It should go without saying that John Cale’s solo oeuvre is an essential for Velvet Underground fans unsatisfied with a measly four albums. But it seems like it needs to get said again and again, given that Lou and Nico usually take all the glamour and the glory. Helen of Troy is an essential album and definitely the place to start. Cale himself was not pleased with the album, a cause of contention between him and his handlers at Island Records.
It could have been a great album. I came back from finishing Patti Smith‘s Horses and had three days to finish Helen of Troy before I went on Italian tour. I was spending eighteen hours a day in the studio. When I got back, I found the record company had gone ahead and released what amounted to demo tapes. The trouble was that Island had their own ideas of what that album should sound like. They wanted to include songs I don’t particularly like, but it was also an impertinent assumption on my part that I was capable of managing myself. My determination to have Helen of Troy the way I did was not really fair to Island or my management, especially at a time when Island was losing its percentage of the market, which was making everybody very paranoid
While I sympathize with the artist’s need to put their art out on their own terms, it seems like the album is pretty damn perfect the way it was released and that Cale was just picking scabs as a matter of principle more than anything else. (On a side note, as the age of the record label comes to a close, these kinds of kerfluffles seem increasingly quaint and old timey to our eyes.) Cale has soldiered through the decades, enjoying a consistently eccentric if not outstandingly lucrative career with integrity fully intact. Helen of Troy showcases him in all his glory, being at times fiercely weird and then turning beautiful. This track is one of the more dramatic, as befits an album opener.