John Cale

Double Door, October 7

Because rock ‘n’ roll is a hybrid musical form, most of what it calls “innovation” is really some combination of strong vision, the effective incorporation of exotic elements, and the willingness to keep creative options open. Singer-songwriter-symphonic composer John Cale thus qualifies as innovative, just like that groovy little pop band he was in for three years thirty years ago, but in the hagiography of the Velvet Underground so much is made of innovation that people expect latter-day Cale to be much more difficult and inaccessible than he’s ever actually been.

The source of this confusion is that, unlike his old bandmate Lou Reed, Cale’s never developed a reliable template into which he could plug even sheer uninspired crap to produce reassuringly familiar product, and his unwillingness or inability to do so means that he’s been hindered by nostalgia much more than he’s benefited from it. Those who grooved on the noisy blood lust of 1979’s Sabotage/Live (IRS) and those who wish he’d duplicate his La Monte Young-influenced viola drones from the first VU album probably aren’t going to love the tastefully cosmopolitan pop of his new Walking on Locusts (Hannibal).

What saves him from dilettantism is his commitment to whatever mode he happens to be in–when he’s sweet he rots teeth, and when he’s creepy he’s nightmarish. And though the reductionist hero worship of the Velvets (and the equally reductionist backlash against it) have assigned Reed the singular role of songwriter, fact is that when Cale rocks, he rocks better. His skill and flexibility as a songwriter are borne out by both the many covers of his songs–ranging from Bauhaus’s histrionic “Rose Garden Funeral of Sores” to Sally Timms’s bell-toned “Half Past France”–and his own performances. On the 1992 live retrospective Fragments of a Rainy Season, he holds forth on piano, acoustic guitar, and voice, the extreme mood swings of the material anchored by a solid understanding of dynamics.

Locusts and its tour–Cale’s first as a rock bandleader since fatherhood pulled him off the self-destruction train in 1985–find him trying to commit to a happy medium in a form not known for its appreciation of subtlety, and he’s not making it look easy. It’s got to be especially tough coming on the heels of The Island Years, a reissue of Cale’s mid-70s masterpieces Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy, on which he first juxtaposed his articulate cataloging of terrors with luminous love songs, speaking to a shadowy other who’s either a partner in espionage or a deceitful lover or both, meditating on all the repercussions of betrayal. These records give the impression of a man at once attracted to and repulsed by nearly everything, most of all rock ‘n’ roll. They also grow progressively darker, and his legendary 70s and early-80s performances are largely what triggered his decade-long bout of rockphobia. He’s commented with dread on the number of people eager to watch him descend into drug-addicted madness, and it seems he’s still more than a little afraid of his audience.

So when Cale walks onstage with his young and hyperactive band, he glances around nervously as if to pinpoint the positions of potential lunatics. “This is ‘Secret Corrida,'” he mutters from behind his electric piano, and the band sinks into a pop noir groove. Cale rocks on his toes and closes his eyes as if the world of the song–which he says he wrote about Bosnia–is more comfortable than the one in front of him. Hypnotic, not rousing, it’s an odd choice for an opener. Odder still is “All I Want Is You,” a Slow Dazzle outtake that sounds like the Revolver-era Beatles falling down a flight of stairs. By the time he smirks, “This one’s in B-flat” and launches into the vicious “Guts,” he seems to be guardedly having fun. But there’s a crazy girl bouncing up and down and yelling, holding up a note and commanding him to look at it, and after a few songs’ worth of an Oscar-quality performance of not noticing, Cale snarls, “I will–in a minute!” and backs as far away from her as he can get and still reach the keyboard, and when his signature “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” comes around on the set list, it sounds like he believes it.

On Locusts, “Crazy Egypt” gets its drive from its tightly restrained mania; live it seems finally to send the band the signal they’ve been waiting for to cut loose. Guitarist Lance Doss spins off jagged antitones, drummer Phil Cimino attacks the kit with mallets, Cale is babbling and hissing, looking as if he’s chained by the wrists to the piano and trying to escape. As the night goes on he alternates fiery songs with contemplative ones, testing the waters to see if this crowd will follow him as eagerly into the stark, painful “Some Friends” or the upbeatness of “Entre Nous.” This leaves him hovering a little awkwardly in a middle position, never fully embracing the extremes of beauty or violence that give power to his best work. Though violent rock isn’t Cale’s be-all and end-all, it is the best forum for his neglected id, and after all the will-he-or-won’t-he tension of the evening it’s a big relief when he straps on a battered Telecaster and roars into Sabotage/Live’s “Evidence.”

The question now isn’t whether Cale can still rock when he wants to–the trick is convincing us that he wants to, and here he pulls it off, but barely. He delivers the climactic monologue of “Leaving It Up to You” (“I hear hissing in the distance / I hear the tanks crawling / They’re crawling over the hill / Like rattlesnakes in the desert sun”) in a stuttering moan that ends in glass-shattering screams, veering off into yet another nonrock paradigm, closer to Antonin Artaud than anything else.

The liner notes to the 1994 Cale retrospective Seducing Down the Door quote John Cage: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” There’s a lot of lip service paid to questioning but when it comes down to it, rock ‘n’ roll has a tendency to want answers and want them now, loud and simple. Cale’s music often doesn’t answer the questions most commonly asked of him. The relevant questions really aren’t about creating something out of nothing; they concern the breaching of artistic distances and the search for a coherent self among the threads of seemingly contradictory traditions and passions. After this tour, Cale says, there’ll be more performances of his opera about Mata Hari that premiered in Vienna last year, and he’ll complete another “theater piece” in collaboration with Ann Magnuson. He met the Moroccan percussionists who appear on Locusts, Hassan and Ibrahim Hakmoun, while producing an album of Corsican music. He acknowledges the rhythmic and free-associative influence of Dylan Thomas on his lyrics, and when I asked him why he had never used his own native language on a record, he said a little sadly, “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do–I just haven’t gotten to it,” and explained about the rigidness and intensity of englyn, a haikulike Welsh poetic form. But strict traditionalism in one context can be wild innovation in another, so if his next record is a Corsican-influenced opera in Welsh with Moe Tucker on drums, doubtless somebody somewhere is still going to be confused.

Cale has a lot of obstacles to overcome if he really wants to reestablish a rock ‘n’ roll persona, and I’m not convinced he does want that badly enough to pursue it at the possible expense of his other agendas. The expectations we have of him within the rock milieu do allow some room to maneuver, but maybe not enough. The crazy woman’s note, left behind when she went chasing after Cale at show’s end, turned out to be a song request–for “Venus in Furs,” of all the when-hell-freezes-over things. A pledge of obsession or a death threat would probably have scared him less.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of John Cale by Matt Carmichael.