Well I guess I'm going AWOL
Disconnect my telephone
Just Like Greta Garbo
I just want to be alone
If you've been wondering why this blog has been so quiet the past few weeks, the above lyrics put it in a nutshell. They're from Van Morrison's "Just Like Greta Garbo", from his magnificent 2005 release Magic Time. The title to this post comes from the same record, from the strange and wonderful "The Lion This Time".
Speaking of Van Morrison, I'm listening to his just released Keep It Simple as I write. Van's music over the past twenty or so years has been a bit up and down, alternating between the pedestrian and the brilliant. A consummate musician, even Van's ordinary music is worth listening to, but he is the only one of rock and roll's early titans, other than Dylan, who can still on occasion make music that compares favorably to that of his heyday. Now into his fifth decade of making music, what separates Van's best music from the rest is, as always, the matter of his muse: when it eludes him he makes good, solid, enjoyable music; when he finds it, when he grabs hold of it, when he loses himself in it, he makes music for the ages. At those times he is capable of going further in his music that anyone.
While not up to Magic Time's standard, Keep It Simple a good, satisfying record. My favorite cut is "That's Entrainment," which catches a pure, easy, groove from it's opening chords, and is one of the sexiest songs Van has ever produced - "You make me holler when you come around, you make me holler when you shake it on down". Indeed. I'd never heard the word "entrainment" before now: I thought it was just something he'd made up, which would have been fine, and wouldn't have been the first time. But a quick check of the dictionary tells me it's a meteorological term meaning to trap, or carry along, a liquid or bubbles. Which is perfect, because the song, and the feelings the singer describes, carries you along effervescently: it floats on air. It's a great sing-a-long and make-up-your-own-words song. I'm also partial to "Lover Come Back," whose opening chords and verse reminds me of Emmylou Harris' rendition of "Evangeline" from The Last Waltz; and "The End of the Land", which, while excellent, could have been better: it comes up a bit short lyrically and, as such, doesn't take full advantage of the old, ancient cadences of its melody. If he'd been "going down to the end of the land" to commune with his God, if he'd be waiting on his true love to join him, if "the end of the land" was the place where salvation was found, it could have been a haunting song for the ages. Aah, but what do I know? He's Van Morrison, and I'm me, and he's the finest musician the rock era has ever produced.
I understand that is quite a statement. Better than Elvis, you may ask? Than The Beatles? Or Dylan, or the Stones? I admit that at a certain point musical preferences comes down to the subjective, to whoever else seems to speak to your own individual situation and temperament - to your own muse. So I'm not saying Van Morrison has produced a greater body of work than The Beatles, or Dylan, though I won't say he hasn't. To explain what I mean let me quote extensively from Greil Marcus's entry on Van in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll:
And there you have it, what I mean by the statement that Van Morrison goes further than anyone else. When he loses himself in his music, when he goes outside himself, he takes us outside our own selves, to places we didn't know existed. This ability to take us further, both emotionally and spiritually, is the raison d'etre of rock and roll. It's why we listen. All the great ones can have this effect on us, and, on occasion, even the not-so-great. But Van Morrison takes us on that journey, to that place outside ourselves, more consistently, more thoroughly, than anyone else.
"When I was very young," the late Ralph J. Gleason wrote in a review of Moondance, "I saw a film version of the life of John McCormack, the Irish tenor, playing himself. In it he explained to his accompanist that the element necessary to mark the important voice from the other good ones was very specific. 'You have to have,' he said, 'the yarrrrragh in your voice.'"
Van Morrison has the yarrrrragh. His career, especially since Astral Weeks, can be seen as an attempt to deal with the yarrrrragh: to find music appropriate to it; to bury it: to dig it out; to draw from that sound, that aesthetic (for it is an aesthetic more than it is merely a sound), new tales to tell, or old tales to tell in new ways. The yarrrrragh is Van Morrison's version of Leadbelly, of jazz, of blues, of poetry. It is a mythic incantation, and he will get it, or get close to it, suggest it, with horns (no white man working in music can arrange horns with the precision and grace of Van Morrison), strings, in melody, in repetition (railing the same word, or syllable, 10, 20, 30 times until he has taken the song where he wants it to go). To Morrison the yarrrrragh is the gift of the muse and the muse itself. He has even written a song about it: "Listen to the Lion." Across 11 minutes he sings, chants, moans, cries, pleads, shouts, hollers, whispers, until finally he breaks away from language and speaks in Irish tongues, breaking away from ordinary meaning until he has loosed the lion inside himself. He begins to roar: he has that sound, that yarrrrragh, as he has never had it before. He is not singing it, it is singing him.
I remember years ago reading a review of one of Van's records in which the writer stated "I haven't understood a Van Morrison lyric since Brown Eyed Girl" and I immediately thought, well, you miss the point. If you're looking for literalism go elsewhere. The best of Van's music is non-literal (at times, as Marcus' quote reveals, it is very nearly sub-literal). It's not about words, it's about sounds, and the images conjured up by those sounds. Astral Weeks, released in 1969, is, as Marcus mentions in the above quote, the place where we can mark the beginning of Van's journey with his muse. He had done some extraordinary music previously - "Gloria", "Baby, Please Don't Go", "Brown Eyed Girl", etc. But Astral Weeks marks an abrupt shift, away from his blazing blues-based rock, wherein he leaves the Mississippi Delta for a trip back to his Dublin roots. It is a strange and beautiful record, one which many still find puzzling but which for many of us still seems like nearly a miracle; as unique and personal musical statement as has ever been recorded, and one of the most satisfying. These are the opening lyrics to the title track:
If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
What exactly, in a literal sense, do these words mean? Not much. But who would claim they are not perfectly suited to the music? Astral Weeks continues on for ten songs and forty minutes and there is little hereafter that should be, or can be, taken literally. If you're looking to "understand" the lyrics, you'll come away frustrated.
And you know you've gotta go
On that train from Dublin up the sandy road
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame George
The words alone can't convey the wistful regret contained in that passage from "Madame George." What it means exactly is not important; rather, it's the feelings the image invokes that matter: that sense of loss, of leaving off, however reluctantly, from home, or family, or friends, or a lover. We've all felt these feelings at some time or place in our own lives; we recognize it here immediately, and it's what gives the song its resonance. Later, on "Cyprus Avenue," we get this:
Now, I'm willing to bet that no one reading this blog has ever stood watching as his lady arrives from a fair in a carriage behind six white horses. It's not exactly a normal situation in this day and age. But by this point in the song, we know that the young girl is not really his lady; it's already been established that she is unreachable, and untouchable, and that the singer is watching her from afar, suffering. The song is about, in Lester Bangs' marvelous phrase, "rapture, and despair". The lines above are the culmination of the rapture. Then we get this:
Yonder comes my lady
Rainbow ribbons in her hair.
Yonder comes my lady
Rainbow ribbons in her hair.
Six white horses and a carriage
Just returning from the fair.
Baby, baby, baby, baby,
baby, baby, baby, baby...
Well, I'm caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue.
Caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue.
And I'm conquered in a car seat
And I'm looking straight at you.
The rapture from the previous verse turns into despair during the drawn out "baby, baby"'s. By the time we get to the long, achingly beautiful, "Welllllllll, I'm caught...." the despair has taken over. Again, what matters for us is not the singer's particular situation, unless you're the type who pines for fourteen-year-old girls. What matters is, if we've ever been dumbstruck with love unrequited, we know what the singer knows; we've felt what the singer feels. Rapture, and despair.
An exploration of a record as rich and vibrant with emotion as Astral Weeks could go on for much longer than this but I'll leave off it by saying it is the obvious point in Van's career where he began to realize the possibilities open to him in his music. And he'd continue to push further. A master musician at twenty-four, schooled in rock and roll, the blues, jazz, folk music, Irish music, and American standards, he'd take that knowledge, combined with a young man's energy and an imagination fired by the romantic poets, and fashion from it as prolific a period of excellence as we've ever seen in rock and roll, save perhaps The Beatles circa 1962-1966. From early 1970 until 1974, he'd release five classic albums - Moondance, His Band and Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic's Preview, and Veedon Fleece. This is the primary period we should focus on when analyzing Van's music because it's where he'd reach the pinnacle of his powers; he'd get there just one more time, on 1979's sublime Into The Music.
This post is long already but as it is my tribute to Van Morrison, who's music has meant more to me, clearly, and since I was a teenager, than anyone else's, it is right and proper than I should devote more space to here than any other post I've yet penned. So on we go.
What I'd like to focus on now, in regard to the period of music I've just referenced, is that particular aesthetic at work in Van's music when he was at his peak. Marcus' quote reveals it as the "yarrrrragh", that search to lose himself in his music. I like to think of it as his search for ecstasy, those moments during songs where he's surprise you, and probably himself, with bursts of musical joy; those moments when he goes over the edge, and you go with him.
A brief catalog of my favorite of these moments follows:
- To return briefly to Astral Weeks, which is replete with these moments, the climax of "Ballerina", with the repeated 'just-a-like-a-just-alike-a-just-a-like-a-just-alike-a-just-a-like-a-just-alike-a ballerina....steppin' lightly'; or, on "Sweet Thing", when he sings the lines '..and I will raise my hands up into the nighttime sky/And count the stars shining in your eyes' - no one else in rock and roll could get away with those lines - from others they'd either seem slickly sweet, or phony.
- There aren't many of these moments on His Band and Street Choir, which Van returns to some hard-edged rhythm and blues, though he gets close on the final verse"Virgo Clowns", when he sings 'Let us lift you up on high/See the twinkle in your eye/Raise you up to the sky/And say it's easy..Hey let the trumpets ring it/Let the angels sing it/Let your pretty feet go dancing/Let your worn out mind go prancing...and Sit down funny face/Let your laughter fill the room'.
- On the title song from Tupelo Honey, during the entire 'she's alright with me' section; later, on "Wild Night", when he sings 'And the wind catches your feet and sends you flying, crying/Oooh wee! - The wild night is calling'; on the close of "You're My Woman", during which he gets lost in the beat, leading to the final, rhythmic, pizzicato, 'and it's really, really, really, really, really, really real.'
- On Saint Dominic's Preview, virtually the whole of "Jackie Wilson Said", and especially the rush towards the ending; the whole of "Listen to the Lion", which the Marcus quote above explains beautifully; on the exquisite "Almost Independence Day", that moment of pure joy and release when he calls out 'and the boats go by'.
- Veedon Fleece, where Van has travelled back to Ireland to get in touch with his roots once again, is brimming with these moments. The opening "Fair Play", a song whose words on paper add up to lovely nonsense, is in music utterly irresistible - it may be the epitome of my claim earlier that Van's music is about sounds, not words. 'And there's only one/Meadows way to go/And you say Geronimo....Hi Ho Silver/Tit for tat/And I love you for that'. Again, trying to get to the bottom of this song literally, like so many of Van's songs, is a fool's errand; you can't approach it that way. The neglected masterpiece, "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River," whose very title announces it as a song of this type, takes this aesthetic even further, nine minutes of the "yarrrrragh", of 'bloomin' wonder,' of 'William Blake and the eternals/Standing with the sisters of mercy/Looking for the veedon fleece'; nine minutes out on the edge, searching for ecstasy, finding it six minutes in when he cries out, 'goin' as much with the river as not!/With the river as not!/with the river as not!", for me one of the most thrilling moments in his entire oeuvre. Later, on "Cul De Sac", he goes off into the vapors again, culminating in one of the greatest screams in rock and roll. The record ends with "Country Fair", perhaps Van's most beautiful song, an aching lament for times gone by, to an older, more peaceful world, one never to be recovered: "We laid out in the long green grass/And never thought that it would pass/In the country fair....We counted pebbles in the sand/Sand like time slippin' through our hand/In the country fair." The song is quiet, peaceful, and heartbreaking, ending in a flute accompaniment that is beautiful beyond words. The older I get, the more I love this record.
- As I mentioned earlier, Van's period of sustained greatness would end with Veedon Fleece but he would roar back once again five years later with Into The Music. Irish-influenced again, it would also mark the spot when his Christian faith begins to show up more prominently in his music, where the joy that was once inspired through his music, or his woman, now comes from his Lord. Previously in his music there were hints of his beliefs, as in "If I Ever Needed Someone", where you weren't sure if he was talking about his woman or his God; or on "Brand New Day" - 'it's shines so bright/and it gives so much light/and it comes from the sky above', where it seems that the light was his faith, though one couldn't be sure. On Into The Music, all doubt is erased, as in "Full Force Gale": 'Like a full force gale/I was lifted up again/I was lifted up again/By the Lord'. When he calls out before entering the final chorus "Like a full force!", he's enters that realm once again, only this time it's the spirit of The Lord who's taken him there. On "Rolling Hills", he'll 'live my life in Him', and 'read my bible still.' Less obviously, Van would take Dan Penn and Chips Morman's 1967 scabrous soul masterpiece about adultery, "The Dark End of the Street," and turn it into a celebration of fidelity in "The Bright Side of the Road." Returning to the secular, on "Angelou," the finest song about Paris I know, Van's repetitive plea of "will you be my baby?" marks another high point. Finally, there is the masterpiece, "And The Healing Has Begun", which may be the one song I'd take with me to a desert island, and which, during the violin solo, reaches a level of musical ecstasy that I'm not sure exists elsewhere - it's pure release.
And now I'm done. I was going to add a postscript to talk about another aspect of Van's music: Van the romantic. Not as in the romantic poetry, which is certainly there, but as in writing romantic songs about love. But it's getting late and my whole morning is shot, and I have things to do, and I'm not even going to proof-read this before publishing so hopefully it all makes sense. Instead I'll just tell you to listen to "Moondance," or "Have I Told You Lately," or "Someone Like You," or "Tupelo Honey," or "Come Here My Love", or all of them and a dozen more of Van's love songs, and you'll get a sense of another not to be ignored aspect of this greatest of all musicians.