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.


Inverarity said...

P.S. "St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)", a bagpipe-driven song off the last White Stripes album, bears considerable similarities to this one in both concept and execution. I'm just sayin'.

Jack Feerick said...

I came to John Cale via Music For A New Society, specifically via that citation in WATCHMEN—and, in retrospect, it's surprising that I kept listening, so determinedly off-putting and abrasive an album it is. And then to understand that this same lunatic could make a record like Paris 1919, and that, in context, neither Paris nor New Society is at all unrepresentative...

The story behind the title has several variations—I've heard another version where the track was meant to be called "Safeties"—and it seems like a tale that has grown in the telling; that is, there's the teensiest whiff of bullshit around the whole thing.

Ian said...

Moore's quoting of Cale - his mis-quoting, even - is still one of my favourite epigraphs of all time.

Inverarity said...

Jack, I think I'm responsible for "Safeties" - I mooted it as the original title back on Chinese Envoy. I checked Welsh for Zen, though, and it was "Sanctus."

Cale later did an electronic composition called "Sanctus," which is included on the Paris S'eveille compilation. It bears no resemblance to this.