Every Record I Own - Day 220: John Cale Paris 1919
Every year I grow older, my appreciation of The Velvet Underground increases, but I’ve held out on exploring the members’ solo endeavors. Transformer might be good, but do I really need to wrap my head around Metal Machine Music? John Cale’s reputation in the avant garde circles made his solo records even less appealing, but a friend sent me a link to Paris 1919 last year and I became obsessed. It’s a gorgeous orchestral pop album, and there’s no reason any song off Paris 1919 shouldn’t have been a huge FM radio hit back in the early ‘70s.
My favorite track is “Half Past France”, a dreamy rumination narrated by a Norwegian soldier on a train to Dunkirk in the early hours of the morning during WWII. I’ve always had an affinity for melancholic pop songs about going to war (”Abigail Belle of Kilronan”, “I Fought In A War”, “Everywhere”), which I can only assume stems from growing up in a military family. Living on base, we saw men leaving their families for months at a time for their temporary duty assignments, including my father who was sent to Germany during the first Gulf War. It’s something I think about a lot when I go on tour. They both involve saying goodbye to friends and family, going off to “see the world” but seeing very little of it, and hoping to return home in one piece. And while going off to war involves sacrifice, touring still feels like a selfish thing… a fulfilled daydream. There’s something that gnaws at my stomach when I can feel that parallel, knowing the compromises I make are nothing in comparison to what the man in “Half Past France” has given up.
Maybe Cale identifies with the soldier. Maybe he just wanted to tell a story. But the simple vignette of a man staring out the train window at the French countryside, hoping for the best, and finding a brief moment of solace in the scenery is a powerful image for me.
Paris 1919 is a great record from start to finish, but if you’re gonna dip your toe in it, start with “Half Past France”.