Cale war begeistert und wollte samt Band sofort anreisen. Ihm wurde daraufhin jedoch erklärt, er brauche nicht mehr zu tun, als während der Show nur die Lippen zum Playback zu bewegen. Er aber nannte das „unecht und krank“. (Foto: "To Tulsa and back - On tour with J.J. Cale")
he treasures of my record collection (in which CDs don’t easily find their way) are like old friends for me. Often I lose track of them, sometimes even for years. But suddenly, they’re beack again, more present than before, indeed – and often in their more or less accidental contemporary reflections.
One of those treasures and friends is J.J. Cale, and his reflections bear many different names.
In 1974, when I was sixteen years old, I bought Eric Clapton’s „Ocean Boulevard 461“ whose cover version of Bob Marley’s „I Shot the Sheriff“ was a hit one every basement party, but back then I didn’t know whose sound it was that Clapton had deliberately based this album on. The circulation of the song made Marley famous, the album, however, represented the style of someone else. Someone who would later be called “Laid Back”. Back then, I didn’t recognize these interrelations – also „After Midnight“ on his first solo album sounded like a true Clapton to me. But who’s reading the small print, anyway? Clapton was always part of my personal early seventies all-star band. A friend from school then told me to listen to the J.J. Cale’s original. Although the cover with the cute badger was seen in every record store, I hadn’t yet listened to his first 1970 album „Naturally“ – a mistake that was corrected some time and 10 or12 D-Marks later.
Back home I was afraid that I would need a new diamond for my record player, because in contrast to the powerful, guitar-screeching and organ-booming, experimental and bombastic rock of the “super-groups” I was listening to, the „Naturally“’s character was courageously minimalistic. As if produced in a small box, a voice that was more speaking than singing told short stories, accompanied by a provocatively casual guitar. What kind of music was this? Country freed from kitsch, blues without heaviness, a little swinging jazz, little boogie, always discreet, never obtrusive, a decent mix that was still the opposite to muzak? Exactly! And his next (and quickly bought) LPs „Really“ (1972) and „Okie“ (1974) were the same – as were the myths about the voluntarily low-key musician.
Rumour than had it that J.J. Cale was driving through the States in a trailer, and whenever he was out of cash, he would stop at some studio and record an album with the musicians hanging out there. And despite all – fortunate or unfortunate – cut-backs of reality, a lot of this anti-star-myth was found out to be true!
For a long time, he didn’t reveal too much about his private life. Only Jörg Bundschuh’s very recommendable documentary (released2005) manages to come a little closer and accompanies him to concerts in front of 150 or thousands of people at the Crossroads Fesitval initiated by Eric Clapton. Here Cale’s introduction to „After Midnight“ produced a big question mark on Clapton’s face. For several minutes, J.J. Cale played the intro until Eric Clapton finally recognized his famous song.
Eric Clapton is an important cornerstone in J.J. Cale’s life. It must have been around the year 1976 when the single “Cocaine” leaked to Clapton, as Cale recounts in the documentary mentioned above. This song was originally planned as some kind of “cocktail bar”-version, but the producer then rearranged it in agreement with Cale. “´Cocaine” appeared, quite unnoticed in the charts, on the album “Troubadour” (1976), to be turned into an international hit on Clapton’s “Slowhand” in 1977. J.J. Cale didn’t mind the success of the very similar rock cover version, and the royalties out of it allowed him to carry on not being a star. In the documentary, Cale recounts another anecdote of elaborately avoiding his own fame: when the song “Crazy Mama” reached number 22 in the charts, he was invited to present it in the “Dick Clark American Bandstand” show, which usually meant going up to the top ten quickly. Enthusiastic Cale wanted to come with his whole band, but he was told that he wasn’t to do anything but lip-sync in the studio. When he called this corny, he was told that they had “no use for someone like him”. In the following week, the sales of “Crazy Mama” sharply decreased. Cale’s comment: „I don’t care. Lip-syncing is OK. I know why they do it, but, you know, I’m a musician, not an actor,”
1978 saw the album release of a British band that was praised by the critics like hardly any other. The band’s name was “Dire Straits”, they’re biggest hit was “Sultans of Swing”. The critics didn’t only praise the band, but particularly Mark Knopfler’s innovative ways of playing the guitar. I also appreciated this success, because at that time, the radio was playing only corny disco and rock seemed to be pushed out of the way. But it also made me dig out my old J.J. Cale records again. And indeed, he was the model for Knopfler’s technically brilliant way of playing. However, Knopfler’s perfect style soon started boring me, for perfection only delights till you start missing the soul.
Some time later, in 1979, J.J. Cale’s album “5” was released, followed by “Shades” (1981) and “Grasshopper” (1982). All of them signified “continuity”. I often like to say that J.J. Cale is one of the few musicians who I forgive of always doing the same and being “boring”. Of course, I risk being misunderstood and I also risk sounding unfair. Of course, I mean this kind of pleasant boredom only felt by the serene. Of course, every one of his songs got his own charm. Surprising moments wait to be discovered and don’t immediately jump into your ears. Though he works with very different genres, Cale always remains the captain of his ship, an invisible ruler. He consciously chooses the second row or, as German football presenter Günter Netzer would put it, he cultivated team play. Together with the guitar, the singing achieves its relaxed “laid back” effect, because it isn’t substantially louder than the instruments and always seems to stay a little behind – in second row again. Cale even gave up his first name John for the benefit of the namesake from “Velvet Underground” – that John Cale just had been more famous. “J.J.”, as he was named on a poster announcing his concert, must not have been a big sacrifice. If it had been one, he’d surely have canceled his show – but a fight about the first place would probably have caused too much attention way beyond the music. The time and every song speak for him – he who could always curb his ambitions: for him, music and a good life are far more important than success. Good for him, his music and his career.
J.J. Cale continued to release new records on a rather irregular base and wrote new songs that were always as short as the rock’n’roll singles of his musical beginnings. Every other year I was reminded of him by new releases by very different musicians. Sometimes his songs were covered – which, in his own words, pushed his ego – but much more frequently I heard indirect influences, though I can’t tell if those new artists would or could acknowledge them every time. Sometimes such a relation is only the consumer’s (that is, my) interpretation and his preferences and animosities. A natural but also weird venture, described by Cale’s keyboarder in Jörg Bundschuh’s film: “Compared to other great musicians, Cale’s style is relatively simple, but combined with other great musicians, they start playing like John Cale.” Eric Clapton asserted this, admitting not to have completely achieved it yet. Many more artists also try this in different ways: About 1990, a Danish popduo was quite successful with their song “Bakerman”. Lars von Trier’s video definitely helped to push this success, but the song attracted attention in the budding techno era, anyways. Despite the synthetic beat typical of that time, its casual swing brought me back to J.J. Cale. I’m sure the Danish duo knows him as well – why else should they have named their band “Laid Back”?
Now, in 2006, someone just caught my ears – much too late, as some insiders would say – who I’d like to call Cale’s son “in spirit” (not his clone, though, as he doesn’t play the guitar as virtuosic as his “father”). With his first album 2002, he wasn’t yet on the way whereas with his second one (2004) he was, and on his third album “In Between Dreams” (2005), I can definitely hear the suspected role model. I’m talking about a surfer who eventually turned out to be a musician as well, who writes a lot of good humoured songs and accidentally bears the initials “JJ”. His name is Jack Johnson, and I don’t want to blame him for emulation, as more than one generation are between him and J.J. Cale, born 1938. But his success could also indicate that in a world overloaded with glittering stars, people now crave for artists with a different view on success. Universal Music’s German ad writers – forgive them their ignorance concerning the correct time-frame for legends – praise Johnson’s second album as follows: “Athlete, artist, musician, film-maker, surfer... Jack Johnson’s a legend. He is a first-class example of a decent, well mannered guy who is authentic from the start. His new album “On and On” is relaxed, melodic and if you have seen his surf videos, you directly think of waves and warm-coloured sunsets at the seaside. More than this, with his honest and modest music he masters what many of his colleagues miss: his listeners become part of the surfer’s inner happiness. “The most important thning is being happy, here and now”, says Jack himself.
Leaving aside the exaggerations, not only J.J.Cale would understand that. By the way, thanks to Johnson I was reminded of Cale again, getting the DVD with Bundschuh’s documentary and the latest CD “To Tulsa And Back“. Some of the new songs would be great cover versions. And Cale wouldn’t mind. He says: “It’s the uppermost ambition for a songwriter to have your songs covered, doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad. And there were many people who did this with my songs. It really pushed my ego!” That’s said by an often grim-looking guy who doesn’t like to open up for something else than his music, with the hint of a whimsical smile. He understands the division of labour.
The Old Man And Me (aus dem Album „Okie”) The old man he catches the fish in the morning He rides the river every day I sit on the bank and I holler when he passes Hey, old man, are they biting today I wake up in the morning, thinking 'bout my troubles I go down to the water and they pass away And when the old man comes a-floating down the river Hey, old man, are they biting today Now here we've got a thing that keeps on rolling It ain't heavy, don't take it that way The old man and me, we got a good thing going He gets his fish and I sit all day He gets his fish and I sit all day
A joint CD of Cale and Clapton is to be released within the next few months. Maybe it helps “Slowhand” – who covered himself in the past years, becoming ever worse and shallow – to end his musical dilemma or to get a little closer to his role model’s relaxed way of playing. In any way, it will be interesting to see who catches the fish and who’ll be serenely sitting on the bank in the end.