The Most Disturbing Halloween EVER!: John Cale

Written by Disturbing Discs, Music

That’s right, folks, the most disturbing Halloween EVER! From now until Halloween, the Popdose staff are going to be thumbing through their record collections in search of the music that gives them the worst case of the heebie-jeebies. In this installment, Jack Feerick looks back at a John Cale album from 1982. — Anthony Hansen

I came to John Cale by way of Alan Moore. That sounds pretty roundabout, but I figure it’s not uncommon. See, Moore used a (misquoted and misattributed) Cale line as the epigram for the mind-blowing final chapter of Watchmen, and Watchmen has probably sold more copies over the years than any John Cale record has, ever. So there must be other poor souls out there who closed the book on that final panel — impossibly stark, just white text on black with the icon of a clock, hands pointing to midnight — and then flipped back to the indicia to find the source of the quote.

It would be a stronger world, a stronger loving world to die in.

Because, you know, you read a line like that, a line that in itself seems to offer up (not unlike the ending of Watchmen) both a bleak judgment of the human condition and a steely glint of compassion. I was aware of Cale only by reputation — I had not yet heard the Velvet Underground, though of course I knew of them, and I knew that Cale’s solo work tended to veer between prettily orchestrated chamber pop and screaming maniacal rock, and that his lyrical worldview tended to be dark, bloody, and perverse. Yeah, okay. But a line like that begs for some context, is what I’m saying. (And, y’know, Alan Moore knows the score.) And so, in time, I hunted down a cheap cassette of 1982’s Music for a New Society — a title that seemed, again, both hopeful and ominous — took it home, slipped it into my Walkman in my bedroom, in the dark, late at night, to listen while I settled down to sleep.

It was weeks before I found the courage to listen to it again. Hell, it was a couple of days before I found the courage to sleep again. This was — well, it was scary stuff.

Now, “scary” covers such a broad range of emotion, from the enjoyable tingle of watching a horror movie to utter pants-shitting terror, and it shades into sadness or anger at either end. A ranting madman can be scary — but so can a whisper in a quiet house. Almost all effective music has a certain spooky quality (it’s no accident we speak of a catchy melody as being “haunting”), but self-consciously “scary” music is hard to pull off without turning into wretched self-parody (see the oeuvre of Brian “I’m the Devil! BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!” Warner, of the popular beat combo Marilyn Manson).

On Music for a New Society — which is currently out of print — John Cale finds the discomfort zone and quietly, without the shrieking histrionics that usually characterize his “extreme” work, starts to dig. At every turn, the album systematically violates the implied contract between musician and listener. It’s an odd-sounding record, for starters, produced and arranged for maximum disorientation; the songs were recorded with rhythm guitar or piano parts to give them structure, then those parts were mixed down or erased entirely — leaving melodies, percussion, and flourishes floating unanchored. Distortion flares up and settles. Volume levels spike unpredictably, perhaps randomly; a vocal track, too soft to make out, will suddenly crash painfully into your headphones, then dart away. There’s nothing for the listener to latch on to. Listen: An acoustic guitar sparkles briefly amid the séance knockings and ghostly laughter of “Thoughtless Kind” (download), startlingly pretty, and the whole thing opens up for an instant, and the claustrophobic weight of it starts to lift, and it almost coalesces into a folk song — and then it’s gone, and we’re in the wilderness again.

I think this must be what psychosis sounds like. When your mind becomes untethered, and you lose the ability to relate your sensations to the reality of your surroundings, and the ability to understand the emotional states of other people. When you become the only real thing in your world, and there is no solid thing to cling to. The voice, in the sparse instrumentation, is uncomfortably vulnerable. Cale writes in the studio, and the vocals here are mostly first takes, recorded in the depths of uncertainty. On “If You Were Still Around” (download), Cale is singing out of his range, groping for notes, trying to find the melody even as he sings it, with the net effect almost unbearably tense.

Then there’s “Sanities” (download), misidentified by Alan Moore as “Santies,” and itself an engineer’s misreading of Cale’s handwritten title “Sanctus.” The confusion is only fitting, really; the song gives us no fixed point of reference, more or less abandoning musical elements altogether, instead presenting a jumble of sounds and fractured images that never quite cohere. This is not music meant to entertain, uplift, or inspire; and one positively shudders to think of any notional “new society” that might find a ritual purpose for something so thoroughly treacherous.

Then again, maybe that was the intention after all. Speaking of Warhol’s Factory, and the uneasy way in which its ideals of transgression, decadence, and above all, hard work, aligned awkwardly with the contemporaneous easy-breezy drop-out strain of the counterculture, Cale has said, “We believed that doing evil was better than doing nothing. Because at least you were doing something.” With Music for a New Society, Cale was doing something all right. Something inimitable and unmatchable. And man, is it ever evil.