John Cale


It seemed like his decision to work exclusively on music for theatre, ballet and movies was final, but John Cale decided to give us a surprise by recording another album of songs. Almost two albums, in fact, if we take into account a very nice EP - transparently titled 5 Tracks - which came out a few months before HoboSapiens. A quick look at the cover of Walking On Locusts - the last CD of songs he released - confirmed my memory: it had come out six years ago. So it's not really important to determine whether all the media attention has been due to the sheer pleasure of seeing him back or to the fact that Emi - John Cale's new label - is maybe a bit anxious about the whole matter.

If I remember correctly, Walking On Locusts had not been greeted so warmly. It wasn't by any means a bad record, though it could be said that it could have benefited by a bit more pruning in the choral department at the arranging stage. Was it a rock record? Sure it was - if we consider Brian Wilson and Randy Newman as people who release rock records. Or if we regard Paris 1919 as a rock record - and isn't it the album that many consider to be one of Cale's undisputed masterpieces?

It was ten years ago that the brief - and so heatedly discussed - Velvet Underground reunion took place. Then came the live album titled MCMXCIII and, two years later, the 5 CD box Peel Slowly And See. It's pretty obvious that if John Cale and Lou Reed had not been such an important part of the Velvet Underground the attention received by their solo output would have been considerably less. But fame and credits were not divided according to the work they had done in the group. It's not even necessary to mention La Monte Young and Tony Conrad. Listening to those first two Velvet Underground albums - and to those musical ideas, for which the real inventor did not always receive proper credit - is all it takes. And I think I'm not wrong in saying that it was these ideas that people like the members of Can and the pre-Roxy Music Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera reacted to.

To say that media space and fame are built as much off the stage as on it is an incredibly banal consideration. It's better to argue about other matters. For instance, it's funny how - while the Velvet Underground's notoriety is mainly attributable to the group experimental side - the passing of time seems to have made opaque for most the enormous difference (in terms of depth, ambition, results) that exists between the band's four studio albums. Which goes hand in hand with the fact that many consider the Velvet Underground as a sort of "garage" band (just listen to those who are - supposedly - influenced by them). We could also notice how Lou Reed's commercial success has been due to works that were not related to the group's more experimental side. Check Transformer (1972), the glam album produced by David Bowie (and Mick Ronson!); the guitaristic assault of Rock'n'Roll Animal (1974); the metal-tinged r&b produced by Steve Katz on Sally Can't Dance (1974); the limpid rock music - as dry as some black music - on the Godfrey Diamond-produced Coney Island Baby (1976). If we now add the colossal input by Bob Ezrin on the Berlin masterpiece (1973) it will be clear why Lou Reed's music became so poor as soon as he decided he had grown too big to accept any outside input.

But Walk On The Wild Side (and the Honda commercial) is only half the story. While Lou Reed has learned more and more about how to use the studio, the technology and the sounds - it could be said that the technical side is the best part of his later work - the opposite seems to be true for John Cale: a musical genius who seems to possess a kind of attention so bright and intense that it has by necessity to be short, and so it cannot sustain the work that still has to be done. Though curiously the same doesn't seem to be true for those records that he produced (and on some of which he played), especially those released under Nico's name: The Marble Index (1968), Desertshore (1971), The End (1974), Camera Obscura (1985). So it's the albums where he received considerable outside help - such as Paris 1919 (from 1973), produced by Chris Thomas, and Honi Soit (1981), produced by Mike Thorn and recorded and mixed by Harvey Goldberg - that are those which work best as records. Of course, we have to add the superb and one-of-a-kind Music For A New Society (1982).

I have few doubts about the fact that the corpus of songs written by John Cale is vastly superior to those written by Lou Reed, and absolutely none if we take into consideration only those which were written after the two men started drinking decaf. And I think this to be true as much for the music that (surprise!) for the lyrics. Considering what I said earlier about the studio LPs, I think it's better to catch John Cale live, possibly solo. A good approximation is the ideal anthology of Fragments Of A Rainy Season (1992), while John Cale Comes Alive (1984) - with a mediocre group - is to be avoided at all costs. I would have preferred an official recording of the solo tour from the previous year, when he had played - with a lot of depth and chilling pathos - his song called Only Time Will Tell, which in its only official recorded appearance (on the live album Sabotage, 1979) had been sung by a female voice.

John Cale's voice is highly personal and gifted with many resources: a natural voice, much probably, which has received more latitude from musical education. I heard John Cale in concert twenty years ago, and I found that his proverbial delicacy and ferociousness had been expressed with no trace of mannerisms. I'm glad to say that the same was true for the concert I attended in 2001. Cale played also two new songs ("on my next record", he said): a ballad in medium tempo played on guitar which would have not been out of place on Slow Dazzle (1975) and whose refrain - "things you do in Denver when you're dead" (after the movie?) had sounded to me like a good title; and a solemn and intense ballad played on piano, slow and mysterious - I decided there and then that its title was Over Her Head.

5 Tracks confirmed to me that Cale was in fine form - he was his usual self, but with no signs of déjà vu. Verses is a good intro, Waiting For Blonde a cryptic tale, Chums Of Dumpty (We All Are) - listen to the beautiful bass part at the end - has a mysterious text even if the music is quite communicative. Then the record lifts off - E Is Missing has fine strings and Wilderness Approaching uses piano and vocals for an almost-gospel approach (prepare your handkerchiefs). A dry, quite mechanical rhythm section.

So it was with great expectations that I started listening to HoboSapiens. The first listening session really puzzled me (and also the second, and the third, too). Let's immediately discard the two attempts at trying to do something "commercial" - the rock'n'roll track called Reading My Mind (especially irritating for an Italian listener) and Bicycle, which sports almost the whole Brian Eno family and which wouldn't be out of place as the soundtrack for a TV commercial: Cale has never had any ideas about what makes something commercial, and his attempts in this direction have provoked more puzzlement and amusement than irritation. But it's for the whole duration of the record that the production (by Cale himself and Nick Franglen - it doesn't take a genius to decide who did what) imprisons everything inside a tiny digital cell - everything get smaller - while everything - the voices, the sampled rhythms, the whole CD - is absolutely short of air.

"I still want to twist pop out of shape. But the only way I feel comfortable doing that is to be myself, and I can't just hop, skip and jump around contemporary tastes. Loops are what people are interested in nowadays. My next album will have a lot of that, I'm really getting to like them, but what I like about looping is not what everybody else likes. I really love drums that are slowed down, that's all I need." So said John Cale on page 265 of What's Welsh For Zen, his autobiography published in 1999.

Is this what really happened? I don't think so. Even after quite a few listenings, there's a problematic - and extremely annoying - tension between the melodies and the vocal parts - the songs - and the timbres and the technical means which on paper should dress and complement them. Which makes me really sorry, since most of the songs are of a very high quality, and in some ways, somewhat, they almost manage to work. (It's the usual "modern world" by Cale, complex and paranoid, where rare splashes of clarity are extracted with great pain from the confusion.) One could put the blame on the Pro Tools system - sure, recording "in the box" without costly plug-ins won't give one those results that we can call "beautiful sounds" - meaning that not in the hi-fi sense, but as in "a consciously designed aesthetical dimension which gradually reveals itself over time". But the mediocrity of this side of the work brings us to very sad issue such as: the quality of one's attention; the overabundance of stimuli; the superficiality of the perceived aesthetical dimension; the increasingly shallower perception of the tridimensional plane of sound and of the complex relationship between the different planes and the narration. Welcome to the modern world!

I was quite surprised that I listened to HoboSapiens as often as I did. Zen is a good opening, the less said about Reading My Mind the better, Things is the song that I had already heard live - there is also a "disturbed" version, called Things X. Then things get better, with the majestic Look Horizon (I think maybe only Cale is currently able to write a couplet as the one that brings this song to its close), the melodic Magritte, with its strings and its limpid melody, the reggae Archimedes and then Caravan, a very fine track, a slowed-down rock-blues that I would like to listen to with a guitar à la Chris Spedding. Let's skip Bicycle and there we have Twilight Zone and Letter From Abroad - the latter song would have not been out of place on Howard Shore's soundtrack to The Naked Lunch. After Thing X, the excellent Over Her Head closes the album, on piano as it was played at the concert.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2003 | Nov. 10, 2003