Stacks: John Cale

heystacks:

John Cale
“Baby What Do You Want Me To Do”
Stockholm 1975 bootleg, 1975

John Cale has a long and interesting history when it comes to covers. His “Heartbreak Hotel” is justly famous, his “Pablo Picasso” a travesty that he won’t let go of, and his version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has become so influential that Cohen himself now performs Cale’s take in concert. But his cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do” is a forgotten curio.

In September of 1975, Cale gathered a band to record what would become the album Helen Of Troy. “Baby What You Want Me To Do” was one of the songs recorded that made the cut, which isn’t too surprising for it had been a live feature on his earlier spring tour. What is a surprise is the lifelessness of the recording; by keeping Reed’s mid-tempo and tight construction but doubling its length, Cale makes something light utterly lugubrious.

To hear this lively rendition spring forth from the band just a few short weeks later is a real eye-opener. What prompted them to not only speed it up some, but to turn the blues shuffle into a more aggressive chug? Why is Cale’s vocal delivery so punchy, a growl in place of the almost resigned sigh he used in the studio? Sadly I have no answer those questions. I’d like to imagine everyone involved answering my questions about some bootleg performance nearly 40 years ago, but until I get that dream interview with John Cale I can’t even ask.

Chris Spedding (the lead guitarist on Helen Of Troy and on this concert recording) once wrote about working with Cale. It doesn’t quite answer my question, but the glimpse into the process of recording with and playing in John Cale’s band at least hints at why there could be such major variance:

 

John Cale was quite enjoyable. He works very hit and miss, though. You don’t get a chance to craft a finished thing. It’s a bit like painting a picture by throwing paint against the wall and seeing what sticks – his way of working. It was interesting. Very effective on stage, but quite frustrating in the studio.

[…]

The Cale band of 1975 was perhaps the most exiting live band I’ve ever played with. John was very challenging and inspiring to play with. I learned a great deal from him. The only disappointing thing was that John failed to recreate the same spontaneity on his records. I had some ideas but he never listened to me.

This live recording sounds like a band listening to each other and following wherever that may lead.

—Erik