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.