They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
The history of rock is littered with stories of old soldiers who faded away after they were ousted from their bands. Pete Best, Glen Matlock, Henri Padovani – the list goes on. But one name that list will never include is John Cale’s. After leaving the Velvet Underground, he went on to produce the debut albums of the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, and Squeeze; he’s played on works from Nick Drake to the Replacements to LCD Soundsystem; he’s released more than thirty albums, the most recent just six months ago; he knows his way around a cover, having performed exorcisms on “Memphis” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and created the template cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Cale has completed his allotted threescore and ten; today he turns 71, and if his idiosyncratic past is any indication (and it is), we’ve good reason to expect more greatness from him in the years to come.
Cale’s own songs are usually just a few degrees too dark, too barbed, too cultured, too singular to get radio play, but other musicians know quality when they encounter it, and have made a mission of bringing Cale’s work to the masses as best they can. Here are five examples.
Alejandro Escovedo – Amsterdam (John Cale cover)
John Cale’s 1970 solo debut, Vintage Violence, opened with the chummily titled “Hello, There” – those two titles are as good an indication as any of Cale’s dichotomies. Another track on the record, “Amsterdam,” finds a woman returning from her trip with a sense of fulfillment that doesn’t come from learning she can order a glass of beer in a movie theater. Alejandro Escovedo’s cover captures the pain and the resigned grace the song’s narrator has as he accepts the fact that he’s been left behind.
Yo La Tengo – Andalucia (John Cale cover)
Whether “Andalucia” is about a place or person, its love for the subject matter is beyond doubt. So is Yo La Tengo’s love for the song, appearing as it did on their mostly-cover album Fakebook. No band could play a song with this much tenderness, this much affection, if they didn’t truly care for it, and that care comes through the song in waves.
Penelope Houston – Buffalo Ballet (John Cale cover)
Penelope Houston’s career is like a shark – an amazing creation that stays alive by moving ever forward. A pioneer in punk rock and neo-folk, it’s natural that she would relate to Cale’s work. Her cover of “Buffalo Ballet” evokes 19th-century America without resorting to old-timey instrumentation to do so; it’s a song that’s both of its time and beyond it.
The Hope Blister – Hanky Panky Nohow (John Cale cover)
The Hope Blister was a collective on 4AD, a label where they knew melancholic grandeur like nobody since… well, John Cale, whose Paris 1919 may well be the definitive example. Their “Hanky Panky Nohow” remains as enigmatic as Cale’s, while it elevates the musical conversation just as high.
Human Drama – I Keep a Close Watch (John Cale cover)
When Johnny Cash first sang the opening words to “I Walk the Line,” he couldn’t have known they’d become the title of a John Cale song that matched the romantic declaration of Cash’s and far outstripped it in transcendence and lushness. Human Drama suits up the song in goth splendor and turns it out to an appreciative audience on their live album 14,384 Days Later.