Sunday, March 31, 2013

Drink problems

In 1985, Van Morrison joined Alcoholics Anonymous, his drinking—and the belligerent behavior it sparked—having reached a crisis level. He wasn't particularly keen on the experience; allegedly his own fame impeded the healing process. Said Morrison: "I had to say to people at meetings: 'I don't give a fuck whether you've got the [last] album or not. I'm here because I think I've got a drink problem."

Had Morrison stuck around, he possibly would have made a hi-my-name-is-type revelation like the one he once managed with journalist Ritchie Yorke. This is Morrison at his most confessional. (This quote would probably also make one kick-ass drinking toast.)
The heaviest dope I ever did was alcohol. I've done stuff like hash and grass, which isn't really heavy dope. But alcohol is a different story—it's a real heavy drug, a real motherfucker ... In Ireland, everybody drinks. Nobody gives it a second thought. You're Irish, number one, and you're a drinker, number two.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Going away and coming back"

It's never been a persistent, feverish hunt, but on occasion, when the thought has pricked at the back of my mind, I've sought for a significant literary passage that best encapsulates Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. It's a rather pretentious endeavor, I know: this idea that heavy, stiff parallels can be drawn between a music album and a bit of weighty prose. Nonetheless, when I recently read a passage that I considered worthy of summarizing's Astral Weeks' themes of "going away and coming back" I ignored the urge to summarily dismiss it.

(Those are Morrison's words; the exact quote, jotted down by Sean O'Hagan of The Guardian: "Basically, Irish writers, and I include myself here, are writing about the same things. Often it's about when things felt better. Either that, or sadness ... It's the story about going back and rediscovering that going back answers the question, or going back and discovering it doesn't answer the question. Going away and coming back, those are the themes of all Irish writing.")

The passage was from James Agee's A Death in the Family:
Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn't what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.
I've read this passage two dozen times now and with each reading it becomes more superb in how it draws four sharp lines around what Morrison was communicating on Astral Weeks. It's so shockingly perfect, really, to the point where I've begun to imagine Morrison read A Death in the Family during adolescence and never quite parted with the passage. He saw the words on chipped East Belfast walls. They floated over to him during commercial breaks on the family radio. During afternoons of misty, Irish rain, Agee's sentences materialized out of droplets of water gathered on Hyndford Street pavement. And when Morrison was a schoolboy and practicing cursive and penning words in the air, he wrote out the extract in large, loopy gestures.

Monday, March 25, 2013

"We got like a choke thing"

Crank this one up—the audio is rather poor. Reiterating what was mentioned under the video's comments section: Jimmy Fallon is parodying "He Ain't Give You None (Alternative Take)" from 2002's The Complete Bang Sessions. This ain't no "Brown-Eyed Girl" spoof; Fallon knows his shit.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Renowned itinerant blood

Folks listen to "Slim Slow Slider" and when the track comes to its spastic, otherworldly terminus, they ask, "Yes, but what does it all mean?" (One could argue such questioning is not merely reserved for "Slim Slow Slider" and that it's a typical response to much—or maybe all—of Astral Weeks.) What's implied and suggested in "Slim Slow Slider" is occasionally debated: It's examining heroin addiction, some have argued; others contend that it's identifying the ruin wrought by money.

I like to imagine it's a song about emigration because isn't the termination of a relationship—a maneuver "Slim Slow Slider"'s narrator and love interest appear to have freshly completed—akin to the act of voluntarily departing one's country? (I also like to imagine it's an emigrant's song because Van Morrison has the Irish race's renowned itinerant blood sloshing around in his veins. Seventy million people—an incredible number, no?—worldwide can claim Irish ancestry.) The emigrant and the loveless similarly endure bursts of discontent, resentment, suspicion, and ennui before they sever bonds to country and companion. They both understand that successfully moving forward means allowing for the occasional measured step backward—that personal liberty comes with a heavy cost.

"You're gone for something," Morrison sings. "And I know you won't be back / I know you're dying, baby / And I know you know it, too." It's a somber lament for the girl with the new boy and the new Cadillac, but it could also serve as a farewell statement to a recently abandoned home.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Flinging glasses of wine

From Clinton Heylin's Can You Feel the Silence?:
Clive Culbertson: The first night that went really bad on the first leg of the first tour, we were all sitting about and Van goes, "Let's do something important here. Let's talk some shit. Where do you want to be with your life? What do you want to be doing in 20 years' time? Let's get deep here, man. We're living on top of each other." So we go all the way round, and Paddy [Moloney] refuses to tell ... [Van] wasn't baring his soul [himself], but he opened the cage a wee bit: "Well, I want to look for the answer. I want to get free." It wasn't from the soul, it was only from the head. But Paddy wouldn't give. So of course Van goes, "Everybody else has told us. Where do you want to be spiritually?" "I just want to be playing with the Chieftains." "Look, hold on here. Everybody else has bared their soul. Now I want you to bare your soul like we have." So [finally] Van says, "Fuck you!" and he flings the glass of wine at him. So Paddy gets up, flings a glass of wine [back].
This footage is from a Morrison/Chieftains session at Belfast's Balmoral Studios. It was taped in October of 1987 and aired by the BBC on St. Patrick's Day five months later. Yes, Morrison is wearing a shamrock-green dress shirt (which certainly cheesed off the orange side of Belfast) and yes, he is playing the drums.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"And I'm standing in your doorway ..."

In Sally Belfrage's Living with War: A Belfast Year, a Belfast resident describes standard nighttime practices in the Northern Irish capital: "When you go to bed at night in Belfast that's what you do—you put everything in front of the fuckin' door." This is to prevent the unwanted from entering, of course.

Publically, during interviews with journalists, on stage in between songs, with friends and family even, Van Morrison piles up everything in front of his door. He wishes for no intrusions, no assaults on his solitude, no unwanted visitors. He is taciturn and testy, boorish and blustery. When the Belfast Blues Appreciation Society placed a small, brass plaque on Morrison's 125 Hyndford Street home, Morrison reacted angrily; a newspaper reporter wrote that the plaque should have read "Van Morrison was miserable here."

But in song, Morrison pushes away the barricades; the door is flung wide, all are permitted to enter. Emotions and musings and sentiments normally swathed in thick, dark cloth are left exposed to harsh light. The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney, who collaborated with Morrison for 1988's Irish Heartbeat, once alluded to how creating music was an unfettering experience for the songwriter. "He's in a cage otherwise," Moloney observed.

In "Ballerina," Morrison's open-door honesty is on full display. He's paralyzed by nerves—his future is balanced on the point of a pin—but he achieves a sort of relief by declaring his anxieties to all who will listen. "And I'm standing in your doorway," Morrison sings. "And I'm mumbling and I can't remember the last thing that ran through my head."

Morrison knows the doorway—it could be a doorway into a front hall, a kitchen, maybe a bedroom—is the first step on an extensive journey, that traversing the wide expanse of space before him will not only bring him closer to the object of his affection but also take him further away from himself, that here exists a potentially crucial moment where crystalline reason suddenly shatters and one just simply acts, that every subsequent occurrence in life where he discovers himself balanced on a precipice will inevitably return him to this instance, this doorway, this decision.

On an unrelated note that may interest no one: I have long associated the aforementioned lyric from "Ballerina" with the above picture.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Choose or lose

I've read a teeny-weeny bit about "solitarist" theory, which views human beings as members of one group and that membership in this one group goes a long way toward shaping human identity. Some blowhard once wrote that the theory that we can be sorted, filed, and stored in such a manner leads to a "miniaturization" of humanity, where people are locked up in tight, little boxes, only to emerge to attack one another.

Which tight, little box do you lock yourself in: Morrison's Astral Weeks or Moondance? No vacillation is allowed, no fickleness, no "a little from Column A, a little from Column B." One album butters your toast infinitely more than the other; that's just the way it is. Also—and this isn't just the bloody solarists talking—people (very important people, actually) will tell you that ultimately, your choice not only says a lot about who you are as pop music fan, but also says a lot about who you are as a person.

From a book or an essay or a bathroom stall I can't remember:
Masochistic fans of despair all love the desolation of Astral Weeks, while optimists prefer the lighter moods of Moondance.
From allmusic:
The yang to Astral Weeks' yin, the brilliant Moondance is every bit as much a classic as its predecessor; Van Morrison's first commercially successful solo effort, it retains the previous album's deeply spiritual thrust but transcends its bleak, cathartic intensity to instead explore themes of renewal and redemption.
From an interview involving writer Hank Shteamer and Lewis Merenstein, who produced Astral Weeks and shared producing credits with Morrison on Moondance:
Shteamer: When you were thinking of bringing Richard and the other musicians back, were you thinking of making Moondance a similar thing to Astral Weeks?

Merenstein: No, no, no, only Richard, not the rest of the muscians. This was a different thing; this was a poppish type of thing