Monday, March 31, 2008


Another "One Word" b-side and North American Wrong Way Up bonus track, "Palanquin" is unquestionably Cale and Cale alone. If it it's not... well, I'll eat my hockey mask.

Why am I so sure? (The plastic may be hard on your teeth, but it's the padding that really discourages taking a bite.) I'm sure because it's a solo piano instrumental, the sort of rolling poco ritardando composition with light counterpoint and right and left hand voices moving in unison. But listening to it again...

Well, there's some synth in the background. There's no reason Cale couldn't have added that, really. He's perfectly capable of the trick of hiding the synth in plain view as part of the chord the piano is slowly exploring, then letting it peek out from behind the keyboard just when you've been lulled into thinking there isn't anything there...

But when the bubbling chimes come out to usher the piece to a close, precipitating out of the synth so naturally, irresistibly, inexorably... that's when I start thinking about what kind of condiment is appropriate for polyurethane.

No idea what this track has to do with human-powered transportation, though. (Chomp chomp.)


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Praetorian Underground

Sometimes really goony lyrical ideas can work out well. It takes the right combination of performance, composition, and (regrettably) a sense of the author to do it. Pete Townshend circa 1969 could do it; circa 2006, not so much. Thom Yorke's bizarre spiky creepy obsession songs lately ("I Froze Up", "Skip Divided", "All I Need") would be much less tolerable if I didn't have such regard for his usual "literate bus-station psycho" modus operandi. And Neil Young can toss outright stinkbombs ("I'm an Aerostar, I'm a Cutlass Supreme / in the wrong lane, tryin' to turn against the flow") into his grandest songs and make them the most appealing phrase. I don't know how much of it is just preserving the suspension of disbelief and how much is really alchemy.

So I guess what I'm saying is that you can spot the James Dean forgeries by their uncertain ways. Er, well, that's what John Cale was saying in "Praetorian Underground." It's a really thoroughly goony idea for a song. It involves a dystopian government regulating music, which (shades of Republic!) corrupts the heart of man. It also imagines a generation of musical pretenders, pretending to be edgy and not having the heart of boiling magma that a real artist has. And it connects the figurative heart of magma to the literal explosion of Krakatoa in 1883, which Cale seems to think kicked off the revolution in music that led to, well, him.

The silliness of this idea is tough to redeem, but somehow the song appeals to me. It's one of the mediocrities that keep Caribbean Sunset from any sort of essential status, but like much of the album it's curiously addictive. It's got familiar Cale tropes without the substance, it has an overly impassioned vocal performance, and appealing (in this case, frenetic) if unimaginative music. It's junk food, and, dammit, I do like it. Sing it with me now: A forgery will always let you dooooooown!


Friday, March 21, 2008

Waiting for the Man/Augustus Pinochet

I don't know what I'd have thought if I were in that audience. Cale is doing his usual mid-80s tour thing on "Waiting for the Man," hamming it up, performing it the way he did back then. It's really moving along. So of course he starts rapping about going to Chile in search of the great coffee bean.

Wait, what? Then he starts screaming at Augusto Pinochet? "I CLAUDIUS," he says. Which gives this modern monster of an "Augustus," a man unworthy of such a name, far too much credit. "Have another cup of coffee!" he bids the Generalissimo. "What's the matter, Augustus? Poison? I drink this poison to you, Augustus! I Claudius!"

Most amusingly, he changes the song's denouement - always the highlight of his versions - to a rather different sort of transfixion:

Augustus saiiiiiiiiid
Augustusssssss aaaaaiiiii Claudius
He said-
Don't leave me, don't leave me Clau-
Baby don'tcha holler
Daaaaarling pleeeeeease don't bawl and shout
I'm Catholic too
I'm gonna work it on out
I'm feeling so good, feeling so fine
Until tomorrow
But that's just
Just another


And what can you say to that? Nothing. You just shut up and listen.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Vigilante Lover

Artificial Intelligence: an attempt to be Leonard Cohen? Maybe, maybe not. (You have to ignore quite a few things, like the outward violence and half the songs.) It's as close as Cale comes, anyway, with songs like Vigilante Lover - radically different, yet sympathetic in some fundamental ways. Maybe it's shallow to connect the paganized Judaic symbolism of Cohen with the paganized Christian symbolism of Cale. Could be.

Maybe it's not very insightful to point out the preoccupation with crossing the line between love and war they shared for some of these years, rendering lovers' quarrels as humint battles and affairs of the heart as border disputes. It's certainly superficial to equate them or connect them simply on the basis of falling for 80s digital noises. But I'm not equating Cale to Pete Townshend or Roger Waters, am I.


It's just a feeling I get. Do I really have to point out that Cale covered a number of Cohen songs? Won't you just give me the benefit of the doubt here? I listen to all this music. Let me make an argument with my heart and my ears. Just this once.

The incantatory nature of the lyric here, the heart ripped open Cale pins on his sleeve, that's what makes this song. Autoabortive references to the Rosy Christians (he must have known better) certainly aren't. It's a supine song, the anger of a bum fallen into the gutter. It's as powerless a song as The Sleeper, but the illusion of calm has been thrown away. All he can do is scream:


And something is.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ides of March


OK, OK, as duels go, this one isn't really that aggressive. Cale and Riley face off on piano, true; but Cale's bit serves as the rhythm part, keeping time more reliably than the drums, which lay in the pocket behind the beat and hover at the edges of the stereo picture; Riley's bit (on I believe prepared piano, as there's some weird sitar-like noises that accompany his strikes) provides the "lead" voice, arpeggiations bubbling away as usual. It's the same approach as the two other long-form pieces on Church of Anthrax take, an approach that Riley seems largely responsible for - extreme repetition with a bit of subtle variation. Which isn't to say they sound the same at all; they just use the same techniques.

The first few (or twenty) listens, after the beautiful and expansive intro (which lasts all of seven seconds), it sounds more or less the same all eleven minutes through. Eventually, though, especially with repeated listens to the track, you start to discern a structure:

  • Riley drops out momentarily at two minutes before coming back with a more considered and assured lead part
  • he returns to the bubbling and it starts to slow down around the three minute mark
  • speeds up considerably a minute later
  • softens and recapitulates the beginning after seven minutes as Cale takes his part slightly out of key
  • slows down and flexes its muscles just after nine minutes in the coda.
The coda practically has more development than the rest of the piece put together, with Riley adding in a blues/gospel-ish call and response section before dropping out, only to voice a final piece of "advice" as Cale is bringing the piece to a close.

The drums (which seem to start in a syncopated parody of a march, perhaps giving the piece a punny title? or maybe it was just recorded today) sound interesting at first, but over time irritate and distract from the interesting piano dialogue more than they contribute anything. I'd like the piece much more without, I think. So it goes.

[Believe it or not, Church of Anthrax is getting an international rerelease - including its North American CD debut - in a month or so, so you'll finally be able to hear this *ahem* gem. It's not my first preference for a rerelease (in fact, it's one of my last), but those with a high tolerance for repetition and irritating noises are advised to check it out. I can't be the only one... right?]


Friday, March 14, 2008


John Cale took part in an infamous 18-hour performance of Erik Satie's "Vexations". While there is no recording of that performance (think of all that tape!), a video has emerged that's quite fascinating. Others have called it "astonishing", "jaw-dropping", "priceless." And I can't disagree - try to think of a network or channel that would play this today.

I've mentioned it before, and still don't really know what I think about the thing. It's certainly hypnotic, and enjoyable enough - it has that great late 19th-century crepuscular French mystic mood going, and that's worth something. You can read fascinating notes on the piece by a pianist who performed it in totum with only one partner, or the opaque Wikipedia entry on the piece, too, if you want a variety of nearly baseless speculation.

Try putting it on repeat, and see what you think after 840 playthroughs (to be honest, I'm not sure whether he plays one cycle or three). Volunteer for this experiment by downloading it here. The audience's titters may be distracting at first, but I find that they ultimately blend in well with the music, giving it some texture. God I'm being pretentious. Let me know how you make out, OK?


Sunday, March 9, 2008


I never wrote a song called "Cocaine"
I never wrote a song called "After Midnight"
My name is Cale
You can call me John

Poor John. Forced to differentiate himself - in 1983, for God's sake! - from the other John Cale, the one whose middle initial is J., the one who adopted the moniker "J.J." in the first place to differentiate himself from the Velvet Underground's bassist. It's all very sad.

"Autobiography" was a little tour rave-up concocted for the 1984 European tour and only played at a handful of shows, most notably at the Rockpalast show available in bootleg form in both audio and video. It's pretty shamelessly improvised, with unprocessed lyrics straight from the Cale cookbook ("Hmm, need lyrics - something about Wales! something about incapacitation due to drug use! something about friends!"). It even features shouted chord changes - appropriate enough for the Caribbean Sunset tour. Funnily enough, the riffs don't sound inappropriate for ol' J.J.

Nothing terribly memorable, but it's an amusing little bit of petulance. Have a listen. And, hey, Mr. Cale, happy birthday.