Home / General / “Nothing Frightens Me More / Than Religion At My Door:” John Cale’s Paris 1919 Turns 50

“Nothing Frightens Me More / Than Religion At My Door:” John Cale’s Paris 1919 Turns 50

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As I cast my Monday evening gaze all around I can see that I am once again drowning in unmet deadlines, bobbing insensibly in a riptide of obligations of which I am both creator and victim. This is very normal for me, procrastination being a kind of ersatz religious practice of mine. And an acutely unpleasant practice at that, though no one ever said that the point of ritual was necessarily or even very often the achievement of comfort. Regardless, the situation is that I find myself — again! — not doing the things I should be doing and instead blindly lurching between the fathomless number of distractions which stand unmoving in my pathway to baseline competence. Well then, Beth, what now? What will you do between this moment and the zero hour of those editors’ hard knock at your door? How will you fare when it’s nut-cutting time? Obviously, given this context, let’s take a deep dive into John Cale’s 1973 masterpiece Paris 1919, his surpassingly beautiful and not infrequently terrifying third solo LP which turned fifty (50!) this past March.

In 1973, John Cale was 31 years old and already several years into a decorated career in avant-garde and popular music approached by only a few others. He first co-founded the Velvet Underground, only to leave that band after their 1968 LP White Light/White Heat when his ideas and temperament inevitably became incompatible with his fellow hard-headed genius Lou Reed. (A version of the band with Cale still in the lineup would record the extraordinary speculative LP VU in 1969 before his departure, but that album would go unreleased until 1985.) Following his run with the Velvets, brilliant music seemed to follow wherever he turned up. Behind the boards, he produced landmark records by Nico, The Modern Lovers and The Stooges. As a sideman he contributed the fetching piano line to Nick Drake’s gorgeous “Northern Sky” and he thrived as a solo artist as well, releasing 1970’s fetching groove-folk odyssey Vintage Violence and 1972’s strictly-bad-vibes outré-classic The Academy in Peril. 

1973’s Paris 1919 would extend Cale’s winning streak in spectacular fashion. Released in an era when the music industry could seemingly do no wrong — it came out the same day as Dark Side Of The Moon and the same month as Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, Led Zep’s Houses Of The Holy, The Faces’ Ooh La La amongst others- Paris 1919 most distinguishing musical feature was its so-weird-you-can’t-believe-it one-off collaboration with Lowell George from Little Feat. As I’ve written about in other spaces, George was a singular, brilliant and insane figure in his own regard, and Cale’s decision to draft Lowell in on guitar alongside and masterful Feat’s drummer Richie Hayward was a bold and brilliant intuition. Radically different in nearly every other respect, John Cale and Lowell George shared in common musical virtuosity and a pathological commitment to whatever project they happened to be currently engaged in. For the brief half-hour comprising its running time, Paris 1919 comes close to codifying an entirely novel branch of popular music. The combination of Cale’s austere, compositional formalism, George’s beautiful and ornery slide guitar and the great Chris Thomas’s bell-clear production represents one the music business’s most unusual and formidable combination of talents. In this latest episode of Elizabeth’s Shameful Procrastination Habit –– podcast coming soon — let’s take a track-by-track look at one of the tradition’s strangest and most transporting records.

Child’s Christmas In Wales 

Abetted by a chiming piano riff and Lowell George’s signature slide guitar, “Child’s Christmas In Wales” ranks alongside the catchiest and most trenchant songs Cale has ever recorded. With its swelling melody, warm instrumentation and ineffable, tugging melancholy, its three-minute and twenty-second runtime effectively establishes the utterly singular mood palette which will carry through Paris 1919. There is something of the nostalgia of the Kinks’ British Music Hall throwbacks, as well as the incandescent naturalism of Van Morrison’s Moondance. But inevitably with Cale, there is a menace to the beauty. The song takes its inspiration — though not its lyric — from Dylan Thomas’s book by the same name and phrases like “ten murdered oranges bled on board ship” and “the long-legged bait tripped uselessly around” evokes his fellow Welshman’s anxious symbolism. “To saddle sword and meeting place/ we have no place to go?” What the hell kind of Christmas is this anyway? Like so much of Cale’s finest work, “Child’s Christmas In Wales” leaves us simultaneously overawed by its beauty and nervous as to where this whole thing is headed. A perfect opener. 

Hanky Panky Nohow

With its languid pace and eerie drone, “Hanky Panky Nohow” recalls some of the more sinister moments of the early Velvet Underground combined with the discomforting but mesmerizing narratives of early Leonard Cohen. In their elliptical way, the lyrics seem to suggest the themes at the heart of Paris 1919: the tension between technology and nature, and the anxiety that those elements are moving out of balance and in the wrong direction. This lyric especially has always disturbed me:

“There a law for everything

And for elephants that sing to keep

The cows that agriculture won’t allow”

The album title Paris 1919 refers to the Paris Peace Conference which took place over six months and yielded the WWI-ending Treaty of Versailles, the so-called Five Great Powers and the League of Nations. Cale is not the sort of writer who is going to explicate this history in literal terms, but setting the record in the aftermath of one of human history’s great slaughters is hardly an accident. The story of WWI is in large part the cosmic nightmare of ancient ethno-nationalist rivalries running directly into the as-yet uncodified new realities of mechanized warfare. Paris 1919 ripples with the blood curdling terror of aristocrats, high clergy, generals and world leaders insouciantly dropping tens of millions of soldiers into the grinding maw of certain death. “Hanky Panky Nohow” evokes the horrifying consequences of hollow jingoism in all of its forms: “Nothing frightens me more/ Then religion at my door.”

The Endless Plain of Fortune

A strange, brooding and bluesy exploration of avarice and its consequences, “The Endless Plain Of Fortune” proceeds through its eerie minor key progression like a gnostic gospel or feudal ballad. Featuring a dramatic string arrangement and some great drumming by Hayward, its imagistic parade of confused field generals, loaded dice, crocodiles, and crooked ingenues suggest Dylan’s “Desolation Row” musically recast by Fairport Convention. Its most ominous and beautiful line: “We are all innocent/ Despite you and me.” 

Andalucía

Quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever composed in the folk-rock tradition, the devastating ballad “Andalucía” is four minutes of boundless yearning and heartbreaking melody pitched someplace between Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” and the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” 

The interplay between Lowell George’s mourningful descending cadences and the tugging undertow of Cale’s plainspoken recitation of alienation from home will still break through the compulsory jadedness of any modern person who’s ever had a heart. The great American institution Yo La Tengo recorded excellent versions of both “Hanky Panky Nohow” and “Andalucía,” one appearing on their profoundly-moving 1989 folk-rock-mission statement Fakebook and the other on the excellent weirdo 1996 odds-and-sods comp Genius + Love. Both ballads clearly inform a foundational piece of that group’s enduring sound, another small but meaningful legacy of Paris 1919. 

Macbeth

And then, rather incredibly, a glam-rock record briefly breaks out. With its bouncing, “Ballroom Blitz”-style drum intro, joyous handclaps and a killer Lowell slide part, “Macbeth” is what T-Rex might have sounded like had Marc Bolan been less interested in gurus and ramps, and more interested in the historical echoes of political assassination. Three lilting minutes whose effervescent energy and ingratiating populism only serves to make the song’s signature lyric all the more chilling: “It’s gotta be me/ or it’s gotta be you.” Is this a dagger I see before me?

Paris 1919

As an album Paris 1919 is haunted by the indigestible bylines of human history. The title track is just literally haunted. A strangely uplifting, orchestral love song to a specter appearing continuously to a newly grieving man, “Paris 1919” is one of those strange songs which seem to exist in the liminal space between the conscious realm and the afterworld, conjuring in its beauty the limitless wonder and terror of the existential proposition. Less ominous then John Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” but equally freighted with the fragile delicacy of our time on Earth, the chorus exalts rather than recoils from the final proposition: 

“You’re a ghost/ la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la”

And the caravan is on its way.

Graham Greene 

The total number of three-minute pop songs written about fictitious accounts of sharing an afternoon tea with the brilliant, globe-hopping British author Graham Greene is, as far as I know, exactly one. If there’s more than one, I strongly suspect that this one is the best.

Half Past France

A European country & western-style lament including some of Lowell Geroge’s finest playing on the record, “Half Past France” possesses something of the bone-deep weariness of Little Feat’s “Willin’”or the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” transposed against the unimaginable desperation of war time refugees searching for their families and safe harbor. If Paris 1919 is ultimately an LP about home, war and every manner of physical and psychic dislocation, then no verse is sadder or more on point than this:

“From here on it’s got to be/

A simple case of them or me/

If they’re alive then I am dead/

Pray God and eat your daily bread”

Choices, am I right?

Antarctica Starts Here

A musically grand, emotionally ambivalent conclusion to a half-hour experiment in laying bare all the horrors and hilarity history has on offer, “Antarctica Starts Here” begins as a whispery exercise in bizarro-Bacharach-pop before eventually exploding into a full Phil Spector spectacle of chamber-rock before retreating back to its outré-weirdo beginnings. Reminiscent in content and execution to the Velvets’ “Stephanie Says,” it’s the imperfect ending this perfect LP required. Lowell George would live six more exuberant years before passing away from some combination of everything at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia. John Cale is 81 and recently released the acclaimed new LP Mercy. They were two ships passing in the night. To invoke a certain piano playing roustabout from New Orleans: such a night.

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