Monday, 29 July 2013

So farewell then, J.J. Cale – thank you for being so absolutely ridiculously brilliant

I was a bit behind the curve when it came to J.J. Cale. I first became aware of his existence when Charlie Gillett played “Everlovin’ Woman” on his Honky Tonk Sunday morning show on Radio London in 1974, the year the Okie album was released. I went out and bought it a few days later, worried that the rest might be bulked out with second-rate filler material. Of course, pretty much every track turned out to be a slice of cool, rootsy, toe-tapping perfection – you know, the sort of song that creates the same frisson as someone you like running their finger-nails softly down your spine (or is that too much information?).

For me, at that time, the sleepy-sounding Tulsan was a welcome replacement for Tony Joe White -  another original, multi-talented, laid-back singer-songriter-guitarist steeped in the Southland’s musical traditions - who seemed to have lost his way (temporarily, as it turned out). Both of them had the knack of creating music that sounded as if it had been recorded in the messy back room of a house in the middle of nowhere at three o’clock in the morning on a hot night just as the drink and substances were starting to wear off. Tony Joe had a much stronger voice, but Cale seemed to have found a way of recording his weak whisper of a voice that turned it into a musical strength. As for Cale’s deceptively simple plectrum-less guitar-playing – well, on record, it was sublime.

And, of course, both of them wrote songs that more mainstream artists turned into hit singles – “Polk Salad Annie”, “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Steamy Windows” in Tony Joe’s case, and “After Midnight”, “Call Me the Breeze” and “Cocaine” (among many others) in Cale’s. In all these instances, I prefer the original versions to the starry covers.

The main difference between Cale and White is that other performers didn’t simply cover Cale’s songs – in at least two cases, they lifted his whole style, most notably mid-1970s Eric Clapton (“Lay Down Sally”? – oh, come on!), Mark Knopfler and Chris Rea. To be fair, those who’ve “borrowed” from Cale have rarely been slow to credit the great man for his influence (and Clapton ended upcollaborating with him on an award-laden mid-Noughties blues album).

In the wake of Punk, it became fashionable to lump Cale in with the likes of The Eagles as a snoozy old AOR dinosaur. Ridiculous. Okie remains my favourite among his LPs, but four other ‘70s albums – Naturally, Really, Troubador and 5 - are all masterpieces. My all-time favourite track is probably this one from, from 1979's 5:

That may just be the coolest track ever produced by a white man.

Cale went AWOL in the 1980s, but, while he never again ascended the creative heights of the Seventies, he went on producing good stuff right ‘til the end. Here's one of my favourites, from 1990:

He always sounded as if he was in need of a damned good sleep. Now he can have one. RIP, JJ – sleep well.

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