Saturday, January 3, 2009

Set Me Free (manually)

by Will Rigby

Count me among those who consider John Cale's post–Velvet Underground work superior overall to that of Lou Reed. Not to belittle "Dirty Boulevard" or "Waves of Fear" or "Kicks" or all the other LR songs I love (and I can't say I've gone ga-ga over a JC album in years), but Cale's albums from the '70s find their way onto my speakers more often. There is an unhinged side to him that screams a lot, and another that composes formal music; those are not the ones we're featuring today. He can write (or in some of the instances here, sing) very beautiful songs/melodies.

A little-known track stands out, if that can be said of something that is purposefully obscured. On Hobo Sapiens, his 2003 album that was his first since 1996, the song "Set Me Free" is a hidden track that is before track 1. To hear it you have to hold down the rewind button until it reaches the beginning of the song. John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants explained to me (in 1995) the possibility of a CD having a track in this location because of the way they are formatted, and that playback machines are unable to read them for no special reason other than simplicity. [For a more technical explanation you'll have to look elsewhere.] I suspect that TMBG used this trick too, but I don't know their albums.

The song is accessible musically, however, in a way that most of the album it's technically inaccessible on is not. His current music is a bit angular and machine-driven for my taste (although I must confess that I haven't heard his latest studio recording Black Acetate or his recent live album Circus Live), but he still has some pop sensibility left. Or perhaps it's an old song he's only gotten around to recording.

"Set Me Free" mp3
by John Cale, 2003.
available on Hobo Sapiens

"Empty Bottles" mp3
by John Cale, 1972.
available on Le Bataclan '72

"Set Me Free" compares well to "Empty Bottles," a song he wrote in the early '70s but perversely never recorded; instead, he gave it to Jennifer Warnes (who then went by just her first name) and produced her single of it, which to date I have been unable to find or hear. The only known version of John Cale performing "Empty Bottles" is on the album Le Bataclan '72 (2004), a nonprofessional recording of a spur-of-the-moment reunion of Cale, Reed, and Nico at a 1972 art gallery opening in France. What a shame he didn't record the song properly at the time. [I heartily recommend the fansite Fear Is a Man's Best Friend for more information on John Cale.]

"Sylvia Said" was a non-LP B-side to a 45 of "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy" from Fear that finally appeared on album on The Island Years in 1996, another beautiful song not generally available before the age of ubiquitous CD rereleases/bonus tracks/anthologies (a description that also applies to "Burned Out Affair," an outtake from Paris 1919 that wasn't released for 33 years!). "Bamboo Floor" is an outtake from Slow Dazzle.

"Sylvia Said" mp3
by John Cale, 1974.
available on The Island Years

"Bamboo Floor" mp3
by John Cale, 1975.
available on The Island Years

"Burned Out Affair" mp3
by John Cale, 1973.
available on Paris 1919

Lou Reed and John Cale in the holiday spirit, 1976.
detail of photo by Kate Simon from the Gillian McCain/Jim Marshall collection.

"Frozen Warnings" is a performance of a Nico song from The Marble Index (which Cale produced and improvised most of the musical accompaniment on) that appears at the end of the documentary Nico/Icon, a humble documentary that is worth watching just to see Nico's grandmother humming along with the first VU album.

"Frozen Warnings" mp3
by John Cale, 1995.
from Nico Icon DVD

Cale has recorded "Hallelujah," Leonard Cohen's most well-known/recorded song, more than once. His studio recording originally appeared on the Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan, and has also been featured on the soundtrack of several movies. This version appears over a wordless scene in Shrek but not on the soundtrack album. There is also a solo piano version on his fine live album Fragments of a Rainy Season. "You Know More Than I Know" is an outtake from Fragments that appeared on a bonus EP and a label compilation.

"Hallelujah" mp3
by John Cale, 1991.
available on I'm Your Fan

"You Know More Than I Know" mp3
by John Cale, 1992.
available on Medium Rare

Fun bonus: In 1963 JC appeared on the TV show I've Got a Secret, in which a panel tried to guess what the guest's secret was. In Cale's case the secret was that he had participated in a marathon performance of Erik Satie's Vexations, in which a series of pianists play a minute-or-so piece 840 times in succession. In the age of YouTube this has become available to us to watch, tittering audience and all.

"Vexations" (Satie) mp3
by John Cale, 1963.
from I've Got A Secret TV Show


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


dave said...

awesome! thanks! Just so you know, the TMBG album 'Factory Showroom' has the same kind of secret track.

reservatory said...

Hey - If you're THAT Will Rigby, I used to move dB's equipment in my '61 Tempest wagon. I have the Warners Jennifer album with Empty Bottles (and a couple of stellar Jimmy Webb covers) and can supply it to you in some 21st Century format, as desired. Lemme know...

Anonymous said...

Lovely stuff, and yes, Cale's post-VU stuff is far better in my opinion than Reed's, you're far from alone!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I never knew about that I've Got a Secret appearance.

Of course, now I'm listening to all of the other Satie pieces people have put up on YouTube.
-- Lianne

Steve said...

Hi Will,

Great piece! And not because you chose exactly the same material that I would have to illustrate the hidden charms of John Cale.

I also have the Warners LP & CD-R of 'Jennifer' which includes 'Empty Bottles'. It's nice (not great), but the whole LP is a bit lackluster. There is a very nice version of Procol Harum's 'Magdelene (My Regal Zonophone) which features Cale heavily on instrumentation (I wish he had sung it instead, but...). Anyway, you're welcome to my copy as well. I think all of the early Jennifer LPs are in the process of being boxed, finally.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the great post. FYI -- "Set Me Free" originally appeared on the much underrated 1996 album, "Walking on Locusts," in a different but also good recording.

Denier said...

Not sure I'd agree with the Cale over Reed post-VU comparison. Where is Cale's Transformer, Coney Island Baby, New York even? I do think Fragments, the live album, might be the best overall Cale album. But overall great site, and this was a cool post.

Anonymous said...

The explanation for your feelings regarding LR vs. JC is that Mr. Reed never did have any discernable talent at all, save for that of self-promotion. Never did a man get farther by including the phrase "giving head" in an otherwise thoroughly lackluster body of work. Clearly, he's one of the luckier men in rock 'n' roll.

Mr. Cale, on the other hand, is an accomplished artist and musician.

Jukeboxmafia said...

This is is such an odd coincidence. I was just reading about (for the first time) Satie's Vexations piece and how it was never taken seriously or actually performed until the early sixties. Loved that Youtube footage. Thanks!

Denier said...

Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but to bash Lou Reed in that way comes off as way too harsh. Charisma is also a talent, and if you've ever seen Reed live in his prime ... well, you're just not gonna get it. I was 14 years old when I saw Lou at the New York Felt Forum. Made quite an impression on me. To say he was lucky in his career is like saying David Bowie was lucky to come up with the Ziggy Stardust character.

You can like John Cale without having to put down the other guy. Now, as a person, from some musicians I know, Reed was a high-handed, obnoxious ass to deal with, while those same musicians said Bowie could not have been nicer. Has little to do with their music.

I'm a big Cale fan, especially when you consider the seminal albums he had a hand in producing. I'm thinking of Patti Smith's Horses, the first Stooges album, Modern Lovers... What am I leaving out? 3 of my favorite albums of all time and Cale had a hand in all of them!

Are you also dismissing the entire VU pantheon? Is Sweet Jane, Some Kinda Love, Rock and Roll and other vintage Reed-written VU material somehow overrated? Did you ever blast Rock and Roll Animal, the live album? I'd be interested in artists, besides Cale, that you consider his superior in songwriting, becaause I think his best stacks up pretty well against his peers.

To be honest, I think like most indie blog commenters, you're displaying a misbegotten snobbishness toward any artist who has actually sold a few records and made a dent in the popular consciousness. I can't believe you've actually listened to the best of Reed's solo work -- otherwise your opinion wouldn't come off as so reactionary.

Ted Barron said...

Well said, sir.

Anonymous said...

Ban anonymity!

And where can I get me some of that excellent hair?


Anonymous said...

I wasn't aware that there were people who knew jack about music who actually considered Lou Reed's post-Velvets stuff in the same league as Cale's! Great post though. W.

Alex said...

XTC used that trick also (I think on "Coat of Many Cupboards"). I saw Cale at a small club touring in support of "Honi Soit" with a band a third his age... I worried he was going to kill one of the guitarists!

Anonymous said...

Great post guys
Set Me Free was totally new to me. Thanks!
Cale did great work in the 70s for WB and Island. Unfortunately, when we reissued his Island stuff when I was at Polygram, it was totally ignored yet again.
-mike rosenberg

kentbrockman said...

From John Cale to John Cage.
I had never come across 'I Have a Secret' until yesterday when I saw this:
John Cage performing Water Walk on the same programme. I don't know whether this was because the programme makers considered contemporary music intrinsically 'kooky', or whether one of the researchers was a contemporary music fan. If I remember rightly, Cage attended Cale's performance of Vexations. Cage was a huge admirer of Satie, wrote about Vexations, and was influenced by it. Also, if I remember rightly, Bryan Eno was involved in a performance in the 70's.

Thanks for a great post and a truly brilliant blog. I am really glad to discover it.

There is some more information about John Cage in Alex Ross's 'The Rest is Noise', and on his website:
The analysis in the earlier post about Leonard Cohen reminded me of the way Ross describes the conjunctions and disjunctions between words and music in 20th century opera.

Duncanmusic said...

Hey Will...I see your name in the winner's circle on BigO from time to time and you've probably seen mine, but we never seem to win at the same time. Anyway, about that 'pre-track. I first encountered it on JUSTICE records out of Texas, one of Willie's buddies was using it on every CD back in early 1990s I believe. i DIDN'T REALIZE IT HAD SPREAD SO FAR. very NICE POST ON cALE, WHO TRULY IS A MUSICIAN'S MUSICIAN and an exquisite acquired taste. Thanks for posting such a brilliant mix of tracks, I can truly appreciate your passion.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the mp3 of 'Frozen Warnings.' Such a chilled, elegant rendition.