It was about 3:30 in the afternoon. Down 7th Street, a parade of parochial school girls wended its way towards the projects on Avenue D, the sidewalks coming alive with the plaid skirts swishing not quite in unison as they walked in twos and threes. People sat on the stoops reading papers, and a game of stickball was in progress in the vacant lot.
Suddenly, an argument flared up — in staccato Spanish — Dee Christian, a Robin-Hood-like figure among the 7th Street amphetamine junkies (A-heads, we called them), had once again run into Spanish Eddie. Guns were drawn, and the argument moved out into the street. Interested heads peeped from tenement windows and watched as Dee Christian went down, four bullets in his stomach. Eventually, I think, an ambulance came.
“Gideon lied / And Gideon died / The force of Cain felt.”
New York is, of course, not such a nice place. And the New York scenemakers are a breed apart from their brethren elsewhere. To make joie de vivre coexist with the cockroaches takes some doing, or, perhaps, some help. Can Andy Warhol get behind cockroaches? See, the question answers itself. New York, New York, says the old show tune. It’s a hell of a town.
“So hold on tightly / The show’s on nightly / They speak so very slow / It gets so hard to follow …”
John Cale has been around. First with the Velvet Underground, where he played electric viola and wrote some stuff for them. Then he disappeared for a while, re-emerging as an employee of Elektra Records, where he helped Nico and her album The Marble Index, a work formidable in its unapproachability, and (paradox upon paradox) he then produced the Stooges’ first album, which is so staggeringly simple that most people can’t take it.
Now he has showed up on Columbia, with an album of amazing complexity. Most of the songs sound like a Byrds album produced by a Phil Spector who has marinated for six years in burgundy, anise, and chili peppers. Does that help? I didn’t think it would.
Well, then, suffice it to say that this is an important album, even though it takes a while to take hold. It stands up well next to such masterpieces as Astral Weeks, Jesse Winchester’s album, and — yes, I dare say it — Highway 61. It is a deeply moving personal statement by an artist who just doesn’t compromise in any direction and I believe that it is destined to become one of the most important albums of the past few years.
Obviously, there is a story here. There is a list of characters on the back, and times and places crop up as they would in a diary. The story goes untold in a literal sense, though, and the inferences don’t make a whole. No matter, because it’s just as interesting to listen and let the total gestalt form slowly. About all you can tell after the 60th listening is that there is more to be gotten, and it may take years. Like Van Morrison’s lyrics, Cale’s pop out at you at odd times and sock you right in the stomach: “Gideon sighed / As Gideon died / The thought of China helped,” a fleeting reference to “my proud amphibian bride.”
The songs themselves are delightful, melodic things which almost (but not quite) belie the spirit of the lyrics. In fact, “Big White Cloud” could easily be a Top 40 hit, with its sing-along chorus. Other standouts are “Gideon’s Bible,” “Ghost Story,” “Charlemagne” and “Please,” which seems to me to be the most thoroughly realized composition on the album, with the instruments unfolding layers of sound reminiscent of a forest of sea anemones on the ocean floor.
Mention should also be made of another of the album’s enigmas — the musicians. I have never heard a backup band — overdubbed as they may be — with such an incredibly organic flow. At times, there seems to be two pedal steel guitars and a regular electric guitar, bass, piano, organ, acoustic guitar, and drums, and the interplay they achieve (try on “Gideon’s Bible” or “Please,” or the eerie ending of the aptly-titled “Ghost Stories”) is masterful and chilling. Special notice must go to the pedal steel player, who has invented a whole new approach to the instrument that can only be termed rhythm / lead pedal steel. And, of course, there is Cale’s electric viola, providing everything from white noise to the seductive sussurance the instrument was created for. In keeping with the album’s enigma, there is very little indication who they are, although it would be a safe bet to say that they include members of a band called Grinder’s Switch, who put out a perfectly awful album a few months back. But if that’s so, why are they so good here? If we’re lucky, we’ll never find out.
Dee Christian, incidentally, recovered and detoxified. A few days after the incident, somebody sold Spanish Eddie a bag of Drano, which he promptly did up. He lived, too.