Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hungry for Love

Caribbean Sunset is another contender for "strangest album". Despite the Jimmy Buffettesque name and hilariously 80s cover (dig that coffee-package album logo, that colorful sweatshirt, and the blue skies reflected in his shades!), the 1984 album is aggressive, angry, and rather bonkers, much like its predecessor Honi Soit. (How Music for a New Society was born between the two is beyond me.) As on HS, the songs are angry and threatening even when (I think) they're trying to be upbeat.

Caribbean Sunset also fits neatly into the possibly nonexistent category of music known as "Spy Rock", described very memorably (though I think much too loosely) at John Hodgman's and Jonathan Coulton's Little Grey Book Lecture Series by a gentleman named David Guion. (Listen to podcast number 2 here. I promise it's worth the time.) Despite earlier ventures into the pseudo-genre ("Sudden Death", "Leaving It Up to You", "Fear", maybe even "Endless Plain of Fortune" or "Ghost Story"), Cale's work really swung that way in the Reagan years. From his live shows in '78 all the way through Artificial Intelligence, you can practically smell Foreign Affairs on his breath.

I haven't decided yet whether or not this anger and menace is a liability. Album opener "Hungry for Love" is a rather slight thing, an exhortation to, um, love more...? Specifically, to love Mr. Cale more. He promises to reciprocate. But the arrangement and especially the vocal delivery make me wonder; listening to his performance feels like being browbeaten, not seduced or consoled.

Especially on the bridges. "You can walk on water 'cause you're feeling strong. You can walk, you can walk on water. That's what women know!" is one. "You can see the writing, it's on the wall. You can see the writing, it's ten foot tall!" is the other. I don't hear anything but anger and resentment in the vocals. "Writing on the wall" is, from its biblical origins to the present day, not really a good sign.

The band sounds good, though very straitlaced slightly-punky conventional rock. The composition is rather catchy, with a mirrored piano figure as the main hook. It doesn't suffer horribly from digital recording. It's maybe a bit compressed, but maybe that's an artifact of the vinyl rip I have. The dissonant piano and the one-note guitar solo near the end add even more tension and fear to this romantic little ditty, so it's not just the vocal. There's an unusual accent in the backing vocals on the coda... that couldn't be Nico, could it?

There's just an irresolvable tension between what the song claims to be and what the band actually recorded. But, you know, it actually makes for more interesting listening.

Here's a well-made cover of the song that delivers more accurately on the emotions promised by the song's lyrics and melody. Do you think it's better?


Saturday, September 28, 2013


And now for something completely different.

Mr. Cale has always had an eclectic taste in covers (Axton/Durden/Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel", Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso", Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows", Ralph Vaughn Williams's "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence", and so on), so it shouldn't be too surprising that he covered Chuck Berry's legendarily expectation-upsetting "Memphis, Tennessee".

It's not one of his most illuminating covers - despite a lot of rearrangement, the overall effect is pretty close to the original. The vocal is bullish, sanding off most of the emotional details, and is probably the weakest link in the song. There's a little bit of everything in the mix and the instrumental parts are continually changing through the song, but I'm not sure that makes it better listening. The hornet-swarm guitar and viola solos, recalling Fear's "Barracuda", are striking and the best reasons for listening. Overall not essential, but worth a listen now and again.

What is surprising about the song is its context. It may sound like an Island Years outtake, but it occupies the second a-side slot in 1977's ultra-bizarre Animal Justice EP, after punkish Croydon Chicken Incident souvenir "Chickenshit". The b-side is "Hedda Gabler". The Cale discography is full of odd records, but I'm pretty sure this one's the strangest.

Speaking of strange: here, watch a Czech Cale cover band (!!!) cover JC's arrangement. Amazing job, but somebody get this poor man a lyric sheet.


Friday, September 20, 2013

If You Were Still Around

Another Music for a New Society cut, you say? Yes, yes. Bear with me. I've been thinking about it a lot for reasons that will soon become obvious.

Probably the simplest, sparest track on the album, "If You Were Still Around" packs one of the strongest punches even so. There's hardly any music to speak of: The drum machine at the edges of perception, barely more than a metronome. The organ, nothing but a few chords with some very sparing accents, offering a scale climb where the middle eight should be that serves as the song's only ornamentation. No harpsichord, ghostly electric guitar, electric piano, viola, electronics.

And then there's the vocal. Not the most sober of the album - that's "Close Watch". Not the most carefully expressed - that's "Taking Your Life in Your Hands". But perhaps the one that most carefully keeps to the edge between performance and exorcism, mimicking the underlying tension of the whole album. And the control on display here amplifies instead of soothing the tension.

The lyrics, a contribution from Sam Shepard, seem unusually clear. Addressed to a friend lost to self-destruction, marinating in powerlessness and frustration, they bargain with the lost. The images of cradling and of resuscitation of the first verse, slipping into recollection of the self-harm: "You could ride, like a panther, whatever got into your veins. What kind of green blood swum you to your doom." The most arresting moment, confronting lost opportunities to help: "If you were still around, I'd tear into your fear, leave it hanging off you in long streamers, shreds of dread." And finally giving way to voodooistic avenues for resurrection: "If you were still around, I'd turn you facing the wind, bend your spine on my knee, chew the back of your head till you opened your mouth to this life."

So it may not be very uplifting, but on THIS album it's one of the more heartening and life-affirming tracks.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Damn Life

Everybody knows the Kübler-Ross model of grief. First the grieving person faces denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression, then, finally, acceptance of their situation. Like many things that everybody knows, it's bullshit. Kübler-Ross herself originated the hypothesis dealing with terminally ill patients facing their own deaths, though she later expanded it to encompass all grief. She did not believe that her stages were the only emotions people experienced, only that they were common; she did not believe they happened in any predictable order; and she did not think that one simply moved through them. In the real version of her model, they are states that may be visited repeatedly while processing the life-altering event. Beyond the popular misconceptions about what the model is, there is no compelling evidence in scientific studies that the stages even exist, and the idea that they do may be harmful in pressuring people to fit their emotions to them.

My own experience of grief is like a fire, flickering and flaring up and dying down, with hot spots moving and the flames dancing unpredictably. You can't point to one place in my emotional landscape and say what it is; the map is forever changing. One hour I am filled with joy for having experienced what came before; the next, with anger and looking for somebody to blame; emptiness and blankness; guilt and self-loathing; then resignation; paralyzing sorrow; an urge to do something useful to honor the lost or to avenge the loss on the guilty; elation at release and freedom; hopelessness, and hope renewed; then, hope dead, peace and tranquility restored. (When this process has struck me during the working week, I'll tell you, the mental gymnastics involved while keeping external placidity and professionalism are nothing short of Olympian.) And then I sleep, and I wake, and it all starts again.

And that's how this song goes.

Arguably the emotional climax of Music for a New Society, occupying the penultimate spot in the tracklist, "Damn Life" starts out with warm-up-y piano and synth burbles before absurdly breaking into Beethoven's Ode to Joy. It begins in disconnected jagged fragments of lyrics over that damned joyous beer-hall melody, the wistful and hard-panned guitar and synth, and the eerily funereal lagging kick-drum-driven beat. "Damn life. Damn life. What's it worth. Getting on without... This city... It's just self-pity. Damn life. You're just not worth it. You're just not worth it. ... Oh no, respect, respect, what's respect? Cause and effect. Self-respect." It might be funny if there were any sign of humor in his voice. There is not. Just dejection, depression, despair.

Then the tempo quadruples. Piano chords. Guitar scales. Tambourine. Constant drum fills. Fucking ? and the Mysterians "96 Tears" style bubbly organ. He's talking about somebody else now? "She was the one that got left behind, she was the one got lost." He sounds almost happy. "Never took from anybody, self-sufficient at any cost." Then... non-sequitur? "No, nothing can break this heart of mine!" Celebratory and defiant vocals. God, the drum fills. It's like somebody different in the kit. "It stands invincible all the time. Can't always get what ya left behind. Seek and you shall find, yes seek and you shall find. Oh, the daaaa" and here everything slows and Ludwig returns, "aaaaaaaamnlife!"

And back to the slow chorale, sans vocals, the drummer lagging even further behind the beat. And now the Mysterians return, then leave again.

And again we're left with the Ode and the mysterious lady. "So she's still wandering her heart away; doesn't even know if it's night or day." And here... his voice... is that all... contempt? "And even if someone helped her up, she'd stand little hope of recognizing those friends she had." Yes, definitely contempt. "And in many, many ways, those friends were GLAD." Holy shit what just happened. There may even be an element of triumph in that final scream.

I have listened to this song so many times now, and every time I still wince at the end. My heart cannot help but go along for the ride. Sometimes I sympathize with the depressed narrator, sometimes with the defiant, sometimes with the contemptuous. Who is "she"? Nico? His stalker? Who knows. It doesn't really matter.

Feeling this song might make me a worse person. But it represents the fire of loss better than almost anything else I can think of. There are better-known songs on Music for a New Society, but there's nothing more powerful. Make this your own at your own peril, but it bears the truth among the flames.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Guts (the compilation)

Happy Friday the 13th! No, Jason Voorhees fans, my man John isn't dressing up like your guy. Cale may have been the first to popularize the hockey mask as a symbol of derangement and murderous intent. He took up the mask sometime around 1975 for his increasingly insane live concerts. I have no evidence that the filmmakers swiped it, but they had five years and this weirdo compilation's album jacket artwork to help them do it.

And Guts is a weirdo compilation. Cale was, apparently, not a favorite of his Island Records bosses, who, as we just established, released Helen of Troy unfinished, without his consent, and deleted the best track after the first pressing. According to Robert Christgau, they didn't release Helen of Troy in the US. I've also heard that the Island albums were not very heavily promoted and were deleted quickly, though I'm failing at finding sources at the moment. Maybe Island thought the albums were too weird, veering from the pastoral and sentimental to the murderous to the parodic and absurd as they all did.

But then they decide to take a selection of Cale's most insane tracks from the three albums (along with an outtake*) as a compilation? Go figure. I've always been biased against the album because of its checkered history and the fact that it appears to have been an attempt to cash in on schlock rock in its glory days. And yet, listening to the vinyl quite a few times in the past few weeks, I have to say it works. The mood swings are what make the real Island records such interesting listening, but Fear is the only stone-cold classic in the bunch. Honing it down to a bunch of songs that occupy different places in the continuum from crazily debauched to crazily dangerous makes for a smoother, easier-to-grok listen.

You have to be in the mood for crazy, but, man, look at the cover. Hell, it's Christgau's favorite Cale record, so it worked for somebody.

* yes I realize I covered this ground pretty well in the writeup for "Mary Lou", but hell, it's Friday the 13th and this is my blog dammit.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mercenaries (Ready for War)

"Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of a stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you."
- Niccolò Machiavelli, 'The Prince' Chapter XII

Back in January 1980, with a nightmare awakening in Afghanistan, Thatcher getting comfortable at Downing Street, Reagan waiting to be inaugurated, and decades of mercenary-assisted bloodshed in Africa, John Cale released a topical single that he'd been playing live for a year or so. A rocking little ditty with prescient and sinister artwork, "Mercenaries (Ready for War)" was a studio recording of the lead-off track of the previous month's live LP of new material, Sabotage/Live.

The circumstances being what they were, then, you may be surprised to know that the song's not about war. It's not about killing and terror and bloodshed and death. It's about money. Sort of the dog-o-war version of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)", when you get down to it. Just another soldier boy, looking for work, cleaning his rifle, and above all making sure he gets paid. Sure, the song ends with a guitar-based "charge!" bugle call and a run on Moscow, but that's just the new frontier of the bank account.

If the single were the only recording of this song, it would be a highlight of the catalog. The vocal is one of Cale's most intimidating studio attempts; the sound of the band is raw and live like few of his other studio cuts. The guitar tones are exceptional. (The bass could be heavier, but let's not nitpick.) Even the fadeout doesn't sound cheap - Cale goes out screaming. (The b-side is worth a listen too.) Too bad the masters of the single are presumed lost forever.

... but fortunately the definitive version of the song had already been recorded. The live version that opens Sabotage starts with Cale declaiming a much pithier paraphrase of the Machiavelli quotation above over the disjointed solo bassline. Then the guitar storm starts, and every compliment I just paid to the studio version applies tenfold. Cale delivers every word right. In the live/LP environment, the song is allowed to unfold in a more frighteningly relaxed way, and the tension by the ending raid sequence is intolerable.

"Mercenaries" formed a set staple through the geopolitical insanity of the early 80s (e.g. the decent version on Live at Rockpalast), then was left behind with most of the more martial stuff. It was resurrected in odd fashion at a memorable concert at the Amsterdam Paradiso in 2004. Redone as a electronic jazz poetry-slam number with synth backing vocals, with "Taps" replacing the "Charge!" call, the song was one of the more controversial moments of a controversial concert, but it works for me.

Perhaps at that time of madness and paranoia, anything that engaged seriously with the horrifying mistakes my country had made and the amount of money flowing to the Halliburtons and Blackwaters of the world was bound to connect. With a possible invasion of Iran looming, hearing the inspired "Let's go to Tehran / find the back door to the Majlis, kick it down and walk on in..." hit buttons I wanted/didn't want pressed. (This version was released on Circus Live, but with an unnecessary and detrimental layer of "drone" added for reasons I don't understand. To drown out the audience chatter, I imagine.)

The song may not be all that deep, but it still offers us something to reflect on. We still live in the world of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, of the realpolitik American use of coup and assassination and cooperative dictatorship to fight its ideological opponents, of the British partition of India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, of the Mongol destruction of the irrigation canals of Iraq. (And we kill in it.) We even live with some of the mercenary murderers of 20th century - the greatest son-of-a-bitch of them all is still alive! The past is with us always, even when we don't see it; each decision we make could, invisibly, one day prove fatal. Sleep tight.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Leaving It Up To You

So finally we're here, and I'm about to grab the third rail of Cale commentary. There's no way to successfully elucidate this song. It's been nice knowing you.

Almost impenetrable, murderous, regretful, cancerous, marinating in vengeance and resentment and loss, "Leaving It up to You" seems to be many people's favorite Cale song. It touches on assassination, Manson, the press, war in the desert, crumbling buildings, wastelands, and black magic. It makes very little rational sense. Our man even runs out of words in the last verse, repeating himself somewhat inanely, all bluster and threats of sorcery because he's got nothing else left.

So why do I get the sense that the song, like Close Watch or Ship of Fools, started as a reference to the pop music of the previous generation? The 1957 Don & Dewey doo-wop number "I'm Leaving It Up To You" didn't make much of a splash. Dale and Grace popularized it as a duet. Maybe that one caught Mr. Cale's fancy? Not only was it was the number 1 easy listening single the day JFK was shot, the performers were in Dallas attending Kennedy's motorcade that day, seeing him just before the fatal moment. I think that scene would be up Cale's alley.

But more likely: the song became a hit again, coincidentally right before the album this song appeared on, Helen of Troy, was recorded. At the accursed golden throats of Donny & Marie Osmond, no less. God, wouldn't it be great if exposure to those two drove JC to thoughts of murder?

But if there's any connection, it doesn't go any deeper than the chorus at best. Actual song commentary after the jump...

There's no way to avoid the obvious: the studio version of this song is almost unbeatable. The heroin-rock loping bassline, the chugging twitching drums, the eerie edge-of-the-mix organ, the tersely tremendous Spedding guitar stabbing, the unearthly Eno synth over the last verse.

And the vocal! It is surely one of Cale's greatest performances in the studio. Flat affect and boredom in the first verse, an edge coming on in the first chorus. The stakes raising in the second verse with the best lyrics - "all the buildings are breaking down like the whispering in your heart and it's sordid how life goes on when I could take you apart" - with threats and accusations building as his voice rises to a scream. The final verse features a rare instance of shamanism - Cale relaying images of the distant horizon, bobbling syllables, convulsing with the words as that synth bubbles malevolently. (This verse would prove hard to put across live without the backing.) And the resignation turning over to desperation in the end. "For God's sake, TAKE IT!" he cries, whispers, sobs. Sure, it sounds like there's a clumsy tape edit between takes at "I know we could all feel safe like Sharon Tate", but that's small potatoes.

The song was inexcusably pulled from the album - read the whole story in my writeup of "Coral Moon", the sweet nothing that replaced it - allegedly because of the Sharon Tate reference. I suspect Island actually pulled it because it scared the shit out of them. It did find wide and permanent release two years on the then-essential compilation Guts.

Live band performances on record are mostly wanting. Comes Alive features a mix of enthusiasm and diffidence on everybody's part, the almost excellent performance (with a great pleading-for-his-life coda) on the recently issued Rockpalast set is weighed down by ill-advised gang vocals.

But then there's the solo acoustic version, and it might even unseat the studio version. The chorus now features suspended chords that rise eerily, providing a weird pool of calm between each wrenching verse. Even his threats to get media coverage now seem less terrible. Somehow this makes the vocal even more powerful. Both released acoustic versions (on Live at Rockpalast and on Fragments of a Rainy Season) have a lot to offer, and you really ought to obtain both by any means necessary.

It's not just the Welsh throat and tongue that gives the acoustic arrangement its power; it's one of my favorite songs to play live, and impresses even the people who are horrified by it. The third verse is really difficult to put across, though - what tanks? why are they crawling across the desert? why are the tanks breaking up your spell? what spell? why are you casting spells anyway? and what are you looking on on the ceiling at the back of the room? Maybe I just don't play the shaman very well. Mr. Cale doesn't always do it so well either, though.

I have to confess that I have no idea what this song means. I think I'm happier that way.

Phew, dodged that one. Say, who's that behind me? Excuse me, I-- *ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZAP!*