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.


costlules said...

I've to confess, I just like the song higher in its stripped-down solo piano incarnation. It is unadorned and unornamented, one of many barest tracks in a library of stripped-down recordings.


SFCBenny said...

Its a surprising song. It leads off the classic Paris 1919 album and joins Cale, the ultimate cerebral Welshman with Lowell George and Ritchie Heyward from ultimate LA band Little Feat, a teaming you wouldn't think could work that proves to be a brilliant match.