“Never miss the opportunity to see John Cale live”. That’s the unambiguous advice from a review of Cale’s show at the Gluepot in Auckland in 1983. The review has been republished in a local newspaper as part of a series on memorable shows at the venue, and I come across it while waiting for some chips late one night. It’s now 1996 and I’m supposed to be on a date, but since she’s brought along her sister, I don’t feel too guilty about being distracted by this enthusiastic review.
I’ve been a fan of the Velvet Underground for a few years, but don’t know anything about John Cale’s solo work. I start with Music For A New Society, having seen it in the local library, but give up soon after. It’s just too bleak – I need to find something more cheerful and quickly. Fortunately I have a Cure compilation handy.
Two years later and I am living in Dublin, and a John Cale solo show is announced at Vicar Street, a brand new venue. I decide to buy Cale’s latest CD Walking on Locusts – surely he’ll play a few from that. I had also heard Songs For Drella a few years earlier and liked it, but that was a Lou Reed – John Cale collaboration, and they weren’t talking anymore, so he probably wouldn’t play that. I like to be familiar with what I’m going to hear, so am feeling a bit unprepared.
I didn’t appreciate just how unprepared I was. Having bought my ticket early, I had a seat in the front row of small tables, and found myself only a few feet from Cale’s piano. Cale appears, dressed in purple satin trousers and red suede shoes. This guy has presence.
He begins with a series of Dylan Thomas poems from Words For The Dying, one of Cale’s collaborations with Brian Eno. From the moment he starts playing On A Wedding Anniversary, the venue is silent. Cale’s intensity doesn’t waver for the next 90 minutes.
He stays on the piano with a whispered Antarctica Starts Here, followed by a nonchalantly rollicking Child’s Christmas in Wales. I’m hearing songs from many stages of Cale’s career for the first time, and it’s not easy to keep up. I catch mentions of Chinese Envoys, the Church of Christ Jesus Kentucky, rattlesnakes, strychnine. Although the songs are unknown to me, they’re mesmerizing.
I’m taken by surprise when Cale is handed an acoustic guitar and he takes a seat at the edge of the stage. Somehow the intensity increases as Cale starts Leaving It Up To You. Someone’s being called a fascist, and there’s a reference to Sharon Tate. Now there’s hissing in the distance, more rattlesnakes, and the veins in Cale’s neck are starting to bulge.
Calm appears to be restored with The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a song he introduces as named after a Sam Peckinpah movie, and traffic moves slowly in the opening line. This all changes when Cale starts to wail “You can’t leave me!” and suddenly everything has disintegrated.
It feels like we’ve witnessed an acoustic suicide, but Cale recovers more quickly than I do and is already back to the piano.
He continues with Broken Hearts, from a collaboration with Bob Neuwirth, and Cordoba, written with Brian Eno with lines from a Spanish textbook. The piano introduction to his next song gets a cheer, and I feel I know the words but can’t quite place it. I finally realize that this is Heartbreak Hotel, but not as Elvis knew it. Cale’s face is getting red again.
I also vaguely recognize the next song, Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend, but from Billy Bragg’s version. I’ve clearly discovered that song backwards, and this is the real thing. Once more, Cale shifts from whispers to a crescendo of screams.
Fortunately that is the end of the bloodshed as Cale plays Style It Takes – one of the few songs I know. I love the line about the Velvet Underground having a “style that grates”. He also plays Thoughtless Kind, which I am later amazed to see comes from Music For A New Society. It sounds a lot more friendly now.
Cale finishes up with Hallelujah and A Close Watch. For many, Cale’s is the definitive version of Hallelujah, and the arrangement which inspired Jeff Buckley. A Close Watch is introduced with “this is a love song so hold on to someone you love”. We could have done with a bit of that earlier just after the rattlesnakes and the strychnine.
It’s an astonishing performance, and a reminder that special effects aren’t needed to create an extraordinary show. He hasn’t played anything from Walking On Locusts, but that CD isn’t regarded as Cale’s best work. The songs chosen tonight definitely are, and I find later that they are almost the same as those on Fragments Of A Rainy Season, a live recording from Brussels in 1992. Although recorded years earlier, the CD has now become a souvenir of one the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
John Cale turned 70 this year. His CD Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood will be released in October 2012.