As I sit here on the eve of my 57th Song of the Week post (which would end up being number 58), the first for a while I have to say that I haven’t really paid much attention to these lyrics before. Songs generally capture my attention melody first, lyric later; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts type of thing. A song is alive, flesh and bones, but you have to get to know a song, and it’s time to get to know this one a bit better. The lyric, in particular, needs attention.
“The continent’s just fallen in disgrace.”
As some of you might have guessed the title of the song and album, Paris 1919, (which sounds a little quaint) is a reference to the armistice agreement that took place that year, the Treaty of Versailles, the harsh terms of which set in motion the conditions that led to the rise to power of an opportunistic extremist like Hitler, and set the path towards another World War.
“She makes me so unsure of myself”
On the surface the song is about a failed wedding in the wake of World War I. The bride didn’t turn up for the wedding. The groom was left at the alter feeling nervous for obvious reasons. Now he’s haunted by her absence, as she shows up in his house. He spends his time reeling over his initial doubts, and the signs that in hindsight he should have paid more attention to. The picture the protagonist paints is a combination of abstract and everyday.
“maids of honor singing crying singing tediously,”
His mind turns to the maids of honour singing and crying, the church where he tried to tame her, the little details: caravans of jam; boredom; the preparations that’d been preoccupying him; and the traditions that one must adhere to – like the proper way one should address a jilted groom – all swirling around his mind like ghosts. All this is mixed in with images of war, blood and tears from Japan.
“it’s the customary thing to say or do to a disappointed proud man in his grief”
He still maintains the edifice of etiquette while understandably in a state of crisis internally. One must keep up appearances. Trying to get his wife to the church might have been an attempt to tame her, or maybe he needs the Church to exorcise his house now that she’s past on. It’s difficult to tell whether she left him or she died.
The Great War had just ended to much relief around Europe, but in reality nothing had been resolved. The microcosm is mirroring the macrocosm. The groom, like Europe, seems on the edge of a breakdown.
“Efficiency, efficiency they say”
The melody is upbeat. The music is eccentric. There are staccato strings, bouncing piano, whimsical sounding passages, but there’s plenty of melancholy in there too. The portentous cellos in the intro, and references to a ghost, signal that all is not well, while the pastoral but wistful instrumental bridge that sweeps in towards the end, for me, harks back to a more peaceful time, echoing the Romantic Period in classical music. For a classically trained musician like Cale, you can be sure it’s not an accident. Like the eccentric lyric, it’s all about painting a picture. The song is the equivalent of a period film. It’s beautiful, but it’s all a little mixed up, difficult to put your finger on. Like the groom trying to figure out exactly what went wrong, why his beautiful bride disappeared, while knowing that something definitely did go wrong.
John Cale has had quite a varied musical career, ranging from the avant garde to classical, rock to electronica, drone music to folk, punk to string quartets.
He studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London before moving to New York in the mid 60’s where he experimented with John Cage influenced avant garde in the Theatre of Eternal Music/ Dream Syndicate, with La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Billy Name, Angus MacLise and others.
He’s most famous for being one of the founding members of The Velvet Underground. He reluctantly split with the Velvets in 1968 after clashing with/ being fired by Lou Reed. Apart from Paris 1919, he is best known for his trio of albums for Island Records in the 1970’s; Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy, and he made the first notable cover version of Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen that would inform the later Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright covers of the song. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song, and asked Cohen to send him the lyrics. Cohen faxed him fifteen pages of lyrics, over 80 verses, and Cale claims he “went through and just picked out the cheeky verses”. The lines “I used to live alone before I knew you” and “All I ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you” had only been performed live by Cohen before Cale’s version appeared. However the story of Hallelujah is one for another day.
Cale also produced the first albums of The Stooges, The Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, Squeeze and Happy Mondays.
Back to Paris 1919. The album is littered with literary, cultural and geographical references. Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Enoch Powell, Berlin, Paris, Dunkirk, Dundee, Andalucia, Segovia, even Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. From the song Graham Greene:
“It must all seem like second nature, chopping down the people where they stand”
War is living hell. The war on terrorism has created more terrorism. Violence begets violence. I’m a pacifist, and I believe that violence and war are symptoms of a lower level of consciousness, an artefact of our primate evolution. It has got us this far, but it could be the seed of our destruction.
Flags divide us. Difference divides us. Religion divides us. We have much more in common than what sets us apart. But we focus on the differences. The abstract concept of money manifests as a form of madness and leads us to put paper above people. This insanity has been at play for a long time. And it’s a madness that might destroy us.
“I think our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. And I think that’s what I sussed when I was sixteen and twelve, way down the line. …I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends, you know. If anybody can put on paper what our government, and the American government, and the Russian, Chinese… what they are all trying to do, and what they THINK they’re doing, I’d be very pleased to know what they think they’re doing. I think they’re all insane. But I am liable to be put away as insane for expressing that, you know. That’s what is insane about it. I mean, don’t you agree?” John Lennon feature in Song of the Week 24
Might wins out over love on the global stage, but love is the only way forward if we are to have a future. We’re but specks on the horizon to the Gods of War. But we’re all specks on a universal level. Living on a precious oasis in a vast almost limitless space. Spread peace and love, generate positivity in the world, and there’ll be more of it around. It’s worth a try. We’ve spent enough time marching down that other well worn path. It leads to oblivion.
Half Past France sounds like a war weary soldier returning back towards Britain to his family, or maybe it’s a tired touring musician on a train somewhere in France.
“…richly poetic, enigmatic period pieces strongly evocative of their time and place. …Indeed, there’s little here to suggest either Cale’s noisy, abrasive past or the chaos about to resurface in his subsequent work — for better or worse, his music never achieved a similar beauty again.”
I left this blog post alone for a long time, because I don’t understand the song Paris 1919 completely and I got stuck trying to explain it, but for me the song successfully conveys what it set out to. Like all great poetry and music, there’s something ineffable about it. There’s mystery, and depth of feeling in there that you can’t explain away. It’s like a poem set to music. It’s written about a time when people living in big houses were more likely to believe in ghosts. And in 1919 there were so many potential ghosts around. So much loss. So many soldiers who headed over the top of the trenches for no-man’s land and never returned.
If those ghosts are not physical apparitions, then they are the ghosts of loneliness, and loss, appearing in half-dreaming states in the minds of the families left behind. The song is written from a personal point of view, the anxiety of someone not coping with their life, possibly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it’s set within a time of massive commotion. There are bigger forces at play. The music sounds like the high ceilinged halls of privilege in the midst of great upheaval. Social mores still being adhered to. Halls that are emptier than they were before. The orchestral accompaniment reflecting the end of an era for classical Europe. The class divide between the gentry and the working man, the protected kings and the expendable pawns. The turning, and turning of William Butler Yeats’ gyre: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is unleashed upon the world”.
I have returned to this a couple of years after I started with the world once again in the midst of uncertainty, and the war machine still in full operation. We survived the last two great world wars. Let’s hope there will never be a third.
Paris 1919 my favourite John Cale album. I hope you enjoy it too.
She makes me so unsure of myself
Standing there but never ever talking sense
Just a visitor you see
So much wanting to be seen
She’d open up the doors and vaguely carry us away
It’s the customary thing to say or do
To a disappointed proud man in his grief
And on Fridays she’d be there
And on Mondays not at all
Just casually appearing from the clock across the hall
You’re a ghost la la la
You’re a ghost
I’m in the church and I’ve come
To claim you with my iron drum
la la la la la la
The Continent’s just fallen in disgrace
William William William Rogers put it in its place
Blood and tears from old Japan
Caravans and lots of jam and maids of honor
singing crying singing tediously
You’re a ghost la la la
You’re a ghost
I’m the bishop and I’ve come
To claim you with my iron drum
la la la la la la
Efficiency efficiency they say
Get to know the date and tell the time of day
As the crowds begin complaining
How the Beaujolais is raining
Down on darkened meetings on the Champs Elysee