Everyone who's ever strummed a guitar has at one time or another asked themselves the question, "If I could trade places with anyone in the history of rock and roll, who would it be?" I know I've fantasized about it once or twice myself.
Of course the names that popped into my head initially were the big ones: Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen. Not that I still think such thoughts, but if I did, I think nowadays I'd prefer a career like J.J. Cale's. If you don't know who J.J. Cale is, you're proving my point. Cale has been a working musician for 35 years and a recording artist for 23. He has the best of both worlds: popular success, critical respect, artistic control, and none of the demands of stardom. (Okay, so that's more than two worlds. Crucify me.)
Songs written by Tulsa, Oklahoma's, favorite son and covered by the likes of Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, and Lynyrd Skynyrd have sold millions of copies and bulked up Cale's bank account. But the easygoing, graying singer-songwriter still enjoys his privacy. He can walk down any street in this land without being besieged by autograph-seekers, play live as often or as seldom as he wishes, and cut a record every three or four years that will sell just enough copies to a loyal core of long-time fans to persuade the record company to let him make another one -- if and when he so desires. To the best of my knowledge he has never been coerced into appearing in a music video and, now that he's turned the corner on 50, odds are he won't be required to star in one in the future.
"I believe in no work at all if you can get away with it," he says. It's so refreshing to hear a man who has his priorities straight. Cale hasn't exactly been burdened with what you'd call a healthy appreciation of the Protestant work ethic. He recorded his first solo album, Naturally, in 1971 at the age of 32. He might not have done it even then if Eric Clapton hadn't gone and covered "After Midnight" (a song Cale wrote in 1965) on his debut solo effort -- 1970's Eric Clapton -- and turned the damn thing into a hit. Cale has released ten albums since, the most recent of which, Closer to You, should arrive in record stores this week.
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Like nearly all his work Closer to You is a no-frills road trip into a mythic American heartland. Most of the songs are built around laid-back grooves and loping twelve-bar curves that sound so relaxed you could swear Cale's been playing them his whole life. (Come to think of it, maybe he has.)
All the familiar elements are present -- the cool, no-bullshit lyrics, the legendary gravel-whisper of a voice that Mark Knopfler owes his career to ("Sho-Biz Blues" sounds more like Dire Straits than Dire Straits has recently), the subtle guitar lines and clean picking that have inspired the likes of Clapton and Richard Thompson. (Back in the mid-Seventies, when Clapton wasn't covering Cale tunes like "Cocaine" and "I'll Make Love to You Anytime," he was incorporating Cale's style into songs such as "Lay Down Sally" and "Tulsa Time.") From the album-opening "All Along the Watchtower"-like chord progression of "Long Way Home" to the jazzy, shuffling syncopation of "Steve's Song," Closer to You is vintage J.J. Cale, maybe a tad mellower and more willing to experiment with polycultural rhythms than usual ("Slower Baby" has bossa-nova leanings; "Devil's Nurse" suggests Cale has been listening to Peter Gabriel), but still as tightly coiled and sinewy as ever.
Maybe there's another "Cocaine" or "After Midnight" lurking among Closer to You's twelve tracks, just waiting for an Eric Clapton to come along and sand down the rough edges enough to make it palatable for the VH-1 crowd. Maybe not. Either way Cale can take it or leave it. To crib a line from one of his better-known tunes popularized by Lynyrd Skynyrd, that's why they call him the breeze.
J.J. Cale performs at 8:00 tomorrow (Friday) at the Duncan Theatre, 4200 Congress Ave, Lake Worth, 407-439-8141 (tickets range from $12 to $20); and Saturday at 9:00 p.m. at the Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $20.