Saturday, April 27, 2013

The rain, the Christ the King statue, a walk through Killarney & other things



The shops on Main Street are closed up tight with iron shutters. The entranceways are waiting anxiously to be swept out. There are no sales racks with postcards and half-priced books and sun-faded clothing. The merchants have no coin.

I walk to Kenmare Place and sit on the stone wall, and study the old jarveys with their stretched-out sweaters and their pants with tattered cuffs. They are feeding and brushing their horses, preparing for a day of riding their jaunting cars through the bumpy paths of Killarney National Park.

Nearby, the statue of Christ the King studies me. He is looking quite dapper among the smell of horse manure and man sweat. Beyond Christ lies the Killarney House Gardens: the beech, lime, and walnut trees standing tall and thick; the fading rhododendrons, roses and azaleas, which are bushed after blooming so heavily in the spring; the arched cherry drive where the ugly lovers walk together.

In the distance, clouds are festering in MacGillycuddy's Reeks. The breeze does not hint at rain, but these incoming dark clouds certainly do. Killarney has done nothing but perspire the six days I have been here—I hope the rain will hold off. I have observed the good folks here while precipitation falls and it doesn't irk them. They merely hold a hand out, catch a raindrop, rub it between their palms, and say, "'Tis a soft auld day." Soft, and bothersome.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Music from the unrealized film script



Us someones who string together a few words every now and then generally believe that the everyday masterworks we hammer out serve a secondary purpose of preparing us for more terribly ambitious endeavors. We write small because one day we'd like to write big.

So I had this idea for a screenplay! (That was the opening to my query letter; really.) This was long ago; I've since shelved it, chiefly because it didn't feature shape-shifting vampires, it wasn't an ensemble rom-com, and it wouldn't exactly work in 3D. It goes like this: Four Bostonians spend a month in Ireland after one is given an inheritance. That's it. Brush your tongue along your cheek; can you feel the hook in your mouth?

I never determined if the inheritance was a heap of money which was used to purchase a thatched-roof cottage or if the inheritance was a parcel of land with a thatched-roof cottage, or if the inheritance was left by a deceased father or a deceased grandfather or a deceased great-grandaunt who was the concubine of Arthur Guinness. The intended setting was the Irish west coast, simply because I've been to some portion of the west coast on every trip I've taken to Ireland. The candidates for the setting were scribbled down somewhere, possibly on a bar coaster: Clifden, Dingle, Donegal, Kilronan, Kinsale. In the end, Kilronan prevailed, primarily because Inishmore's isolation echoed the isolation of the four protagonists. Each one has skeletons and demons and ghosts he wrestles with; each one is on shaky ground with a loved one back home; each one is horribly clich├ęd. At some point during the 107 minutes of this fucking masterpiece each protagonist is faced with a two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood moment and forced to choose one path. Some take the road less traveled by and it makes all the difference. Some take the road less traveled by and it makes no difference whatsoever. Some merely throw up in the weeds between the two roads, and then turn around and teeter-totter back to the pub.

Anyway, despite never developing key narrative details and crucial character traits, I knew this flick would include a music montage about two-thirds of the way through and the song would be Van Morrison's "Purple Heather" (all six goddamn minutes of it). The montage would show our protagonists: putting the finishing touches on home improvements (oh yeah, the thatched roof cottage they inherit is a total fixer-upper; I forgot to mention that); making calls to loved ones back in the States on pay phones in the misty rain; sitting in the pub, sharing pints with locals who pretend to have adopted them into their inner circles; ambling down crooked, sheep-strewn rural lanes; standing, hands in pockets, cigarettes dangling from lips, watching the sun set over the ocean and marveling at how the sun doesn't set like that back home.

The montage would be stupid, drawn-out, and poignant, all at the same time. The montage would make you loathe the movie, but also have you make a conscious decision to include more Van Morrison in your life.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Exultant and voluminous

So like, Glen Hansard's exultant, voluminous shouting of "Astral Weeks"' climatic "There you go, there you go!" (it's at the 4:30 mark) is the Irish singer-songwriter artfully condensing Astral Weeks' refined, dramatic emotionalism into one moment. And like, the tottering, bespeckled elderly man who halts behind Hansard and grimaces fiercely (he sorta looks like Ian Paisley, no?) is 1968's mainstream listening audiences heavily anticipating "Brown Eyed Girl Redux" and reacting disappointingly. Um, right?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Garage rock

"Madison and I recorded a cover of Van Morrison's song 'Astral Weeks' in a garage in the country!"

Friday, April 12, 2013

"Nostalgia is dangerous"



"Nostalgia is dangerous," wrote Colum McCann in a recent New York Times op-ed. McCann's piece celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the settlement that brought—to quote a recent newspaper headline—"an imperfect peace" to Northern Ireland. Of course, peace is never perfect, but that necessarily wasn't the thrust of McCann's op-ed. His words praised the innumerable souls (chief among them, George Mitchell) who accepted that the peace process in Northern Ireland would be tormenting, fitful, blinding—like those initial moments when one passes from darkness into light and the irises reject the foreign brilliance.

(Side note that may interest only me: The opening section of McCann's Let the Great World Spin is akin to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks in how it reanimates the arcane paradises we once blithely floated through during adolescence. McCann elegantly details a childhood spent in Sandymount, a coastal suburb of Dublin. This section of the novel is titled "All respects to heaven, I like it here." Indeed!)

Is nostalgia dangerous? For Morrison, nostalgia was a muse he never stopped courting. Hear Astral Weeks, Irish Heartbeat, The Skiffle Sessions (cut with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber), "And It Stoned Me," "Orangefield." A quote from Peter Mills' Hymns to the Silence: Inside the Words and Music of Van Morrison: "I don't mind nostalgia, I've nothing against it, so long as it's mine!"

Morrison's nostalgia was warm and winsome; it was like closing your eyes and feeling the sweet breath of your young mother upon a cheek and then falling backward onto your childhood bed. McCann's op-ed is referencing a nostalgia that's seductive and provocative and thorny—you know, obsessive nostalgia. I witnessed it during a visit to Derry, Northern Ireland. In the home of the middle-aged Protestant couple who rented us rooms, their old-fashioned patriotism for Britain exhibited in the form of a security code that was "1940." Or at St Eugene's Cathedral, where the bells ring every night at 9 p.m. to honor a long-dead curfew imposed under the notorious anti-Catholic legislation known as the Penal Laws.

Obsessive nostalgia. The kind one has no control over. The kind that consumes. The kind that leaves one pondering the question "The past is through with me, yet why am I not through with the past?"

Monday, April 8, 2013

Backwards Belfast


It's becoming increasingly more difficult to imagine, but there was a time (honest; there was; I can still recall it)—before the Internet made the idea of infinite interconnectedness a multi-linked, hypertext reality—when it was possible to be isolated, bored, marginalized, unconscious, cloistered. Growing up in my Eighties, suburban bubble, I often felt like a hermit. Growing up in 1950s Belfast, Van Morrison must have felt like a hermit living in a Plutonian cave with his eyes squeezed shut and his fingers jammed in his ears.

Clinton Heylin—author of the Morrison biography Can You Feel the Silence?—wrote of how shut off Northern Ireland was from mainstream British pop culture and music. In the '60s, as Them rose to prominence, there was allegedly just one recording studio in the entire province. Located in Belfast's Cromac Square, the studio was situated above a solicitor's office, which meant artists could only record in the evening after the office had closed. Said Peter Lloyd, who managed the studio: "We had a Revox. Five mikes, no EQ, no compression."

Further evidence of how ass-backwards Belfast's music infrastructure was in the 1960s: One of Them's first breakthroughs was playing noontime sessions at the Plaza in the city center. The crowd was primarily comprised of indifferent, droopy-eyed office workers on their coffee breaks. The 100 Club this was most definitely not.

Beyond the Northern Irish capital, the situation was no more promising. Heylin wrote of how there existed "plenty of places outside the city [Belfast] where 'She Moved Through the Fair' was still considered a contemporary ballad." For much of Northern Ireland, the status quo was antiquated folk music, as well as showbands specializing in cover songs. Meaning Morrison and Them had to chip away at generations-old barriers even more persistently than British rock peers headquartered in more sophisticated locales.