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The results, including "Andalucia," "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and the title cut, made for some of the headiest words and lyrics of the early Seventies. Equally stellar songcraft fought its way onto 1974's Fear. But by then, the sound and feel of Cale's work had grown darker. Fear's best cuts--Gun" and "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend"--are included on the Rhino retrospective. Both songs make for convincing portraits of a psyche starting to slip, especially "Fear," which takes a catchy, melodic shell and breaks it into shards of off-white noise.
Cale's tour in support of Fear was his first extended road trip since V.U. days. His band, led by guitarist Chris Spedding, put on genuinely entertaining shows, highlighted by an animated and costumed Cale in fencing garb accented with layers of scarves, sunglasses, ski goggles, and masks. The act invariably included Cale yelling and screaming his tonsils dry, and often running offstage and hiding for extended periods of time.
Cale's psycho-persona kept him well-fed and viable. He was comfortable as one of rock's most uncomfortable-sounding performers, but the onset of punk upped the stakes. Suddenly, Cale's antics seemed like so much theatre against the shower of real spit coming from newer, angrier showmen.
Cale's idea of keeping pace was to sacrifice a chicken.
"There were a lot of wild and hysterical things going on," Cale says of a time he felt very much a part of. "Even more so than in the Sixties. In the Sixties, we had no idea what we were doing, but in the Seventies, we had theory behind us. We knew exactly what we were doing. It was so serious and murderous that it was hilarious in the end."
It also ushered in an artistic lull in Cale's music. His legend secured him as a punk/New Wave icon, and he was constantly on the move, recording noisy young bands like Sham 69. He even started his own label, Spy Records, which signed a distribution deal with I.R.S. (Among the acts on Spy's roster was demigod rock critic Lester Bangs.)
But Cale's own music at the time was cold and uninspired. The Rhino collection avoids most of Cale's deeper dross from the period. Instead, and wisely, the anthology features songs like "Taking Your Life in Your Hands" from 1982's Music for a New Society. It's a stunning work, something akin to the warped aural mirrors scattered throughout Big Star's Third album. Rhino's inclusion of the title cut from 1984's Caribbean Sunset is a smart move, too, seeing as how it's that disc's only song worth remembering. (Note: "Caribbean Sunset" was co-written by Larry "Ratso" Sloman, at the time an executive at National Lampoon and most recently the co-author of Howard Stern's best-selling assault on literature.)
Cale's most striking work in those years occurred outside the studio; 1984's John Cale Comes Alive, with just a three-piece backing band, was his strongest album in years. Cale also would occasionally go out on solo acoustic tours, performing intimate shows that featured his stark, moody countenance offset only by an electric piano. The shows were well-received, affording Cale's older songs a new life and at the same time blessing the aging artist with new converts.
"It was another dimension of really showing a sense of responsibility towards the material," Cale says of the solo dates. "You can have a band and you can have safety in numbers and share the responsibility with other band members. But when you're out on your own, and you have those songs and yourself and the piano, then it's that one-on-one angle that really nails you."
One show that was really nailed was here in Phoenix at the long-defunct Impulse Club across Indian School Road from the Mason Jar. There was Cale, alone, intense, resurrecting a forgotten song like "I Keep a Close Watch" (included on the Rhino release) and making it turn untold shades of gray in the small, dark bar. It was a magical evening, and one that Cale remembers.
"I do remember the Phoenix stop," he says. "The main thing I remember about Phoenix and Tucson was the heat. I seem to have gotten there in the worst time of the year. And what I noticed about Arizona in general was that it was heavy-metal country." Cale pauses. "And I remember the Kinks were there on tour. I went to a Kinks concert, and it was really amazing."
The Rhino anthology ends on an upswing similar to the recent restart of Cale's muse. Fittingly, the compilation's closing songs are collaborations, the working arrangement that seems to best suit Cale. And, fittingly, the last two songs were co-written with Lou Reed--Trouble With Classicists" and "Faces and Names," both from 1990's Songs for Drella, the V.U. duo's "fictional" eulogy to Andy Warhol.
Today, Cale seems to have as much chance of working again with Warhol as he does with Reed. But no matter; Cale has plenty to do on his own. The Welshman's most recent project is fusing his music with various forms of theatre. He's just come out with The Last Day on Earth, the first in a series of song cycle/theatrical partnerships with singer-songwriter Bobby Neuwirth. "It's a step back in the sense that I'm writing material for other people that other people will be able to perform," Cale says. Cale adds that writing in this latest mode means coming up with songs aimed at "specific dramatic situations." Not that his past work missed many targets; consider the song "Thoughtless Kind," penned in 1982, with Lou Reed clearly in the sights of this specific dramatic situation: "If you grow tired of the friends you've made/Never ever turn your back on them/Say they were the best of times you ever had/The best of times with the thoughtless kind."
Cale is a man who thrives on weirdness and conflict, his work a powerful thing through decades of "best of times." Yet brutality is not the only way to accomplish something. Seducing Down the Door is proof enough of that.
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