Today is the birthday of John Cale, one of the founding members of the Velvet Underground, and certainly one of the major recording artists of my listening history. I discovered Cale with the LP Guts (1977), a compilation of tracks from his three LPs recorded for Island Records in the mid-Seventies. I thought of perhaps choosing one of the songs on that album, as my introduction to his work, since getting to know that album certainly made me crave more. It was September of 1977, my first year out of high school, and with a bit of gainful employment, I was soon able to start acquiring his other LPs. Soon “me mate,” Tim and I were buying up the imports from Island that Rainbow Records in Newark always stocked. But the first one I got after Guts was Cale’s first solo album, Vintage Violence, on Columbia, as I chose to begin at the beginning. That album was quite a mystery to me in its diversity. And that really whetted the appetite for more.
I’m not sure who first got the album Paris 1919—I kind of think Tim got there first—but it soon became the watershed LP to us. Now, there are those who speak of Cale’s career and act like Paris 1919 is an anomaly, but that’s simply not true. Its roots are in Vintage Violence and its beautifully crafted arrangements continue on the Island LPs, but in very limited doses. Fear’s first side is mostly still in that vein, and a song like “I Keep a Close Watch” on Helen of Troy, and, on Slow Dazzle, “Mr. Wilson” pays tribute to Brian Wilson, whose music is clearly an influence on Cale’s arrangements. But what does make Paris 1919 different is that Cale is working with Chris Thomas, who worked with George Martin on The Beatles’ first album, and, the same year as Paris 1919—1973—also mixed Dark Side of the Moon and produced Procol Harum’s Grand Hotel, and Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure. These are all grand albums indeed. Thomas worked on the three previous Procol LPs and that made him a good choice for the orchestrated sound Cale went for on Paris. Thomas also continued to work on the Roxy Music LPs up through Siren, which makes him a guy with his finger in the pie of some of the best early/mid-Seventies stuff.
I chose today’s song because it is one of those songs that seems to me definitive for the unusual qualities of Cale’s work back then. Cale as a pop song writer brings to bear his classical training and his avant garde associations and produces odd effects. On the one hand the song has an incessant hook: “you’re a ghost, la la la, la la,” and maybe the fact that I’ve already spoken of conjuring ghosts makes it an obvious choice. It combines that lift of the chorus with something a bit sinister as it describes someone “just casually appearing from the clock across the hall.” This song was a favorite of my daughter’s when she was in kindergarten and I imagine that one of the parts that delighted her was the “maids of honor singing, crying / Singing tediously.” It had the flair of Alice in Wonderland.
Then there’s that bridge or break, with the tweeting birds that sound like they’re on thorazine, and just the whole “strange interlude” quality of it. It feels trippier, due to its setting, than something like the space out part in the Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” and reminds of instrumental passages in Beatles psychedelia. I loved it. And those cellos sound a bit like the way the Beatles and Martin used them in something like “Eleanor Rigby.” In other words, Cale has a sophisticated bag of tricks on this album, and yet it’s post-psychedelia, and not quite prog. It really is very unique.
I’ve personally always loved the verse that begins: “Efficiency, efficiency, they say / Get to know the date and tell the time of day.” What seemed to me obvious, on albums like Vintage Violence (see a song like “Ghost Story” or “Big White Cloud”) and Paris 1919 was that the place these songs were coming from was a very odd mental space, often involving actual travel off the beaten track, but involving what we used to call “psychic journeys.” And that’s how I listened to these records. Unlike the Beatles, whose late Sixties LPs (particularly “the White Album”) I had recently become fully cognizant of, these albums didn’t let you put the oddity of their musical travels back into the “safe” horizon of The Beatles, as a collective persona. However weird or unsettling a Beatles album could be—and they could be, plenty—there was always that sense of them as generally benign. Cale gave no one such a feeling. One listened to him knowing that his world was much weirder than what one was quite prepared for, and, unlike his sometime collaborator Lou Reed, it was much harder to say where the essential spirit was coming from. Reed was more literary, in a way, more easily identifiable with familiar tropes, even if such things were unusual for rock or pop songs. Cale sang about “how the Beaujolais was raining / Down on darkened meetings on the Champs Elysée,” and on other songs on the album he could be even more cryptic. In any case, one imagined living a life in which one did not know the date or time of day. Perhaps one never even saw the sun.
“She makes me so unsure of myself / Standing there but never ever talking sense.” It’s a great opening and the idea of talking sense (or not) permeates it all. Cale traffics with nonsense rhymes but has a compelling way with odd lines: “Blood and tears from old Japan / Caravans and lots of jam.” It all seems harmless enough, but really isn’t. And, despite the printed lyrics (not included with the LPs we bought in the late Seventies), I’m going to insist it’s “I’m the judge and I’ve come / To claim you with my iron drum,” and, in the second chorus, “I’m the bishop.”
John Cale’s Paris 1919 is one of the most poetic LPs I know. It’s in the way the lyrics stimulate you to flesh them out; it’s in the matching of words to melody, independent of the typical kinds of sense lyrics make; it’s in the arrangements: we used to say that each song sounded like a mini-album. By which we meant that each seemed to attain “a sound” unique to that song and not shared by the other songs. I don’t hear it quite that way anymore because it’s all become so familiar through repeated listening. But when Cale performed the album at BAM last spring, it struck me that way again. Each song suggests a world.
Maybe I’ll manage to say something about each of them, or at least my five favorites of the nine songs. I haven’t gotten the 2006 re-issue with the alternate takes. I really should. But then, I’m never going to hear these songs with any more concentration or intensity than I did in 1977-78. And there's no way to improve on the effect Cale's music had on me. He set the tone of the late Seventies for me, a period when I listened to a lot of music as if my life depended on it.