Saturday, February 06, 2016

John Cale's "Music for a New Society/M:FANS"

I know people who have structured their entahr lives around going to rockaroll shows, but I am not one of them. So when I say I've seen John Cale more times than any other touring entertainer but Zappa (whom I think I've seen six times, a reflection of my state of mind in the late '70s), it only means I've seen him four times (I've seen the 'orrible 'oo thrice). The first time was at Mother Blues on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas, probably the spring of '79. I was the asshole that yelled for "Waiting for the Man" all night. Imagine my surprise when he played it!

The next time, a few months later, my roommate/coworker and I took one of the Fort Worth cops who worked security in the record store where we worked to see Cale at the Palladium on Northwest Highway. Cale was at the height of his "scary crazy guy" mock dementia phase, best exemplified on record by "Leaving It Up To You" and his cover of "Heartbreak Hotel." The svelte proto-goth of Velvet Underground daze had given way to something approximating a malevolent comeback-TV-special Elvis, and he'd finish up the night writhing on the floor, a microphone cord wrapped around his neck. The cop loved it.

The time after that, in '80, Cale had replaced the band from the first two times (for whom his song "Dirtyass Rock 'n' Roll" could have served as theme song and organizing principle) with one that was blaringly loud, slick and pro. (My buddy who worked at Manny's on 48th Street in Manhattan said that Cale was such an asshole that nobody good would work with him.) Sacrificial locals the Telefones (my future ex-wife's favorite band o' the time) cleaned his clock the same way Joan Jett wiped the floor with Iggy at the Palladium around the same time. Cale retaliated by blowing up their PA.

The last time was ca. '95 at Caravan of Dreams, where Cale appeared backed by the Soldier String Quartet and steel guitarist B.J. Cole. It was a great show, but I wasn't motivated to pick up Cale's current album of the time (Walking On Locusts), and the next night, I heard that he declined to get off the tour bus in Denton because the venue couldn't make his guarantee, and a local muso was arrested for standing outside yelling "LOU WOULD HAVE PLAYED!" (which was patent horseshit).

What those four shows taught me was that Cale -- unlike his Velvet Underground collaborator/adversary Lou Reed -- isn't a rockarolla at heart. A classically-trained Welshman who came to the States under the auspices of Aaron Copland (before the populist composer recoiled from what he perceived as the "destructiveness" of his protege's music), Cale went on to collaborate with the cream of the early '60s classical avant-garde (John Cage, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young) before meeting Reed and forming the Velvets in '65.

I'll admit to a preference for the post-Cale VU, the result of an unfortunate experience involving my parents' house, a psychotropic substance, and the first side of the Velvets' White Light/White Heat LP. But the first two VU albums with Cale were undeniably their most groundbreaking and experimental. Reed wanted control and fired Cale from the VU at the end of '68. In later years, they'd reconnect for a sublime Warhol tribute (1990's Songs for Drella) and a curiously unsatisfying and wholly retrospective Velvet reunion. The old wounds still festered.

On his own, Cale spread the Velvet virus as producer of debut albums by the Stooges, Modern Lovers, and Patti Smith. He broke the seal on a prolific solo career with 1970's exploratory pop-rock foray Vintage Violence, on which he was backed by Reed protege Garland Jeffreys' Woodstock band Grinder's Switch (not to be confused with Southern rockers Grinderswitch). Austin journo Margaret Moser has called Vintage Violence the template for all of Cale's subsequent work, and I'm inclined to agree with her. I love the bridge that starts at 2:10 into "Charlemagne," the first song on the second side of the LP, so much so that I recently spent an entire afternoon playing it over and over (you have to be paying close attention or you'll miss it).

My own favorite Cale album is 1973's beautifully orchestrated Paris 1919, produced by Chris Thomas of subsequent Sex Pistols/Pretenders fame, with backing by musicians from Little Feat. On songs like "Child's Christmas in Wales" and "Paris 1919" itself, gorgeous melodies carry inscrutable lyrics. ("The cattle graze bold uprightly / Seducing down the door" indeed.)

Among folks I know, Cale's most revered for the hard-edged triptych of albums he cut for Island in '74-'75. On those albums, Roxy Music refugee Phil Manzanera and free-lancer Chris Spedding laid down some of the most advanced rock guitar of the time, anticipating Television and the Voidoids, as well as Robert Quine's work on Reed's The Blue Mask. The most extreme, and my favorite, is the last, Helen of Troy, on which you can hear Cale intoning the somber "Cable Hogue" and the aforementioned "Leaving It Up To You" in a teeth-gnashing snarl of escalating mania, loaded with menace. Apparently, the secret ingredient was cocaine. US Island declined to release Helen, sticking a paltry three tracks on the '77 compilation Guts, but not Cale's finest song, "I Keep A Close Watch" (which he re-recorded in a stripped-down version for 1982's Music for a New Society).

By the time Music for a New Society originally appeared, I had already lost the thread, turned off by the skewed geopolitical ranting of Sabotage/Live. Recorded in 1981, after the mainstream had subsumed the "new wave" he'd helped foster, it's the sound of Cale trying anything and everything to write his way out of a personal and creative slump, over ten days alone in the studio, very much influenced by the procedures he'd followed on the two studio albums he'd produced for his VU bandmate Nico -- in particular, separating the vocals from the backing and surrounding them with "floating" sounds to create a sense of dislocation. (Zappa attempted the same effect by dubbing guitar solos over rhythm tracks from different events.) The result is as stark and close-to-the-bone a pop record as exists in the canon. (Pristine versions of a couple of songs are appended to the remastered original album for comparison.)

In 2013, requests from European festival organizers for a concert performance of the complete album led him to re-record the material instead, under the rubric M:FANS. By crafting new settings for the songs, he recontextualizes them in the same way that, say, Bill Laswell did with his remixes of Miles Davis and Bob Marley. (And Panthalassa is now my preferred way to hear "In A Silent Way" and "He Loved Him Madly.") Borrowing from hip-hop and electronica, Cale reimagines entahrly the harmonic frameworks of songs like "Thoughtless Kind," "Chinese Envoy," and the token "commercial" song "Changes Made," proving himself to be less attached to his forms than most musos of his generation.

The reboot loses a couple of songs from the original -- "Damn Life," with its Beethoven borrowings, and "Rise, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov," a vocal vehicle for Cale's now ex-wife -- and includes two versions of "If You Were Still Around," a song that took on added significance when Reed died while the M:FANS sessions were in progress. My favorite topic o' the moment, mortality, also shows up in a new "Prelude," an electronically-treated phone call between Cale and his parents (he speaks to his father in English, his mother in Welsh, the language he was raised to speak).

Being the last man standing has got to be tough. Which is why I want to hear Cale produce Iggy again, before one or both of 'em shuffles off this mortal coil.


Post a Comment

<< Home