John “J.J.” Cale, who passed away almost exactly a year ago, was a songwriter and musician whose reputation burns brightly outside of the mainstream. Perhaps the epitome of a cult artist, he’s cherished by a select group of initiates and completely unknown to everyone else. You’ve probably heard Eric Clapton’s ubiquitous covers of his songs “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” and maybe, like I did, you played them in a few high school cover bands without completely comprehending the lyrics or understanding the source material.
Cale made his living as a recording engineer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in Los Angeles before his career as a songwriter and performer took off, and this experience endowed his own records with a radical sound as distinctive as the trademark recordings of Lee “Scratch” Perry or Phil Spector. His albums are a joy you can experience on many levels; they are marvels of mood, tone, technique and groove. He was an artist who used scalpel-like precision and craft to express a casual intimacy; Clapton is right to feel awe and a great debt. Cale’s is an otherworldly music that Clapton’s covers tamed and reinterpreted for a larger audience.
I should grab that word “groove” and give it some attention here. Cale’s widow and bandmate Christine Lakeland said about the potential audience for this new collection, The Breeze (An Appreciation of J.J. Cale), “I hope they hear what the Cale groove meant — because the musicians captured it.” The emphasis is mine: how can a groove actually mean something beyond itself? J.J. Cale’s groove emerges from the speakers and opens a doorway to a unique emotional dimension, a restive melancholy that Cale doles out in discrete, two- to three-minute servings of pure virtuosity. And like a lot of virtuosos, Cale makes it look easy. But easy it ain’t.
Clapton has set himself up for a profound challenge… but he’s entered the ring humbly.
Clapton is usually either dismissed or outright hated by my musical peers. Mainly, he’s accused of sucking… perhaps the predominant tag of the digital age. OK, so Clapton is God to most of the world, but to the rest of us, he “sucks.”
Actually, I don’t think Clapton sucks. I don’t turn to his music often — and predictably I’m drawn to the earlier albums — but I don’t think he sucks. And to his credit, Clapton has a humility about his craft and music that an artist of his stature does not need. He has a clear-eyed view of what kind of a figure he is in the history of popular music and even blues. He often talks of himself as a vehicle to carry the audience into another world of music that touched him deeply, as his projects Riding with the King (B.B. King), and Me and Mr. Johnson (Robert Johnson) illustrate, he’s transparent about his influences to an almost didactic and leaden degree. But what we are left with here is an artist whose life is an expression of the deep, regenerative love that music has given him. On a cynical level, it’s the music that’s paid for his Hurtwood Edge estate. On another level, it’s the community that’s brought him out of the spiritual poverty of drug and alcohol addiction.
So there is a spiritual task that Clapton attached to this record, one that he takes pains to explain in the accompanying notes and video that surround this project. He says at the end of the 15-minute documentary about the making of this record, “Well, I got an idea of how important this guy was… he’s like a holy man in a cave. That’s how important he is to me.”
While the off-the-cuff language of this quote doesn’t quite sing, the meaning resonates: J.J. Cale was a key aspirational figure, a guru to Clapton for well over 40 years, and his passing resonated deeply with Clapton, bringing Cale’s influence into clearer focus.
This album has a simple ambition: to introduce an American master to a larger audience. Clapton’s intention was to try to make these songs sound like the Cale originals, rather than attempt radical re-workings. This is a testament to Clapton’s knowledge of his strengths; to bring this music in from the culture’s fringes.
OK, so what is this album then? It’s a highly successful artist recording “an appreciation” of his hero with his talented friends. I really don’t know what I was expecting to find here. It features performances by Tom Petty, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler and Don White (a guitarist and member of Cale’s band). It begins with a sample of the first few bars of Cale’s version of “Call Me the Breeze,” the first track on his first album, Naturally. When Clapton’s version kicks in, it’s somewhat indistinguishable from the original, though maybe it shimmers a bit more and feels more canned. What is delightful and surprising about Clapton’s versions of these songs is the fact that there are no indulgences in the form of extended solos and jamming. The songs are short, like the originals.
But holy shit, I guess I need to be real for a minute… say you take the strongest tunes from Clapton’s tribute, for instance, “The Old Man and Me,” featuring Tom Petty. On The Breeze it has a charming and understated darkness. And then maybe you’re curious and go and check out the original… and discover an unearthly transmission from a parallel universe of sound and humanity. It’s a two-minute (one minute shorter than Clapton’s) tour de force masterpiece, redolent with unparalleled richness of emotion, lyrical content and sound.
So, OK, Clapton has done his job: I went back and relistened to the originals and gained a refreshed appreciation for one of America’s greatest masters of recording and song.
The Breeze features good performances and some revelations. Willie Nelson’s guest appearance on “Starbound” is a good example of the latter. Nelson gives the words a powerful resonance. There are some powerful moments on this record, delivered by some heavyweight old masters. But if there’s a moment on The Breeze that you dig, and then you return to the actual source, the true life-giving spring will reveal itself.