[Note: There are seven links to YouTube videos in this piece. I more or less arbitrarily picked the first and last to embed for quick access, but thought embedding them all might make the page annoyingly slow to load.--Ed.]
At some point when I was a teenager I thought I should like John Cale. I liked the Velvet Underground (still do – not saying that’s a good thing). I liked Nico, whose best albums he produced. I liked Brian Eno, whom he had worked with. But when I listened to Cale’s albums there was something missing. They just seemed, well, “wishy washy” is the phrase that came to mind. I bought one or two albums, but only listened to them once or twice.
In 1990 Brian Eno and John Cale released an album together - Wrong Way Up. (I still think of this as the “new” Eno album.) I loved this album. It made me think I was missing something in Cale’s work. In 1992, Cale released a live album called Fragments Of A Rainy Season. I thought I’d give it a try, and I was amazed. I heard some of the songs I had heard before, but there was nothing wishy-washy about them. Most of the album was just Cale playing the piano and singing, but there was more energy and, I guess, momentum than I had heard from him before. The tempo was faster (on the songs I knew). The piano was driving – percussive. And the vocals (which I think were his weakest point in his studio albums) were forceful (when they needed to be).
There are 20 songs on the album. Some are pretty good – “On a Wedding Anniversary”, “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed” (both Dylan Thomas poems), “Ship of Fools”, “Leaving it Up to You”. A few are very good - “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, “Chinese Envoy”, “(I Keep A) Close Watch”, “Buffalo Ballet.”
One song I have to single out, though I don’t really want to listen to it for a while, is “Hallelujah.” I think it’s a very good version of a great song. From what I’ve read, Cale’s cover started the craze for the song, for better or worse.
There are 3 songs that I think stand out. “Paris 1919”, “Cordoba”, and “Dying on the Vine.” “Paris 1919” is from the 1973 album of the same name. Here is the album version:
Here is the later version. “Cordoba” is from Wrong Way Up album with Brian Eno. This is one where I like both versions. The original, which is soothing, and has Cale on the viola. The live version – forceful (he definitely didn’t drink decaf before this show).
The best song on the album (and my favorite John Cale song) is “Dying on the Vine.” The album version is ok. The version from Fragments Of A Rainy Season is great. But there is a later version, which is basically the Fragments… version with the addition of a string quartet. I saw Cale in concert in NYC (The Bottom Line) when he pretty much did Fragments Of A Rainy Season with a string quartet. That was an amazing show. I’m not sure whether I like it better with just the piano or with the string quartet. The album version. - The piano version. - The string quartet version:
I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this album (or the rest of John Cale’s) work) in this sloppy essay. I hope you’ll click on some of the links and see that there is really something there, whether I express it or not.
--Don is a regular reader of this blog who usually doesn't have anything to say. He lives on Long Island.