THE ALBUM -- John Cale: "Sabotage/Live" (Spy Records SP 004).; THE SHOW -- At the Cellar Door, Friday at 8 and 10:30; Saturday performances sold out. Call 337-3389.
Veteran rocker John Cale, whose style has been called the antecedent to today's new wave scene, will make a rare Washington appearance this weekend at the Cellar Door. The show may spark new interest in Cale's formidable talents as singer, songwriter and musician with a command of guitar, piano, viola and fretless bass.
Cale joined Lou Reed about 15 years ago to found the Velvet Underground, then playing soaring viola and piano improvisations above the tough, streetwise lyrics. It was pre-punk punk. But as it happened, the "art rock" sound was ahead of its time and garnered only a small avant-garde audience. The group did a fast fade after four LPs.
On his own since 1968, Cale has churned out a long list of albums, each following different musical tangents: from brutal, dissonant wailers to lean and lyrical ballads. The classically trained violinist collaborated with a mixed lineup of musicians over the years -- Eno, Phil Manzanera, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and members of Little feat.
His most recent album, "Sabotage/-Live," was recorded live at New York's CBGB hip-rock club in June 1979. (As producer, Cale kindly has deleted the applause and background noises that can be distracting on live albums.) The themes range from the seamy side of life to headlines of international affairs. But Cale is more convincing on personal matters than global ones, where his sense of dread is spread thin. "Sabotage" reveals a preoccupation with the Bomb, sounding somewhat peachy around the edges.
On the title track, Cale notes that "life is short and love is very sweet," and then advises us to "read and destroy everything that you read." He talks about madness in the streets, about military intelligence not being what it used to be, and ends up repeatedly screaming the word, "sabotage." The harsh music, the electric feedback on every wavelength, creates a jagged musical texture. It's interesting, but you won't walk away humming it.
The album's opening song, "Mercenaries (Ready for War)," begins with a spoken definition of soliders of fortune. Then Cale assumes the role of the African mercenary, singing sweetly "My rifle is my friend." The cut crescendos with guitar-simulated airplane sounds, a countdown to "visibilty zero" and a literally explosive ending. Aside from the rather obvious criticism of mercenaries, Cale's musical vision is still incisive.
"Dr. Mudd" is another political commentary, giving graphic descriptions of A-bomb victims in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. "Whatcha gonna do?" he asks us again and again. It's an insistent, nervous question played against upbeat, almost happy background vocals (soprano doo-doo-doo's), but the effect is eerily powerful.
Perhaps vanguard audiences are ready once again for dark political messages via rock; others may prefer Cale's closer-to-home thoughts on rocky romance. The a capella "Chorale" is the best example of his artful melodies coupled with somber poetry: If your life is all broken and empty Like a street of New York in the dark, And you need just one friend to hold onto I'll be there in a corner just for you .
It's perhaps the simplest sentiment on this complex alubum, but fans can be assured Cale is still making risky, sometimes difficult music.