A John Cale Primer

It was Songs for Drella.

I’ve been trying to remember how I introduced myself to John Cale.  I’d been listening to Drella, the album that John and Lou Reed put together in memory of Andy Warhol.  I was enamored with the gently harsh sounds, the funny lines, the sweet adieu.   [“There is only one good thing about small town / You know that you want to get out”]

 

But it was Words for the Dying that set me loose.  This album put together everything I was learning about the academy-trained Cale.  All the pieces came together in my head – avant-garde, punk rock, classical, contemporary, straight-up dirty rock and roll, and a sort of mutant Welsh folk.  Most of this album is setting symphony and choral music to Dylan Thomas poems.  Listen to ”There Was A Saviour Interlude I”.

 

I think of three things when I think of John Cale.  He is intense.  He is stylistically restless – every album is different, always moving on, trying new things.  He looks nice in his page-boy haircut.  A fourth thing, I really like his deep baritone (?) voice, and it’s that vocal quality that gives so much of his music a comfortable trauma.

My objective is to select a clutch of songs for my reader, to help demonstrate the range of his discography, his inimitable ability to flow between styles and themes.  If I can get you interested, I can set you free.  A lot has already been written about John Cale, and I’m going to dispense with a biography.  I like what Rolling Stone entered into their encyclopedia:

His work shows a fascination with opposites: lyricism and noise, subtlety and bluntness, hypnotic repetition and sudden change.

The Velvet Underground, or course, is famous for Lou Reed: street wise lyrics and New York cool.  But co-founder John Cale brought the musical sensibility: arrangements, aggression, and experimentation.  Cale gave VU the drone.  “Venus in Furs” is a superb example.

Pay attention, if you are not familiar with VU.   There’s an odd, sweeping, sound, that I’m not sure I can identify.  There’s antagonism in the music – that’s all John’s experimentation – and it plays nicely with the antagonism of Lou’s poetry.  His electric viola is a clear contributor to the feel of this song.  If you have a taste for the macabre, you should also listen to Cale’s voice deliver “The Gift”.  (If you do not have a taste for the macabre, have a couple of shots and give it a listen.)

From The Academy in Peril, I want to offer “Legs Larry At Television Center”

The narration, by someone called Legs Larry Smith, is simple production instructions.  I guess we hear this sort of thing all the time.  I’d like to be able to hear the piece without the narration, but I like that it’s left in.  I know nothing about this, but assume the song title and narrated words tell the whole story.

Camera two, cut to two
Lovely, hold that, hold that, hold that
Right, pan in on Ronnie then, come to Ronnie
Watch the cello love, watch the cello
Mind your boom – for blimey’s sake
OK, OK, lovely
A little more rain, a little more rain
Silly cow, smashed his make-up now

Hilarious.

John has worked on several soundtracks, including this one, 23 Solo Pieces for La Naissance De L’Amour, consisting entirely of solo piano.  There’s texture, emotion, and thoughtful sounds.  Here’s a sample

I was record shopping with friends once, and bought the Cale compilation, Seducing Down the Door, a Collection 1970-1990.  We went back to their place to listen to what we bought.  After the first CD (it’s a 2-CD set), Pat said, “Wait, I want to see something…” And put a Madonna record on.  It was such a breath of fresh air.  I’d never noticed how intense John Cale was, I’d always just loved his music.  The juxtaposition with Madonna was edifying!  (This is not an endorsement for Madonna.  I can neither confirm nor deny that you should listen to her.)

Heartbreak Hotel demonstrates what he does to rock and roll.  Give him a classic crooner’s love song and Cale breaks it.  It becomes an intense study of emotional pain.

Excellent.

I’ll hazard a guess that any contemporary musician would deal with Lucifer to be so enabled.  Actually, with research, I’ve chosen a live version instead of the studio version.  If I’m going to post YT vides, when I am able, I’d like to give you something to look at besides the album cover.  Plus, serendipity, I think this odd version shows more examples of what I’ve tried to demonstrate for you, dear reader.

There are two particular joys that I’m finding as I continue with this blog.  First is the gained edification; I have to think about why I like a piece of music, and I have to think how to put that into words – and that creates a nice circle of think-write-learn-repeat.  The second unexpected enjoyment is the things I find as I research a piece or a topic that I think I already know pretty well.  And that is the story for my lsat selection in this primer.  In 1963, well before the Velvet Underground, John Cale was on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret.  This is the story of “Vexations”, and at the end, a sample of the score played on piano.

There is so much I have left uncovered.  I counted 15 studio albums, another 6 live albums, and 4 collaborative studio albums (which seams sparse, maybe people have trouble counting).  He has scored movie soundtracks, and assembled compilations for many other movies.  The list of people and bands he has produced is uncountable; his work with Nico, Patti Smith, and The Stooges, to just name 3, is legendary.

Tell me, dear reader, what you’re loving, what I’ve missed, what you’ve found that’s new to you.

 


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Community Noise

Interested in music. Most of my personal catalogue is indie bands, and punk, but also avant garde, blues, Motown ... almost but not quite, anything. I am now learning much about classical and contemporary works. I'm looking for people to share music, new and old, and looking for new avenues to discovery new music. Come with me.

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