I was travelling when I read about the death of J.J. Cale. I’ve not been entirely up-to-date on doings in the cyberworld these last few days but I’ve not been completely out of it either. I’m astounded at the silence in the musical circles that I’m part of – musicians, enthusiasts, writers – on the man’s life, his music and his death. I had to check again to see if his death was a figment of my perverse imagination. Sadly, no. But then again, that was J.J. Cale – not much heard of and heard much less than he should’ve been. His seemed to have been such a self-effacing personality that he was almost a creature of myth. An inspiration to a myriad musicians; Eric Clapton, albeit the most notable, was not the only one – Lynrd Skynrd, Phish, Neil Young, Mark Knopfler counted Cale amongst their major influences.
I heard Cale first in my mid-teens right about the time Clapton’s “Slowhand” was on endless loop on my tape player (if you’re trying to guess my age, let me tell you this was waaay after the release date of these albums) and “Cocaine” was a big favourite. Even then I was floored when I heard J.J. Cale’s original. His low whispery voice and underplayed guitaring still managed to carry a power and menace that I find more interesting than the driving big sound of Clapton’s excellent version.
Another contrast to a more famous version, again by Clapton, is “After Midnight” which was the cover that brought J.J. Cale out into the light. Whereas Clapton’s is an exultation (I think of the sound as more Santana than Clapton), Cale’s laidback delivery makes it a call to take it easy, man, chill.
He has often been criticised as a one-trick pony. I’m not quite in agreement with that but I can, to an extent, understand where that’s coming from. His songs have a simplicity on the face of it. Take the bluesy “Crazy Mama” for instance – clean, straight…simple.
He had his own distinct style, a unique sound that identified him. That does not justify the monotony sticker. His music is on the surface simple but it has subtle layers that wrap the listener subconsciously initially and then become more apparent with time. He was one of the finest guitarists around and he was that without wailing and screaming. You don’t become that by being a “one-trick pony”. Monotony cannot be the hallmark of a musician that creates a song like “Fonda-Lina” (from his last studio album “Roll On”).
Others made his songs much better known than he did. And those versions sounded quite unalike his originals. I think a lot of his musical calibre lay in creating a strong skeleton that others could build on, in their own different ways. He never stood in the limelight – hardly any interviews or press releases. He went about his business in his quiet way. As in life, so in death. They called him the breeze and he has gently wafted away.
R.I.P. Mr. John Weldon Cale.