Now We Come to Van Morrison
Lewis and I played Van Morrison’s music in the hovel where we lived in Clemson. Lewis was in grad school already and I was taking the year off, working in a local landscape architectural firm. Whether he was humoring my musical tastes, I can’t remember. I do remember cranking up the volume for Wild Night any time the album played on the stereo, a rock anthem for dancing in the street, except I couldn’t dance any better than Van the Man. C and I saw him a few years later in the fall at Tanglewood. I had wanted to understand him for years, but I expect I never will.
Catching a YouTube video, My Ballerina I wrote the start of this blog.
One thing that’s stuck with me is that he hails from Belfast, so he grew up midst the Troubles. In ’91 when D and I approached the border with Northern Ireland, my two boys in tow on our fly-by-wire survey of western Eire, I drew up the caravan (insert image of horse and coach here) not wanting to go further. We’d commune with Willie along the path edging Coole, climb Ben Bulben, hit Sligo for bad pizza and out.
Why not Northern Ireland? My boys meant more than to risk a visit to Northern Ireland, still in the throes (or throws if you will) of bombings and riots that seemed as intractable as the Palestinian-Israeli nightmare–and more fratricidal at that. You’d have to go back several millennia in Palestine, though Abraham is claimed as their common ancestor. The Irish grudge against the English is so more recent. I could be Irish still (or a genetically close cousin) if the Brits had helped County Clare’s starving poor during the potato famine.
In downtown Sligo it surprised us to witness a military convoy pull up at the local bank, armored car, trucks and jeeps, helmets, automatic weapons covering both ends of the street, all so they could deliver money to the bank. Holy shit! Time to go. Didn’t think we needed to exchange money that bad.
During the Troubles as the Irish understatedly refer to them, bank robberies were a source of terrorists’ funding, and Sligo is only 40 minutes by car from the border with Northern Ireland. Of course the Brits blamed the Catholics and the Catholics blamed the Orange men (aka Protestants). Me, I blame Cromwell for destroying the monasteries and churches in the first place. Fie on thee, Cromwell!
Henley and Frey have a song (they have several actually) Get Over It might could apply here. When one considers the hatred one for the other, it’s hard to catch the longer view of history constructed from such stubborn pettiness—like dogs on a bone. “You worship the Pope and I pledge allegiance to a fat bearded Henry VIII. Let’s blow up the churches so the tourists have something to photograph!” Kings are such forward thinkers.
Van Morrison sings of Belfast the way Yeats pined for Innisfree, both impossible romantics. Cypress Avenue I’d say romantics are easy targets for criticism only I’d be pointing a finger at myself.
Van Morrison’s lyrics, perhaps are too simple to call poetry. But he has a way to convince you he believes their truth. His voice, yes, is a major element, and his earnestness. Not gentle and pretty, but powerful and urgent. You can’t confuse him with anyone else, which is a gift for an artist, to be so distinguished in the common meaning of the word.
From the beginning, Van Morrison was looking for heaven. His early love songs were written to and about women, but we knew his goal of falling in love was to find that “higher ground.” His early imagery is Gaelic, yet he didn’t let it trap him; American R&B intrigued him, so he combined these and made them his own. Madame George From the beginning, he sings these songs like spirituals.
Ladies trailing languid fingers from a punt, somewhere in the deep south, written from the perspective of an Englishman sailing ‘round the world’ in Tupelo Honey. Not bad for a kid from Belfast.
In his senior years Van seems to be reaching closer to religion itself. I’m more comfortable with his older stuff. I’ve spent a lifetime debating Catholicism with myself and longing to believe, though it never came kneeling with a candle, singing Latin. Though he’s a bitter critic, Christopher Hitchens says “I don’t need to be born again; once was enough.”
If Van never hitchhiked with a buddy and their fishing poles, getting soaked along the way, I can forgive the lie for the lyrical images. It Stoned Me to My Soul. The title makes me suspect Van was explaining this to his hippie friends.
Under Ben Bulben was Yeats’ late poem about the summers of his childhood. Yeats grew wiser as he went along. Here’s hoping.