Ear of Newt: my last interview with songwriting legend J.J. Cale

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      If you're a music fan you've probably already heard that legendary songwriter J.J. Cale died of a heart attack last Friday (July 26) at the age of 74. He's the guy whose deathless blues-roots songs have been interpreted by countless artists over the years.

      He's been covered by everyone from Santana (“Sensitive Kind”) to Bryan Ferry (“Same Old Blues”), and from Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Call Me the Breeze”) to Beck (“Magnolia”). But he's best known for a couple of tracks that Eric Clapton had hits with in the '70s, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”.

      I've been lucky enough to have interviewed Cale a couple of times, the last time being back on March 31, 2009, a week or so before he played a sold-out show at North Van's Capilano Performing Arts Theatre.

      For all those Cale fans out there--maybe even Slowhand himself--here's the transcription of that conversation. He called me while pulling out of L.A. on one of his last tours, and we chatted about everything from his then-new album, Roll On, to Lynyrd Skynyrd, to longtime Commodore Ballroom proprietor Drew Burns.

      Have a listen, if you're into it:

      Hello.

      Is this Steve?

      Yeah, this is Steve.

      Steve, this is J.J. Cale.

      Hey, J.J. Thanks for calling!

      Well alright. I'm ridin' on the bus, so talk real loud.

      Ha-ha. I will.

      Okay.

      Where you located on the bus there?

      Uh, we're just now pullin' out of Los Angeles, and then we're going to San Francisco.

      Oh really.

      Yeah.

      Playin' Frisco tonight?

      Uh, no, tomorrow night. No-we're playing Petaluma tomorrow night, then I think San Francisco the next night, and Santa Cruz the next night.

      Are you happy to be back on the road?

      Yeah, it's kind of a kick, gettin' with all these old guys. We're sitting around, like old men do, sittin' around telling stories about the past. That's what old men generally do, so we're having fun talking about things that are gone.

      Cool. I noticed you've got 16 other musicians on your new album, but even then you still play a lot of the instruments yourself. That do-it-yourself ethic is something you've pursued most of your career, eh?

      Yes. From the first album I'm playing bass on a lot of the tunes, and piano on a lot of 'em, and drums, and guitars. I did that on almost every album. Yeah, I was doin' that forty years ago, and I'm still doin' it now, whether that's good or bad, I don't know.

      If it ain't broke don't fix it.

      Yeah, well you got somethin' there.

      I take it that's you messing around on the pedal steel on "Cherry Street".

      Uh, that's not pedal steel. Yeah, and I actually fooled myself with that. That's a Digitech Whammy pedal, and I'm playin' a standard electric guitar through that and movin' that, and I'm imitatin' a pedal-steel. When I got through I go, "Well that almost sounds like a pedal-steel," and everybody's asked that. They go, "Well J.J.'s playin' pedal-steel on the album!" and I'm not really. And you know, I woulda used a pedal steel player, but there wasn't nobody around. So I pulled that off.

      Good work! One of my favourite tunes on the new album is "Where the Sun Don't Shine". and I was wondering, that seems to be like a "screw-you" song...

      Ha-ha...

      ...have you found that your songs are therapeutic as far as maybe soured relationships have gone?

      When I was young I maybe wrote songs about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. I'm 70 years old now, and that stuff doesn't really work, so I'm writing songs from a senior citizen's standpoint. 

      You've got Eric Clapton on the title track, and you obviously go way back with him. I was wondering, do you ever feel strange knowing that he's had more success with your songs than you have?

      Uh, no, see I'm a songwriter, man, and that's basically how I make my living writing songs. My performing and my singing are much to be desired, but I'm basically a songwriter, and the way I make my living is other people recording my songs. As a songwriter that's the most flattering thing that can happen, whether they do it good or they do it bad. They record your song, and that just really helps your ego.

      Eric has paid my rent for the last 30 years. He cut two or three of my songs, and then we got together and made an album, you know. We're real good friends.

      Has he ever told you what he likes so much about your songs?

      Ha. No. He's never ever said that. I might say, "Well let's do somethin' else," and he says, "I want to do one of your songs," and so we always do. He's never said what it is he likes about 'em, you know, not really.

      Are there any versions of your songs that you're particularly impressed with?

      Well I've answered that question before, and I'll give you the same answer. Uh, "Cajun Moon" by Randy Crawford, it's kind of a jazz record. I don't know if you knew who Randy Crawford is...

      Yeah, I've heard of her...

      ..Yeah, she was kinda popular in the pseudo-jazz thing. And where she got that...there's a lady named Sissy Houston--she's a backup singer for Elvis Presley--and Sissy recorded that song on a flute player's album. And Sissy is Whitney Houston's mother, if you follow this. She recorded it, and then Maria Muldaur must have heard her version of it, or maybe heard mine, and Maria Muldaur cut the song.

      So that was two ladies that had cut the song. And then I guess Randy either heard Sissy's version or Maria Muldaur's version or my version, and she cut it. And Randy Crawford's version is really good.

      And that's just one. We could go on all day, you know.

      What did you think of Lynyrd Skynyrd's version of "Call Me the Breeze".

      Oh, I just love that. That also helped my bank account too. Yeah, Lynyrd Skynyrd, I knew all them guys. They cut it before the plane crash that killed two or three of them.

      On the flipside, is there one song that you wish no one had actually covered, that you didn't like?

      [Laughs]. No, not really. There's a couple of songs of my own I wished I'd have never put out, that, you know, I'd like to burn. But with the advent of digital and computer, nothing goes away any more, you know.

      Does it piss you off when people ask you what your personal favourite song is that you've written?

      No, not really. And I don't have an answer for that. They're pretty much all the same. You know, what the deal is is it depends on the day and the mood you're in. Some songs fit only when your in a certain mood, and then another day that song don't sound right and you like another different song, if you follow that scenario.

      Speaking of that, there's a picture on the new CD of you sittin' out behind a barn or somethin' there, strummin' a white semi-acoustic guitar. Is that what you like to do, sorta just go out by yourself. Is that how you get inspiration for your songs sometimes?

      Yeah, I write out in the front yard, and the back yard, every once in a while. That was a staged photograph. They said, "Well we need some new photographs for this album, " and they come over to where I live, and they said, "Well let's go out in the woods and find some place to take the picture." That's what the photographer said, so, I grabbed my guitar.

      So it's not staged, but I wandered around, and they took 200 pictures, and I guess they stuck that one on the album.

      I just had a couple more quick questions for ya, J.J. I was wondering which artists you've been listening to in your spare time lately.

      Mainly, I listen to some of the new kids, and I can't tell you what names they are 'cause I can't remember them anymore. There's a whole buncha new kids that are really really good. There's a whole bunch of new kids that are really really bad. But there's a whole bunch of new kids that are really really good. And the trouble with radio nowadays is they're so worried about payin' their rent, they don't tell who.... I'll hear a song and I might be wantin' to go buy it, and they're not in cahoots with the record company, and they don't tell you that anymore. And then if they do then I can't remember the name--unless I'm sitting in the record store, which doesn't exist anymore.

      So they don't say who they're playing on the radio, there's no record stores anymore, so times have definitely changed.

      I was just wondering, if you had it all to do all over again, if you'd do it any differently. Do you have any regrets about your career?

      Probably not. I didn't really get any success till I was 30 years old. I played music when I was young fella, but I didn't really get any success till I was about 30 years old. So that's kinda been nice I was old enough to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of success at a real young age, and so by the time I had some success I was a middle-aged man, and I went, "Oh, I'm not gonna do that, 'cause that'll kill ya." And some of our great musicians have died at a young age.

      I understand that you're fairly well known for not liking to do interviews, but you sound like a such a good interview. Are you not crazy about doing interviews?

      Well I've raised my profile here lately. Yeah, for about 10 or 12 albums we didn't put any pictures out, I didn't do any interviews. The people I'm working with now, you know, they go, "J.J. you gotta raise your profile. We can't pay the rent." It's not my idea. I'm not real crazy about it, but in modern times I've had to give in a little bit. 

      You got more interviews to do today?

      No, this is it. I've limited it. They come at me when they wanted to put this album out and they said, "We have 35 to 40 interviews," and I said, "Well I'll do about five."

      Well thanks for including me, I appreciate that.

      Well, you know, I said, "Be sure it's somebody that's good," you know, otherwise it's a waste of time.

      I interviewed you long ago, I think it must have been probably in the mid-'80s, I believe you were playing the Commodore Ballroom up here.

      Oh yeah, I played the Commodore several times, and I love that place. Does that still exist?

      Oh you betcha!

      Oh really. I got acquainted with a gentleman that owned that place...

      Drew Burns?

      Yeah. I don't think he's there anymore.

      No, he's not, no.

      And the last time I played there, he'd already left from runnin' the place, but he came down, and I got to see him. I just loved him. He was really a nice guy.

      He's a great guy. I saw him at the Commodore when he came backstage for a Buddy Guy concert a few months ago.

      What's he doin' now? Is he just retired?

      I think he's pretty well retired.

      Yup.

      So, the last time you played Vancouver was quite a while ago.

      Yeah, well I haven't got a gig in five years. This is the first tour I've taken in five years.

      Well, it's great to see that you're back on the road. Roll On, and all that. Great album.

      Yeah, well thanks man.

      And thanks a lot for your time, I really appreciate it J.J. Keep writing those classic tunes.

      Ha-ha. Alright. Hey, it's good talkin' to ya Steve.

      See ya J.J.

      Alright bye.

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      1 Comments

      Martin Dunphy

      Jul 30, 2013 at 1:31am

      I remember buying and playing the crap out of <em>Naturally</em> right about when I was learning, and mostly failing, to play guitar.
      "Crazy Mama", "Magnolia", and "Call the Doctor" were my victims...er, favourites.
      Riff in peace, man.