I’ve only known a few people of Welsh heritage, and most of them have, at one time or another, looked for a way to pay tribute to their comparatively exotic ancestral homeland. Some start going by their unusual vowel-intensive middle name; others simply start reading a lot of Dylan Thomas. The Garnant-born Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, who spoke no language but Welsh up until mid-childhood, took it a step further when he recorded 1989’s Words for the Dying, his eleventh studio album. Though it contains a few short orchestral and piano pieces, it has more to do with words than music — words written by Cale seven years earlier, during and in response to the Falklands war, that use and re-interpret Thomas’ poetry, most notably his well-known villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
At the top of the post, you can watch one of Cale’s live renditions of this piece, performed two years before Words for the Dying’s release with the Netherlands’ Metropole Orkest.
Just above, we have another, performed in 1992 at Brussels’ Palais des Beaux Arts. The album enjoyed a re-release that year, and again in 2005, making for another musical victory not just in the illustrious and adventurous career of John Cale, but in the equally illustrious and adventurous career of its producer, Roxy Music founding member, artist of sound and image, and rock musician-inspirer Brian Eno. Though collaboration has famously put Cale and Eno at loggerheads, it has also led to this and other creatively rich results; their 1990 album Wrong Way Up, whose cover depicts the two literally looking daggers at one another, garnered strong critical respect and spawned Eno’s only American hit, “Been There, Done That.” And as for their team effort on Words for the Dying, need we say more than that it made the year-end top-ten list of no less a luminary of alternative artistic-rock culture than Cale’s onetime Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed?
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.