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?

8 comments:

Ian said...

I have no idea, but it's good to have you back. I dated a Joliat once; I doubt she'd be amused by this song.

Inverarity said...

It's hard to imagine this song amusing anyone! As confrontational as the man's career has been, this is his most malignant work by some degree. Hence it's doubly frustrating to not be able to interpret it.

There's a city in Illinois called Joliet, after the French Canadian explorer Jolliet, but, well, so what?

Jack Feerick said...

The Joliet in Illinois is home to the state penitentiary, so there's that - especially in relation to "blasting [one's] way out"...

Ono said...

Always liked this one. The reverberating guitar has a lot to do with it. And the drums, of course. All the drum parts on Honi Soit are very powerful, muscular, violent.

As far as the lyrics goes, I think it makes some sense as the stream-of-consciousness of a mercenary in Biafra, Bataan, Beirut or whatever. The words and the music (especially the repetitive patterns) evokes a highly nightmarish world, yet it has a strange, almost lyrical beauty to it. That is the song great achievement. But then again, this could be said of a lot of Cale´s best work, e.g. Cordoba and Casablanca.

Thomas said...

One of my top 5 John Cale songs. There is just something incredibly powerful/unsettling about it.

IGotYerBlog said...

As for the "political incorrectness," I'd observe that

1. the voice is not Cale's, it's the voice of a character, someone in deep pain. The pain comes across, certainly.

2. "Shylock" is a slang term for a loan shark.

3. The "Nigger" referred to seems clearly someone remembered with great affection and loyalty.

chris said...

this may sound far-fetched, but i have the suspicion this song is built lyrically out of edgar lee masters' book of poetry: spoon river anthology. infused with political (even in its day contentious) poetry, each poem is a sort of epitaph for different individuals of a small town, inspired in part by a cemetary. the themes include adultery, thievery, suicide, and sex. unusual for the time, it is free verse - no rhyme. masters dated a woman named lillian wilson while attempting to divorce his wife. masters worked for awhile as a bill collector (shylock?). in the poem silas dement, joliet prison is mentioned:
When I came back from Joliet
There was a new court house with a dome.
For I was punished like all who destroy
The past for the sake of the future.
in another - benjamin pantier - a faithful dog named nig is spoken of:
With Nig for partner, bed-fellow, comrade in drink.
&
Living with Nig in a room back of a dingy office.
Under my jaw-bone is snuggled the bony nose of Nig—

i might also suggest in the line mentioned above - "mothers weep while children sleep like ancestors in the ground" - the children aren't necessarily dead, under the ground, but perhaps just asleep LIKE the dead. again, the funereal quality of the song may refer in tenor to master's eulogies.
i consider this the strongest, most original and fully-fledged song on the album; although i might suggest its tempo is a tad too slow.

Buster McNamara said...

"nigger" -Is definitely used to descibe a fellow strugger who is dark-skinned. I love the entire album.