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.
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.