Monday, February 3, 2014

DB'S Song of the Day (day 34):"HEDDA GABLER" (1978; 2011) John Cale

The Yale School of Drama production of Hedda Gabler opened tonight. On Saturday I saw the “propening” with Kajsa. At intermission I leaned over to her and sang in her ear: “Hedda Gabler / Had a very funny face / Tired of waiting / Tired of the human race.” When we saw John Cale perform last year at BAM we were rather amazed to hear him perform this song.

Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen, is one of my favorite plays.  I still remember the anthology of plays I first read it in, along with things like The Misanthrope by Molière and The Seagull by Chekhov. The play, with its intense character study of a woman utterly bored, antagonistic to all around her, enthralled me. If I were a female actor, I thought, I would want to play Hedda Gabler. Oh, just wouldn’t I!

Janet Suzman, right, as Hedda Gabler
A little later, I saw the play performed as a teleplay starring Janet Suzman and Ian McKellan. Suzman tore up the role, playing it with exactly the vivacity and menace that I sensed it deserved.

A few years later, after high school ended, I discovered the music of John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground. I came to him by way of a review in Stereo Review of his Island LP Guts, a compilation of tracks from the three LPs Cale had made for Island in 1974 and 1975. These LPs—Fear, Slow Dazzle, Helen of Troy—were available only as imports. Eventually I got them all, plus his debut solo LP Vintage Violence and its follow-up Paris 1919. I fell utterly under the spell of this music from the fall of 1977 till 1979, when I finally got to see Cale perform live in a series of shows I and a friend saw in Brooklyn, DC, Philadelphia, and NYC. We were enthralled. But at none of those shows did Cale perform “Hedda Gabler.”

The song was released in 1978 on an EP called Animal Justice. One sensed it hadn’t been given the full recording budget of the Island records. Cale had begun his drift from indie label to indie label, more's the pity. But the song, to my ears, was majestic and ferocious, full of the grandeur I associated with a classic like “The Endless Plain of Fortune” (from Paris 1919) wedded to the more muscular rock sound Cale had developed on songs like “Leaving It Up to You” (on Helen of Troy).

Those lines I sang in my daughter’s ear are the opening lines of the song, intoned sepulchrally over a stately keyboard intro that is eerie and unnerving. The drumming on the track puts me in mind of Keith Moon or at least B.J. Wilson, and the guitar has the kind of lyrical reach met with on the “Sabotage” tour of which I was present for several shows. Something like “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” for instance.

John Cale on the Sabotage tour, 1979
Unfortunately the original recording is unavailable on YouTube. The video of a performance, from Sweden in 2011, isn’t bad; it seems to be a set-up similar to what we saw at BAM in 2013.  It’s quite a treat, though it’s not a professional quality recording. Still, the guitar comes through in its wrenching glory, well enough. And the long crescendo of the song is more varied and adventuresome than on the original. But I still miss those monster fills on the drums that drive the original recording, both martial and menacing.

Cale’s lyrics don’t have much to do with Ibsen’s play.  He opts to link her misanthropy with the rise of Naziism (“how dear Adolf was going to save all Germany”) and domestic murder. No matter. We don’t really need a song to tell the tale of dear Hedda. Hers is a tale of the thwarted exceptional person, someone too sharp to find meaning in ordinary things, but, in a way, too gutless to venture beyond a certain zone of comfortable expectation. She's truly a menace to herself and others.

Rather than spend the rest of eternity eating her heart out, she takes her life with her father’s pistol, after convincing the brilliant but unbalanced scholar Eilert Lövborg, a one-time passionate attachment, to take his own life with the other pistol.

“Sleep, sleep, sleep, Hedda Gabler.”

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