Friday, August 29, 2008

Dance of the Seven Veils

Today's my favorite feast day in the old Catholic calendar: the beheading of St. John the Baptist. It so happens that our man Cale has the perfect song for it, too - a live dramatization featuring Judy Nylon on vocals. Dance of the Seven Veils is a somewhat cheesy recasting of the very cheesy Oscar Wilde interpretation of the biblical Salome story. I find a little girl childishly toddling around the room and then asking for the head of the great (loony) ascetic to be a lot more appealing dramatically than Wilde's psychosexual obsessive.

Cale & Nylon & Co. thankfully do not take the material overly seriously. Judy chews the scenery nearly as well as her partner - as morningside posted over here, Salome is recast as a sassy New York Girl. Nylon's narration proceeds through flirtation ("to tell the truth..."), lust ("take his lips and..."), murder ("I want the head of the Baptist!"), and denouement ("'Now get her.'")

The instrumentals are really appealing, building and building circularly in a very post-rock way before crashing into that coda. The coda, the part that actually features singing, seems a little rough/incomplete, but it's an appropriate conclusion to the piece. ANYWAY, I wish there were more and better recordings of the Cale band(s) of this period - they're among the tightest and rapport-ful of any of Cale's bands. The performances on Sabotage are better than anything on Cowgirls, but not by that much.

Somehow I suspect that there was a visual component to this. Damn shame we don't have a record of that.


Saturday, August 23, 2008


John Cale and his good friend.  Photo by Ronald van Kaam.About the lede the other day...

I'm stealing from Hans here, who did the work of typing in the following from Cale's maddening, intriguing, invariably sordid quasisemihemidemiauto- auto- auto- autobiography What's Welsh For Zen?:

One day on the tour, we were driving back to London and I said to the tour manager, 'I want to get a live chicken.' We had bought a meat cleaver in Germany and it gave me an idea. I told him to stop at a farmhouse and buy a chicken, but put in a box so that nobody else in the band would know. However, he came out of the farmhouse holding the squawking chicken by its legs. All the way back to the Portobello Hotel everybody in the band was asking, 'What's he gonna do with the fucking chicken? You're not going to hurt it, right?'
The gig was at Croydon. I had the chicken killed backstage and put on a wooden platter with a handle. I told the roadie: 'When I get into the second verse of Heartbreak Hotel, slide it out to me on the platter.' I already had the meat cleaver stashed on stage. The guys in front were slam-dancing, bopping and swaying. All those punks with their leather and chains, pushing everybody because they had taken too much speed. So I thought, try a little voodoo! I am singing, 'We could be so lonely,' swinging the chicken around by its feet, nobody in the audience knowing it was dead, 'we could be so –' Twhok! I decapitated it and threw the body into the slam dancers at the front of the stage, and I threw the head past them. It landed in somebody's Pimm's. Everyone looked totally disgusted. The bass player was about to vomit and all the musicians moved away from me. Even the slam dancers stopped in mid-slam. It was the most effective show-stopper I ever came up with.
And then he goes and throws a hilariously awful dramatization on the even more hilariously titled 'Animal Justice' EP:
"Hi, my name is Arthur- and I quit!"


"You know he said something about a taking a feather home for his wife, you know for a hat that she was making."
"I don't- I don't know what he's gonna do with that chicken..."
"He said he's not gonna hurt it, so, so it's OK."
"Alright, fair enough."

Ain't nobody gonna waste my time
Nobody tells me what's his and what's mine
Break down a window, break down a door
Don't wanna listen to you no more

"I don't know man, I mean, it's uh, it's kinda, I'm getting kinda nervous."
"Starting to get worried?"
"I'm not qualified to..."

Go on by my houses, you tear down the wall
Darling don't like it, better stay at home
I need her trouble like a hole in the head
Get out yer gun and use it instead

"Checking out, need my things? Room 42, please."
"You alright, John? You're not gonna hurt it, are ya?"

Wasting your time, telling me what to do
Take it or leave it or put it down
Get out of the way, don't bring it down
Gotta be, gotta be put out in the ground

Chickenshit! Chickenshit! Chickenshit!

"Oh, oh my god."
"Did you, did you see what he did, he did?!" *retching noises*
"Oh, I don't believe he did it. I mean, I was standing right there, I saw the whole thing with my own eyes. I never thought he'd do something like that. I mean, what do you think? It was so unreal!"

Nobody gonna push me around
Nobody gonna put words in my mouth
Listen to no one, I don't get my mail
Told me a fool always ends up in jail

"What were you thinking? You said you weren't gonna hurt it!"
"I didn't hurt it, I killed it. Gave it the fucking heave-ho."
*chatter and recriminations*
Not an episode to be proud of (as Cale admitted, not quite convincingly). I'm not tolerant of cruelty to animals. Why, then, is this episode such a guilty pleasure to me as a fan?
Photo by Ronald van Kaam.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Heartbreak Hotel

This is the song that killed a chicken, and that's hardly the most remarkable thing about it. That was in 1977, in Cale's mid-post-Glam-ish-whateverthehell period. He was doing polo shirts before the Talking Heads, I'm saying. Back then, in those innocent days of good friends, fast women, lots of drugs, and no studio recordings whatsoever, Heartbreak Hotel was pretty much camp, as it was from its debut in the Cale arrangement on June 1, 1974 (yeah, that's the name of the album it's on, too - and we all know what happened on May 30). He would change the arrangement a bit over the years, but through the end of the Seventies it was pretty much the same old bloated parody.

Something like this, from as late as 1981 (gawsh, that's Andy Summers! yet another Cale almost-producee):

And as over-the-top as Cale was through most of that period, and even as genuinely threatening as he could sound, Heartbreak Hotel never really seemed more than a bit of good fun - something to lurch through with some high-concept stage mischief.

But somewhere between playing mit der Polizei and coming out of his lost years, in the less innocent days of good friends, fast women, lots of drugs, and possibly too many studio recordings, somewhere around the time he seems to have hit bottom in '83/'84, he started playing it on solo piano. And no more was this man kidding around.

You can hit this version as being equally over the top, less pleasurable, pretentious, laughably melodramatic without the sense of self-satire that earlier versions had. Hell, audience members start laughing - albeit nervously, this not being what they were used to.

But whatever you think of it, it's hitting an entirely different set of emotional targets now. Like Cale's other piano in extremis songs - Fear and Guts and Waiting for the Man - there's a potent mixture of emotions here. I don't know if it would stand as well on its own without exposure to the Presley version, Cale's earlier and later versions, etc. - but you who haven't heard any of it before can tell me, eh? But IMO it's the definitive Cale version of the song - hell, the most affecting arrangement of the Axton/Durden/Presley song around, says I - and it's not really represented on any albums (John Cale Comes Alive is as close as you get).

But in a radio studio late at night in the winter of 1984, in the middle of an almost unbelievably shambolic performance/forty minutes of weirdness, Cale essayed the unbeatable performance. Anger, resignation, hatred, fear- everything surfaces in it like tongues of flame in a fire. The ending even shut up the annoying radio personality (who, to be fair, was probably panicking at the disaster on his hands). Hear it, if you haven't. Listen again if you have.

Cale gradually gentrified the arrangement, removed the screaming and scenery chewing. The new arrangement, different spins of which can be heard on Circus Live and Fragments of a Rainy Season, is fine - moving in its way, more emotionally resonant than the original - I say this lovingly - wankfest. But it's almost background music now, and doesn't grab you by the balls. I don't think it's coincidence that it's paired with Style It Takes both places.

Subtlety has its virtues, and you can't live like Cale was living in 1984 for very long. But thank God we have recordings of Cale at rock bottom.