Among the True Perverts of Rock, John Cale has always been the most persistently wanton. It's a matter of how he handles his demons. Randy Newman wants to warn us about his; Warren Zevon wants to exorcise his; Steely Dan wants to keep theirs at bay with bribes of exquisite sex and drugs. John Cale wants nothing so much as to sic his on everyone else.
Two factors keep all these weirdos interesting: They have plenty of musical savvy, which they use to keep these beasts well-groomed and slickly sinister; and They don't always succeed in their aims, which heightens (and exposes) their audiences' secret desire for evil's occasional triumph. What could be more exhilarating, after all, than watching docile Zimbah snap the head off her cruel trainer?
As Pervert-Pere, Cale has succeeded often enough that his relationship with his audience has become openly antagonistic. Each successive album has been a more vicious attack than the last on society's vulnerable spots. With "Honi Soit. . ." the intentions are spelled out in the title (from the French Honi soit qui mal y pense -- "Evil to him who evil thinks").
It's hard to listen to this album, and Cale means for it to be. The motif of war is continued here from 1979's "Sabotage/Live," but expanded to serve as a metaphor for other types of combat. Unlike Elvis Costello, however, Cale is not content to make a passive observation about how thin the lines are between love and hate, romance and conflict; he interweaves these elements inextricably and proceeds to bullwhip us with the result.
Take "Strange Times in Casablanca," a particularly disturbing track: Blame comes remorselessly transfixed Like the sound of slamming doors And doors have doors -- have doors -- have doors -- have doors Like companions have pets they sleep in each other's mattresses Like maggots in despair And bleed in each other's nests and make a mess of each other's snares The accusatory tone of the vocals is every bit as relentless and unforgiving as the way the rhythm section slams home the rather unattractive melody. It's a lot more daring, especially musically, than Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces" -- and it's a lot more offputting.
"Fighter Pilot" echoes the lyric essence of "Jungle Work," Zevon's definitive piece about mercenaries. But while Zevon was empathetic toward his subject, Cale is merciless: "The sky is black and blue you're a hero now/But you're a terrible man fighter pilot."
"Jungle Work" serves as a second reference point on "Magic and Lies," this time from a musical angle, with Robert Medici's quasi-military drumming marching the track to fade-out. The subject of this song is also a mercenary of sorts, a female denizen of another kind of combat zone. They climb up on her doorstep and rock around the clock tonight And rock around again in spite of everything she's done she is forgotten
What assures Cale a permanent place in the Rock Perversion Hall of Fame, however, is the cover of "Streets of Laredo," a tune so shot through with cruelty and sarcasm as to be insulting.
As usual, Cale's playing (keyboards and viola) is equal to the backing he gets from Medici, guitarist Sturgis Nikides, Jim Goodwin (synthesizer) and bassist Peter Muny. It's they, in fact, who provide the subtlety necessary to offset his arrogant, rasping diatribe.
Unlike most latter-day rock noir aficionados, Cale has consistently been unwilling to recognize the importance of understatement, musical or lyrical, to the genre, and the result is that sometimes you can almost smell the greasepaint in his voice. It's a flaw that harks back to the pre-Velvet Underground days, when he did things like play viola for a woman who screamed at a potted plant until it dies. Cale's malevolent melodrama comes perilously close to putting him in the same art-rock category with Brian Eno, David Bowie and other pretenders to dementia.
On "Honi Soit," though, even this flaw seems intentional. After being flogged for half an hour with hair-raising screams and lines like "cold people getting colder/like babysitters in their graves," there may be some question of sanity (his and ours), but not of commitment.
Maybe Cale prefers the sadistic agony of a prolonged thrashing to the bittersweet art of the gentle truncheon because he knows it feels that much better when it stops.
THE ALBUM -- John Cale, "Honi Soit. . ." A&M SP-4849; THE SHOW -- Sunday at 8 at the Bayou.