Perfect Sound Forever

JOHN CALE

His late 70's wild years
by Ben Dyment


By the time 1980 began to loom over the horizon, there was no doubt in anyone's minds that John Cale was a capable artist. From orchestral paeans to monochromatic angst, arcane ballads to barebones drone, he could do it all, and always leave you wanting more.

His last release of the '70's, Sabotage/Live, was an album that pushed even further into the rabid, visceral states he was legendary for, from the pulpit froths of "Sabotage" to the cynical political purview of "Dr. Mudd" and "Mercenaries." It was a declaration of intent, one that successfully proved Cale's continued relevance as much as Rust Never Sleeps did for one-time label-mate Neil Young the same year. Yet few people knew that at the time of its release, Cale was already sitting on a whole other album's worth of equally high-grade material.

When it first appeared in 1986, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues seemed like a muddled postcard from the past; quasi-bootleg quality recordings that only served to fuel further questions. Where had these songs been for so long, and why had they not come out? While Cale's reasoning for jettisoning the Cowgirls songs may never be truly known, it's possible to gain more insight into his mindset during the period by taking a chronological look, starting in 1977 with the release of Animal Justice and closing in 1981 with the release of Honi Soit.


"So Much For The Evidence"

Cale seemed to be at a bit of an impasse at the start of 1977. His last album, Helen Of Troy, had been released by Island Records despite his protests that he hadn't finished working on it, which led to his exit. They responded with Guts, a compilation of the harsher moments on the three preceding albums that would point the way forward for Cale's next moves. With the NYC punk scene still in full-swing, it seemed only appropriate to once again demonstrate his position as forefather of the sound, and if the punks pushed their shows into performance art, Cale made sure he was right in the mix of things.

Embarking on a North American tour in mid-January that ran from New York to Hollywood, he quickly proved himself worthy of continued adulation. During a Toronto show on February 9th, Cale "ended the main set by getting on his hands and knees, putting every wire or cord on stage into his mouth, and crawling off stage while the band continued, dragging amps and monitors and mike stands and debris with him as he went," (Nigel Walkey, show recollection, Fear Is A Man's Best Friend website).

New material developed slowly but steadily, and by the time of his spring UK tour, "Jack The Ripper At The Moulin Rouge," "Evidence" and "Don't Know Why She Came" were regularly being performed. "Jack" was planned as the next single (backed with an instrumental version of "Memphis"), even getting as far as a test pressing and catalog number on Illegal Records (IL 006) before it was cancelled in light of recent North England 'Ripper'-esque murders. The tour also begat its own rather infamous event, during the April 24th show at the Greyhound in Croyden. Having stopped by a farm on the way to the gig to pick up a chicken, Cale timed it with his manager to bring the (unbeknownst to the crowd) now-dead fowl out on a platter during "Heartbreak Hotel":

"I'm singing, 'We could be so lonely,' swinging the chicken around by its feet, nobody in the audience knowing it was dead, 'we could be so ' Twhok! I decapitated it and threw the body into the slam dancers at the front of the stage, and I threw the head past them. It landed in somebody's Pimm's. Everyone looked totally disgusted. The bass player was about to vomit and all the musicians moved away from me. Even the slam dancers stopped in mid-slam. It was the most effective show-stopper I ever came up with," (What's Welsh For Zen?).
The incident caused bassist Mike Visceglia and drummer Joe Stefko to permanently walk out, leading Cale to pen "Chickenshit," the first track off the Animal Justice EP. The song gleefully denies any chance at remorse on his part, pushing ahead in adamant dismissal while the band rips through the three-chord stomp template. Of the other two, "Memphis" is a rather superfluous Chuck Berry cover, while "Hedda Gabler" is one of the most beautiful songs of his late '70's period, equal to anything from his earlier works and proof that he still knew how to grab the heart instead of the throat when it struck him (even Lou Reed made mention of how 'beautiful' he found it on-air with Cale during a WPIX-FM guest host show).

The European tour resumed in November, with "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" and "Dance Of The Seven Veils" now part of the set lists, though it wouldn't be until nearly a year later that American audiences would get a chance to hear them. In the meantime however, another new bandmate was along for the ride. Judy Nylon had worked with Cale previously, appearing in a prominent role on Fear's "The Man Who Couldn't Afford To Orgy" and given a 'stylist' credit for Helen Of Troy. This time around though, her contributions to the latest batch of songs would be much more prominent:

"When Cale and I toured together[...]he might have initially thought he was hiring a back-up singer [but] I had started out as a painter so I had no idea what to expect[...]anyone who doubts you need a certain constitution for rock'n'roll should put in some time on a Cale tour. John[...]was so ridden by demons and damaged from the Velvet Underground experience that he had no idea what normal human behavior was and often justified cruelty as truth or some kind of brat theater," ('An Interview With Judy Nylon', Bart Plantenga, 3AM Magazine, October 2001).
1978 was a quiet year for Cale in terms of his own output, though he kept busy elsewhere, producing material for Cristina, Julie Covington, Squeeze, David Kubinec and Menace among others. In December, he resumed playing live with a run from the 27th through to New Year's Eve at CBGB's, averaging two sets a night. With a new band consisting of Judy, Ritchie Flieger on guitar, Bruce Brody on keyboards, and Ivan Kral and Jay Dee Daughtrey from the Patti Smith Group on bass and drums, the sets were among the best of his career, performing usual songs alongside the nascent Cowgirls and Sabotage material. The 28th set is the source for the majority of Cowgirls, while the 31st begat the very first Cale bootlegs, Very Dead Chicken and Only Time Will Tell.

"Mercenaries" was often the set opener, albeit still instrumental, with a reprise later on as "Ready For War" that was way more laidback and bluesier than what would it become by next year. "Only Time Will Tell" was so new when he played it on New Year's Eve that he had to do it by himself, singing it in a plaintive, fragile tone of voice: "This is a song I didn't get a chance to teach to the band." Judy would sing "Taking It All Away," marking her turn at the mic. "Cowgirls" was arguably the standout song though; reviewing the 28th show for the New York Times, Ken Emerson devotes an entire paragraph to it:

"A song titled after Tom Robbins's novel, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," was especially dramatic. It began with Judy Nylon singing a solemn, wordless doo-wop chant over the stark chords of Bruce Brody's electric piano. Eventually Mr. Cale joined in, singing an almost contrapuntal melody in his gruff baritone. Gradually the music swelled in volume and intensity until it achieved a dense, eerie grandeur that was nearly overwhelming," ('John Cale, Rock Star, At CBGB', Ken Emerson, The New York Times, Dec. 31st 1978).
"Whisper Whisper" was another new song that never got a second airing. Lasting for over thirteen minutes, it was longer than anything else Cale was doing at the time (it's not the first time he used the phrase, either - take another listen to the bridge of "Mr.Wilson" off Slow Dazzle). It starts out with a raucous military rhythm against an insistent cut-throat riff, like a cousin of "Mercenaries," but slows down half-way into a stuttered arpeggio guitar part and the lines "Whisper to me darling, I know you're on my mind." Amazingly, it just keeps going, the band vamping as they go along, at times almost sounding like a rationalist's take on Lou Reed's "Disco Mystic"! Another crowd pleaser and family favourite was "Fucking Your Neighbor's Wife," a rather light-hearted (for Cale at least) Chuck Berry-style rocker extolling the virtues of, well, you get the gist of it.

The first time people got a chance to hear what sort of things Cale was sitting on was when he dropped in on a guest host session Lou Reed was doing with WPIX-FM on January 28th, 1979. After some light banter (Lou: "John, I was just telling them about Rolling Stone, my great concern for good reviews. They panned my latest album." John: "Again?") and a killer segue from Al Green's "I Feel Good" into Nico's "It Was A Pleasure Then," a trio of live songs from an October 27th CBGB gig close out the session; "Jack The Ripper," "Evidence" and "Leaving It Up To You." With a one-time lineup of Alan Lanier, Bruce Brody, Ritchie Fleiger, Ivan Kral and Jesse Chamberlin, the sound is on par with Sabotage/Live and the performance is white-hot as always, with "Jack" and "Leaving" particularly vicious. When asked about his future plans on air, Cale mentioned more work with Spy Records, and said that he'd be "putting out a single in about a month." Whether the intended single was still "Jack" or something else, he didn't end up releasing one until almost a year later.

March 1979 marked the beginning of another North American tour, running until the end of May, followed by another string of dates July to September. With a new backing band (Marc Aaron on guitar, Joe Bidwell on keyboards, George Scott on bass, and Doug Bowne on drums) and Deerfrance replacing Judy Nylon as the resident chanteuse, the Cowgirls material was slowly dropped in favor of newer Sabotage songs. The ones that stuck around got even weirder as the tour progressed. "Casey" suffered even more vitriol from his crowds than usual, while "Jack" grew more feverish in his misguided visions. Both were given a handful of impassioned performances before getting the permanent ax by April.

"Cowgirls" was the last song to remain in the sets, being performed regularly until June, yet it also received the heaviest revision, sounding like Cale and company had taken the arrangement into a back alley and beat its spine out through its guts. Sometimes it would seem haunted and esoteric, other times it was a car-crash terror. A recording from the April 21st show at the Palladium in Dallas features a particularly terrifying version. Cale starts it by singing the opening verse acapella before a harmonica comes in like a garage-band version of "Midnight Rambler." Deerfrance enters, mimicking the harp and moaning in vulgar parody of the blues, before Cale re-iterates the verse as a small inkling of keyboards and a random burst of drums rolls through. Somebody else comes in on background vocals singing 'even cowgirls' over and over, not letting this song die, as he continues to drawl out lines like a POW forced to answer for the missing jewels for the tenth time in a week. Deerfrance keeps yowling and a guitar slowly comes in before she does a bird trill and leads the band into the final rousing coda. Listening to the tape some forty-odd years later, there's still a sense of disquiet. "Thank you very much, that was Deerfrance - c'mon Deerfrance, take a bow," Cale urges after the applause.

"Rape" was another new song that didn't end up on either release. Co-written with Deerfrance, the song describes a particularly distressing incident during a tour stop that was performed off and on during the the '79 shows:

"We were in Houston, Texas [and] had finished our show and were back at our hotels[...] I took off towards the fast food place down the road around 3 a.m. in fuck-me-heels, a leather jacket, latex pants, and an orange crew cut. In 1979. A pickup truck slowed down long enough to pull me in and drove off into a field. Thanks to my stiletto heels I broke the window and attacked my attacker and got free. When I returned back to the hotel the guys were so cool. The police came and they defended and supported me and we got out of town without me being arrested. The song was a healing part of the tour for me, and John put beautiful music to it. John was very open to input and we all contributed to songs and covers, with John at the helm and editing table. Really, there was never a need for anyone but John, him being so very capable. He did write a song for me to sing, "Only Time Will Tell," (Deerfrance interview, Pop Insider).
Texas did have one point in its favor though, when Sterling Morrison reunited with Cale and joined him on stage during "Mercenaries" during the April 19th and May 17th shows at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. Cale also gave a taped interview after the latter show, shedding light on his recent activity: "We had just enough time to get [the set] together 'cause it was different before[...] there were a whole bunch of other songs that we didn't do tonight but we really haven't been together long enough so I can start making up material on stage, which is really what I want to do. The material is all there and there's more and more material coming along, but there's a lot of material that we haven't worked out yet" (culled from the Internet Archive).

When asked about critic response towards his albums, he offered a rather prosaic viewpoint:

"I mean critics have a job to do, radio people have a job to do, and everybody helps each other, and it's always a struggle as to whose particular vision of the future is gonna penetrate into people's consciousness. I'm in a position right now where my only alternative is to pursue my own particular vision of the future and never look back, and I think that's true of most people. I mean, you have to, you've got to know what it is and understand it, and I'm not too good at that but I'm learning all the time."
June 13th to 16th marked another CBGB's run, with the set on the 16th used for Sabotage/Live. A look at the full set list reveals the absence of any Cowgirls material, but anyone could tell that the former's style and tone had little to do with the majority of Sabotage, a record hell bent on domination no matter who won or lost. Rolling Stone's contemporary review said how it, "turns out to be one of the season's timeliest entries: a graphic, deadly narrative[...] something of a rough-and-ready homage to the business of war itself" ('John Cale: Sabotage: Live', Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, June 1980).

In October, yet another potential direction came about when Cale and David Bowie checked into Ciarbis Studios on the 5th to try out some ideas. Their first collaboration had been at Carnegie Hall on April Fool's Day, for a WKCR-FM Benefit show known as 'The First Performance Of The Eighties,' when Cale performed "Sabotage" and Bowie joined in with a valiant first attempt at viola. The Ciarbis session didn't amount to much, but two fragments were eventually pressed in the mid '80's on a bootleg 7" entitled Two Gentlemen In New York. "Piano-la" has Cale testing out a somber piano-ballad sketch accompanied by a soft wordless vocal melody from Bowie, while "Velvet Couch" is more sparse and hopeful sounding. On the latter, Bowie's vocals are actual lines, like "we won't do things like this anymore," "we'll be anti-art," "and a red velvet couch with no guitar." Neither piece lasts more than a minute or two, but both are intriguing enough to warrant multiple lessons, if only to imagine what could have been (and if one Bowie connection wasn't enough, Cale also recorded an album's worth of material with Corky Laing, Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson during this same period).

Sabotage/Live came out December 4th, just in time to make the perfect Christmas gift for Mom. Cale celebrated with his second annual CBGB's residency, from the 27th right up to New Year's Eve, which was the show used for the last three tracks on Cowgirls: "Somebody Should Have Told Her," "Decade" and "Magic and Lies." 1980 saw the Sabotage tour, with much of the same set list as last time, albeit with another new lineup. Two shows at the Squat Theater in NYC on May 24th-25th saw the performance of "The Nine Lives Of Gordon Liddy," a song cycle combining previously released material along with two unreleased songs, "Cold Country Comfort" and "Coming Around Again." Finally, Honi Soit came out in 1981, an album that seemed much more composed and accessible than the furious rush of the late '70's songs. Cale mentioned having recorded, "three times as much material as we intended," but whether or not that may have included any Cowgirls material is a mystery. Save for "Magic And Lies" and "Dead Or Alive" (and a supposed one-off revival of "Cowgirls" on 06/26/80 in Eindhoven), none of the other songs would ever be played or referenced again.


The Album

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues first appeared in 1986 as a mail-order only record via 'Special Stock Records' (an imprint that never released anything else) featuring a Hieronymus Bosch painting on the front and back and a print of "Bahram Gur in the Turquoise Palace on Wednesday" by Nizami on the front as well. 'John Cale with Judy Nylon' were the credited artists. The track listing was as follows: "Dance Of The Seven Veils"/"Helen Of Troy"/"Casey At The Bat"/"Even Cowgirls Get The Blues"/"Jack The Ripper"/"Dead Or Alive"/"Somebody Should Have Told Her"/"Decade (aka 'Instrumental For New Years 1980')"/ "Magic And Lies"/"Memphis." It wasn't until 1991 that a wider release showed up, this time on cassette through ROIR, except the track listing had inexplicably changed; "Jack The Ripper," "Dead Or Alive" and "Memphis" were gone, and "Don't Know Why She Came" added in. It was this second, shorter running order that became the common version, with a later release on vinyl and CD through French distributors Danceteria. The first version disappeared without a trace.

Despite the tracks being comprised of two separate shows a year apart, performed by two separate bands, the performances and recording share a consistent sonic nature, though whether they came from Cale's personal tapes or an audience source isn't known; if they did come from Cale, it's puzzling why a higher-quality soundboard source wasn't used, like with Sabotage.

"Dance Of The Seven Veils" is one of Cale's finest 'mood' pieces, reminiscent of "The Jeweller" from Slow Dazzle. The recording cuts in as Bruce Body introduces a sparse minor chord keyboard pattern, the audience still getting settled, before Judy Nylon begins her narration:

To tell the truth, John the Baptist fascinated her
He was just too clean, too wild, too chaste to be true
Salome, on the other hand, daughter of Babylon
Had never been refused -- nothing
So when the Baptist maligned her, the more he maligned her
The more she wanted to just reach down and take his lips and kiss them
When he refused she was furious
she said
"Hey, listen Baptist, you want your head on a platter?"


A slow, mournful viola counter-melody weaves its way between the keyboard chords, rising to meet Daughtrey's cymbal crashes. Ritchie Flieger's guitar drifts in and out, pure feedback squalls. Slowly, the band draws their blood up, lines striking against each other until a coalescence emerges and they jump into a unified rhythm: Beneath the seven veils, nothing was revealed/Beyond the seven seas, who cares?

One aspect of Cale's music during this era was a continual referencing of historical figures and their relation to contemporary society: Captain Hook, Casey, Jack The Ripper, Helen Of Troy. His portrayal of these figures was never quite adulating or scathing, but skeptical and murky, as though he was trying to reveal to us our instinctual need for idolatry, a craving that dismisses facts and realities. Here, John The Baptist's beheading is stripped of religious interpretation in favor of reflecting Oscar Wilde's Salome play, a more biased retelling but understandably more invigorating to the imagination.

Back when it was regularly performed, "Veils" almost always segued into "Helen Of Troy" as it does here; it's a wild, head-pounding take that must've gripped the heads of everyone in attendance. After "Troy" comes "Casey At The Bat," a rollicking stomper with a killer guitar part courtesy Richie Fliegler. There's a stench of the '70's in it, Ernest Thayer's character now a hapless transplant to a later time, reminiscent of Elliott Gould's shambling Philip Marlowe portrayal in The Long Goodbye. The crowd's still out to get him, but this time he's copped wise and split: Casey, Casey, Casey/They'd come to see old Casey run/He's hanging 'round a whole other town/Poor old Casey, why did you run?

"Don't Know Why She Came" is a song with bruised lament at its core, equal to any of the Fear-era ballads. The lyrics give off a strong feeling of B-grade noir, cheap smoke clouding the room as Cale's narrator tries to figure out what went wrong. It's another girl lost to his past, dead or alive, their connection permanently torn and frayed.

As title track and nexus point for this whole essay, "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" is at once nothing more than a vague sketch, barely the sum of its parts, and at the same time Cale at his greatest, pushing the art-damaged suspense that seems to pour out of his mind and into the cramped CBGB room like ether. It's an exquisite corpse of a song, drawn out 'til the brink of nervous exhaustion, never letting up for a second and leaving you totally entranced. What relation the song has to Tom Robbin's novel is pretty intangible; a single stanza repeated ad-nauseum, seems more perverse and surreal than anything from those pages: Even cowgirls get the blues/When they're living down in Peru/Moving on to Caracas/On their bellies just like little rats/But they call it love/Yes it's only love. The band matches the ragged intensity of the lyric with the aural feel of a desert mirage, a slow minor chord cyclical blues, vultures circling figure eights over their prey. Judy comes in first with a demented 'doo-wah' drawn out vocal, vamping on doo-wops for close to a minute before Cale finally comes in to sing the verse. The band keeps the mood taught, edging it out in increments, until the power becomes too much to contain and they blast out a coda that ends in a giant rock and roll chord burst. It's incendiary and tantamount to his very finest work, at the height of his powers.

If "Don't Know Why" is trying to assess a situation, "Somebody Should Have Told Her" is a remembrance of what was, after it became too late. With much of the same feeling and vibe, it's a dead love lament, rueing the lost opportunity to fix a failure to communicate honestly. Sturgis Nikides' guitar solos are particularly arresting at the end of the song.

"Decade," aka 'Instrumental For New Years 1980,' is a bit of an outlier on the album. Recorded with the Sabotage lineup on 12-31-79, it's a long instrumental improvisation that largely reduces the band to a duo. Robert Medici's militia beat-box pattern presses on for a full nine minutes, while Cale picks up the guitar and beats it with enough aplomb to fit in nicely on No New York. What the No Wave bands lacked in sophistication they made up for in immediacy, which is something "Decade" doesn't carry forward; at nine minutes, it tends to drag a bit. Joe Bidwell joins in near the end with a bit of keyboards to suggest a rhythmic change, but it's too late before the song's already fallen apart.

"Magic And Lies," like "Dead Or Alive" on the first LP pressing, are the only two songs that managed to get onto an actual release, both appearing on Honi Soit. It's a simple, earnest song with a sinewy arrangement, a catchy descending bass part and another obtuse relationship standoff between a man and woman caught up in each other's neuroses and erratic behavior, but unable to break it off. Cale sings, Can you see madame breaking all the rules/She does things her own way, she's nobody's fool and you know just what he means by the time he ends with, Look at that young man with the tired eyes/He believes in magic, he believes in lies. It's a somber truce, built of quiet desperation all too familiar to everyone at one point or another.


Post-Script:

As an album, Cowgirls is a strange listen, confusing as to its origins and attentive. In a way, it's similar to a lot of Velvets bootlegs that started appearing at the same time back in the late '80's, such as Jamie Klimek's La Cave tapes or the 1966 Valleydale Ballroom show. It was like you were being let in on a secret, given a key to another journey not traveled/unfilled. Cale needed Sabotage - it was the right statement to make at the time, and worked in solidifying what he had been working towards over the past few years, harnessing his talent for cut-throat street-smart songs and hard-edged bruised heart on sleeve stuff. Yet Cowgirls could have easily been a worthy studio follow-up, equal to the Island trilogy and superior to Honi Soit. In the end though, it's almost more enjoyable to have this as the only remnant; it gives the material a little more power and mystique, an era in which Cale was always on his mark, no matter where you saw him, something that Deerfrance sums up best (also from the Pop Insider interview):

"He really never left a performance without rearranging the audience's chromosomes, never. All life must be lived that way. There is an expression in France about being serious. Really, if you are not serious, what are you, kidding?"


Also see a 2005 interview with Cale, an overview of Cale's solo career, an overview of his and Lou Reed's 70s output


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