Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Polite Roar: John Cale at BAM (January 19, 2013)

John Cale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

Though I’m a John Cale fan, and have a special fondness for his detours from contemporary classical and avant-rock exploration into melody and assonance, I’ve always found the “masterwork” attributes of Paris 1919  his third solo album, from 1973 – elusive.The record is mostly harmonious and lush.The lyrics, perversely cryptic if taken line by line, altogether comprise a dream voyage through foreign lands and bygone eras, the romance of the far-distant against fading memories of home. I ought to love it. Yet most of Paris 1919 goes through me like water. Cale’s voice – so harsh and commanding, yet with reserves of grave tenderness – comes from a muffled distance; pillowy production cushions the edges and angles that are so essential to his dynamic language. And the songs themselves don’t stick to me – save for “The Endless Plain of Fortune,” that powerfully orchestrated yet modestly worded epic of man and war, desert and bones which, to complicate matters, happens to be my favorite Cale song. So last Saturday night, when Cale played the second of two shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and devoted the first half to performing Paris 1919 in toto, it was mainly – only – “Endless Plain” that I looked forward to hearing. And it was indeed the highlight of the first act. The star was supported by a Brooklyn-based group of classically trained horn and string players called the Wordless Music Orchestra, as well as by the three-piece rock combo that is Cale’s longtime touring band; all did justice to the song’s epic climaxes and stirring sturm und drang. Yet even here, something was undeniably missing.

That absence at the heart of things carried over into the second half of the show, which was devoted almost completely to songs from Cale’s most recent album, the woefully titled Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, released late last year. On record, these songs (“Living with You,” “December Rains,” “I Wanna Talk 2 U”) are defined by the processed vocals, drum machines, and thwacking, busy sound of late ‘80s electropop and early ‘90s trip-hop – a dense, textured impasto that still has appeal for those listeners who don’t find it quite outdated. The lyrics are customary if not classic Cale, non-linear but direct, full of hard imagery, intuitive meanings, and implications of violence. It’s not a bad album, only a frustrating one, the frustration stemming from its lack of a single extraordinary song. With the rock orchestra at BAM, playing to an audience most of which probably did not know Nookie Wood well, Cale (who is 71 this year) sang the songs with terrific gusto, and went affectingly low-key on the domestic meditation “Living with You.” The songs sounded better, or anyway more promising, in this setting than they had on record. Yet damned if the missing thing wasn’t still missing. Call it an edge; call it drama; call it a sense of anything-can-happen. I’ve seen John Cale twice before, once solo and once with an expansive rock-funk band. First time, in a tiny lodge in upstate New York, he broke guitar strings a few feet away from me while screeching his strangled love song to Cable Hogue; second time, at the Limelight on Sixth Avenue, he banged a piano, hollered feverishly, and kept the crowd on its feet for two hours. Each performance had its draggy bits, but each was also a battle, with voice and instruments standing in for fists and knives – Cale battling to exhilarate his audience without ever giving it precisely the thing it thought it wanted; Cale battling his band members to drive them past the point they believed they could stop; Cale battling his own songs for every drop of anger and spew they could give.

But BAM was no battleground, not this night. Moments of real freedom were precious and fleeting – in a long Dustin Boyer guitar solo that finally caught noisy fire, or in a climbing series of vocal outcries that Cale didn’t seem about to pull off, and then did. Standing at an electric piano, singing from deep inside his barrel torso, Cale rode the clamor like a sea captain, in complete command even while taking deferential cues from the conductor. But the matchless wrath of his great Welsh voice never ripped a song apart, never reached a height to make everyone else onstage vanish. The orchestral arrangements, tightly written and vigorously executed, towered like fortress walls between the musicians and the audience – perhaps even between the musicians and the songs. The sound was a polite roar, and while it never ceased to be impressive, it ceased early on to be very interesting. 

The Velvet Underground, 1968. (Photo: Michael Ochs)
The set list from the previous night’s performance had been posted on fan sites; many in the audience were not surprised, then, when, at concert’s end, having dismissed the orchestra and returned with his backing band, Cale picked up his electric viola and counted down to “Venus in Furs,” the scariest song on the Velvet Underground’s first LP. Lou Reed wrote it, but John Cale co-owns it: The evil heart of this piece of horror porn always lay more in his macabre off-key bowing than in the S/M lyrics. It was the highlight of the night. It wasn’t the explosion of freedom some of us had been missing; nor was it the outbreak of battle; nor was it the avant-garde promise of something new. It was the sound, instead, of something from out the past that had always seemed out of the future, still timelessly alive, still writhing and crawling up our legs from the stage of a Brooklyn opera house. Not an arse in the place didn’t slide forward, not a heart failed to jump or pair of eyes fix on the great Cale as he sawed and sang. From this moment, nothing was missing.

John Cale has never been a talker onstage. His only real message to the BAM audience – a message, really, to New York City, cradle of his avant-garde and Velvet Underground beginnings – was this: “You’re the ones who showed me that if you keep your heart open, it never stops beating.” It’s good to know that Cale’s heart is still exposed, even if its beat is ill-expressed by so-so songs done up in tight, bright, walloping orchestral gear. I would follow this man just about anywhere, and if he were to come back in two years for a 40-year-anniversary performance of the 1975 Helen of Troy – perhaps his best album – coupled with a second act made up of songs from whatever his then-latest record turns out to be, I will be the first in line.  

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.


  1. Hey Devin! Nice review. But I disagree a bit. I loved the show, the idea of Paris 1919 played faithfully, and with a few new ideas tossed in as well. Though it masterful, stirring, grand. New material definitely sounds better live, finding Nookie Wood a rather disappointing CD.

  2. Hey Walter. I'd been told you rated the show very high. The problem with a performer like Cale who gives you so much is that you wind up wanting more. I'm glad you liked it so much, especially having seen him so many times before.