John Cale’s musical career in the Velvet Underground amounted to two albums on which his viola-scraping and genuine musical training played a pivotal role. Since then, he’s been a diverse and unpredictable artist, exploring both classical/avant-garde “serious” music as well as more shoot-from-the-hip rough rock. Throughout, the inscrutable Welshman has surrounded himself with able and distinguished cohorts, and has produced music of real challenge and quality.
His first solo efforts were effectively collaborations: Vintage Violence, with Garland Jeffreys and New York rock group Grinder’s Switch; Church of Anthrax, with avant-garde titan Terry Riley; and Academy in Peril, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Also in much the same vein, Cale made Paris 1919 with backing by members of Little Feat. It wasn’t until he signed to Island that his music became weird and abrasive, signifying a partial return to the chaos of his Velvet days.
His first such release was as a member of the June 1, 1974 project, a one-off concert documented on an LP and featuring Kevin Ayers, Brian Eno and Nico as well as Cale, Robert Wyatt and others. It’s a wonderful album, with Cale taking a vocal on “Heartbreak Hotel” and elsewhere contributing viola and piano.
Cale emerged into pre-new wave weirdness with Fear, an aggressively wild record made with assistance from the likes of Eno and Roxy Musician Phil Manzanera. Clean production only heightens the anxiety inherent in Cale’s voice and created by the skittering, modified guitar sounds. “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” and “Gun” build a claustrophobically intense aura; quieter efforts like “Ship of Fools” only slightly diminish the queasiness level. A brilliant record full of neat surprises and great, unsettling songs.
Slow Dazzle adds guitarist Chris Spedding to the lineup and pursues some curious pathways: “Heartbreak Hotel,” recast as a haunted-house dirge; “Mr. Wilson,” an homage to the Beach Boys’ Brian; “The Jeweller,” a recitation reminiscent of “The Gift,” one of his contributions to the Velvets. More restrained, but no less entrancing than Fear.
Helen of Troy, featuring Phil Collins as well as Spedding and Eno (but not Manzanera), is a gripping, morbid collection of songs, including Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso,” powered by Cale’s commanding vocals and whining slide guitars, and “Leaving It Up to You,” which has a reference to Sharon Tate that caused it to be removed from the album when first issued; it was subsequently replaced. A dark and pained record.
Animal Justice — three cuts on a 45 rpm 12-inch — features what remained of a touring band after half had quit in protest of a legendary onstage chicken-chopping incident. The EP’s leadoff track (“Chicken Shit”) concerns that brouhaha; the other songs are a pointless version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and a stunning Cale original, “Hedda Gabbler.” Guts is an excellent collection of tracks from the three preceding LPs.
Sabotage/Live, recorded onstage at New York’s CBGB in June 1979, presents almost all new material. The sound’s just passable, and the album never jells. Honi Soit used an outside producer (Mike Thorne) for a change and a totally new band as well; some tracks are good, but it’s not on a par with Cale’s best. With Music for a New Society, Cale retreated from nakedly aggressive music and turned to a more orchestrated style that owes something to his early pre-punk efforts, like Paris 1919. Cale’s lyrics, however, have rarely been as grim or violent as they are here. The arrangements prominently feature keyboards and the music effectively matches the darkly moody subject matter.
Caribbean Sunset is Cale’s least interesting album to date. Even if the puzzlingly muddy self-production hadn’t stifled everything but his jagged-edged vocals, the songs themselves are too flimsy to support his words or passion.
Perhaps sensing this, Cale released Caribbean Sunset back-to-back with another LP showcasing his in-concert strengths with the same band. Though he self-defeatingly begins and ends Comes Alive with half-assed studio efforts, that’s the extent of the disappointment. The live core of the album consists of gripping versions of vintage material like “Fear” and “Leaving It Up to You,” a death-rattling “Heartbreak Hotel” performed solo at the electric piano, a bouncily tongue-in-cheek “Waiting for the Man” as a tip of the hat to Lou Reed, and a couple of Sabotage Live songs minus the overly metallic sound that made them almost unlistenable on that LP. Cale should record all his material this way: live and with a solid band.
Artificial Intelligence has the solid band: a trio of James Young, Graham Dowdall and David Young. It also has Cale co-writing lyrics with journalist Ratso Sloman, whose Dylan fixation comes through clearly on the articulately verbose “Everytime the Dogs Bark” and other songs. Elsewhere, a mild island lilt suggests a well-read Jimmy Buffett. Moody and contained, but energetic and occasionally stimulating, A.I. is a reasonable if unspectacular addition to Cale’s extensive catalogue.
After an extended recording hiatus, Cale reappeared in non-rock mode with the classically oriented Brian Eno-produced Words for the Dying. The album is divided into three sections: the 31-minute “Falklands Suite” (Cale singing four Dylan Thomas poems with a Russian orchestra and a Welsh choir), a two-part piano solo (“Songs Without Words”) and “The Soul of Carmen Miranda” (a ghostly semi-pop collaboration with Eno). Though Words for the Dying doesn’t equal Cale’s most intense work, it’s not meant to, and marks a welcome return to action for this perennially underrated artist.
For all his creative perseverance in the 1990s, John Cale found time to go back over old ground, adding a much-deserved and highly useful career compilation, two live solo albums and a document of the highly vaunted but short-lived Velvet Underground reunion to his exceptionally diverse catalogue. The two decades covered for better and worse by Seducing Down the Door follow his literate forays into numerous realms of classically influenced new music, song pop, movie music and fringe-oriented rock, all of it finely reflective of the people with whom he chooses to work and the changing environment — though not necessarily the most obvious or dominant one — in which he finds himself. As someone who began with far more musical training than his peers, Cale has spent a lifetime getting over those theoretical limitations, inserting himself into alien worlds and reaching his own understanding of their stylistic possibilities. If that makes him a dilettante, Cale’s never gone for easy marks: his original intelligence has always brought something unique and beneficial to his fields of vision.
With lovely historical symmetry, Seducing Down the Door (the title is a lyric from “Child’s Christmas in Wales”) is an extremely judicious two-CD sampler of every record (including two live albums and the punk-era Animal Justice EP) Cale released between his departure from the Velvet Underground in 1968 and his 1990 collaborations with Lou Reed and Brian Eno. Primped up with three outtakes (the previously unknown 1971 pop schmaltz of “Dixieland and Dixie” proves someone’s sense of humor), the excellently annotated collection reduces the saga of Cale’s musical development to concise but detailed manageability. It’s possible that few have followed him all the way from the panoramic production pop of “Big White Cloud” (from Vintage Violence) to the solo piano of “Temper” (from The Academy in Peril) to the coldhearted rock of “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” (from the essential Fear, the Guts compilation and The Island Years) to the brutal meltdown demolition of “Heartbreak Hotel” (Slow Dazzle) to the grim art-balladry of “Hedda Gabbler” (Animal Justice) to the twisted deconstruction of “Walkin’ the Dog” (Sabotage/Live) — and then through the ’80s as well — but fitting the pieces together like this makes the winding course of Cale’s progress most compelling.
Adding to the retrospective atmosphere, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Fragments of a Rainy Season are both live albums, although they could scarcely be more different. The former was recorded with members of the Patti Smith Group at CBGB in 1978 and ’79 (the years of Cale’s noisy punk involvement) and includes some hair-raising feedback excursions. Fragments of a Rainy Season finds him alone onstage with an acoustic piano or guitar, providing a handsome auto-retrospective that stretches from “Paris 1919” to “Cordoba” (from Wrong Way Up) and fills in some of the gaps (“Ship of Fools,” “Darling I Need You,” “Buffalo Ballet”) in the compilation. The consistently styled performances of 20 songs originally recorded in nearly as many divergent styles proves that Cale is not pop’s most resourceful songwriter, but he brings characteristically ornery invention to what, in other hands, could well be a dry, bland ordeal. The freakout endings of “Guts” and “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” the dramatic vocalizing of “Leaving It Up to You” and the sharpened piano notes of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” (one of the Dylan Thomas poems Cale put music to on Words for the Dying) all evince a sensitive artist who can play rough when he wants.
Paris S’Eveille, Antártida and N’Oublie Pas Que Tu Vas Mourir are scores Cale composed for French films; he also contributed to the soundtrack of 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol.
Cale’s equal-partner collaborations have been hit-and-miss; what he brings to the table doesn’t vary much, but his interactions with Lou Reed and Brian Eno veer into unpredictable zones. Presented as a chronological progression of fictionalized biographical (and autobiographical) songs about Andy Warhol, the Reed-Cale Songs for Drella contains fascinating personal reminiscences, but has almost no merits as an album of music. Neither man can make anything listenable out of the stiff, arrhythmic prose; the dashed-off backing on guitar, keyboards and viola is equally artless. Rather than attempt to make a record, Cale and Reed would have done better to write A Book for Drella.
On the other hand, 1990’s Eno-Cale record, Wrong Way Up is absolutely wonderful, a subversion of Top 40 pop formulae to the pair’s own idiosyncratic (but utterly accessible) ends. Blending Eno’s ambience and Cale’s classical lyricism, as well as the pair’s contrasting voices (and capturing the whole thing in a masterfully subtle studio effort), Wrong Way Up is a tuneful and catchy collection whose instant likability belies its highbrow origins.
Last Day on Earth, however, is an unfortunate concept album (or “song cycle/performance piece” and “blueprint for theatre”) Cale wrote and recorded with Bob Neuwirth, the New York folk-scene footnote who hung around Dylan in the early ’60s and co-wrote “Mercedes Benz” for Janis Joplin. This sprawling and discouraging slab of folk, rock, brass, strings, soundtrack mush and recitation makes the distance between the gullible hick sincerity in Neuwirth’s voice and the dramatic self-importance of Cale’s an unbreachable gulf. What’s more, Last Day on Earth has a stagy sound that diminishes the songs and a stylistic randomness that distracts from the end-time theme. Although not overly unpleasant in little bits, the hour-plus of quixotic pretensions virtually dares you to make it all the way through.