It seems strange now, but my introduction to the Velvet Underground came via an acoustic album by John Cale, 1992’s extraordinary Fragments of a Rainy Season. I remember hearing it for the first time one winter morning in the house of John Turest-Swartz, who later came to produce Red Earth & Rust’s first album. Cale accompanies himself on piano throughout, except for a few tracks with acoustic guitar, but his performances are all the more effective for their starkness. I remember hearing a lot of madness in songs like Darling I need You, Fear (Is a Man’s Best Friend and Guts, and a sort of rueful tenderness in Buffalo Ballet, Close Watch (On This Heart of Mine) and Chinese Envoy. The effect of this juxtaposition on me was so powerful then that I can still sometimes hear Cale’s voice in mine, a voice that is at the same time cultured and primal, alternating between caresses and menace in the same song. One of the highlights is a slow piano version of Heartbreak Hotel that always returns to the same jagged, unresolved chord as if to emphasize that there’s no getting back out of lonely street, until you can feel it in your bones.
There are other similar concerts I love by established artists: Randy Newman’s Live, for one, and Tim Buckley’s Dream Letter. More recent examples include Rickie Lee Jones’ Naked Songs and Marianne Faithful’s Twentieth Century Blues. But Fragments of a Rainy Season just might have the edge over all of these. Two decades of great songs have a lot to do with it, but there is also something else: there is something strangely compelling about Cale’s relative lack of interaction with the audience. He does not explain anything, never seems to look affectionately over his shoulder to make sure that everyone is having a good time. When the last song (a sparse cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that inspired Jeff Buckley’s more famous rendition) and the succeeding applause has faded, there is a sound of distant thunder. It is as if we have been abandoned in an open place, exposed to all the elements.
In those days I didn’t think of myself as a pianist, although I did happen to have one in my house. I can see now that Cale’s daring to accompany himself on piano emboldened me to do the same. Later I heard John (Turest-Swartz, this time, not Cale) play Close Watch (On This Heart of Mine), a song that mixes longing and regret in equal measure, on his piano, adding whole verses of new words in places. Perhaps that was the final piece of the puzzle: you could learn songs by heart; make them your own and earn the right to change them.
Even then, for a long time I could only imagine my own role in such a conversation as that of a mediator, or as a sort of encyclopaedia of fragments, of other people’s voices, other people’s songs. It would be years before I felt ready to fashion a voice of my own. Still, I remember that first encounter with the contradictory Cale as a moment of permission and a challenge to follow.