Part of the insane fun of following John Cale is engaging in cross-referential snipe hunts in an attempt to get inside Cale's head. For instance, one might listen to "Cable Hogue" and have one's curiosity piqued enough to pick up the bizarro Sam Peckinpah film The Ballad of Cable Hogue. "Ship of Fools" might likewise trigger the Dear Listener to check out the Katherine Anne Porter novel involving an international bunch of losers sailing from Mexico to Nazi-infested Germany. I do not recommend this course of action; it won't help you much in understanding Cale's song. The novel comes down squarely on the "people suck" side of the philosophical fence, but you can get that just by listening to Fear and it won't take nearly as long. So let's just concern ourselves with Cale's take on the loaded allegorical image of deranged passengers aboard a ship with no pilot.
Cale's "Ship of Fools" opens with a lovely floating motif, less appropriate to a ship than to a carousel. It sounds like a metallophone but apparently isn't, so it must be Brian Eno on the synth. Then Cale's weary voice comes in, complaining of hunger. Hunger is prominent in the early verses, hunger and desolation: "The black book, a grappling hook / A hangman's noose on a burnt-out tree." Cale and his friends are in Arizona, it seems-- wait a minute, Arizona? And fishermen who dream of sailing to there from Tennessee? On what river?
Cale's phantom caravan sails from Tombstone to Memphis, where Dracula gets onboard, and from there proceeds to Swansea. Home to Wales, in other words. And that's really the key here-- the images of hunger and poverty and desperate fishermen have nothing to do with Tennessee and Arizona at all. The hangman's noose and southern prayers are just another fantastic vision, Old Europe's fever dreams of the New World. Invisible cities, again.
But hold on, sister's gone south to give the sign. Is there hope? Probably not; the entire point of a ship of fools is that it's a bogus ark of salvation. Like a jester king on Mardi Gras, it's all cheap dazzle with no substance or authority. It'll be another Christmas in Wales with no food, just unfulfilled delusions.
And the ship fades into the distance with the carousel motif burbling merrily away. Round and round we go, and we're not getting anywhere.