I keep pushing the songs of John Cale in this series because he is—for me—an incredibly influential figure. And a vastly underrated and “unknown” artist. Cale is a bit like a real artist—of the fine arts variety—at times. Only those “in the know” know about the extent of his career. In rock journalism, which is generally half-assed (or, like Rolling Stone, head-up-ass), Cale gets reduced to some hackneyed copy going back to the Velvet Underground. It may be possible, now, thanks to the internet, to find more informed commentary, with more credit given to his string of albums in “the Island years.” And the many interesting side projects and collaborations all come to light. Still, it’s a hard career to get a handle on, and I tend to revisit the stuff from 1970 to 1979 more than anything that comes after.
And that’s why I was so pleased when Cale put out Black Acetate in 2005. The album felt like, for the first time in some time, a Cale album with the kind of challenge and interest and varied approaches that used to be his hallmark. It had guts. HoboSapiens, in 2003, had been a move back toward the Cale we know best, but not much on it overwhelmed, whereas almost all of Black Acetate did—it was much more aggressive, much stronger as a stance.
Today’s song is one that I found growing on me more and more as we moved into 2006. I remember putting it on a tape with a sense of inevitability. It’s the single. Not that Cale has “hits.” Only later did I discover it has a fully worked up video, using that technique of stop-motion used in some Peter Gabriel vids in the Nineties, and time lapse as well for exploding carcasses like in Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts. I’m not much for videos, though I don’t mind it. Mainly it’s good to see Cale on screen, looking much like he looked when I saw him live for a series of shows in 1979.
But I also chose it as a statement. “I’m not perfect but you’re perfect for me.” That’s clear, but I also imagined it said, more cleverly, “You’re not perfect but you’re perfect for me.” The idea that I’m not perfect comes as one of those “want to tell you the truth” moments, while suggesting that my imperfections find their perfect match in you. The second statement admits that the object of desire could be improved on, but not in terms of that match. In other words—none of us are “perfect,” but we might be perfect for each other, right now.
That was a cheery idea, around that time, for me. And the little throwaway lines for good measure: “at a distance” (as in: we all look better from a distance), the charming “in pajamas”; and the line that lodged in my mind: “I could care less, you’re perfect for me right now.” That has an urgency to it. Like: “I’m tired of listening to all the reasons this won’t work—it’s really the right time, right now, for this.”
Cale’s got a-hold of a great riff and he keeps it buzzing and bouncing. Instruments come in and swell up the sound, or move back out, while his voice, in its wheedling, impatient register—almost as invective—keeps insisting, as though he’s trying to convince himself and a perhaps undecided or distant lover. “I’ve been waiting.” “I can’t help it.” Maybe it’s just that it's tonic to hear Cale, at 65, insisting he’s still jonesing for something.
The big line too, at the close, “it’s a different kind of love”—Love in age? Love online? Love gone by? Love revived? Love discovered on the sidelines of other love? I think, to me, it suggested that old dogs can learn new tricks—which is what much of the album said to me—even in the world of love, finding out resources for durable affection and desire that, perhaps, an earlier self would’ve been inclined to overlook or avoid. Whatever it is, it suits the times. And that bit about “getting writer’s block / From calling you is all I want to do.”
You know it counts when it keeps breaking your concentration.