Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Somewhere in the City

Thanks to this project, I'm the proud owner of a massive library of soundtracks to films I am never going to see. I cobbled together a 5:42 suite of the original John Cale score to this one. It's very uncharacteristic: no drones or atonality or synthesizers or massed strings. I think his trio partners (Dawn Helmholtz and longtime Cale sideman Mark Deffenbaugh) had a lot of input here. It's nice music, if not very striking. I guess I'll take it minute by minute.

Marta & Frankie

What would happen if Ray Davies and John Cale collaborated on a soundtrack composition? This. Not that it was intentional or acknowledged, but this is a beautiful acoustic/guitar/classical guitar/cello instrumental mashup of The Kinks' "God's Children" and Cale's "Set Me Free."

Love Scene
A pensive, even soulful piano and slide guitar duet. Its brevity makes up for the unconvincing relationship between piano and guitar chord progressions. I'm sure this was improvised.

No, seriously, it really is twenty seconds of Far Eastern modalities on a pennywhistle. That seems to be Dawn Avery's thing. Nice, but definitely the odd track out here.

Drive Up to Robbery
Wow, acoustic blues! Nice slide work, and I like the fretboard percussion. I have a hard time believing Cale "composed" this, per se.

Marta and Frankie (Reprise)
Still the same arpeggios, but without the melodies a'la Messrs Davies and Cale. Ah, it is a shame.

Indistinct Notion of Cool
Hey, it's a song! This one... hey, wait just a second! This is a Walking on Locusts track. Bah, I'll cover it later.


Monday, January 28, 2008


I write reams of this shit every day.

Thanks, J. That makes my job easier. "Brotherman" is a track I possibly should be embarrassed about - does he think this is rap? But it's too weird to be purely midlife crisis genrehopping: it's a self-mocking rumination on the songwriting process. The narrator, John Cale or not, seems to be writing about a drug deal that might be a sting. But he's mocking himself the whole time, saying sardonically, "This is just part of the magic; I write reams of this shit every day." On the other hand, he's not above a little credit-taking: he's very proud that it may be shit, "but you're feeling it!" With the namechecking of Timbaland and the Neptunes he did at the time, one wonders if it's not some sort of semi-affectionate parody of the genre.

The monologue is delivered over a bed of mostly synthetic noise that's somewhere between an ersatz hip-hop track and one of Cale's atonal live eviscerations of some poor innocent song from his back catalog. Most notable is the interplay between the silly, buzzing "bass line" and intermittent electric guitar strums. It's... an acquired taste, but one I usually like enough to listen to. Without the wry vocal, though, I doubt I'd take the time.

However, it is a unique and fecund moment on blackAcetate (an album that admittedly does feel like midlife crisis genrehopping). It's a track that many critics reviled, a few like, and probably nobody but Cale really understands. I don't know if it's meant to be serious or a pisstake, but I think that ambiguity is the point. Very uncomfortable.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

I Wanna Be Around

Me? I'm in great shape; here's the latest thing from the workshop.

I Wanna Be Around was a Tony Bennett hit back in 1963. The song was written by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt, a cosmetician from Youngstown Ohio who sent a note to "Johnny Mercer-Songwriter-New York" containing a lyric she thought would make a good song: I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart. Mercer wrote the song, and, being a supreme gentleman, gave her a 50% co-credit, guaranteeing her a few thousand dollars a year in royalties for the rest of her life.

And it might never have made its way to John Cale's music stand if Brian Wilson hadn't penciled it into the SMiLE tracklist back in 1966. But he did (even if he got the lyrics wrong). I have no evidence that Cale had a stack of SMiLE bootlegs, but I will assume he did, and shame on him if he didn't.

But the version he recorded with Jools Holland's big band owes little to either Wilson's gentle version or Bennett's slow croon. Cale takes the song fast, hard, and - you can hear this in the vocal - with a sharklike smile. The growl in Cale's voice on "I wanna be around to see how he does it, when he breaks your heart to bits" raises hackles.

Shame, though, that there's so much boilerplate big-band pyrotechnics going on around him. It's fun enough, sure, but a sparer arrangement with a vocal so venomous would be an essential part of the canon. But, hey, the album is cheap and you get great songs by dead guys. For pocket change, I recommend it.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Model Beirut Recital

When I think about the fine modern people trying to run the world... Well, something must be done about it. Something must be done right now, about the fine modern people trying to run the world. We're whistling in the dark. I'm whispering for a friend. Whistling in the dark again.

(This is not fiction.)

I love Lebanon. I look at photos, or hear my Lebanese buddies reminiscing, and I want to get to know it. But then I always get to thinking about how easy it is for people to start killing their neighbors. A Christian friend of mine is loudly proud of his small role in the civil war, and I swear he gets a tear of joy in his eye from time to time when he remembers his killing days.

But he shares these reminiscences in mixed company: with Lebanese and Yemeni Muslim and Lebanese and Chaldean (Iraqi) Christian immigrants. They've been in the US a long time and have gone through many of the same experiences. They're friends, though politics and religion often leave them regarding each other with an uneasy but more or less good-humored incredulity. In this particular circle, I haven't seen old angers simmer back to life as I have among Serbs and Albanians who are acquaintances in the New World, but it makes me wonder at how the human brain can switch contexts so entirely.

I don't doubt that Tony would gladly pick up a gun again; he's joked (with a seriousness behind his humor) about it from time to time. And I don't understand how you can go out to lunch with people from the same groups you resent that much. But I can't understand what their formative years were like, either. So I listen to them talk, and break bread with them, and think about this civilization thing.

And we all fall down in a model Beirut recital, in that modern Beirut again.

Here's the original, with profane Lebanese intro by a military man Cale met somewhere. ("Beirut, you're a whore and I spit on you.") Here's the 2006 fragment from the Circus Live DVD.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008


The slab of noise generously titled "Decade" was allegedly recorded on December 31, 1979. Though guitarist Richie Fliegler denies involvement with or knowledge of the band performing, it's a pretty convincing Cale band. What's most notable about it is, perhaps, the fairly conventional nature of the thing. It sounds like Rock Music. The guitar lead goes places (at least in circles), the stolid and martial drumming sounds like it should be backing a very unrehearsed garage band, and (Cale's?) bass part (which seems to appear only in the last third) thumps along.

After turning over in place with one feedback-loaded guitar explosion after another, it finally moves into some appealingly chunky rhythmic territory after Cale joins in. There's nothing particularly experimental or even very confrontational about it (unlike the title track or "Dance of the Seven Veils"). It sounds completely spur-of-the moment, a tune-up that turned into a "piece of music" - I think that's a virtue. It's just a loud, agitated-but-enthusiastic way to ring out one bad decade and ring in another.

Nothing changes but the numbers on the wall, so turn up your amps and say hello to 2008. Happy New Year!