hollywood/Vine wink and nod is pretty darned cute, and nicely subtle to boot. I don't know how many times I'd heard the song before I caught it.

ZephyrJW said...

Two things leap to mind, especially upon viewing this wonderful live performance of the song, and they are: 1) One of Cale's greatest single lines ever: "And if I wasn't such a coward I would run." and 2) That is the late Ollie Halsall on guitar unless I'm sorely mistaken, a guitar genius whose like we won't see anytime soon again, in a typically inspired, passionate, and technically awesome example of what a guitar can do. Especially with the right song. What a perfect pairing! I was thrilled to see this, because till now I'd only heard about the 1984 band with Halsall in it, and I just knew it had to be extraordinary. Thanks so much for posting it. Is there any more footage around of this crew?

Anonymous said...

This is one of my very favorite Cale songs. It never fails to move me and I quite like the cadence of the studio version. The introduction makes it sound dated, but once the song kicks in it has some kind of otherworldly tempo and the passion and delivery by Cale is astounding. This song alone makes Artificial Intelligence a good album, even though there are a few other songs on there that are quite good too. The Fragments version is nice too, but I actually prefer the slower studio rendition. All I know is that I wish that they would bring this song back into their live sets. It is such a beautiful song. Great write up, Robert.

Jack Feerick said...

I've played this live, too - solo guitar and voice. First Cale song I ever did for a show. A favorite, yeah, and an unexpected one; a dark horse in catalog full of dark horses.

Anonymous said...

Best version here, similar to the Fragments one but with the added lushness of strings.

jaypar said...

hmm intresting

Unknown said...

zephyrjw: have you seen this?

Kevin Ayers with John Cale and Ollie Halsall:

"Dying on the Vine" never made an impression on me until Fragments, but I have to stand with those who now consider it a favorite Cale tune. More recently, I really took a liking to the version of Set Me Free on the US release of Hobo Sapiens-- not realizing that the song had sliped right by me on Walking on Locusts, ten years earlier.

Anonymous said...

I've owned "Artifical Intelligence" for ages, but must've listened to it only once and filed it under 'forgetable'. However, having recently ripped it to my PC, I noticed it had 'Dying on the Vine', which in my opinion is one of the very best songs on "Fragments of a Rainy Season" - one of my favourite albums by ANYONE. So I gave the original version a listen, and was very quickly enchanted by its unexpected tempo and seductive style. Not quite as good as the wonderful version on "Fragments", but still a great track.

Anonymous said...

dying on the vine is one of the best songs i ever heard in my entire life. I know it sounds very dramatic, but makes me feel terrible when i heard it anytime. I discovered it in a jools holland's show with a beautiful string arragement.
Excuse my english but i'm not a english speaker.

Ice said...

I'm ten years late to the comment party on this one (and I admit, I'm actually not particularly well versed in Cale's career, post-Velvets) but I just wanted to share my experience with this song.

The Fragments version of "Dying on the Vine" showed up on my Spotify Discovery playlist late last year and blew me away. I've listened to this song at least a hundred times in the last few months and I know I'll listen hundreds more. I'm glad there's a blog out there that can touch on great songs like this, even if the post is from 10 years ago.