Friday, December 28, 2007

Frozen Warnings

The Marble Index is, for my money, one of the most difficult records to listen to Cale ever made (well, helped make). It's hostile and atonal, cold in a way the New York 1960s recordings aren't, and relentlessly SLOW - not to mention Nico's voice and melodies are more than usually soporific. It's an album I admire more than I enjoy: Nico's vision is singularly intense and Cale's "arrangements" are some of the most interesting music he's ever written, but I find it almost impossible to identify with the mindset behind it.

The song I most enjoy is the most tuneful thing present, "Frozen Warnings." The vocal melody is a weird blend of Gregorian chant and Indian raga, and shows more movement than most other tracks. The backing music builds up around an organ/viola drone, creating a feeling of suspended animation. I don't know what else I can say - this is hard music to talk about.

Well, here's something. Cale wrote a piano part and performed this in the Nico retrospective film Nico: Icon. Below is a video; here's an mp3 of that performance. Great stuff.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Child's Christmas in Wales

I can't really talk about John Cale collaborations without talking about Dylan Thomas. It would be a mistake to harness these two oxen together or to put a Cale cart behind a Thomas horse. Still, there's a real sympathy between these two men's work, and Dylan the Elder was clearly an inspiration to our Mr. Cale. A long-lived inspiration - long before he was setting sea poems to music with Brian Eno, Cale was filching a title for the leadoff track of 1973's Paris 1919.

There's no direct connection between the kaleidoscopic short story "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and the equally kaleidoscopic song, only a shared spirit of wry reminiscence upon the wonderful and laughable circumstances of their authors' childhoods. Dylan Thomas references dot the song ("long-legged bait" and something else that escapes me), but it's very much Cale on the whole, with wonderful lyrics that perk up the ear on first listen ("Did he say 'murdered oranges'? Bled on board ship? Huh.") but carry emotional resonance ("Take down the flags of ownership, the walls are falling down.") while keeping a reserve of mystery ("Sebastapol, Adrianapolis, the prayers of all combined...") And only on Paris did Cale write lyrics like "The cattle graze bolt uprightly. Seducing down the door..."

I have to admit, I like the song better in its stripped-down solo piano incarnation. It's unadorned and unornamented, one of the barest tracks in a library of stripped-down recordings. It helps that the vocal on the Fragments version is superb, hitting all the right notes of warmth, scorn, admiration, longing, pity. But at root the song deserves to be heard without the thick coating of instrumentals laid on it in the studio.

In fact, I'd say I like the live version much better, but then you'd think I don't appreciate the warmth and fullness of the studio version, the way the slide guitar and bass and piano and organ interplay to wrap around you like the heat from a fireplace. And I do! I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm just glad I have both versions to enjoy.

Either version's better with some cognac-enhanced eggnog. Whatever your yuletide traditions and innovations may be, I hope they've been grand. From us and ours to you and yours, best wishes and Nadolig Llawen!

P.S. Here's a little present. Nico sings and Cale does his distorted piano thing at CBGBs in 1979. "There's a lady with class," Cale says appreciatively. And even if her singing's not great here, you know I think he's right.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sister Ray

Take it away, Maestro!

I'd wager that "Sister Ray" is the most widely-heard track of its violence and aural hostility. What track on a widely available album by a major artist competes with it? Joy Division and New Order and the Sisters of Mercy covered it. (As did, amusingly, author Alan Moore, in a bizarre parody version about an Objectivist (!) comic book superhero.) Jonathan Richman, in "Roadrunner," simultaneously neutered it and made it really appealing. It sits on countless record store shelves worldwide, lying dormant on copies of White Light/White Heat, waiting to perforate eardrums and induce bad trips and anxiety attacks.

The topics, as the Wikipedia entry dryly notes, cover almost every item on the Lou Reed menu: homosexuality, transvestites, prostitutes, heroin use, sudden violence. It's so over the top that it's much more funny than it is threatening. Reed's voice is mesmerizing here - whether he's chanting "whip it on me, Jim," nagging his friends about shooting a man dead ("Aw, doncha know you shouldn't do that? Doncha know it stains the carpet!"), or droning raga-style "Iiiiii'm searching for myyyyy maaaaaaaain liiiiine," you can barely take your ears off him.

And yet if the song were an instrumental, it would be nearly as astonishing. Here's a war on tape: each player tweaking his volume measure by measure, a band whose every part is trying to drown each other out. It's arguably the single point of John Cale's rock career in which real honest-to-god rocking coexists with his earlier systems-music work whole and entire, body-and-blood soul-and-obscenity. His organ part could have been released as a track on the New York in the 1960s records, and nobody would have thought it out of place; but harness it to Moe Tucker's thumping, Sterling Morrison's squawking, and Lou Reed's guitar and vocal assault, and you have one of the most arresting pieces of art ever created.

A band that created music so powerfully destructive and destructively powerful couldn't last for long. It's a shame that Cale's greatest collaborative relationship - the one with Tucker and Morrison and Reed - couldn't have lasted just a little longer, though. But at least we have White Light/White Heat, and "Sister Ray," to show for it.


Friday, December 14, 2007


Of course John Cale worked with Brian Eno from early on. I mean, sure, Brian Eno works with everybody. He does unreasonably brilliant work with almost everybody. What's impressive is how unique his collaborations are: the Enoed Phil Manzanera guitar part in "Gun" does not sound like David Bowie's Enoized instrumentals, which don't sound like the Talking Heads' Enoid nightmares. There's a common aesthetic and set of techniques there, but very different sounds. It's giving him too much credit to call him the central figure of "art music" in the 1970s, but it's not that far from the truth.

Not that I'm going to give Eno credit for this track. His processing is amazing, but it isn't the keystone. If I had to give credit for Gun's frightening power to a single instrument, it would be the drums. Playing ahead of the beat (establishing the track's nauseating anxiety), thumping so atavistically as to embarrass Meg White or Moe Tucker, throwing in violent tumbling fills... fuck flash and precision, this is great drumming*. The guitar is close behind, screaming eerily like human voices in distress, chopped up into stroboscopic pieces and reassembled. And then there's the vocal, at a singularly effective spot in Cale's range - particularly on the choruses, where it brilliantly undermines the potentially stadium-rock riff.

And his phrasing! He gets so much mileage out of the lyric, a film noir script about detectives on a bad beat in an awful world. It doesn't sound that original or compelling if you haven't heard it, maybe; but there's so much fear and hatred in his delivery of these Philip Marlowe-esque lines that the song completely surpasses the concept.

This song is on every single Cale compilation, and for one reason: it is essential. I will brook no dissent here. If you don't own The Island Years/Gold (which includes Fear whole and entire), you should buy it. If you don't want to, pirate the track for all I care. But you'd better goddamn listen to it, or that final guitar solo might rip out your throat.

* I do appreciate technique. But you've got to know when to just pound those suckers.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Risé, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov

Uh, I guess I'll have the Rimsky-Korsakov, thanks.


Sunday, December 9, 2007


Of course, Cale's longest-running, deepest, most meaningful, most destructive collaboration was with Lou Reed. Those who don't know Cale think of the Velvet Underground as Reed's band. Those who worship at the shrine of Cale tend to view Reed rather negatively, and the reverse seems equally true. Me, I enjoy a lot of Reed's work, but it doesn't engage me as directly or as deeply as Cale's. If you're coming from a different conceptual space I can imagine "Street Hassle" would be more moving than "Cable Hogue" - to me the former's very interesting and intellectually engaging, but weirdly like darkside Harry Chapin.

Anyway, you'd think that both viewpoints would find something appealing about Songs for Drella. The two poles of the Velvet Underground, together to remember their lost friend and mentor. And it just doesn't work out that way. They try to find the old magic of the Velvet Underground on a few tracks, notably "Images" - a seemingly born-of-improv attempt to recapture the assault-drone they produced live for Warhol's film showings. They do some Lou Reed songs, some John Cale songs, many indeterminate ones.

It's an enjoyable album, it's touching in spots and illuminating in others, and it's convincing as a collaboration - it's hard to tell who to credit for most of the songs. (Reed is quite sure he did all of it, but what else is new.)

I don't know why I don't care much for it. It may be the subject matter - Warhol was a catalyst of many interesting things, but his art generally doesn't do much for me. There's also the fact that the album has a decidedly passive-aggressive feel to it - Reed had a lot of animosity towards Warhol, and he couldn't get rid of it completely. There's the little biographical note that both men abandoned and avoided Warhol his last five years of life.

Listening to it, you feel you've intruded on an uncomfortable wake, where the guests are drunk enough to admit past cruelties and to slip in barbs at the deceased, but not drunk enough to let go their masks and hit emotional catharsis. Then, too, they hate each other. Don't you get enough of that in real life?


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles

The collaboration between Cale and Terry Riley, on the other hand, was a short and apparently unhappy one. (Riley's statement on the album: "Yes! Church of Anthrax! [half-mirthful, half-exasperated laughter]"). It's not a fruitless collaboration, though - even if Riley felt that Cale commandeered the sessions, their respective styles did merge and more or less complement each other.

"The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles." Of all Cale's discarded pretentious high-art tics I miss the bizarre titles the most. The title isn't entirely inappropriate for this highly repetitious and recursive piano and sax voyage. Cale bangs away at a few chords on the piano (much faster than usual for his "classical" incarnation!), Riley plays undulating streams of sax akin (so they say) to A Rainbow in Curved Air. There are some special effects with stereo - sax flowing from left to right, echoes of the right sax in the left channel, etc.

There's a moment almost three minutes in which they change key, and it sounds like they've turned the boat out to sea. Similar picturesque developments keep the piece interesting almost all the way to the end, but the track outstays its welcome near the five-minute mark when the stereo panning of saxes gets a little overheated and the piano work lingers too long in the same vein. The ending is beautiful, though.

In all, it's a striking listen but not the most effective thing on the album. There's potential here that just wasn't realized.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Audio file hosting

Speaking of mp3s... I signed up with Google Apps to get hosting for a site. I don't want to abuse their TOS, so I'm going to be deleting anything I post up there within a month at most. I will only post unreleased and well-out-of-print stuff - if anything I post is available in print, digitally or otherwise, please let me know and I'll take it down.



"What do you think is going on here?" the old man said from his chair.
"D'you think this is anything new? Now look here, son. This is just like
it was back in the old days before the last war. Then the politics
changed, the scene rearranged and became how we know now is quo.
Oh, yeah, there were times when everyone smiled and agreed and the
good times would roll, but a heartbeat away was the crime that did
pay - the shot that was heard around the world."

"But nevertheless, there ain't no money," said the kid.

Ah, the magic of collaboration. You take a spoken and entirely un-Cale rant about intergenerational differences, anti-futurism, world war and global change, slam it into a reggae-ish music (with harmonica!), and have a five word chorus come in now and again, and you get the improbably lovable "Secrets." In fact, "improbably lovable" is how I feel about the lumpy, extremely imperfect Last Day on Earth in general - it's not great, but it's charming, absolutely unique, and something only a collaboration this weird could accomplish.

Often nonsensical, often funny, mixing cliche with potent images, Bob Neuwirth is in raconteur mode here. I don't know much about him, except that he recorded a number of albums and was part of Bob Dylan's long-term coterie. But with the sharp and self-deprecating DIY aesthetic he shows on this album, I feel I should find out more. It's odd that he sounds so much like Bob Newhart, though - whom I can't help imagine delivering this rant.

Neuwirth and John Cale provide the chorus vocals, singing the sweet but prickly chorus: "Secrets, secrets, dirty little secrets." I don't know how much input Cale had on the music here - it sounds like him on (terribly outdated) synth keys, but it's not exactly characteristic. In any case, it works with Neuwirth's clipped diction to provide some syncopated appeal. There's not much really that stands out - the guitar tone is nice, and harmonica! on the coda, but otherwise it's more than the sum of the instruments.

The fast patter, the repetition of the chorus verse, the repeated objection by the kid that "there ain't no money" have an incantatory effect that build up over time. I think I didn't much like this track the first time I heard it, but the "Secrets, secrets" bit got stuck in my head anyway - possibly after one listen. It still pops in frequently. Often too (too often, say those in the know) I can't resist quoting "'But nevertheless, there ain't no money,' said the kid" at moments of varying appropriateness around the house and town.

Here's an mp3. I'd really like to know what you (yes, you!) make of this oddity. Try to hear past the sickly synth tone and the prissy production job, if you can.


Monday, December 3, 2007


Another song that explores people as places as people, "Adelaide" ain't a patch on Andalucia. John Cale's game on Vintage Violence being exploring pop forms - he cites the Bee Gees, an underrated group of pop songwriters before disco madness infected them, as an influence - he goes whole hog on Adelaide as on Cleo, making cutesy uptempo pop songs that annoy the living piss out of me.

The choice of city may be homage to the brothers Gibb, but it's not a convincing lyric. Not an awful one - "don't want to be late/it's probably night in Adelaide" is an amusing little line working against the premise, and I really like the bit that goes "so pass me the phone/I go it alone/I whistle my way to Adelaide." But there's no sense of a real connection, and no detail to give character to the thing - just vagueness and cliche.

The structure isn't bad, I admit, with verse/alt verse/bridge construction and a cool little coda.

It's the melody, the instrumental, and the vocals that offend. Cale has turned on the charm, and it's so contrived and facile that... eh! The slightly off-key doo-wop parody backing vocals ("oooh nooo") are particularly galling. The piano figure is a hyperactive one without soul or interest. (I do like the harmonica, even if the whole thing ends up sounding like the Sesame Street theme song.) The flaws of this don't transfer at all to Macbeth (a pretty obvious rewrite), but then the strong points of that don't manifest themselves here.

It's not subversive or mocking, just imitative and seemingly in bad faith. Nothing else is really worth commenting on, is it? Well, just this: it's funny that I've complained about how samey Vintage Violence sounds, and yet it's the two songs furthest afield that I actively dislike.

Of course, the way these things always work, this song often pops into my head unbidden at inopportune times. Listening to it repeatedly while writing this post has guaranteed months more of it. Dammit.