John Cale-Music For a New Society

August 22, 2008

John Cale

Music For a New Society (Rhino 1982)

This an album for days when you just feel unable to get out of bed and life has yanked your hair as a prelude to kneeing you in the balls. Music For a New Society is John Cale’s last great album before a parade of underwhelming efforts. Although his live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season, is one of his best, everything after this paled in comparison to the brilliance and creativity of his 70s works. Of all the members of the Velvet Underground, John Cale is the one who is responsible for the most challenging and interesting work after their slow, pathetic dissolution. To hell with Metal Machine Music, Cale’s Paris 1919, Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax, Fear, Slow Dazzle, Academy in Peril, Helen of Troy and Music For a New Society are sometimes nasty and claustrophobic and sometimes lush and sentimental, but always worth your full attention. There is no excusing such dreck as Artificial Intelligence and Caribbean Sunset, but Cale’s decade of genius is enough to last me for an eternity.

Enough proselytising, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Music For a new Society is Cale’s most sparse and single-minded record as it is just Cale’s voice, piano, minimal percussion, eerie electronics and the occasional bagpipe solo. “I Keep a Close Watch on this Heart of Mine” is one of the most heartwrenching portraits of a man who has been burned too many times. He captures the essence of betrayal and its subsequent damning effects on the one who has been betrayed. It is a dark look at love and how it can harden the heart.

Never win and never lose
There’s nothing much to choose
Between the right and wrong
Nothing lost and nothing gained
Still things aren’t quite the same
Between you and me

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

I still hear your voice at night
When I turn out the light
And try to settle down
But there’s nothing much I can do
Because I can’t live without you
Any way at all

I don’t know why this song haunts me so. I have a healthy, optimistic view of love and its potential to cast life in a new light, but we’ve all been to that desperate place described in this song.

An even more disturbing view of love, obsession and hard feeling is “If You Were Still Around.” It is a bit of a hateful ditty about what he would do to those who have done him wrong. There is a lot of violence in his intentions and probably much more lurking in the subtext of this one. Actually, it’s pretty much in plain view as Cale openly lobbies for some sort of psychic or emotional cannibalism.

If you were still around
I’d hold you
I’d hold you
I’d shake you by the knees
Blow hard in both ears
If you were still around

You could write like a panther
Whatever got into your veins
What kind of green blood
Swung you to your doom
To your doom

If you were still around
I’d tear unto your fear
Leave it hanging off you
In long streamers

Shreds of dread
If you were still around
I’d turn you facing the wind
Bend your spine on my knee
Chew the back of your head
Chew the back of your head
‘Til you opened your mouth
To this life

It starts off as a tender song about longing and regret, but builds into something ugly. In fact, it’s a pretty primal song and reveals a man who wants to punish a lover who revealed herself to be a traitor to his love and friendship. The rest of the album isn’t quite so morbid and grisly, but it is still pretty damn depressing. Music For a New Society may be one of my favorite albums, but it isn’t one that I dust off often because it’s so full of bad juju.

4 Responses to “John Cale-Music For a New Society”

  1. grasprelease Says:

    Great blog! Just arrived, so here’s lazy thanks for all the preceding. Your selection is excellent (quite a bit of stuff I’ve never heard before), but the comments are also very welcome: very personal, articulate but not pretentious or affected or bet-hedging….really very useful, as time is at a premium for me, and it’s not enough for music to be great, anymore…I have to prioritize. The Darrell Banks was fantastic, by the way! Really kinda took me by surprised, perhaps I was merely in the mood for it.

  2. Kieran Says:

    This pleases me, this post of yours. You’ve said it so well.
    “If You Were Still Around” has a place in my head along with Leonard Cohen’s “Queen Victoria” as striking a truly human tone, avoiding the monotony of so much supposedly expressive music. I have a taste for the bad juju though, if I’m honest. Which I’m not.
    Great blog, thanks for the good read.

  3. Chad Cale JJ Cale is my cousin Says:

    Gerry Henry Cale from Sapulpa OK ,is my father I got pictures of John when he was real young. My dad always said John wrote Cocain And After midnight, Now Im a Singing and play the guitar I realize as I play with The Band You might know some of them ,on the piano Rocky Frisco, he played with JJ, Harry Williams on the drums He played with Ike And Tina Turner, Tulsa,s own Tiny Davis. Which we lost last year,God Rest his soul, And you know I realized any one who can speak can sing, any one who can sing can speak, so take it from me you have to have men like JJ and the other Legends to make the path for people like us to fill their shoes, Love to live Live to love…..

  4. jj9ray Says:

    I have loved Music for a New Society forever & just stumbled on this post from years ago. “If You Were Still Around”.gets me very deep inside, but one of us must be wrong about the meaning! To interpret it as a bitter attack on an absent lover and literally talking about cannibalism is just bizarre to me.

    “If you were still around…, what … swung you to your doom…” This is not a punishment to a lover who’s betrayed him: someone’s died here!

    In my head the whole thing is an anguished cry at the loss of a friend to drugs. If you were still around, I’d do anything to try and get you out of your drug-hazed spiral and back into life. What you post as “green blood” I hear as “dream blood”. i.e. what kind of drugs got into you veins and swung you to your doom.

    To “tear into your fear” is a desperate attempt to rescue the person from their own low self-esteem.

    Hey John C, wanna tell us who’s right here? 🙂

    (Also note that it’s co-written with Sam Shepard who is a playwright, I believe.)

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