Friday, April 11, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 101): "PLEASE" (1970), John Cale

Another month, another John Cale song. Today’s track comes from one of my favorite albums, ever. Vintage Violence was released in that odd transitional year, 1970. I heard it, and lived with it almost daily for a time, in that odd transitional year, 1977. I was 18. Childhood here has end, and all that.

The album, in my listening history, came along after I’d heard Guts, a compilation from Cale’s Island albums. It also came along after some time spent really soaking up Sgt. Pepper’s and “the White Album.” It also came along after becoming a big enthusiast of Velvet Underground Live ’69. From that point of view, VV was “the latest thing,” though it was clear enough that it wasn’t.  I hadn’t yet become a Steely Dan listener, yet, but the notion that contemporary rock/pop music should be clean and slick held dominance. Soon enough I would start looking, as more forward-looking people already had, for things a bit more grungy and unfinished. Which is what I liked about Guts, the hard edge, the way it didn’t make any gestures toward prettiness or popness for the sake of DJ ears.

VV was even more that way, in a way. Granted, DJ ears in 1970 would have been different, but still. This thing got no airplay, in part because the catchiness of its songs—and Cale does know a thing or two about hooks—hails from a sensibility not supported, let us say, by the general public. I don’t know why, exactly. I think it’s the sense—or that’s how I saw it—of being somehow solitary, not one of a crowd, and certainly not playing to it. I’m not saying the songs on VV are self-explorations, though I feel pretty certain some of them are, but rather that they are uniquely crafted, set apart.

“Won’t you help me please? / I’m growing old / Won’t you help me sneeze? / I’ve caught a cold.” Well and good. I chose this song from VV because both things are true, for me, at the moment. Very annoying cold on one of those wan, lifeless days that reminds me, in its humid slough, of the era when I first got this record. Though it was fall, it was a very rainy fall, humid and gray and unappealing. Something of that tone hangs about the album for me. It’s not a bright album.

I mentioned all that about the airwaves just to indicate that I always want the sound of this song to be more pristine than it is. It’s just the conditions of recording at the time, can’t be helped. This song, in particular, with those lovely layers of slide guitar and piano and all that shimmering sound, with Garland Jeffreys’ backup vocals adding a lot of ghostliness, creates an aural tapestry much like a flying carpet. Cale is taking us somewhere and his odd, impressionistic lyrics leave us wondering.

“Just hold on tightly / This shows on my breed.” The idea is that the singer, with his cold and growing old is, a bit like that guy in “Madman Across the Water,” putting up with the social niceties (I assume “my breed” is alluding to “breeding”): “They speak so very slow / It gets so hard to follow.” Yeah, sure, he may be the worse for substances, and, if so, I feel for the guy. Nothing worse than starting a nice zone-out and having some dithering jackal come in and start blathering on. And listen to those sustained “ah ah ah ah ah, ahhhhs”—they do seem to be a bit on edge.

Now it’s the next verse that leaves me with questions: “Slowly in the mist, a captive ride [or perhaps captain rides—I prefer the former because the sense of being held captive makes more sense with what follows] / To carry you from home / A hansom cab again, from dawn till dusk / My proud amphibious bride.”  Or, actually, it should probably be like this:

Slowly in the mist
A captive ride
To carry you from home,
A hansom cab again
From dawn till dusk.
My proud amphibious bride,
I’ll just leave you here like this
I’m sure you won’t be missed.

Seems perhaps that the “amphibious bride” is captive, lent some credence by “I’ll just leave you here like this / I’m sure you won’t be missed.”  Well, let’s hope that carrying off that bride and leaving her “like this” (soooo ambiguous) helps this guy.

It seems most hear “It can’t be that bad / Back up in Trinidad.”  I never did. I hear “I can’t be that mad / Like up in Trinidad / Come down and see me soon / When you get back from the moon.”  This guy is loony tunes, we might say. It’s very hard to know what he’s saying, exactly, but I love the “amphibious bride” line: amphibious means, of course, being able to live on both land and in water. His bride, while doubtless not literally amphibious (I guess), is able to partake, we might say, of more than one environment. Her life is to double-business bound, perhaps.

So does he off her?  Perhaps. I do get a little hint of Browning’s “Porphyria's Lover” there. When she gets back from the moon, sure. In the meantime she’s not going anywhere. Though it’s quite possible that we’re only talking about the “help” of an assignation in a hansom cab and then taking off “like this.” It’s the “won’t be missed” line that calls up notions that no one will come looking or knocking, after all.

But maybe it’s all in my own morbid mind. I’m perfectly willing to say so. But like I’ve said before, Cale’s songs have a way of seeming to be sinister even when, perhaps, they’re not. And the mood of the song is a bit creepy, though it’s hard to say exactly what its dominant mood is. Longing? Regret? A sort of sanguine notion that things are never quite what you like nor quite what they seem?

Whatever. The song is elusive and very moody. Which is how I tend to spend my time, sometimes. And John Cale has provided his “help” for many years.  Even when I’m not sure what he’s singing.

Before this night is done
These words won’t seem so wrong.

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