Music

Counterbalance: John Cale - Paris 1919

Welcome back to Chipping Sodbury. You can have a second chance. Counterbalance is back. To mark their return, they're looking at the 356th most acclaimed album of all time -- avant-garde pop or the poppiest avant-garde?


John Cale

Paris 1919

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 1973-03
UK Release Date: 1973-03
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Klinger: First of all, yes. We’re back. We decided to take the summer off, then yada yada yada... and now we’re back. Tanned, fit and rested.

When we started this Counterbalance project back in the fall of 1987, we were young and naive, and possibly a bit foolish as we were still learning how to do this whole "writing about music" thing. So much so, in fact, that we managed to write several hundred words about The Velvet Underground and Nico without ever mentioning John Cale by name. It really was an oversight on our part, and one I've been kicking myself over for nearly 30 years. But since then, so much has happened. The Berlin Wall has come down, the Internet has presented an avenue for our correspondences, John Cale's occasional collaborator and foil Lou Reed has passed on -- and I have become completely obsessed with Paris 1919.

This 1973 album marked John Cale's first real foray into what could conceivably called mainstream rock, since it's filled with joy and pop magic. But at the same time it's so mysterious and evocative, even in those moments of joy, that you find yourself wanting to dig deeper into lyrics that stubbornly resist interpretation even as they keep luring you in. There are themes and motifs, as literary and historical references continue to crop up -- Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene, Shakespeare and onward. And it all seems to be taking place against a backdrop where the days of European colonialism are drawing to a close, beginning with the Paris Peace Talks and carrying straight through to the rise of Enoch "Rivers of Blood" Powell. It's a lot to try to process, and Cale does you the favor of not doing you any favors and making anything especially explicit. Anyway, I’m sure I'll get time to pontificate more as we go along, so I'm interested in your opinion of this album, which never charted but is now a respectable No. 356 on the Great List.

Mendelsohn: As you noted, we have been at this for a while (where do the decades go?). I wasn’t especially kind to the Velvet Underground back when we talked about their debut record -- mostly because I was angry about Andy Warhol foisting Nico on the band. It is, as some might say, a necessary evil (annoyance?) because without Warhol’s backing, the Velvet Underground would not have been able to make records and gain enough exposure to change the course of rock and roll. In the intervening years, I’ve gone back and reassessed my relationship with the VU, finding within their records an unmitigated beauty and experimentation that is oft imitated but never matched. At the heart of that beauty lies the creative relationship Reed had with Cale early on. It is well documented that Reed and Cale had a contentious relationship but out of that pairing came some of the most forward-thinking rock and roll that world had ever heard. Cale’s avant-garde tendencies drove the band and acted as a counterpoint in Reed’s songwriting style. After Doug Yule replaced Cale, Reed was able to move toward the pop center, unhindered by Cale’s experimental predilections. The Velvet Underground’s music was still great but it lacked that excitement, that contentious energy that was always bubbling just below the surface.

When you gave me Cale’s Paris 1919, I had expected to find some sort of noise experiment, not a profoundly beautiful pop record full of ponderous profundity and arcane lyrical material. I’ve had this record for two weeks, I’ve been through it a dozen times and each time I listen to it, I’m struck by the realization that I might need a couple of years to before I get close to understanding even half of it. Klinger, this record is exquisite and I am in awe of Cale’s baroque pop masterpiece but I am also completely overwhelmed. Where do we start? Please start with “Andalucia", because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rhythmic structure mimics Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side".

Klinger: Somehow I knew you were going to bring the commercial success Reed had enjoyed the year before into this, but I honestly don't think that Cale made a pop play in response to Transformer. Paris 1919 was Cale's fourth solo album, and while two of them (Church of Anthrax and The Academy in Peril) showcase Cale's classical training, this one and Vintage Violence are more conventionally pop-based. And regardless, I'm not hearing the similarities between those two songs you mentioned. Yes, they both rely on a simple two-chord progression and brushes on the drums, but where "Walk on the Wild Side" shuffles, "Andalucia" wafts. Not to mention the difference in lyrical approaches. In his heart, Reed is a reporter, chronicling the people around him and creating tiny dramas. Cale may start with something familiar ("A Child's Christmas in Wales", for example, or the way "Antarctica Starts Here" begins by referencing Sunset Boulevard), but he very quickly shifts away into something far more stream-of-consciousness. (And before everyone heads down to the comments section, we need both. No kindsa styles are better than others.)

As much as I love Cale's lyrics, I find it interesting that when some artist's lyrics don't make a ton of sense, they get called out (Paul McCartney), but Cale adapts, "often brilliantly, the spirit of Dada-Surrealist poetry into the pop idiom", as the original 1973 Rolling Stone review so interestingly put it. (“The spirit of Dada-Surrealist poetry” -- you hear that, Macca? Go with that.) Regardless, nothing, and I mean nothing, has managed to dampen my deep and abiding love for the title track, which has been playing in my brain on a loop for the last six months and I've loved every maddening second of it. No, I'm not sure what exactly he's on about with his caravans and lots of jam and the ghost who only casually appears from out of the clock on Fridays but on Mondays not at all, but I. Do. Not. Care. Play the song again.

Mendelsohn: I second that. Hell, play the whole record again. Maybe it’ll start to make more sense. I do think it is a little telling that the critics go gaga over these sweet pop records from artists who are generally too obtuse for most listener’s ears. Cale was given the most acclaim when he came right to the pop center and laid claim to a little bit of land. Reed finally scored with Transformer. But when the model of pop perfection, Sir Paul McCartney, stops making sense everyone rolls their eyes. Funny thing that.

But I digress. The only thing I have left to ask is where do you see this record going? Paris 1919 is a couple tiers away from the Canon. Cale is a highly respected musician, a founding member of one of the most important rock bands of all time yet I was surprised to find he had seven records on the Great List. I was even more surprised to find Paris 1919 at no. 356 -- not that the music doesn’t warrant such a placement but give me Reed’s lyrics about shaved bears any day.

Klinger: I don't really understand why you keep wanting to compare this album to Transformer, considering that Reed and Cale hadn't really worked together in five years when Paris 1919 was released. I know I have a hard time staying in touch with my coworkers from five years ago and I have Facebook. So I really don't think Reed was much on Cale's mind -- I think both of them were more concerned with their own careers and/or various pharmaceutical interests than one another by this time.

Where do I see the album going? I'm not known for my prognostication, but think it's going to remain right about where it is on the Great List. Unlike Transformer (to address your concern), Paris 1919 wasn't a hit album. Radio listeners never had the pleasure of hearing Casey Kasem introduce a John Cale single. And as we've discussed in the past, commercial success may not be the main arbiter for Canonization, but there are certainly times when it can't hurt. I think what sets Paris 1919 apart, and makes it such a striking discovery for new generations of listeners, is that we're hearing a classically trained musician set his sights on a straightforward pop form. Cale uses just enough of the drone style he picked up during his time among New York avant-garde composers and applied it to songs like "Hanky Panky No How" and "Half Past France", but with the addition of musicians from blues-rockers Little Feat and jazz-rockers the Crusaders, it still manages to sound fully grounded. And in many ways that's the genius of Paris 1919 -- even as it takes off on lyrical flights of fancy and imaginary travelogues, it still maintains a solid base that can keep the average listener from feeling like they're doing their English Lit homework. So to paraphrase the aforementioned Mr. Kasem, Paris 1919 keeps its feet on the ground as it keeps reaching for the stars.

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