Monday, September 27, 2010

John Cale, OBE; Henry Graham Greene OM CH

"I'm stunned. It makes you think 'well maybe I did something right’? and now I've got to figure out what that was. I thought I was too much of a tearaway."

-- John Cale, OBE

Just yesterday I mentioned my out-of-control Google News Alert habit, but it seems that it’s more moderate and modest than I had thought because I completely missed the news about HRH Queen Elizabeth II's selection of John Cale to receive the Order of the British Empire (OBE) citation in her June 12th Birthday List Honors announcements. 

Awards like this are a turn-on to some, but a turn-off to others because, among other things, they focus our attention on the institution of monarchy, which for many people (and certainly for  Americans) is a legitimate source of objection and vexation.   Still, it’s very nice to see John Cale recognized in this way because his achievements are so impressive and the granting of the award, as he himself -- the composer of The Gift, Guts and Fear, among other disruptive classics, and a man who used to perform concerts wearing a menacing "Michael Meyers"-type hockey mask -- clearly recognizes, is so unexpected and incongruous.

I had actually been planning to post something about Cale’s song Graham Greene, from the 1973 Paris, 1919 lp, for some time, but had hesitated because I couldn’t find a good performance of the song on Youtube to include as a link.  I’ve always liked the song without getting under the surface of it or thinking there was much under the surface. Although enjoyable, it seemed like one of the slighter efforts on that great record.  Recently however, I’ve come to think that it paints an acute, multi-faceted, almost cubist picture of the author of Brighton Rock, A Gun For Sale and The End of The Affair (and recipient of the high royal honors, Order of Merit and Companion of Honour) and his Worlds, which is both impressive and augments beautifully the themes, embroidered language, imagery and music of Paris, 1919, one of the few rock albums written with an intention toward discerning history.

Like many Youtube devotees, I have come to expect too much from it at times.  I think that I should be able to instantly dial up live footage of artists I admire performing material I would like to to see, either because I’ve never seen it or I wish to relive it.   Unfortunately, that’s not always possible.   

Therefore, while I was able to content myself yesterday (not nearly a strong enough term of approbation) with some fantastic Pretty Things footage, Youtube is almost vacant of key John Cale solo career footage from the “amazing” performance years of 1975-1979.   During that time I saw Cale on many occasions in and around New York City performing a range of material extending from his Velvet Underground days to his then-most recent record Helen of Troy. There simply wasn’t anyone like him (with the possible exceptions of Iggy Pop, Television and The Ramones, each of them originals but, I would say, John Cale disciples all) for bringing total commitment to live performance.  

This period also coincided with Cale’s stripping away most of the “literary” and musically "arty" references from his work (both of which had formed part of his artistic toolkit since his debut solo album, Vintage Violence) and choosing instead starkly to confront humanity face-to-face in the trilogy of records that includes Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy, his best album. 

What I most wanted to find on Youtube were performances of the song Helen Of Troy (Cale's unforgettable, gripping set opener) and Leaving It Up To You, the explosive rumination on the implications and consequences of passivity that  got Cale into so much trouble that Island Records even excised it from the Helen of Troy album for a period until the advent of the CD with its acres of available space compared to the vinyl lp and the song's "banned in Boston" reputation caused them to restore it.  Cale's crazed performances of Leaving It Up To You definitely caused some people to believe that he was actually crazy, that it wasn't a performance.  I can personally say that they changed my life and perspective on things.

Instead, Youtube presents Cale’s solo career mostly as a series of pleasant, well-performed, but less intense clips, mirroring the less full-blooded music he eventually settled into making as the 1980s progressed and he himself settled down considerably in his personal life.  A notable exception is the marvelous Dead Or Alive from the 1981’s Honi Soit lp, which can be heard here. It's a beautiful and unique piece of music and lyric that also might change your life and your impression about what "pop" music can achieve.

This decline (or possibly simply a shift of focus) to other types of material and performances is of no great importance.  What John Cale accomplished during his "punk" period, i.e., the period when the younger punk and the "new wave" bands were in their ascendancy, was extraordinary and it’s great that he is still alive, healthy, musically active and here with us to receive his OBE honors from Her Majesty. 

The lyrics to Graham Greene follow.  It’s a sprightly, sardonic, slightly sinister song that hints, I think, at the dark, deeply pained heart and view of humanity that Greene carried inside him and described so well in the character descriptions and incidents in his novels.  It is even evident in some of his apparently lighter works like Our Man In Havana


Graham Greene

You’re having tea with Graham Greene
in a colored costume of your choice.
And you’ll be held in high esteem,
if you’re seen in between.
Stiffly holding umbrellas,
catching the fellows, making the toast,
to the civil servant Carruthers
making the others worser than most.

You’re making small talk now with the Queen
and the elegant ladies in waiting.
You’re very nervous, they can all tell,
pretty well they can tell.
So save yourselves for the hounds of hell,
they can have you all to themselves.
Since the fashion now is to give away
all the things you love so well.

Welcome back to Chipping Sodbury,
you can have another chance.
It must all seem like second nature,
chopping down the people where they stand.

According to the latest score
Mr. Enoch Powell is falling star.
So in future please bear in mind,
don’t see clear, don’t see far.
When the average social director
mistook a passenger for the conductor,
it’s so shocking see the old Church of E
looking down on you and me.

So, welcome back to Chipping Sodbury,
you can have another chance.
It must all seem like second nature,
chopping down the people where they stand.

In my continuing efforts to ferret out cocktails named for celebrities, I have included below a recipe for the Graham Greene Cocktail, as served at the Sofitel Grande Metropole in Hanoi, the successor establishment to the hotel Greene himself frequented during the 1950s and the gestation of The Quiet American.  (Readers of that book will recognize the drink, which looks quite good.)

Graham Greene Cocktail

Ingredients for 1 Cocktail
• 2 Ounces gin
• 1/2 Ounce dry vermouth
• Splash of creme de cassis

1. Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass.
2. Add ice, stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Note:  A suggested variation is to reverse the amounts of dry vermouth and gin.

The wall plaque pictured below is from the legendary Oloffson’s Hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, signifying that the peripatetic “Graham Greene Slept Here”. Similar signs are posted in legendary hostelries throughout the Greene's literary world, which was a source of pain to Greene's fascinating and long suffering wife, Vivian. Greene was a talented, but difficult and contradictory person.  His own works, letters, and the accounts of him written by others all make this extremely clear. 


One further noteJoining John Cale in this June's rock and roll Honors section is Graham Nash, erstwhile key member of Manchester's marvelous Hollies.  For that signal achievement alone, Graham can be forgiven a lot, including most of Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Congratulations, Graham.


  1. You introduced me to JC aeons ago and he remains a huge favorite.

    Efficiency, efficiency they say.
    Get to know the date and tell the time of day.
    As the crowds begin complaining
    how the Beaujolais is raining
    down on darkened meetings on the Champs Elysees.

    Nothing frightens me more
    than religion at my door.
    I never answer panic knocking,
    falling down the stairs upon the law.
    What law?

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this. It seems so long ago that I wrote it, but it was still during the current school year. I would love to be able actually to re-live my experiences seeing Cale at CBGB. I don't think I've ever felt anything as powerful and gripping, except possibly the Kinks' live performance of Soap Opera. Curtis

  3. Roddy: Adding slightly to the John Cale atmosphere, Jane just returned home with a new Betsey Johnson ensemble purchased for her spring semi-formal. It's quite lovely. Also, I learned a number of interesting Roddy McDowall stories the other day that I plan to share with you. Curtis

  4. From time to time one sees Betsey on the street. Hard to miss.

  5. Yes, she is. She's a real talent, I think. Caroline used to work with Betsey from time-to-time because she occasionally dressed musicians Caroline worked with. She's nice. Curtis

  6. Now let me pick a bone with you, as Walt Addicks used to say.

    Your taste is a wonder of the world to me, both in its depth and breadth and fineness but also in some near uncanny similarities to my own. (Example: It was not so exceptional to be a Byrds fan in the 60s, but to share a favorite Byrd? And the first 45 I ever bought was All Day and All of the Night.)

    And you introduced me to Cale. But Helen of Troy his best work?

    Fine, I will buy it. But I like the sweet and sissified Cale: Buffalo Ballet, Hanky Panky No-how, You Know More Than I Do, Paris 1919.

  7. Hi. I like the sweet Cale also, especially songs on Vintage Violence like Big White Cloud, Adelaide and, of course, Gideon's Bible. I just found Helen of Troy so shocking and gripping, both on record and especially in live performance. Some of this had to do with the phenomenon (which isn't unique to Cale, obviously) where a very fine artist radically simplifies his expression and forsakes some of his fancier colors and brushstrokes. The funny thing is that there's no element of nostalgia in this recollection, although there might well be. I listen to Helen of Troy all the time and I replay the performances (mostly at CBGB) in my head. I should add that the very first song I saw Cale perform live was Helen of Troy and it really made an impression on me. Curtis

  8. One more thing. I think the Graham Greene cocktail looks really good. Curtis

  9. Saying I would buy it was premature, as it does not seem to exist on cd. But most of it seems to be on The Island Years. Looking forward!

    What great covers the three island records had.

    Speaking of Cale and his collaborators, I got coolness cred visiting son Charles at Grinnell
    over the weekend, when one of his (fascinating, delightful) pals, a fella named John, thanked me for having introduced Char to Eno, who in turn had introduced him to Johnny.

  10. Congratulations on achieving coolness cred. I believe that's both important and deserved. I hope you had a great trip out there. Curtis

  11. A vinyl copy from Spain is available on for a ridiculous price. CD and vinyl copies are available at much gentler price points on eBay. As you say, however, much of the material has been anthologized. I just remember the first time I heard the record (and where I was; on E. 88th Street near the river at my friend Jon Young's apartment) and feeling disconcerted, thinking an artist I revered had lost his mind. That was a good start, I think. Later it all made sense. Phil Collins, who drummed on most of the record, has had some very interesting, entirely positive, things to say about the experience. I think it was one of Phil's "coolness cred" moments. Curtis

  12. Phil's drumming on Eno's No One Receiving has to be another. And what amazing drumming it is.

  13. He's a very, very good musician. Caroline worked with him at Atlantic and basically liked him a lot, as did everyone else at the label who had worked with him for quite a long time. The divide in his career -- between the artistically good stuff and the awful stuff -- is quite remarkable to behold. Curtis

  14. Hi
    I came across your blog post of 27 Sept 2010, about John Cale.
    I particularly love the track 'Graham Greene' off Paris 1919, and was trying to find out what it's about.
    I recently found out that Graham Greene lived, for a while in Chipping Camden. Could Cale have got it wrong and used Chipping Sodbury instead?

    I didn't get to see Cale until 1977 at Swansea. I think he has been so influential. I love his production of The Stooges first album, and some of the work he did with Nico. I find some of his solo work difficult to love, but 'Fear' is, I think, a great album.

    Hope you get this. Looks like you're not blogging anymore...


    1. Hi Glenn and thanks for your note. No -- I've been blogging daily since before the time of the Cale post. If you're interested, just visit and you'll find a vast amount of material (not too much, I hope; the subject matter is widely/wildly assorted). My impression is that Chipping Sodbury is a poetic invention of Cale's to describe an English "every village," but I'll re-research it. I recall unsuccessfully trying to find Chipping Sodbury a long time ago. I love Cale's music and we were lucky to get to see him perform many times during the "CBGB period" in NYC in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I agree that there was a falling off in quality in his work after that, albeit with some bright spots. We last saw him perform last December in Brooklyn at a glorious concert featuring all of Paris 1919 and then a set of other, mostly new material. Actually, the second set was the best part of the show and seeing John Cale fill the Brooklyn Academy of Music was gratifying. We also got to know Cale a little bit intermittently over the years. He's a serious and somewhat difficult person to converse with, but I give him a pass on that. I think his mind is generally on his music. Graham Greene is a terrific song, even though it paints an oblique, incomplete picture of the great writer. Fear is a great album, but for me Helen of Troy is best. Thanks for writing and I hope you find other things on my blog you like. Greetings from Philadelphia, PA. Curtis