I’d forgotten J.J. Cale lived around these parts, and it’s a damn shame I was reminded of it by his obit. Cale died this weekend of a heart attack, at a La Jolla hospital just over the hill from my house.
If there’s an afterlife and ol’ J.J. winds up haunting this realm as a ghost — well, not much is gonna change.
Cale has been a musical specter most of his life — his nickname was the Breeze — rarely seen or heard from largely because had the kind of integrity that kept him from debasing himself in the name of marketing (refusing to appear on “American Bandstand” because of the lip-syncing, etc.) or even give an interview more than rarely. I was the pop music critic in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., for a decade, and we never landed one, try though I did. (Look to my former Sun-Times colleague Dave Hoekstra for this get.) I remember in 2002, word got around that Cale was going to play a few West Coast gigs — a rarity for the famous recluse — and even his keyboard player only found out by reading Cale’s web site. “Everything I know I got off the web page,” Rocky Frisco said at the time. “I hadn’t talked to him since last summer — he’s sort of famous for holing up and going incommunicado — so I didn’t know anything about it. But it’s wonderful news!”
Cale is more worthy than most of the new interest and exploration a celebrity’s death often confers. You’ve heard his tunes before, but probably on records by other people — Clapton’s take on “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” “Call Me the Breeze” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Clyde” by Waylon Jennings. Like fellow Okie Woody Guthrie, Cale’s music first flew farthest on the wings of others. But his own records are more worth diving into. I once spent a New York City evening with Oklahoma-native singer-songwriter, and when we got (inevitably) to talking about Cale, he ranked the musical impact of Cale’s debut, “Naturally,” alongside “Highway 61.” I drank to that. I once described Cale’s music as being “all morning music — whether you’re rolling in at dawn or rising with it.”
Cale had two sounds: his musical style, and his recording techniques. He was a capstone for the oft-debated, never duplicated Tulsa Sound — a kind of loose-limbed, easygoing shuffle that’s never been firmly defined (though this piece by John Wooley offers the best all-around explanation, plus he also figures into my study of the broader, regional Red Dirt sound). It’s a you-know-it-when-you-hear-it kind of thing — Leon Russell’s got a little, Cale’s got a lot — and its laid-back quality often masks the virtuoso skills of its practitioners. Cale, for instance, was a superb guitarist; Neil Young puts him up there above Hendrix. His other sound was an actual sound — his way of recording, which was always inventive and never ordinary. A trained studio engineer, Cale’s way with cables was as deft as his slow hand on guitar.
Cale’s last full-album collaboration with Clapton was 2006’s “Road to Escondido” — another local reference — and here’s my favorite all-time track, especially now that I know the Breeze literally is with us anyway the wind blows …
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.