Here Comes Johnny Yen Again

John Cale’s rare beauty and real sadness

by Marshall Bowden

The thing about creating music is the ability to divine a thought or feeling even when reality says it’s a logical impossibility. –John Cale–

We are actually living in the world that John Cale portrayed in the eighties when he emerged into the post punk landscape a gibbering, violent madman hell bent on death and destruction both externally with grenades and firearms, and internally with drugs and especially alcohol not to mention waging emotional war on any human within listening distance. Cale doesn’t look away from that on his latest release, Mercy, but he does present a much less harsh aural landscape, and one senses that the older Cale doesn’t need to scream at us because the darkness closing in is perfectly obvious to all.

Cale’s records have always contained moments of such rare beauty that their inability to sustain themselves forever are moments of real sadness and despair leading to anger and self-hatred and finally the aforementioned violence. Cale’s voice on “Marilyn Monroe’s Legs (beauty elsewhere)” is cajoling, isolated, heartbroken. If I were to attempt to describe the  sound of Mercy in a word, that word would probably be ‘haunted’. 

I really got into John Cale, as a solo artist, around 1980, when I went to college. His seventies records weren’t always easy to come by, often available only as pricey imports, though I remember that Vintage Violence, his first, made the rounds in the cutout bins. I had picked up a copy of Slow Dazzle at a used record store, and I adored it, buying an import copy of Fear soon after. But 1980 was when Cale made a bit of a comeback, fronting a raw, Crazy Horse-cum-punk hybrid band and spouting invective and innuendo fueled by massive quantities of alcohol, cocaine, and paranoid delusion. Bowie did coke and paranoia and gave us Station to Station. Cale gave us the live record Sabotage/Live and the devastating studio record Honi Soit.

Sabotage/Live was recorded in front of an audience at CBGBs, but it could have just as easily been recorded in Cleveland. It’s the same kind of pugilistic document as Iggy Pop’s TV Eye, a record that I love for all its sonic and performance warts. But Sabotage truly earns its avant-garde Rust Never Sleeps reputation, because the songs are mostly really good and everyone is all in on the performance–the intro to “Captain Hook” swirls like Country Life-era Roxy Music or Axe Victim on acid before relaxing into a bluesy recitative. And because these are all new songs at the time, not live performances of old favorites, Sabotage comes away as a significant Cale album, and it set the tone emotionally for Honi Soit. 

Cale toured for a long period with a band that consisted of keyboard player Joe Bidewell and vocalist Deerfrance and a rotating group of bassists, drummers, and guitarists. The four piece band that he ended up recording Honi Soit with was comprised of Jim Goodwin/keyboards, Strugis Nikides/guitar, Peter Muny/bass, and Robert Medici/drums. Producer Mike Thorne was brought in and the idea was to produce a commercial record for label A&M. 

Honi Soit is one of Cale’s best albums, where he delivers everything his solo career had offered thus far. The intensity and hysteria from Sabotage are there, but they are more controlled. The band is tight and plays completely for the strength of the group and the songs rather than to highlight any one member’s playing. Cale’s writing is especially sharp, and it becomes devastatingly clear that though he is talking, at times, about actual war and about geopolitical intrigue, he is just as frequently talking about the uncertain terrain of human emotions and relationships. 

The men in these songs are all fighters–mercenaries, ready for war. A lot of the songs on Sabotage/Live and Honi Soit are literally about soldiers, or sometimes spies or even diplomats. Each member of Cale’s band took on a military role–Cale’s was ‘flight surgeon.’

Cale’s female protagonists are generally tragic figures, even if their downfall is their own doing–or especially if this is so. Honi Soit‘s crisp opening track, “Dead or Alive” is a melodic banger of a song with a “Penny Lane” inspired trumpet line by Mark Getchall (actually its more similar to Holly Beth Vincent’s “Honalu”) that is a reminiscence of a self-destructive ex-lover who has turned up dead (“That’s when the DA told me/he said dead or alive for you/they found her”)–or did the narrator kill her?

The ‘sweet young thing’ in the album’s final track, “Magic & Lies” has achieved a measure of independence and does whatever she likes, one presumes socially and sexually, but of course hedonistic behavior must have its consequences:

She does things her own way, knows the wrong from right

But there’s one big difference now she does anything she wants

And every night is midnight as they come to take her through the door

Of suffering as it is her own way out no matter how she feels

Her day is

There are songs about the personal costs of living in a world that is completely mad and about the leaders who exert brute force upon the populace and their minions, such as the military and intelligence infrastructure, in order to maintain and expand their power. It all comes together in the song’s murkiest number, the single “Strange Times In Casablanca” which sounds like it is being delivered straight from a recording studio in Hell’s ninth circle. 

On Mercy‘s opening title track featuring Laurel Halo, Cale intones “Days and days were spent in anger/Nights were filled with lust/Lift Me up and show me mercy” over a background loop that would have been right at home in the chill out room of the nineties. Mercy is not a rock and roll album–it has much more in common with Cale’s more experimental, composition-based records and to his work with Lamont Young and Terry Riley than to his Island trilogy or the Sabotage/Honi Soit era. It specifically underlines Cale’s connections to art music, to the classical avant-garde, to ambient and electronic music, as well as to the no man’s land of alternative popular music which he helped to create. 

Many of the tracks on Mercy are longish and they take their time unfolding, like ambient and minimalist compositions often do. The electronic music space may or may not be Cale’s preferred medium, but it is the one are of modern music where audience attention span is not confined to short, three minute blasts. Case in point: the Weyes Blood collaboration “Story of Blood,” which takes over a minute to find its eventual groove, which meanders anyway.

Listening to Mercy, I can’t hep but think of other late career masterpieces like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, or Bowie’s Blackstar, Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression and Free, or Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, all of which combine the sepia toned beauty of reminiscence with the brutal honesty of truth and a sense of darkness closing in. These are special records, records that distill and expand an artist’s career and style. Mercy may not be John Cale’s last album, but it is a deeply appreciated and felt gift from one of rock music’s most fascinating performers.

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