“There’s only one good thing about a small town, there’s only one good use for a small town – you hate it, and you know you have to leave.”
There’s only one valid statement about small towns, and Lou Reed just said it. Lou was talking, for broader context, about his friend and mentor Andy Warhol, who was from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a fair-sized city, but it ain’t New Yawk, and for an outsize personality like Warhol, it certainly felt as constraining, judgmental and provincial as any one-horse nowheresville in one of the flyover states. Warhol left Pittsburgh armed with talent, ambition and unforgettable weirdness – and the rest is history. One of Warhol’s most towering gifts was, of course, his nose for interesting people, and he dragged a veritable army of interesting weirdo from all walks of life up out of obscurity with him. He was a fame funnel, making superstars out of thin air. The Velvet Underground et al. were some of his most important protegees, a group of creative outsiders who – unlike some of Andy’s ‘superstars’ who didn’t really know how to do anything except look funky – had a broad cultural impact that truly has not been overestimated. It was fitting that, upon Warhol’s death, Lou Reed and John Cale got together for a tribute album. (This despite the fact that they never really liked each other very much and were not exactly buddies.) Songs for Drella runs the gamut of emotions one would expect, from raw grief to gauzy nostalgia, and you could say that the sentiment behind the project is probably stronger than the actual finished product. But out of all the notes it hits, this one hits home the most. It’s a humorous ditty lightening up a pretty bleak concept, and it pays homage to Warhol’s irreverent nature. Delivered deadpan in Lou Reed’s signature Long Island-mook accent, with Cale providing the piano chops of a silent film accompanist, it’s just damn funny. And it’s sweet in its irreverence, and it’s truthful to the essential comic absurdity of Warhol’s life: he was just a weird kid who wanted something bigger, and he wound up being a one-man cultural revolution.
This will probably win John Cale no new fans. John Cale is probably ok with that. He is not the kind of artist who goes courting for new followers. In fact, this isn’t even his most aggressively unapproachable work. Even for longtime fans, John Cale is difficult. But never not rewarding. If nothing else, he really helps clear out a party. If nothing else, John Cale is such a bad bastard that his fans become bad bastards by association. He could stick to melancholy piano ballads and make a pretty good buck doing so, but that would be beneath him, and us. We really need those last few artists for whom the concept of selling out still has meaning.
This is kind of a grainy and poor sounding video, but it’s rare and interesting because it’s rare and interesting. John Cale at the piano is really one of the great underrated musical pleasures out there. I don’t know how much this performance will sell you on that, but if you do a little digging and listen to a record or two, you’ll know. Piano ballads can be a terrible genre; there’s something about those ivories that make people turn saccharine and maudlin and whiny, and balladeers who lean heavily on the piano tend to be all of those things. It takes a real iconoclast to make stately piano ballads sound punk as fuck, and John Cale is that man.
This song is also by Brian Eno. It’s a slight bit strange that Eno wrote two songs with the same title with different collaborators, but I’ll take it. They’re markedly different songs. The last one was more David Byrne than Eno. This one is from Eno and John Cale’s Wrong Way Up, and it’s more Eno than Cale. In fact it’s the only song on that record credited only to Eno. Eno’s solo vocal songs have become increasingly rare since the seventies, and that’s a shame; they’re a lot more enjoyable than ambient digital soundscapes. So this makes this one a particular favorite of mine. It’s so soothing.
John Cale is one of the few remaining luminaries whose lights are still on. He’s steadfastly been doing his thing with little regard to what’s trending, confident that his brand of challenging art rock exists outside the reach of trends. Though he may have a relatively small audience, he can also be confident that his music is a necessity to his fans in a way that more accessible artists’ may not be. In fact, the further we roll along in this fractured world, the more of a necessary relief it becomes to hear a consistently challenging and intellectual voice. A John Cale record isn’t what you’d call escapey funtime music, but it offers a singular point of view, which is in itself an escape. An escape from a pop culture where nobody seems to know what they’re aiming to be, besides popular. We want an artist who knows who he is and knows his own vision, just as much as we’re attracted to people who know who they are IRL.
File under obscure favorites. If I may recommend a must have album that never shows up on any of those circle-jerk best-of lists, please take the time to discover John Cale’s Vintage Violence. Cale is still best known for using the viola to produce a vicious haze of electronic feedback with The Velvet Underground, and he’s carried on being forbiddingly weird throughout his solo career. Unlike Lou Reed, Cale’s walks on the wilder side never fluked their way onto the radio, and he’s never gotten up there with the big boys in terms of record sales and accolades. Which might be just fine as far as he’s concerned. He does what he wants, and if it’s not always easy to enjoy, that’s fine. But, despite a reputation for being even grumpier and more avant-garde than anyone else in his circle, he is also a master of stately emotional ballads. Which is his most accessible side, and where this particular album makes a great introduction. This is some truly underrated work, and it’s an injustice that John Cale isn’t widely accepted as one of the best songwriters and composers of his time.
Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole (not like you!) Pablo Picasso was an asshole. As artists are wont to be. He had an ego inversely proportionate to his height and really got around with the ladies despite being a dick. You can get away with a lot of bad shit when you’re an undisputed genius, and picking up girls is the least of it. The point of the song is not so much Pablo Picasso’s personal proclivities; it’s shooting down the sacred cows we resent and admire for the privilege their singularity grants them. The genius gets to do what he wants, the things other people work for are handed to him, and his legacy remains blameless; you, in the meantime, are just some asshole.