Friday, February 15, 2008

(I Keep a) Close Watch

(Fik shun)

Akron, Ohio. Late 1977.

"I got it!"
"Got what?"
"John Cale's last album. The album they wouldn't release here."
"Whaddya mean? Guts just came out."
"Guts wasn't a real album, just random songs from his last two albums."
"Huh. So what's this album?"
"Helen of Troy. The cover's, uh, kinda cheesy. Cale is in a straitjacket on an antique chair, and some woman is making a face from a mirror on the wall. I haven't actually listened to it yet. Do you wanna come over?"
"Sure, gimme twenty minutes."

Half of Akron, Ohio's John Cale fanclub sped across the city to visit the other half.

"So where did you get it?"
"Man, I told you already. Dave went to England for a couple weeks with his folks. I asked him to send me a copy if he could find it. I gave him money, a pile of money, for it. I still owe him, he says."
"Well, put it on!"

You can imagine the many layers of confusion side one of this schizophrenic album inspired in the membership that day. (Can you? Hell, can I?) Hard rock, hard rock with a gay guy doing the sexy monologue instead of Judy Nylon, pseudo-Beach Boys, whatever the hell that was, more hard rock, murderous gay desperados. And then on the flip side... the first cut is a big sentimental love song drenched in echo and huge sappy string orchestration?!

"I don't know about this, man."
"Yeah, it... is... a little strange."

Little did these two young Ohioans know that the song in question was trying desperately to have a great performer cover it. Cale wanted so badly* to have Frank Sinatra sing "(I Keep a) Close Watch" - he hired the orchestra, carefully calibrated the melody, ripped off one of Johnny Cash's best lines, kept the lyrics universal enough that Frank could do that thing he did. But it didn't work. Maybe the fact that it was lodged between a song about gay love and murder in the Wild West and a song about Pablo Picasso never getting called an asshole had something to do with it. Or the fact that the album that featured it was never released in the US. Or maybe it just wasn't up to Frank's standards.

Anyway, what we got was an over-the-top pile of sloppy sentimentality in performance and instrumentals and arrangement on top of a touching but slight song. It's a shame Cale can't do this one over again.

* According to the contributor of liner notes to Seducing Down the Door. Blame him if it's not true.

(I Keep a) Close Watch/Mama's Song

"Hi, this is Terry."
"Hey man, how's it going."
"Pretty good. Sandy's under the weather, but she's doing a little better. How are you and Vicky?"
"Fine, fine. I mean, she left last night, but that's fine."
"Aw, shit. I'm sorry to hear that."
"You shouldn't be. I'm not."
"OK. I am, though. Well, the reason I called... this is gonna sound kind of silly now."
"C'mon now, I'm a man. I can take it. Hell, I'm a free man now."
"Well, OK. Do you ever listen to John Cale anymore?"
"Yeah, once in a while. Paris 1919 and Fear, anyway. Heh, you know, that record really pissed off Vicky. Maybe I'll put it on..."
"Well, his new one came into the store. It's... it's pretty fucked-up."
"Really? Like Helen of Troy? Or do you mean good fucked-up?"
"Heh, ouch. No, this is good, I think. But it's painful stuff."
"Helen of Troy was pretty painful. Remember how excited you were to get it?"
"It's not that bad. Besides... you remember that 'Close Watch' song?"
"The Disney song?"
"Yeah, uh, that one. Well, he recorded it again."
"No, no, this is great. It's really... desolate. No strings. Nothing. Just him and his piano... and some organ... and... weird stuff. And it's the most pleasant thing on the album."
"Well, if you want to hear it some time, I've got it. Just let me know."
"Sure, I will."
"You wanna go out for a drink Friday?"

So, yeah, social engagements and such aside, the record eventually did change hands.

And on its return:
"Yeah, fucked up is right. Shit, I'm never listening to that again. But you're right, I do appreciate Close Watch a lot more now... until the fucking BAGPIPES start! Let me know when he makes a rock album again."

I Keep a Close Watch

Fifteen years after Helen of Troy destroyed the Akron Ohio Chapter of the International John Cale Fan Club, our friends, still in contact as they arc through middle age, happen to reminisce about music. Which leads to...
"You know, he released the best album he ever made a couple weeks ago."
"Aw, no. I heard some of that Andy Warhol album - the wife borrowed it from the library. Not my thing."
"No, not that. This is a solo acoustic live album. It's the best live album I own."
"You own an awful lot of live albums."
"I'm not exaggerating on this one."
"Heh, you seem serious enough. You know, I kind of would like to hear some of those songs again. Can you make me a tape?"
"Sure. Hey, you know...
"... he does Close Watch!"

An intro like "This is a love song, so hold onto someone you love," deserves a groan. But sandwiched between "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hallelujah," Close Watch finally found a context that made sense - not to mention its best recorded performance. And you know what? That's the year the Akron John Cale Fan Club reformed... at least for a while.

Here's a video for your trouble, from a 1983 solo gig down under:


Ian said...

I really, really need to get Fragments of a Rainy Season.

Anonymous said...

I like the Video. John Cale has his Han Solo outfit on.

Mark of the Asphodel said...

Yeah, I'd say the live version on Fragments is the definitive take on the song. I'd forgotten it went through so many permutations on the way, though. I'd forgotten the "Disney" version altogether, actually.

Anonymous said...

Great album, great post.