Wednesday, February 27, 2013

One story of Them

Like countless other artists, the fog of myth surrounding Van Morrison and Them's "discovery" is thick and nearly impenetrable. Here are three versions recounted by four different prominent characters in the early history of Them (unsurprisingly, two place the tellers as the main proponents of Them's breakthrough to the big-time): Mervyn and Phil Solomon, the former a founder of Emerald Records and a manger of several record shops in Belfast, the latter the head of a London-based music promotion business; Billy Harrison, Them's original guitarist; and Peter Lloyd, a one-time employee at Decca and manager of a recording studio in Belfast's Cromac Square.

Lloyd's version: A former electronics student at Queen's University in Belfast, Lloyd was in search of local talent to record a song for the school's rag week. He ultimately settled on Them. Morrison and the band cut a three-song demo featuring "Stormy Monday," "Don't Start Crying Now," and "Got My Mojo Working." According to legend, only 49 records were pressed, which was how burgeoning artists circumvented the duty tax assessed for 50 copies. In 1965, one year after Them signed with Decca Records, Lloyd offered two versions of what occurred next: In one, he claimed to pass the demo to an unspecified London press agent (presumably Phil Solomon); in the other, he brought the demo to Dublin, where it eventually fell into the lap of Phil.

The Solomons' version: Mervyn purchased the main recording machine, a BTR-2, for Lloyd's recording studio. Mervyn's generosity meant Lloyd was obligated to allow the man to make the studio a frequent of haunt of his. As a result, Mervyn was present when Them cut its three-song demo. Impressed with the recordings, he swung by the Maritime for one of the group's raucous live shows. Said Mervyn: "My first recollection was coming through those doors and seeing Van sliding across the stage, singing 'Turn on Your Lovelight' ... I called them over after the show and said, 'I'd like to see you boys again. What are you doing Sunday morning?' They all said, 'Lying in bed.'" Mervyn then urged his brother Phil to use his clout within the industry to get the act signed.

Harrison's version: Lloyd didn't take the demo to Phil Solomon, but to Decca A&R head Dick Rowe. The two were friendly from Lloyd's tenure at the label years earlier. Rowe (yes, that Rowe—the individual marked as a some sort of pop music pariah because he was allegedly the sole label man to turn down the Beatles) then made his way to Belfast, where he arrived with Phil in tow.

Of course, this is all minutia that will only captivate the most overenthusiastic and insatiable Morrison zealot.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"And you know you gotta go"

From my entry on the wonderful One Week // One Band blog:
"And you know you gotta go," Morrison sings on "Madame George," articulating the allure and the pull of Belfast. "On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row."

I also felt that pull. After countless trips to the Republic of Ireland, I finally visited Belfast in 2006. We didn't ride the train from Dublin, but instead, took a bus. As we approached the Great Victoria Street station from its backside, one of my traveling companions nudged me out of a hangover/jet lag-induced stupor. "Check that out," he said pointing. The bus was inching by the infamous mural at the corner of Sandy Row and Linfield Road.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Glen meets Van, Van acts like a prick, Glen plays guitar

Glen Hansard discusses the first time he met Van Morrison. "I'll give you a very brief version of it," he says at the opening. Er, not quite, Glen ... So yes, this is lengthy, but worth the time investment.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Hootin' Blues"

According to Van Morrison, this was the first record he ever bought. It was likely purchased at Smithfield Market's record stalls or Atlantic Records on High Street, two Belfast destinations that Morrison has acknowledged were popular among music lovers.

Harmonica player Sonny Terry and guitarist Walter "Brownie" McGhee were a duo heavily indebted to the songster tradition. Terry, who hailed from North Carolina, and McGhee, from Tennessee, first performed together in the late 1930s. They initially played for white audiences, particularly folk concerts and political rallies. In the late '40s, the pair transitioned to rhythm 'n' blues before getting caught up in the blues revival that commenced in the late '50s.

A side note that may only interest me: Terry and McGhee partnered together for close to 40 years, despite their mutual disgust for one another. If you know anything about Morrison and his craggy personality and his tempestuous working relationships with producers and musicians, then you can truly appreciate how rich that is.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"I love you in buckskin"

Ponder the concept of the Van Morrison love song and one inevitably reflects upon somewhere, not someone. Many of the songwriter's most celebrated ballads are gushing, long-form letters to the spaces he inhabits, as well as the spaces he no longer inhabits, but still inhabits in his mind.

Of course, when he wasn't falling ass over teacups for a particular place, he was falling into the arms of women. It was a seamless artistic transition for Morrison, when he traded, say ... the dawn-lit streets of Arklow for the girl in the kitchen with the lights way down low. You know, where he planted his two feet swapped for being swept off his feet. The places depicted in Morrison's songs are interspersed with sighs and caresses and long glances. They betray and forgive and spellbind as briskly as any person. They live and breathe. Writing so fervently and adventurously about the opposite sex was the natural consequence of writing so passionately and authentically about a Belfast or a Woodstock.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Massive communal experiences

It took 33 years for Astral Weeks to reach Gold status, which means the album averaged a little over 15,000 copies sold annually. In the time it will take me to craft this post, Adele's 21 will have sold one-third that number. Meanwhile, if one is to believe the Internet, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, popular music's oft-mentioned exemplar of Billboard 200 success, still moves 10,000 copies a week—four decades after its recording.

I'm not interested in rehashing why Astral Weeks' failure to attain a commercial success to match its critical appeal was so thorough and complete. What fascinates me is how this failure left Astral Weeks without any vital, enduring link to the specific time period in which it was released. Numerous albums matured into more than assemblages of connected and semi-connected pieces of music: They became massive communal experiences for listeners. Millennium (and "I Want It That Way") in the summer of 1999. Thriller in 1983. I recall reading (exactly which book, I can't recollect; it was possibly this one) an account of the Madchester scene of the late '80s where one individual described (rather apocryphally) walking down an English street filled with row houses during the summer of 1989 and hearing the Stone Roses' "I Am the Resurrection" blasting forth from one open window after another.

Astral Weeks never fostered a similar sense of connectedness. There was no universal embrace, no measure of time the album came to reign, no collective pressing of the ear to a thin, papered wall and realizing the neighbor next door was also humming along to the title track. This was simply because so few people purchased the dang thing. (Also: No singles were released, further impeding the LP's path to the radio and wider audiences.) Astral Weeks certainly achieved a degree of appeal in Van Morrison's hometown of Belfast. However, it's crucial to note that in November of 1968, when the album was released, Morrison was four long years removed from the apex of his popularity there (Them's seismic live shows at the Maritime Hotel in the spring and summer of 1964), and one short year removed from an uneven and tepidly received solo debut. Thus, that degree of appeal was likely infinitesimal.

What it all means, I suppose: Astral Weeks is frequently bestowed with a number of hackneyed superlatives, chief among them the blessing of being "timeless." In striving for greater accuracy, one could say that Astral Weeks is not necessarily timeless, but is the rare iconic album that is not bound by the time period in which it was birthed.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Encounters with ferry boats and the ocean

I own a copy of Going to the Well for Water, the published field diary of Seamus Ennis, who was an Irish musician and collector of folk songs. I have yet to read the book from cover to cover; for the moment, I'm content with opening to a random journal entry and reading for a time—or just long enough to whisk me away from here to whatever part of Ireland Ennis was visiting.

Today, I read about the ferry boat trip Ennis took in June of 1946. His destination was Kilronan, located on the Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. His second day on the island, Ennis called on a man named Sean Mhurcha de Bhailis, who provided Ennis with the lyrics to folk songs the previous year. De Bhailis is described by Ennis, rather poetically, as: "A tall, strong man. He sang often at weddings and at home. He died when he was over eighty years of age in 1965. He was rarely ill. Towards the end of his life his legs began to cause trouble."

Ennis meets de Bhailis by the ocean. There, the islander informs the folklorist that his current despairing disposition renders him impotent in the ability to sing. "Do not ask me, Seamus," he cries to Ennis, "because nothing in the world will make me sing today, whatever is wrong with me." Then: "Some other time, please God."

I consider de Bhailis' pleas, his vexations, his admittance of defeat. This is a bargain made with creativity, a begrudging acceptance that one's artistic limitations do not solely pertain to the power of what one writes or paints or sculpts, but also to how abundantly one can put pen to paper, brush to canvas, and chisel to marble. For every juncture in the artist's existence where the fount overflows with pristine and refined original expression, there are moments where the artist is left staring into a void. Or, to put it much more simply: Some days you got it, some days you don't.

I also consider Van Morrison, who logged his own encounters with ferry boats and the ocean, and who also experienced occurrences where his capacity for personal expression fled like water into sand.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Tendrils in a grapevine wreath

Picking up where I left off yesterday ... One could argue Cyprus Avenue's trees are emblematic of East Belfast's class differences: less-privileged, working-class Hyndford Street doesn't contain any trees; middle-class Cyprus Avenue does. Yet I've never considered this to be Morrison's intent in emphasizing the trees' existence. Belfast's stark dividing lines (both of the class and sectarian variety) were decidedly overlooked on Astral Weeks.

Instead, on "Cyprus Avenue" I believe Morrison is simply awakening to the knowledge that some places are very different than the places where one is from and that these differences are certainly predicated on physical characteristics (in this case, trees) or the individuals settled there, but also on how these quote/unquote different places make one feel, how they allow one to breathe in ways they wouldn't normally breathe and think in ways they wouldn't normally think. Or how these places allow for previously unimagined growth: how a moment of uncertainty in these places uncovers an aspect of one's self that was previously hidden or how a bout of disappointment recalibrates one's efforts to reach a particular goal.

Or how the sights and sounds and smells become so fiercely alive that following departure, the senses that perceived them are exhausted and dulled. Or how these places and the emotional responses elicited there become so elaborately intertwined, like the curling tendrils in a grapevine wreath, that it's nearly impossible to untangle them and over time, they became immediately and irrevocably associated with that place.

Inevitably, Morrison began to carry Cyprus Avenue inside him, back to where he was from, to other places even, and it was etched so deeply it endured long after the reasons he first ventured there abandoned him.