Graded on a Curve:
John Cale,
Vintage Violence

As the classically trained member of the Velvet Underground, few would have been surprised had John Cale gone the avant-garde route. And he did just that on 1971’s Church of Anthrax (a collaboration with Terry Riley) and 1972’s The Academy in Peril. But on his 1970 debut Vintage Violence, Cale produced a collection of more or less conventional rock songs that had virtually nothing in common with Cale’s contributions to such VU songs as “The Gift” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation.”

What was even more surprising were Cale’s influences. Country rock is the last thing you would associate with Cale, but one can hear its echoes on no less than six of Vintage Violence’s ten songs, most often in the guitar playing of Garland Jeffreys–a rock and reggae guy no one would have associated with the country rock either. One can only wonder how to account for this. Did someone dump Hee Haw into the studio water supply? Mix Gram Parsons into his Welsh rarebit?

But the John Cale of Vintage Violence is still John Cale, the off-kilter singer-songwriter capable of veering from lovely ballads to flights of whimsy (“Ski Patrol” from 1975’s Slow Dazzle is a hilarious must-hear). Cale’s lyrics make obvious he’s every bit as conversant with the poetry of the French surrealists as he is the traditional love song, and the only thing missing on Vintage Violence is the cocaine-induced paranoia that would crop up later on songs like “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” and “Gun”–which is odd given that “violence” in the LP’s title.

Vintage Violence opens with “Hello, There,” the only number on the album with muscle and a rock edge. But its big hook and “I’m Waiting for My Man” piano pound give way to an upbeat and decidedly friendly chorus that signals it’s a quiet Cale we’ll be dealing with. The proof lies in “Gideon’s Bible,” which is as lovely a ballad as “Hanky Panky Nohow” and “Andalucia” from 1973’s Paris 1919. But Cale, who is prone to tossing dada into his most emotional songs, can’t help but add a touch of black humor of in the form of lines like “Throttling children callously, a messy day with Clancy.”

On a completely different note we have “Adelaide,” a goofy throwaway about going home to Australia. A cheerful harmonica sets the tone, but what really makes the song is the exaggerated bass vocal (“Ooh No!”) that leaps out at you here and there throughout. “Big White Cloud” is one of the most beautiful songs in Cale’s canon and one the rarest at that—seldom does Cale enter the transcendental realm, but on “Big White Cloud” he stands by the sea gazing at a big white singing an affirmative “Yes I love it/Yes I love it/Yes I love it so.” Unfortunately it’s followed by the playful but go-nowhere neo-Caribbean “Cleo,” with its more than passing resemblance to the Harry Belafonte classic “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song”).

“Please” has a very country twang incongruous with Cale’s very un-country accent. And even on this touching plaint to growing old, Cale can’t help throwing a spanner in the works with the lines “Hansom cab again from dawn till dusk/My power amphibious bride.” “Charlemagne” proceeds at a stately place and is set way down south, and its unison singing by Cale and Jeffreys (whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Keith Richards’) is a thing of beauty, as is Jeffreys’ country guitar, especially when set against Cale’s simple piano figure.

On the high-spirited “Bring It on Up” Cale once again goes the country rock route. The lyrics are straight-up Spaghetti Western (“Lost up in the desert with a gun in my hand,” sings Cale, “And the locust gonna come to find me”) while Jeffreys plays urban cowboy on guitar, and I can’t listen to it without thinking Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The mournful and acoustic guitar-only “Amsterdam” is a love song to a women who’s returned from Amsterdam no longer in love with our narrator; “the journey,” sings Cale, “has done her well,” but the same can’t be said for him (“But I love her more and need her company”).

“Ghost Story” has glimmers of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and features some wonderful absurdist lyrics—any song that opens with the lines “It was seven o’clock in the morning/Too late to handle the day” is fine by me. And it’s the only track on which Cale stretches out in the form of an organ solo at song’s end. The LP closes with the rollicking “Fairweather Friend,” Jeffreys’ sole songwriting contribution to Vintage Violence. The melody’s nothing to write mom about and the lyrics are of limerick quality, and about the only thing the song has going for it is Jeffreys’ guitar solo—the only one on the LP.

Having split the Velvet Underground, John Cale might easily have packed up his viola and avant garde bona fides and disappeared forever into the obscure realm of experimental music. Instead he’s had it both ways, interspersing LPs like 1997’s Eat/Kiss: Music for the Films by Andy Warhol with more traditional art rock (God I hate that term) albums like Vintage Violence. Lou Reed went on to join the greats, but by any standard Cale’s albums of the early to mid-1970’s stand up to those released by Reed during the same period. There’s much to be said for Reed’s aggression, but Cale’s emotional detachment also has its lure. In “Hanky Panky Nohow” Cale sings about “seducing down the door.” Which to my way of thinking is just as good as Reed’s approach, which was to kick it in.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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