Reading My Mind

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.

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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

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.

Outta the Bag

Cultural initiative for the future: cut down on compulsively listening to the same handful of records and add more frequently to the regular rotation. That includes exploring the fringe ends of some of my favorite artists’ discographies. For example, I love John Cale, but I rarely listen to anything besides my three or four favorite albums. Actually, more like two, if I’m really being honest. I think that I can be forgiven for not getting quite as excited about the prospect of a new John Cale record as I do for more, shall we say, glamorous artists. Also, the world doesn’t get terribly excited about a new John Cale album, so there’s a handful of recent ones I hand’t actually heard about. Did you know that he re-recorded Music for a New Society, presumably for a newer society? That’s worth checking out. For today, I’m going to explore blackAcetate, which I own but have never once listened to. Please join me.

Only Time Will Tell

You know who I haven’t listened to in a while? The great, underrated John Cale. I haven’t listened to Sabotage in so many years, I forgot it existed. Wow, what a great record! It really showcases the full range of Cale’s weirdness, from his affinity for pure tone-noise to his deft handed ballads. This song is of the latter category, sung by percussionist Deerfrance. In the vein of Moe Tucker’s contributions to the Velvet Underground, a vulnerable female voice balances out the aggression heard elsewhere. It’s hard to find out much about Deerfrance; a web search predictably yields many pictures of antlered wildlife (and the woman in the photo above is Cale’s first wife, the fashion designer Betsey Johnson.) But she was a habitue of the punk scene at CBGB’s, a member of Cale’s band from 1978 to 1981, and later formed her own band, Extra Virgin Mary.

One Word

Once again, I’m cycling around to one of my all time favorite records – John Cale & Brian Eno’s Wrong Way Up. Cale and Eno, of course, are the ideal mashup, having flown in the same arty circles for decades. This reflects the best of both artists with very little of the usual attendant weirdness. I’m told that one of the songs here was even a minor hit, which is barely conceivable. I guess Eno does have a magic touch for producing great records that sound accessible as pop even when they’re the furthest possible thing. And John Cale hates pop but is secretly really good at it. Therefore, a match made in heaven.

My Maria

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.