Monday, October 28, 2013

The Ostrich / Sneaky Pete

"The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet… I've lost my 'school-yard buddy'." - John Cale

I know this isn't the most dignified tribute to a real titan, but might as well go out with a wink and a smile. Funny how Lou's voice sounded just the same just last year.

The origin story of the Velvet Underground, the sordid tale of John Cale's descent from avant garde academic music to hedonist rock'n'roll, doesn't really begin with this silly 7" record, but it's good enough to start there. JC (and his fellow La Monte Young disciple Tony Conrad) answered a classified ad or something. Lou was branching out from being a songwriter for Pickwick to a performer as well. After the record, Reed's former college classmate Sterling Morrison was recruited, and Cale/Young collaborator Angus MacLise joined on drums. Conrad showed the guys a pulp sexploitation book called "The Velvet Underground," and that was that.

(Please forgive and correct any factual errors; working from memory. I'll hit the books tonight.)

Good night, Lou.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

I've made clear that I find Words for the Dying an affront. The instrumental and choral arrangements by Cale and Eno don't seem intrinsically bad, but between the completely affectless boy's choir and the sloppy Russian orchestra, the execution never gets better than tolerable. This feeling is amplified every time I listen to the unimpeachable stripped-down and focused solo piano arrangements featured on Fragments of a Rainy Season.

The chromatic harmonies and dissonant notes of the Words... arrangement of Dylan Thomas's most famous poem, however, add a layer of discontent to the oddly buoyant vocal and instrumental melodies that Cale uses for this poem that seems to extol senile dementia. For a while, I felt uneasy about it: the orchestral version that I disliked seemed to communicate the poem's tone more accurately than the solo version I loved.

A couple years ago, though, something extremely improbable happened: I found a useful YouTube comment. The author pointed out that the poem, after all, is a villanelle, a form originating in light pastoral subject matter. The poem subverts the form by taking this innocent form and twisting it to honor the incompleteness of even the greatest lives. The solo Cale arrangement does the same by taking more of the melodies into major keys and letting the dissonance out only in the connective tissue and certain vocal phrases.

(Not to give Dylan Thomas too much credit. "Do Not Go Gentle..." certainly helped repopularize the form, but it was on its way back already. Its resurgence in the 20th century led to many disturbingly effective poems, e.g. Sylvia Plath's "Mad Girl's Love Song".)

Here's the author himself reading the poem. It's striking how similar his meter is to Cale's - do you think that's a coincidence?


Sunday, October 6, 2013

She Never Took No For an Answer

When you think of the Sex Pistols' unlucky and incapable replacement bassist Sid Vicious and his unluckier girlfriend Nancy Spungen, you think of John Cale, right? Well, I don't, but the filmmakers of 1986 biopic Sid & Nancy (aka Love Kills) did, and I'm glad.

I'm honestly not sure what I think of the movie, but the soundtrack is one of my favorites, featuring really good songs by Joe Strummer, The Pogues, Steve Jones, and Circle Jerks; striking instrumentals by the Pogues and Pray for Rain; two tremendous in-character performances by Gary Oldman as Sid ("My Way" is better than Sid's); and, of course, this little ditty by our man John.

The song sounds like it was recorded around Artificial Intelligence: very 80s digital recording and synths. I'm not sure if any acoustic instruments are involved, actually. The vocal melody sounds improvised and the delivery matches, like Cale is singing to himself while walking in the dark woods. The tentative whistling gives the same impression. It's actually one of his more vulnerable moments. But maybe he was just distracted.

Like many others from the Caribbean Sunset/Artificial Intelligence years, "She Never Took No for An Answer" was a collaboration with roving lyricist Larry "Ratso" Sloman. The lyrics are a collection of memorable phrases ("carnivorous lovers", "parking lot vipers", "we'll sleep on the train that's leaving today"), but who knows what the song means. I think it's a meditation on failed escapism.

I'm not sure if the song was a donated outtake or written specifically for the movie, but it does use a phrase from the movie (spoken by Malcolm McLaren) about Sid: a "fabulous disaster". And final verse lyric "we all die like heroes when we're living like fools" seems appropriate to Sid & Nancy, at least for certain bathos-soaked values of "hero."