Thursday, September 01, 2005

What's Welsh for Zen

Back in school - nearly thirty years ago - when Sean, Tim, Dave and I were trying to be a band in the front room of my parent's house on Saturday afternoons, one of the songs we tried to cover was the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat. What I wouldn't give to have a copy of our efforts today and hear our virginal adolescent voices quivering through:

Watch that speed freak, watch that speed freak,
onna shoot it up every night of the week
Hmm hmm, White heat
Aww sputter mutter everybody gonna go kill their mother

I remember though that, when Sean lent me the album to learn the song, the real revelation for me was hearing John Cale delivering the Gift in his mellifluous Welsh accent.

Inside the package, Waldo was transfixed with excitement that he could hardly breathe. His skin felt prickly from the heat and he could feel his heart beating in his throat. It would be soon. Sheila stood upright and walked around to the other side of the package. Then she sank down to her knees, grasped the cutter by both hands, took a deep breath and plunged the long blade through the middle of the package, through the middle of the masking tape, through the cardboard through the cushioning and (thud) right through the center of Waldo Jeffers head, which split slightly and caused little rhythmic arcs of red to pulsate gently in the morning sun...

To discover that the son of a miner born in 1942 in the small Welsh coal village of Garnant, between Swanse and Camarthen grew up to be a founder of the quintessential New York art band was marvellous beyond words. Later, when I was in Swansea University, my friend Howie - who attended the same secondary school as Cale two decades later - showed me a dog eared textbook that he had kept as a reliquary because the label inside showed that it had once been issued to and initialed by the great man.

He is hereby inaugurated as the latest Welsh Born Icon.

What's Welsh for Zen is the title of the autobiography Cale published a few years ago. There is a great review of it here. (I wonder if Dr Collis is any relation to me.)

In his discussion of his early years, Cale develops some suggestive links between his early musical education and the triumphs and excesses of his later life, which the book charts in pitiless detail. At the time he began learning the piano, for instance, he suffered a series of bronchial attacks and was prescribed Dr Collis Browne's cough medicine, a syrup laced in those days with opium. Here, he conjectures, lies the origin of 'the relationship between music and drugs' which would have him waiting anxiously for his man in the greenroom each night before he could take to the stage. Before one concert, when his parents were in the audience, he was so nervous he snorted chopped-up chalk, given him by his band as a prank, without even noticing.

To be a drugged up rock'n'roller is not unusual - could they all have been on Dr Collis Browne's mixture in their infancy?

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