Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Year of the Patriot

The aesthetics of desperation really work for me. That said, I have another obscurity for you, from the recently reissued Words for the Dying documentary - and its tragic nature (and the story gets worse) isn't its only notable aspect.

As usual, Hans scooped me on the money quote, but, hey, I'm not proud:

There was a Russian double bass player that Brian Eno and I ran into when recording ‘Words For The Dying’. He had gigantic hands. He had hands like spades. I remember before I met him I was listening to the radio in New York and they played his record. He used to play Paganini on the bass. I got to Moscow and I asked, “Do you know this guy?” And someone says “Yeah he’s in the next building. He works next door!” I told Brian about him and I said, “You gotta hear this guy play. He is just amazing! He plays the double bass but he plays Paganini on this thing!”
So we set it up and arranged it and it was really sad. I mean the guy walked in a tuxedo and sat himself up and brought all the armors with him and set the armors up on chairs behind him in a semi circle and he stood in the middle and he started playing the bass. We noticed there was something wrong and also we noticed that the people that worked with him were making fun of him. What was happening was the guy had a disease called lupus [ed. note: um, no, though quite possibly Marfan Syndrome.] and his whole body was changing. You know the bones kind of crumble and they swell up. And his hands were gigantic. Very efficient in playing what he was doing but his face had altered. And he had this sort of distorted flat face. And it was horrible the way they were making fun of him.

It's an uncomfortable scene - Cale and Eno are obviously rather horrified by the situation, and they're both remarkably condescending - but what emerges from it is an outline of a remarkable piece. Despite the project, the lyrics don't appear to be Dylan Thomas, but Cale - "I'm buying my enemies to sell my friends. I'm buying my friends to sell my enemies. In the year of the patriot, the traitor is king and the genie's out of the bottle." OK, somewhat rough, but it's the start of something.

When I first saw the documentary - on a hard-won VHS tape - I was struck by the piece and was saddened that it was reduced to this little scrap. It's hard to see what more they could have done with it, to be sure, but what's there is evocative. I guess I should be grateful to have it.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Sudden Death

Assassinations and societal upheaval in unspecified third world (?) countries are the order of the day in "Sudden Death," and no wonder. It's one of Cale's most outright political songs, and yet there's really no moral judgment happening: his most disgusted moment is when he seems to dismiss a murderous mob as amateurs. It's hard to get any sense of the narrator. The narrative voice is wry, detached, and more pitying than anything else. The result is an ambiguous, chiaroscuro lyric and one of the more haunting final tracks of any of Cale's albums.

What's most notable about the song is the way an astonishingly reportorial lyric is rendered elegantly in Cale's vocal. A line like, "UPI and Reuters were the first ones to the phone," does not deserve to work as well as it does - but then again I didn't parse the words for months of listening to it. There's a fatigue to the lyric that maybe captures the feeling of the mid-70s as well as anything else I've heard.

The slow and bassy music works well to match the lyric, though the echoed piano split at the wide edges of the stereo picture end up feeling unnervingly disco-ish. Lots of great viola and string work in general (not to mention bassoon!). It's a little turgid, I admit - I vacillate a bit on really how good it is. But it is certainly worth hearing.

Though Cale was not to record again for four years, 1979's Sabotage/Live picked up not far from where this track left off. Shame he never did this one live during those shows.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Don't Pretend

So, see if you believe that this exists. This is a self-helpish track, just this far from Max Powers in its lyrics. Our friend John urges us to carpe the diem in very blunt terms, with some seemingly obvious inversions of what is meant ("the physical world will transcend", "life is the dream that you must wake"). It lacks any sort of particular angle that would make it particular to a specific scenario, but is sort of generic and all-encompassing. Only the coda gives it any hint of an interesting spin: "You'll be a big man someday / just starting with today," which might be interpreted to mean that it's directed at the young.

But why does it feel like a Violent Femmes song? The vocal melody, the weird and American word choices, the occasional lapses into anachronism ("troubles must needs come"), the pulsing/stabbing instrumental (except here it's piano)? It's so blatant you'd think it was written by Gordon Gano.

Which indeed it was, appearing as it did on GG's strange 2002 quasi-self-tribute album Hitting the Ground. Elsewhere on the bizarre my-new-songs-performed-by-my-heroes album, Lou Reed got a cowriting credit on the much earthier "Catch 'Em in the Act", but Cale just plays the notes and sings the words as written. Gano observes, "I wrote 'Don't Pretend' trying to play like John Cale. Instead of me imitating him on the record, you get the real John Cale playing the song they way I envisioned it. How cool is that?"

It sounds like an interesting sort of hall of mirrors, Cale performing Gano (writing like Cale) like Gano, but really it just ends up being insulting to both of them. My favorite part of the whole weird scene is the credulous reviewers suggesting it would fit on Paris 1919. Thank God Cale was about to come out of his period of collaborative drift with 5 Tracks.