I can't claim to be totally domesticated to the new electronic economy of music: I still like my stacks of CDs, even the tottering shelves of LPs that I haven't really played in years. (My really very good turntable is somewhere under a stack of papers & books.) But my discovery over this summer of a search engine devoted entirely to music blogs may have been the tipping point. I'd done some music downloading over the past couple years, but now I discovered that by typing in a few search terms I could lay my hands on mp3 versions of almost anything I wanted – including things that I'd been searching for for years.
Case in point: The 1983-5 nadir of John Cale's career, when he bounced back from the deep-dish weirdness of Music for a New Society (one of the most unsettling albums ever to find its way into the "pop" stacks of your local record store, strange both musically, lyrically, & even in terms of production values) to record a trio of seemingly tossed-off records – Caribbean Sunset, John Cale Comes Alive, and Artificial Intelligence. Cale fans scoff at these records. For me they have deep personal significance, in the way that mediocre music experienced intensely at a vulnerable moment of one's life can have.
I'd been following Cale since 1980 or so, with Sabotage/Live; I'd bought his entire back catalogue at a shop in Chapel Hill on a road trip with my parents, and I snapped up Honi Soit (1981) and Music for a New Society (1982) as soon as they hit the shelves, much to the bemusement of my high school friends, to a person fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Gap Band. Caribbean Sunset I bought in college, and it was on the Caribbean Sunset tour that I saw Cale play the 930 Club in Washington; I would see him again a year later in Charlotte, supporting the Comes Alive album. (I still have the t-shirt from that show somewhere.)
So it was with some delight that I downloaded some blogger's pristine rips of the vinyl versions of these two albums. (They've never been released on CD, for some reason; Artificial Intelligence, which really is Cale's slightest record, has been available on CD for some years.)
So how do they hold up after all these years? Well, that was the period of my life when I listened to every new album with the intensity Empson brought to a particularly ambiguous Donne poem, so hearing these records again is more a matter of being reminded of every drum-beat, every guitar embellishment, every vocal turn. Caribbean Sunset, to be frank, isn't bad at all. Maybe 40% of the album is, if not outright filler, then underdeveloped songs; but the rest is solid Cale – in the case of the title track, "Model Beirut Recital," and "Villa Albani," first-rate Cale. My main reservation – and this is true as well of Comes Alive – is Cale's lead guitarist, David Young, who's just too damned reserved and tasteful for my taste. Cale is best with freakout guitarists: Chris Spedding, Phil Manzanera, and the sublime madnesses of Mark Aaron on Sabotage/Live and Sturgis Nikides on Honi Soit.
It's hard to listen to John Cale Comes Alive without remembering intensely those smoke-filled shows in Washington and Charlotte. Cale was a fashion disaster: wayfarer sunglasses, a black suit over a black sleeveless shirt, and velcro-closure white sneakers. His Flying V guitar was secured to its strap with multiple wrappings of black electrical tape. I lost count of how many Heinekens he downed over the course of each evening. Carrying maybe 30 extra pounds, he looked like a cross between Tinto Brass and Dean Martin, and moved like an inebriated penguin. (Don't believe me? Search "John Cale 1984" on Youtube.)
But they were electric performances, captured pretty darned well on Comes Alive (if a trifle cleaner and tighter than I remember). It doesn't match the wondrous madness of Sabotage/Live, but it beats the hell out of the solo piano/guitar performances Cale would later mount (recorded on Fragments of a Rainy Season), when he's just taking himself too damned seriously.* On Comes Alive, he's just a first-rate rocker with an incomparable catalogue of weird songs. I'm glad to rehear these records. And hey, if Cale gets around to issuing CD versions, I'll even buy them.
*Even the recent double set Circus Live (2007), which has some really excellent versions of the Cale catalogue, and covers some tracks I'd given up hoping to hear live, feels just too "arty" much of the time.