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!*


Inverarity said...

I feel like I'm cheating by not addressing the subject matter, but what the fuck can you say??

Ian said...

I thought you did address it?

Inverarity said...

Well, kinda, in the same way that a list of ingredients addresses a meal. But the recipe, well, you're on your own.

Anonymous said...

Thrilled to see exposition on this song!!!