John Cale—

Released 1974 on Island
The Seth Man, December 2003ce
Sometimes I do not know which version of John Cale I love the most because there are so many different facets to the man and his music that I lost track of some of them sometime last decade. But mostly, I think I love the man for that very reason: that if I did keep track, it would be just as a futile exercise that would consume too much time; time infinitely better spent listening to his music.

I couldn’t even begin to discuss his contributions within The Velvet Underground, something which would fit a hardcover book three inches wide covering the musical, psychological and cultural implications/repercussions of Cale’s work within the band (with at least 30 pages of colour plates featuring the best shots of The Velvets extant AND every photo of Cale during his ‘68 moustache phase.)

For a start, he is a composer, songwriter, producer, bass player, guitarist and pianist.
He produced the first Stooges album, two of Nico’s best albums...The Modern Lovers...Patti Smith’s “Horses.”
Oh, and an early Happy Mondays single.

Even if he was only ONE of those descriptions listed above, was he a pop artist or rock’n’roller? Avant gardist or classical musician? Or just a soft spoken gentleman with a naturally endowed gift for assembling music of every kind and making it his own?

I dunno anymore. I just can’t sum up John Cale because there is too much to his manifold musical approaches. But I can state at least a handful of achievements of his that always impressed me: In 1970, he recorded the way-out repetitious “Church Of Anthrax” with avant gardist Terry Riley. He took Little Feat and corralled them into performing the best album of their career by backing him on his solo album, “Paris 1919.” He almost covered Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” with Led Zeppelin, but wound up recording it with members of Roxy Music instead and transformed it into sheer audiac heart attack. He chopped up living poultry onstage just to cheese off his veggie band mates. He fell offstage once because his vision was blocked by no less than several layers that included a ski mask and glittering human fly goggles (immortalised on the back cover of his compilation, “Guts.”) He covered Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and exposed it as the underage teen queen sleaze it was really was. In the early eighties he was no less comfortable in any one single mode as he recording a track called “Strange Times In Casablanca” that sounded too close to Tom Petty’s “Refugee” for comfort in its total riff-rock schlock horror AND followed it up on the album with “Wilson Joliet”: one of his best and most atmospheric tracks from the eighties, or ever. A Euro-disco pop album was recorded; he reconvened with old sparring partner Lou Reed to pay tribute to their mentor Andy Warhol and a few years later turned out a fairly layered electronic pop exercise with Brian Eno. He then released the stunning “Words For The Dying,” setting the lyrics of fellow countryman Dylan Thomas to orchestral arrangements and sticking on at the end as if it were an afterthought one of his most haunting tracks, “The Ghost Of Carmen Miranda.” Then many soundtracks done for small Continental labels appeared in racks, only to stay there for years before suddenly disappearing forever.

His stance is never fixed, yet his approach always seems casual: as if once making light speed emotional and intellectual contact with the work at hand, he is just as quick to leave it behind. Perhaps it was his Warhol training, the codeine-laced bottles of Dr. Brown’s cough syrup he was administered with as a young child in Wales or probably: just his own way of working.

I saw him perform twice at The Bottom Line in the late eighties, and his rendition of “The Endless Plain Of Fortune” made my girlfriend weep beside me after I had to drag her there in the first place. I also spotted him chucking a letter into a mail box once in New York City and it made the rest of my day seeing the man who played bass on “The Gift” performing a task so typical and mundane it seemed I dunno, appropriate, somehow.

All I can say is twenty years ago I bought my first John Cale album -- “Fear” -- and after a single listen, I thought that this was going to take some time to fully digest. It took twenty years.

The subjects of loss and of longing are at the heart of Cale’s three Island releases that comprise “Fear,” “Slow Dazzle” and “Helen Of Troy.” All are set within minimalist repetitions that carry the songs downstream of consciousness and into a slowing of both time and space while all the, moving.

Several piano chords are hit and “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend” begins with an ultimately false bottom because once it shakes out in the middle section where the band appears, a spiky guitar riffs and the bass guitar with the crackling cord filtered through a long cardboard tube winds up going all free-from and berserk. Booming and zooming beyond the cutting out of the band, Cale’s just repeating the phrase “SAY FEAR IS A MAN’S BEST FRIEND...” until everything cuts out.

A great way to start an album.

“Buffalo Ballet” opens with a nearly “Let It Be” introductory piano into a wistful reflection on the American western frontier of yore. Cale’s overdubbed viola sweetly caresses the bittersweet lament as female voices sonorously recapitulate the phrase “sleeping in the midday sun...sleeping in the midday sun...” as if that were the true legacy of the old west. “Barracuda” barges open with an almost lopsided reggae rhythm accompanied by Eno’s dissonant synthesizer and Manzanera’s stinging guitar. I once made a mix tape using the beginning, flickering signal of a twisting radio dial from Eno’s “China My China” off “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” and paused the tape right after Eno’s breathy, “In the --” then dropped in “Barracuda” right after it. Not only because it worked perfectly (and freaked out everyone I played it for) but I wanted to convince them of the overlapping of conceptual constructs that Cale and Eno employed during those years of high artistic yield on Island (also on that tape was Genesis’ absolutely Eno-influenced drift instrumental, “Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats” from “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” as well as Eno’s own “Over Fire Island” --followed up by comparison with Brand X’s “Unorthodox Behaviour.” It was a comparison because there was NOTHING to contrast as it was a different take of the same percolating Percy Jones bass signature working against the earnest timekeeping of Phil Collins.) Minimal piano notes ebb and flow against the electronic waves issuing forth from Eno’s VCS3, lapping up against the shoreline of “Emily.” Sentimentally set on some faraway beach, the harmony vocals of Liza Strike, Irene and Doreen Chanter continually return with the tides to refrain, “Maybe...we’ll love...again...” but with the spacious entry of “Ship Of Fools” the mood lightens sizably as piano and organ mix together into a feeling of Christmas with the tinkling of chimes.

The exhaustively repetitious “Gun” takes up most of side two like “The Bogus Man” did on side two of “For Your Pleasure.” The lyrics ripped from the pages of hard boiled detective novels mix with Cale’s idiot-energy piano and twisted Manzanera guitar soloing that passes through a series of nefarious treatments via Eno’s VCS3 until it doesn’t sound like either guitar or synth...and Freddie Smith keeps the restrained beat steady and simple beyond its fade. With Cale’s “Blueberry Hill”-rendered stride piano “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Afford To Orgy” opens and includes a coquettish appearance from Judy Nylon as she coos, coaxes and practically sticks her tongue into your ear to get you in the mood, but no way: the man who couldn’t afford to orgy is having none of it and remains resolute in his decision, the dumb fucker.

The beautiful harmonies of “You Know More Than I Know” work with laconic guitar phrasing, a quiet piano patterning and the vocals of the Chanter girls and Liza Strike. The massive “Momamma Scuba” rounds out an album of primitive minimalism, courtesy of appearances from three simultaneous slide guitars, three girls and two Winkies. Cale sure knew how to pick ‘em.