Fear, John Cale tells us in the song quoted above, is "a man's best friend" and a sneaky glimpse of the Daily Telegraph's review (I don't buy the Telegraph, FFS, let's get that clear straight away) which described the previous evening's Barbican performance, on Cale's 76th birthday, as "inventive but heavy going", combined with Cale's chequered reputation as a live performer, certainly meant that I entered the Barbican, if not in fear, but certainly with a sense of trepidation. Fear may be a man's best friend but I've been on nodding terms with trepidation all my adult life.
The review turned out to be as useless as pretty much everything else in the Telegraph. Even if Cale, with the aid of the London Contemporary Orchestra and the House Gospel Choir (there were close to forty people, including six viola players, on stage at some points in the two hour plus gig), did kick off proceedings with The Jeweller, a brooding, atmospheric piece from 1975's Slow Dazzle that, using spoken word, tells the story of a lonely lapidary whose eye mutates into a fully formed vagina upon purchase of a patch. It's not how Abba began their live shows.
I'm no expert but my favourite Cale album is 1973's Paris 1919 so it was a minor disappointment that he played only one track from it and that that track, MacBeth, isn't one of the album's standouts. But in lieu of Andalucia, Half Past France, and Graham Greene we were treated to a fairly even spread of material spanning most, if not all, of Cale's four and a half decades as a major figure in both popular and avant-garde music.
The two Velvet Underground tracks he played were radically altered versions to the ones we've all grown to know and love. Lady Godiva's Operation made good on Cale's mellifluous Welsh accent, he has a voice that seems to be able to turn from sweet to sinister on a sixpence, even if the horror effects that accompanied the 'sweetly pump air' line were a bit overplayed.
Stephanie Says was a more surprising selection, it didn't even see a release until the compilation album VU in 1985, but a very happy one. It speaks volumes about the greatness of The Velvet Underground as a band that such a beautiful, sad, song could be overlooked for the best part of two decades. Cale did Lou Reed's composition justice, imbuing it with as much warmth as there is "cold in Alaska". Stephanie may not be "afraid to die" but this song downright refuses to.
The two albums that featured most heavily were Slow Dazzle and, from the previous year (1974), Fear. From the first of those two albums, The Jeweller was joined by a rollicking rendition of Heartbreak Hotel (vastly improved from Cale's half-arsed version at 2011's Field Day), and Mr Wilson's gloriously mournful attempt to resolve Cale's childhood in Wales with the years he spent in America.
Fear was represented by the lolloping shanty The Man Who Couldn't Afford To Orgy, and a take on Fear Is A Man's Best Friend that was as visceral as Ship of Fools (with its lines about picking up "Dracula in Memphis", nooses on burnt out trees near the outskirts of Tombstone, and, most memorably, arriving in Swansea as it starts to get dark) was yearning.
Elsewhere, Hedda Gabler stretched out its epic frame over the best part of ten minutes, Caribbean Sunset managed to walk just the right side of faux tropical pop even if the line "she said no, she meant maybe" may not stand up to scrutiny in a post #metoo climate, and Gideon's Bible seemed to stretch out into the furthest corners of the cavernous Barbican, rolling out the cotton ship under the carpet pillow whilst "holding on, with both eyes, to things that don't exist". Ok, Magritte may've been a little underwhelming and the extended gospel coda (Cale doesn't seem like the sort of artist who gets the audience to clap along) on new track Pretty People dragged on a bit but with a retrospective (or Futurespective as it was billed) you have to take the rough with the smooth and John Cale is not the sort of performer who likes to make it easy for his fans.
Cate Le Bon and concrete techno musician Actress (known to both his mum and John Cale as Darren Cunningham from Wolverhampton) popped up for a couple of guest spots but the spotlight remained resolutely on Cale for the duration of the gig. He cuts a strange figure (as he's every right to) limping on and off stage in some kind of foot brace and dress combo but his intensity is assured and you can't fail to be drawn into his strange world of Ibsen heroines in Oslo libraries reading about Hitler, milkman at orgies, Annette Funicello, and tragic Shakespearean protagonists rotting in shallow graves.
For the encore things were stripped down completely. No Cate Le Bon, no Actress, no House Gospel Choir, no London Contemporary Orchestra, just Cale on vocals and guitar backed with the traditional rock set up of guitar (Dustin Boyer), bass (Joey Maramba), and drums (Deantoni Parks). Boys with their toys for sure, but they didn't half looking like they were enjoying it as they thrashed through a medley of Gun, Pablo Picasso, and Mary Lou.
Compared to what had come before it was stark stuff, yet all the more affecting for it. Gun with "blood on the windows and blood on the walls, blood on the ceiling and down in the halls" was taut and angular, Jonathan Richman's Pablo Picasso is given such a shot of energy that Richman must sometimes feel like Cale's ripped him a new one, and Mary Lou is the most obviously classic rock song of the entire evening. That one of the final lines delivered from stage is "couldn't tell the difference between right or wrong but he's all right, he's all right, he's all right for a song" both sums up tonight's performance and John Cale's career. Luckily for us tonight was way more right than it was wrong.
Thanks to Cheryl and Tommy for joining us for pre-gig pizza and drinks, and thanks to Gary and Ian for (more) pre-gig (and post-gig) drinks, but most of all thanks to Darren for a very lovely, very early birthday gift.
"Take your mixes, not your mixture. Add some music to our day".