Arts: What became of J J who?: He looks like Sid James with a guitar and for 10 years he didn't even own a phone. Jasper Rees meets J J Cale, an ex-directory legend

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The Independent Culture
J J Cale will be on stage in three minutes. As a human river argy-bargies its way into the auditorium, the house lights still full on, an old cove with tatty, silvering hair and an open untucked-in puce shirt is already up there, shuffling about, tinkering with equipment. Either J J Cale doesn't give two hoots for the convention of the big entry, or he's enjoying a joke about his anonymity.

Probably both. Even if there are a few survivors from his only previous British appearance, which happened to be on the same Hammersmith stage, they wouldn't have recognised him: it was 18 years ago, and he doesn't recall much about it himself. Eric Clapton, for whom the 1970s were a decade-long homage to Cale, sat in but, says J J, 'I couldn't even remember who played bass with me, so you can imagine how I can remember the gigs.'

After the soundcheck, in which Cale sits smoking motionlessly at the side of the stage before getting to his feet and delivering a flavoursome sliver of Okie-smoked blues, he appears doing a mockney accent. He's wearing battered beige cords over cowboy boots, and over the puce shirt is a khaki fishing jacket. (He doesn't fish any more: after 20 years in a motor home, he bought himself a house in southern California, where there's no water). The costume change for the show will consist of removing the fishing jacket.

His English road manager, himself no oil painting in grey ponytail and white mutton chops, thinks he looks like Sid James with a guitar. It's safe to say that J J Cale has never seen Carry On Camping. He's more often described as Paul Newman's shaggy brother, because somewhere under the crags and creeks, the grizzled stubble and bruised cheekbones, deep in the recesses that the stage lights can only cast into pitch-black shadow, are a pair of translucent blue eyes. It was these, doubtless, that slew the women Cale sings of in the doodles that pass for lyrics. The polite phrase for this lapidary face is 'lived-in'.

Did Clapton ever ask him to play on one of his blues nights at the Albert Hall? 'No, no, not that I know of. I didn't have a phone there for about 10 years. I kind of checked out.

'I was always going to come over here,' he says in Oklahoma drawl that elides and emphasises words in a kind of jerky poetic rhythm. ' 'Oh I'll go to Europe and England next year', and then the next year I'd be into something else. And years went by and I went, 'Oh I'll go next year'. It wasn't a plan, or it weren't 'cause I didn't like it, or any o' that.'

Spool back another 18 years beyond 1976, and Cale is in Tulsa, at the dawn of a shambling career that will turn him into a one-man encyclopaedia of American roots music. In his sideman days Cale picked up on rock 'n' roll, country, western swing, polka, blues. 'You take a hundred people in a nightclub and some of them will be old and they'll want old- style music and some of them'll be young and want the latest happening thing so you have to play all kinds of music or they'll punch you out.' Years later, on his debut album Naturally (1972), recorded in Nashville, it all went into

the soup.

By then Cale was 32, 'beyond the sell-a-lot-of-records age'. He'd been through the poverty trap: the only drummer he could afford at that time was Ace Tone Rhythm Machine. He's made most of his money as a songwriter, and only then as the author of 'After Midnight', 'Cocaine' and 'Call Me the Breeze'. He still tours once a year in order to get out of the house and because 'there's a few people everywhere want to hear the guy that wrote it'.

Even the songwriting seems to have been an accident. 'After Midnight' started out life without lyrics: even now, he says his words 'don't look good on the page'. 'I was working on an album for Snuff Garrett. He wanted me to cut some instrumental stuff, and I was working on an album of instrumental music back in those days, mid-Sixties I guess it was, '65, and I don't know, we didn't sell it, it didn't come out, it was out-takes or whatever, and I had that one track. I went back and added words to it. I was down playing in Atlanta, Georgia, in nightclubs and people were dancin' and drunk and I heard some guy holler out, 'Let it all hang out'. So I stuck that phrase in the song.'

By the time they kick into 'After Midnight' they're all there: Jim Karstein on percussion, Bill Raffensperger on bass, Rocky Frisco on piano, Christine Lakeland on guitar and back-up vocals, James Cruce on drums. Someone once said that a J J song sounds like it started long before the beginning you hear on the record, and goes on long after the end.

The show itself is like a Cale composition writ large. He ambles in with a solo version of 'Cajun Moon', and a band member enters with each new song, as if the bricks of the Cale sound are being built before your eyes. He likes taking guitars to pieces and putting them back together, and he's doing something similar here.

At the end of the second encore, the band leader kicks over the bricks one by one, sings them all out in turn: 'Mama don't want no tambourine man / girl guitar player at all', and off they file, leaving the great man in splendid isolation.

There's too much hyperbole in the music business, although not from the man who numbers rather than names his albums ('The only albums that I have personally named were number 5, number 8 and number 10'). But at the risk of heaping excess on excess, this comeback feels like a genuine landmark. Sure, there are troughs, but the peaks - like 'Crazy Mama', his lone hit that mostly sticks to a single chord - are of a quiet purity that you just don't come across every day. 'Magnolia' is a love song made all the more touching by Cale's creaky one-and-a-half-note voice; the band barely even caress their instruments.

His reception is as genuine as you get these days. 'It's a big show for us too,' he says beforehand. When he sings 'Sensitive Mind' the song is plainly self-referential, so does Cale ever get nervous? 'No. I got nervous the first time in a long time. I did a French TV show live about two days ago. They were supposed to run an interpreter through a set o' earphones and the guy was supposed to tell me what they were saying in French only the little apparatus didn't work and it was live TV right in my face and they were asking me a bunch of stuff in French so I had no idea what they're talking about. It's like come up with an answer that you don't know what the question is. That made me real nervous. I just said no comprehende, no comment.'

(Photograph omitted)