Sunday, 2 March 2008
‘FROM BARBARY TO HERE’: THE DARK ACHIEVEMENT OF JOHN CALE'S PARIS 1919
“The road from Barbary to here
She sold then stole right back
The vanity, insanity
Her hungry heart forgave
The fading bride’s dull beauty grows
Just begging to be seen
Beneath the magic lights that reach
From Barbary to here”
Julian Cope once called Love’s Forever Changes a “dark achievement” and, while I don’t know if anyone ever specifically asked him, I expect Arthur Lee himself would concur. It’s a classic album of course, but a “dark achievement”? I see Forever Changes as more of a game played with the listener, a dance of psychedelic-coloured veils, a box of disguises, a series of feints never settling long enough to give itself away. It’s got a vein of darkness running through it, true, but it’s a vein of dark chocolate. Forever Changes is like one of those truly irresistible cakes that put something tangy in the mix in order to make the sweets taste sweeter. It’s exquisitely beautiful, but it’s a beautiful confection.
Now John Cale’s Paris 1919, that’s a dark achievement.
The location of the Velvet Undergound’s songs couldn’t have been any more American, with even the gaps between the tracks virtually oozing the Lower East Side. But with this album Cale took things back to his European origins. There’s more placenames adorning the lyric sheet than you’ll find on the average map, and in a sense it is a map – of a Europe, in Sylvia Plath’s phrase, “scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars”.
Paul Weller sang of “civilization built on slaughter”. Part of the genius of Cale’s conceit here is to specifically expose European civilization to its bloody roots. After all, none but the terminally stupid could miss this point if we were just talking about America. Its’ de rigeur in Euro-snob circles to dismiss America for cultural crassness and for booted imperialism, like the two always belong together. But juxtaposing the beauty of Euro-classicism with the brutality of its roots is something of a masterstroke. The very phrase ‘Paris 1919’ immediately conjures up visions of elegance, but is simultaneously reminiscent of the carve-up treaty that followed the First World War and led almost directly to the second. Cale’s cold yet melodic voice, the audial equivalent of cut glass, perfectly captures this combination. Cale himself described the album as “the nicest way of saying something nasty”. The point about the line “from Barbary to here” is that the line is a short one.
In some ways it reminds me of Kubrick’s near-contemperaneous Barry Lyndon (1975), where the sumptuous classical soundtrack and pompous annunciation of the characters vie with the brutish events. This was a full four years before Brit-punk upped and challenged the predominance of American accents in popular music, and the effect then must have been more striking. The Welshman even appropriates a parodic, strangulated Englishness - particularly in Graham Greene and the title track. (Ironically, the album was entirely recorded in LA with members of Little Feat!)
However, that’s not to say it merely juxtaposes form against content, the ornate arrangements concealing the nasty content, still less follows the polemic of Weller’s anti-Western rallying. (Maybe, just maybe, the more-for-laughs track Graham Greene matches that description.) It’s actually doing something much more existential. When you first listen, you’re seduced by the sweetness of the music. Then the dark achievement of the words start to stain. But soon the two become inextricable.
It’s like taking a tour around the ancient hearts of the cities of Europe. You know the architectural splendour of each exquisite building to be built with the wealth of war and plunder, like scented flowers growing out of shit. Admiring them is like admiring the finest markings on the most predatory spider. You’re unable to resist being seduced by their beauty but neither can you forget they’re the signs of a killing machine. The very same thing simultaneously attracts you and repels. Paris 1919 ultimately implicates you in a terminally paradoxical world where the sweet can never be separated from the savage.
“We burned and we looted
And frightened ourselves
Before we learnt mothers
Could haunt us with words”
There’s a debate about whether the character on the train in Half Past France is a German solider headed for war or Cale himself headed for a gig. People like to pin that sort of thing down, don’t they? Of course, on an album populated by ghosts, it’s both – but that point alone won’t get you to the heart of the matter. Like many songs it’s about capturing a moment, and asking who is supposed to be experiencing that moment is at best secondary.
Journeys on trains or ships can offer moments of encapsulated serenity, an escape into limbo, between the volatile world you just left and will soon be re-joining. As soon as we arrive there’s going to be some unspecified kind of battle, but the train moves at it’s own speed and for now there’s nothing to do but luxuriate in the emptiness of the moment, “looking out from here at half past France”. The song’s refrain is particularly serene.
In fact, for such a dark album it has several such serene moments, certainly more than you’d find on the later Music For a New Society. For example, check out:
“If the sacheting of gentlemen
Gives you grievance now and then
What’s needed are some memories of planning lakes
Those planning lakes will surely calm you down”
As Matthew Spektor puts it in the liner notes, “I still don’t know what ‘planing lakes’ are but calm me down they do”. (The alternate drone version on the expanded CD is perhaps still more serene, but fits less with the orchestration and thematic unity of the rest of the album.) However, serenity is notably achieved the Wordsworth way, by removing yourself from human interaction, by swapping sacheting gentlemen for planning lakes. The humanism of, say, Tom Waits couldn’t be more absent from Cale’s world. As he sings elsewhere “people always bored me anyway”.
In case it’s not obvious, all of this is to describe the mood which suffuses the album. It’s not like some equation where each line sung and each note played draw proceedings schematically towards some intended, calculated answer. I’ve not the faintest idea what, for example, “the cows that agriculture won’t allow” means any more than I did the “planning lakes’. But I don’t suppose Cale did either and I don’t imagine it matters much. When a song has lines in it like “then Martha said…” the worst thing you can do is start wondering who Martha might be, or start looking various Marthas up on the internet. You’re not getting into the song, you’re actually moving away from it. As much as a song can be said to have a ‘sense’, you get to it by succumbing yourself to it, then seeing what’s left after its washed over you.
As with any album there’s a few exceptions to this thematic rule. The title track’s orthodoxly surreal, pitting male clerical rationalism against an unspecified female apparition. The glorious opening line, “she makes me so unsure of myself”, even makes it sound like a kind of topsy turvy love song, with the Churchman as a befuddled suitor striving to “claim” his otherly love. The la-la-la chorus comes to sound like a child’s defensive incantation, a kind of “ghost, ghost, go away, come again some other day”. The “efficient” clock, by which we “get to know the date and tell the time of day”, is ironically turned into the place she “casually appears” from, like a cousin to Dali’s floppy watches.
At the song’s end the general theme reasserts, with allusions to the French Revolution…an event usually thought to have been over by 1919. Truth to tell, it makes a better title for the album than the track. The song sounds so thoroughly English, for one thing. But Cale had carelessly already used up the natural title, Ghost Story, on his first album.
There’s precisely one rock’n’roll track on the album, the glitter-beat Macbeth, and it’s hard not to see it’s stomping as a mis-step. It’s not bad exactly, though the vocal in particular seems oddly flat and subdued. It just doesn’t fit in with the company. It’s as if Elvis had turned up at a Versailles ball… actually, it’s as if Alvin Stardust had turned up at a Versailles ball and said he was Elvis.
Despite this minor blemish the album turned out to be a high-watermark in Cale’s career, marking the end of an informal anti-rockist trilogy with Church of Anthrax (1971) and The Academy in Peril (1972). I also associate this period with his work on the two best Nico albums, Marble Index (1969) and Desertshore (1971), albums that always remind me more of Cale than Nico. They breathe of that defiance of convention and brief sense of possibility that briefly fluttered in the early Seventies, but eventually led back to the bar-room. With the next album, Fear (1974) Cale himself was back to writing gutsy rock’n’roll music to chop up chickens to. Psychotic and often deranged rock’n’roll, true, but something more nebulous and precious had been lost. Only once, on the much later Music For a New Society (1981), would he ever return to such exulted themes. This gives the ghost-heavy, elegiac nature of Paris 1919 an extra poignancy.
“I can’t bring back
I can’t think back
It’s fading again
The tin boys and young girls
All fading away…”