One goal for this week was to sit down and listen to John Cale’s new album, Mercy,in honor of his 81st birthday. (He was born on March 9, 1942, exactly one week after Lou Reed.) I guess on some level I felt like I was doing him a favor, expending some of my vauable attention on whatever the old man’s doing now. Then I put it on and started clicking around for the reviews; the first one I found, on Pitchfork, started like this:

When an icon returns after a lengthy absence, it’s tempting to feel a kind of condescending compassion. My god, one might think, he’s still doing it at 80. And when he returns in the enviable company of bright young(er) things, it’s tempting to feel cynical: Look who’s trying to stay current. Spare all that for John Cale. He who, in co-founding the Velvet Underground, built the bridge between European art music and American rock’n’roll with his inimitable viola drone; who managed to corral early iterations of the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, and Nico into the studio and keep them there long enough to capture on tape all their world-changing energies; who introduced Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Jeff Buckley, and after him, vicariously, to a deluge of lessor idol tryouts; who has himself released more than three dozen albums of chamber pop, post-punk, post-rock, and beyond, on his own and in collaboration with fellow icons, arguably more famous than him (frenemies Lou Reed and Brian Eno, gurus like La Monte Young), whom he often shows up — John Cale doesn’t need your charity.

Correct on every count! Cale has always done things his own way, and Mercy is no different. It’s slow-moving, abstract, atmospheric, mysterious. I don’t know what I think of it and probably won’t for a while, if ever. But it really doesn’t matter what I think — what matters is that the octogenarian provocateur is still trying new things. Long may it be so.

My other goal was to somehow connect this to the next track up on Lou Reed: Words & Music, May 1965, an idiosyncratic number called “Buttercup Song.” It’s sort of surrealist country, with Reed and Cale harmonizing over crisply strummed guitar.

“Buttercup” starts with the chorus, which is then repeated numerous times throughout. It starts off simply enough and gets progressively weirder with every line:

Never get emotionally involved
With a man, a woman, a beast, or a child
With cobblestone streets, or subway turnstiles
And by World War III you’ll have developed style

But if you squint you can see a sort of mantra: Never get emotionally involved, and you’ll develop style. Is this how Lou became the cool, gimlet-eyed observer we know? He just talked himself into it?

The melody here bears a more than passing resemblance to the Beatles’ “Baby’s in Black,” but not enough to be legally actionable. And anyway no one heard this song at the time. Legend has it that the Velvet Underground at least rehearsed a version in their early days, but no recording exists, so the demo is all we have.

There’s a lot going on in this song, so I’ve decided I’m going to write a separate post about each verse, partly to buy some time, partly to generate some much-needed momentum before we jump into the VU era. Class is dismissed for today.