Graded on a Curve:
John Cale, Fear

On which John Cale, the Welsh portion of The Velvet Underground, finally remembers that once upon a time he produced a caterwaul, and sets about reproducing the same. In smaller portions, sure, but that’s only because he’s also busy turning out lovely ditties, just like the kind he offered up on 1973’s Paris 1919. And keeps his sense of humor too, for example on the hilarious “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy,” one of the chief charms of which is the way Cale insists upon pronouncing “orgy” with a hard “g.”

1974’s Fear is a great album with a great group of supporting characters, including Brian Eno, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, guitarist Richard Thompson, and Judy Nylon, the same Judy who is the subject of Eno’s “Back in Judy’s Jungle.” Recorded during a period of epic creativity in which Cale recorded three LPs in a little over a year for Island Records while also producing albums such as Patti Smith’s landmark Horses, Fear is an eclectic document and my favorite of his Island Records recordings.

I’d be tempted to call it a concept album (see title) but it isn’t, and doesn’t even come close. Only opening track “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” and the magnificent “Gun” delve into gut-churning territory, and speaking of that opener it’s a sprightly piano-based rocker that really takes off on the choruses, which feature a throbbing bass and Cale singing, “Say fear is a man’s best friend.” But its best part is its close, when an unrecognizable (to me) instrument (distorted bass? distorted guitar? stringed bazooka?) accompanies Cale as he lets rip with some frantic shouting.

On the next tune, “Buffalo Ballet,” Cale returns to Paris 1919 territory with a lovely, oh so lovely ballad about the (I think) taming of the American West. His piano playing is beautiful, the melody is lush and lovely, and everyone’s “sleeping in the mid-day sun.” Gold rushes, the transcontinental railroad, it’s a history lesson learnt in your sleep, and when you wake up all the buffalo will be gone.

The throbbing and Caribbean-leaning “Barracuda” is fast-paced and rhapsodic, and features lots of exotic sound effects, which I’m once again at a loss to identify. Take the solo. Is it a distorted guitar? A distorted viola? A synthesizer? My uneducated guess is Cale on viola, imitating the world’s largest bee, trapped between a windowpane and a window screen. Whatever, it’s great, as are the scraping noise, the guitar wank, and a really catchy chorus that will make you want to do the rhumba around the Christmas tree. “Emily” is a slow and winsome idyll, with Cale playing the nightclub crooner in a film from the 1930s. With waves crashing behind him (to say nothing of a girl’s chorus), Cale sings, “Soon the time will come/When we must say/Goodbye my dear dear friend/Till we meet again.” It leaves me cold, but then again I hate 1930s films and am a cold-hearted prick in general.

“Ship of Fools” features a zany lyric sheet (“We picked up Dracula in Memphis/It was just about the break of day/And then hastily prayed for out souls to be saved/There was something in the air that made us kind of weary”) and a very fetching melody, to say nothing of some lovely chiming and a happening chorus (“So hold on, won’t be long/The call is on the line/Hold on, sister’s gone/South to give the sign”). A very pretty song, this one, despite the absurdist lyrics, which take you from Tombstone to Swansea with the aforementioned detour to Memphis to pick up the bloodsucker.

“Gun” is the LP’s tour de force, both musically and lyrically. Featuring a repetitive and gutbucket riff (“Sister Ray,” anybody?) it goes on and on, with Cale deadpanning the chorus (“When you’ve begun to think like a gun/The days of the year have suddenly gone/Once you’ve begun to think like a gun/The days of the year have already gone”) and adding other nice details (“Watch out for Big Mama/She’ll set you on fire/Or go for your neck/With the chicken wire”). Then Phil Manzanera takes off on one epically fucked-up guitar solo, the sound of which was achieved by Eno’s using a synthesizer to process the guitar’s sound in real time. It’s a beautiful piece of chaos, and reaffirms my hope in mankind, as does the song as a whole, whose lines (“Blood on the windows and blood on the walls/Blood on the ceiling and down in the halls”) remind me of the time my pal Icky and I walked into a neighborhood Chinese/fried chicken joint with plate-glass window protection for the clerk to discover the room had just been the site of a veritable blood bath. We decided to forgo our French fries, but a customer stood at the counter shouting at the terrified woman behind it, “How am I supposed to eat in these conditions??”

“The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” is a hoot, what with its rollicking piano, Beach Boys’ backing vocals, and repeated sultry come-ons by Judy Nylon. Manzanera plays a nice solo, while Cale runs the gamut: “Pity the poor man, pity the sad man/Pity the green man/Who couldn’t afford to orgy.” And there’s that hard “g” to make everything even funnier. Good for the milkman and the astronaut who can afford to orgy, he sings, and I find myself wondering just how much does it cost to orgy, anyway? Perhaps I should, as Nylon suggests, give myself a break. It’s a sign of the perversity of Mr. Cale that he should have released this one as the single off the album.

Meanwhile, “You Know More Than I Know” is the LP’s loveliest song; if its seductively beautiful chorus doesn’t melt your heart, you really should speak to a mortician about immediate cremation. The female backing vocalists are ethereal, as are the acoustic guitars and Cale’s piano, and they lead to the LP closer “Momamma Scuba,” the LP’s oddest track. You can’t accuse Cale of not piling it on; Manzanera, Richard Thompson, and Bryn Haworth (the well-known Christian guitarist) all play slide guitar on the cut, which opens in a herky-jerky fashion with some female backing vocalists before Cale comes in, those vocalists doing Dark Side of the Moon imitations. Meanwhile a mean guitar predominates, Cale sings about his lungs being on fire, and those three slide guitars proceed to play a scratching and scraping din while Cale screams and the guitars slowly fade out.

Cale the musical polymath can be infuriating—I’ve never quite forgiven him for 1972’s The Academy in Peril—and it’s dumbfounding that the aesthete responsible for that LP not only recorded covers of “Heartbreak Hotel” and Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog,” but also gave us the epically dumb “Ski Patrol.” But then I listen to “Hanky Panky No How” and its lyrics about “cows that agriculture won’t allow,” the moving “Mr. Wilson,” and “Gun” and I have to concede I love the guy, pretentions (see “Brahms” off The Academy in Peril) and all. He may be the effete and impudent snob who gave us “John Milton,” or he may be the guy who gave us “Dirty Ass Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Actually he’s both of them, and over the years he has bequeathed us much magic, and I don’t know about you but I’ll take him over his old band mate Lou Reed any day.


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