Shortly after writing about my funeral songs t’other day I headed back to the gym and within 20 minutes I realised I had missed some obvious choices that would have worked brilliantly. I say would, I’m still alive, so what I really mean is that they will work brilliantly. A good example would be ‘Someone’s Missing’ by MGMT, but a lot of the rest of the best were all by John Cale and it made me think two things: firstly that John Cale seems like an excellent choice to have sing at any funeral, let alone my own, and secondly just what a fantastic musician he is and that it remains one of the great mysteries in music that he isn’t better known. For the record I’m very happy to keep him to myself. But if you prefer the occasional swerve away from the strictly stupid on this non-transcendent site then this is for you. I would urge you to try some of the songs mentioned but since I’ll never bother to seek out any of your suggestions I won’t take it personally if you demure.
Along with Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas, John Cale is one of the three greatest Welshmen to have ever drawn breath. His abiding advantage over the other two is that he isn’t dead yet, not that he hasn’t tried to join them over the years. That deep, murky streak of Welsh artistry is a connecting factor and was what Burton once described as a fatalistic Celtic urge to peer over the precipice into the darkness, just to see what it looked like down there. And this is why Cale’s music belongs in a place and a time of death. Or at least the periphery of death. The purgatorial suburbs. There are few musicians who can flirt amongst dark and light with such agility whilst still keeping a melodic upper hand and even fewer blessed with such a bible black growl of a voice. Oh my, is he good. Right up my street.
Through the ups and downs Cale always had it made. He was a classically trained musician already when he joined The Velvet Underground in New York; a world away and an introduction to the mythology of rock and roll which has no comparison. I suppose it would like training to be a zookeeper by first wrestling with a bloody great big nasty shark. Sadly he was kicked out after the first two albums and while the next brace of VU albums are sublime it is worth wondering what they would have sounded like if Cale had clung on. But when you’re someone like Cale I guess you don’t have to cling on to anything; you just get on with getting on. Genius never needs to latch. I, on the other hand, could latch on behalf of the universe.
It’s a 70’s thing really and like all my favourites Cale started his imperial phase around 1970 and finished it around about 1982 with ‘Music For A New Society’. That’s not to say he dried up afterwards, it’s just that comparing his best stretch with his next best is to compare the magnificent with the merely brilliant. In that 70’s stretch he released 8 solo albums, of which at least 6 are superb, and in case that’s not enough he produced a few of the landmark big bangs of the period including The Stooges debut and ‘Horses’ by Patti Smith. He popped up in all kinds of places and on all kind of other people’s albums, pollinating them giddily with bass and viola, organ and piano, and more or less anything else he was handy at. He may have been mired in a grim mezzanine of booze and coke and as much of whatever else was available but his musical instincts were always sharp and his time always generous and well spent.
Of his own work there is simply too much that can be said, but here’s a shortlist to chew over: ‘Big White Cloud’, ‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ (which is a brilliant sentiment and quite, quite true), ‘Paris 1919’, ‘Half Past France’, ‘Buffalo Ballet’, ‘You Know More Than I Know’, ‘Gun’, ‘Barracuda’, ‘Mr Wilson’, ‘Rollaroll’, ‘I Keep A Close Watch’, ‘Leaving It Up To You’, ‘Dead Or Alive’, ‘Riverbank’, ‘Taking Your Life In Your Hands’ and ‘If You Were Still Around’. That list just scratches the surface. Some are gossamer delicate and others are so thoroughly violent and bleak you have to seriously question his mental health at the time. Regardless, all are beautiful in a way that only the most accomplished music can be. There’s also the live album ‘Sabotage’ which arguably stands as the most dangerous and menacing example of the art form yet released. No-one will ever cover a John Cale song on The X-Factor and that is a significant achievement. One of his songs starts with the words “The bugger in the short sleeves just fucked my wife” (find out for yourself which one). And that is also a significant achievement.
There are just a few extra special gems saved for last. The live version of ‘Dying On The Vine’ should be on the funeral list; it is an outstanding performance and packed full of a special kind of drive and vigour, particularly given what it’s pointing towards. So should ‘Antarctica Starts Here’ which Cale accompanies with an ethereal whisper; the lyrics are almost inconsequential to the whole feel of the piece and he also heroically rescues the drift with a blast of instrumental glory towards the end. And finally there is ‘Cable Hogue’ – an angry, frightened and frightening, slurred, painful, drunken row with itself of a song that lurches and splatters along on a deathly piano clang and then just as it sinks into irreversible despair lifts itself up and spins off into a glorious coda. It is literally a Sam Peckinpah film crammed into 3 minutes of draining yet glorious anguish. Being nearly dead never sounded so good. Cale really is a genius, a genius who is still with us. And when I die, and if he’s still alive (which I hope, for time’s sake alone, he won’t be) could someone please, please ask him to play at my funeral?
G B Hewitt. 11.01.2019