The Confounding Mr. Cale
by Bob Pomeroy
There are a few concerts burned into the synapses of my brain for their intensity. These are the shows that all other shows are measured against. I’m not talking about shows that you leave smiling, happy that you saw a great band on a good night. I’m talking about shows where you wander out in a non-drug induced stupor shaking your head at what you just witnessed. I’ve been lucky enough to have that sort of concert experience a few times in my life. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the time I saw John Cale tear apart the Nectarine Ballroom in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
John Cale was riding his newfound “godfather of punk” fame at the time. Of course, he had to share that honorific with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and a few others. None of those other “godfathers” were making music that rivaled the kids though. Cale’s 1979 album, Sabotage Live was as raw and blistering as anything else labeled punk at the time. When he came to the Nectarine Ballroom, he was touring behind another blast of rage called Honi Soti.
The years have dulled the memory somewhat. I can’t recite the set list or many of the specifics. What I remember is a performer who really looked like he was pushing the edge of sanity. The show just got more and more intense as Cale roared through classics like Guts and newer psychodramas like Strange Times in Casablanca. By the time Cale threw his guitar off stage during the screaming meltdown at the end of Fear, I couldn’t imagine him doing anything else.
There was no way to follow that. The crowd didn’t even try to call him back for more. We knew he was spent. I loitered near the edge of the stage while the crowd filtered out. The projection screen came down and the video for Fish Heads began to play. Then a roadie flashed some signals to the sound booth. The video stopped and Cale came back out. He sat alone at the piano and sang the most heartbreakingly beautiful version of Close Watch imaginable. This was as big a shock as the madness of the main show. How could one person express such extremes?
John Cale has always been something of an enigma. He came to America to study classical music before forming the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed. His solo work in the 70’s ranged from minimalist experiments with Terry Riley through classic pop on Paris 1919 to savage punk on Sabotage. He was Nico’s sonic foil, producing or arranging all of her best albums. As a producer, he introduced the world to the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith and Squeeze.
Cale followed his successful punk-inspired albums with an act of commercial suicide. Music for a New Society is widely held to be an artistic masterpiece, but it is anything but accessible. The music is quiet, bleak and completely unique. It certainly puzzled a lot of people at the time. Even more puzzling were the strange, half-hearted attempts at AOR blandness that followed in the 80’s. There were some high points in the 90’s including a collaboration with Lou Reed called Songs for Drella, but for the most part, Cale seemed content to disappear into the background doing film and theater projects.
I still consider myself a John Cale fan, but I don’t expect much these days. I was startled and more than a little intrigued when I saw Cale’s latest offering Hobosapiens, touted as CD of the month in a trendy UK music magazine. The reviewer gushed about how this new disc was the best thing since Music for a New Society. The magazine raved that a man in his 60’s would embrace Pro Tools and sign up Nick Franglen from Lemon Jelly to help bring him into the new millennium. Needless to say, I bought into the reviewer’s enthusiasm. I wanted to rush out and buy the disc. I had to wait. Hobosapiens is not available in the US and there are no plans for a stateside release. I had to place an order with amazon.co.uk.
Within a week, the disc arrived in the mail. I raced home and popped this silver disc into my CD player. As the disc played through, all I could think of were those glowing reviews of lame Clapton albums I remembered reading in the 80’s. After years of putting out crud, true believers wet themselves when Eric started putting out albums that didn’t blow. The praise that they were the best thing since Cream was hyperbole. The praise for Hobosapiens was likewise inflated.
So let’s set aside rabid fandom and look at this disc on its own merits. “Cautiously optimistic,” is a phrase used in the opening of Reading My Mind; a really good ode to driving a new car. Hobosapiens is a cautiously optimistic disc. It’s not a full blown comeback, but it is a good stab at staying current for someone who has been in the game for over 40 years. The music sounds fresh. You can hear the influence of people like Air and Bjork without it becoming simple imitation. This is definitely a John Cale record, not a trendy beats disc with an old man singing.
Like any really good disc, repeated listening yields subtle charms not apparent on a cursory first listen. Warren Zevon, once something of a rival in the songs about mercenaries and psychos market, gets a parting acknowledgement on Things. The song’s chorus is a variation on Zevon’s Things You Do In Denver When You’re Dead. The song also references Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. Sometimes, I think I hear dark musings about our new perpetual war society. Is the line “I rarely make a move unless I’ve got some proof” a comment on Bush and Blair, or am I projecting my own feelings? Twilight Zone with its spooky groove and chorus of “things will never be the same,” is definitely a commentary on current events. Letter From Abroad is a rather creepy meditation on Afghanistan. There is uneasiness about the disc as a whole. On the surface, things are mostly calm and normal. Girls giggle in the background of Bicycle, while all around is scattered the “residue of fools.”
It’s fitting in a way that Hobosapiens is an enigmatic, somewhat frustrating record. John Cale’s been frustrating fans and confounding petty critics since he started playing music. At this point in his career, he doesn’t have anything to prove. It gives me hope seeing Cale is still probing and experimenting after all this time. I rather like that John Cale is still surprising and confounding me.