IF YOU listen to John Cale's viola careen into its nauseating twisted frenzy at the end of the old Velvet Underground song "Heroin," it may be somewhat hard to believe that Cale is still alive. More than any other American rock group, the Velvet Underground seemed to be toying with the kind of violent apocalyptic energy which could ultimately consume itself. In fact, Cale survived the Velvet Underground, and has now produced, by himself, one of the few important albums of this dismal year of rock and roll. And perhaps Cale's survival qualifies him to say something about how to preserve whatever part of the rock spirit is still left in us.
At the height of a largely unheralded musical career, the Velvet Underground produced their second album, White Light/White Heat -an album which so powerfully realizes the group's violently alienated vision that listening to it is often unbearable. In 1968, rock's manifest destiny was apparently to grow progressively more violent, perverted, and electronic. White Light/White Heat was about as far as rock got in that direction.
In 1969 John Cale left the Velvet Underground. His solo album, appropriately Vintage Violence, rejects further exploration in the maniacal realms for a complex, coherent eclecticism. The sensibility of Vintage Violence is nothing so much as non-violent. A sense of tranquility rather than jagged scorn runs through all of Cale's imagery.
The Mardi Gras just passed this way an hour ago
Making hungry people of us all
Along the Mississippi you can hear the fiddlers play
Fandangos and boleros to the Lord
Many tries, many tries, simple stories are the best,
Keep in mind the wishful kind. Don't wanna be like all the rest.
That an individual songwriter should be able to maintain a consistency of style and feeling is not unusual, but in a solo album the establishment of such an identity too often comes at the expense of variety. Fortunately Cale is a complex man, and he has plotted Violence with a subtlety and protean vigor that overwhelms the threat of monotony. If Cale can be called a genius, it is because he achieves in a solo album the multiple development and reinforcement of feeling usually attributed to the best albums by groups.
The texture of Vintage Violence does remind one of Sgt. Pepper. Profound songs are interrupted by silly songs, which then turn out to be not so silly after all. Cale orders his songs in a natural pacing of theme and mood, leading up to the almost obligatory fast brawling rock resolution in the last cut. But in Violence the eclecticism is more pervasive than in Sgt. Pepper. Each song manages to fuse an intricate variety of styles and instruments into conventional but slightly twisted forms, "Cleo," for example, manages to sound like a peculiarly profound perversion of the Archies, Cale also establishes the complexity of his sinister-yet-tranquil theme of resignation and acceptance through the juxtaposition of seemingly inappropriate artistic elements. In "Fairweather Friend," which seems to be the good-time rocker of the album, he opposes the emotional, driving music with strangely detached, sinister lyrics.
Boy boy boy boy rolling down the road
Boy boy boy boy what have you been told?
I can't stand the means by which your secret signs do unfold
Boy boy boy boy, what're you been sold?
Throughout the album, Cale blends his specific style of disjointed imagery with offset choruses of abstract solidity.
Hooked upon a fishing line; looking for the break of day,
I've never been here before anyway, it's the wine in my feet that's tickling
Left a castle in Spain, in an ambulance all the way
Could it be that the clock's really stopped?
Hello there, everybody. When's the next train out of here?
Sorry but I'm much too young for this. I'll come back again next year.
Only once or twice does Cale's sophistication degenerate into technical cuteness, and even then he recovers quickly, as in "Please,"
Won't you help me please, I'm growing old a hundred years ago
Won't you help me sneeze, I've caught a cold got a ways to go
Just hold on tightly, the shows are nightly
They talk so very slow, it gets so hard to follow. . . .
Then tension established by the contradictory lyrical elements is reinforced in the album's execution. Hardly one second of this album is static or unnecessary. The music either changes or grows more complex. Instrumental breaks are cut short before their completion dissipates the tension they generate. The songs don't even end, but rather fade out or just stop. Cale's vocals are undramatic yet precise-like the non-climactic songs they rechannel their energy back into paths that run through the entire album.
In fact, Vintage Violence is perhaps too ingenious an album. You would probably not like to listen to its music while driving or getting stoned. Even though he seems to have discarded the nihilistic heroics of the Velvet Underground, there is something disturbing about John Cale in his new found tranquility. The thought that Cale's music is much too sophisticated and personal to be appreciated as rock and roll disturbs also. He could easily hunt us for the rest of our lives.