Brilliant Corners: John Cale wants to talk 2 UContinue reading.
A rare conversation with J.J. Cale
J. J. Cale always sounded like he was looking for a drink of water.
But he was a deep well of American music that absorbed rural blues, country, jazz and rockabilly.
Mr. Cale died Friday night of a heart attack at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif.
He was 74.
Mr. Cale’s parched vocals and reclusive persona helped establish a devoted cult following, but his distinct style was not lost on his collaborator Eric Clapton, who had hits with Mr. Cale’s “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”: and Lynyrd Skynyrd who hit the charts with Mr. Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze.” He won a Grammy for his 2006 collaboration with Clapton called “The Road To Escondido.”
Mr. Cale loved to explore the open spaces between his smooth country chord changes and his seductive Jimmy Reed bass lines, which were delivered to him on a night train straight out of Gary, Ind.
“I always try to put that in,” he told me during a rare interview before a 1990 gig in Boston, Mass. “Sometimes I overplay, but I try to keep it kind of sparse. My music is a little more ratlly now than it used to be. I don’t know why. I’ve lived in the Los Angeles area for 10 years , and it’s a little more uptown than Tennessee (where he made his earliest records). ”
But like an oil stain in a favorite shirt, Mr. Cale always revealed a part of Tulsa, Okla.
John “Jean Jacques” Cale was born in Oklahoma City, but moved to Tulsa as a kid. He graduated from high school in 1956 and began playing country, swing and rockabilly in Tulsa bowling alleys, nightclubs and school dances, fronting bands like Johnnie Cale and the Valentines.
About a dozen Tulsa musicians—including Leon Russell and David Gates of Bread—migrated to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to seek work in the music industry. One of Mr. Cale’s first jobs were as a studio engineer. He once told an interviewer, “I like the smell of electronics.”
On his earliest records, Mr. Cale sounded like a singer on the outside looking in. About the time I met up with him in Boston, he was becoming more comfortable in becoming the centerpiece of the music.
He was on the road to promote his “Travel-Log” record
He had one of the most remarkable six piece touring bands I have seen: the late saxophonist Steve Douglas (Duane Eddy and Phil Spector), deep soul keyboardist Spooner Oldham and late bassist Tim Drummond (James Brown, Ry Cooder).
The night before Mr. Cale’s gig at the Channel nightclub in Boston, I had gone soul music record shopping with Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band. I told Wolf I was planning to see Mr. Cale.
The hyperactive singer-musciologist was so amped up, he picked me up at my hotel before the show in his ratty van laced van with Mickey-D’s wrappers on the floor.
The downbeat Mr. Cale demanded that kind of excited following.
“I’m a background person,” he said in a raspy whisper. “I’m not a household name. People have heard my music, but all my famous songs were made famous by somebody else.
“But that was my goal. I didn’t do to many interviews and kept my pictures away (and off of album covers.) I’ve had more pictures taken of me in the last two months than in my whole career.”
I wondered how the elevated profile affected his music.
“I mainly write on guitar,” he said. “Sometimes I cut the tracks and write the words afterward. Sometimes I’ll write with the guitar and voice, and add the band to what I already did. I’ve tried every way there is.
“The only thing I don’t do is try to be a poet. I very seldom write the words and try to put music to it. It’s either the music first or the music at the same time.”
Mr. Cale’s laid-back lifestyle always reflected the soft shuffles of his music.
In the early 1990s he began emerging from his mystical private persona.
“I wanted to get rid of the recluse deal,” Mr. Cale said with soft eyes set against a hard, weatherbeaten face. “The reason they made up the recluse thing is that if you don’t do interviews and make yourself accessible, they say. ‘Oh, he’s private.’ I’m no private than any other guy walking around. It’s just that I’ve always considered myself a songwriter.”
At the time of our conversation Mr. Cale had just left a two-year residency l in a 24-toof trailer anchored near Anaheim, Calif. He only drove a car when he had to
“When I lived in the trailer park, I didn’t own a phone, so I didn’t do much, “Mr. Cale said, “If you don’t own a phone in America, you don’t do too much business. And, I got to take care of my health a little bit. Musicians are not known for their longevity. So I started riding a bike. I’d get groceries on my bike, and that’s hard to do in L.A. Over all, I tried to slow it down and enjoy it a little bit. I bought a house and got into mowing the lawn every Saturday I’m not working.
“I’ve been listening to music. I like some rap. I’m a guitar player, so I like heavy metal. I love Eddie Van Halen.
“You can never stop trying to learn.”