Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Remix unleashed, unleashed remix

Jim Adams, who uploads tracks under the username Jimdubtrix on Soundcloud, unleashed this remix of "Madame George." It's titled "Get on the Train" and it's got this jazz/electro-soul/dub/trip hop/ambient lounge thing going on. It covers a lot of genre ground, but doesn't wander aimlessly. It's inventive and sonically exploratory, yet remains true to the original. It's a rightful homage that doesn't fall prey to being worshipful.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A sunken city

"Beside You" is my least favorite track on Astral Weeks. I'm tempted to say that it's doubtful the song's position as such will ever change, but this is Astral Weeks. A significant portion of the album's allure is wrapped up in its sheer bulk, its wondrous impenetrableness, its capacity to reveal a glittering new particle of genius with every listen. I've played Astral Weeks 1,000 times now—maybe "Beside You" will click on that 1,001st listen.

Anyway, for all the track's sins—it's slightly aimless, scattered with awkward imagery (when's the last time you heard a song reference nostrils?), and on an album stuffed with dense instrumentation, the stripped-down production leaves it feeling vacant and unfinished—I do relish Van Morrison's vibrant, meandering allusions to the beauty and grace of the physical world: "And you wander away from your hillside retreated view," followed by, "Way across the country where the hillside mountains glide."

Morrison's words were sparked by his eternal affection for his home (which is the case for much of the lyrics on Astral Weeks, of course)—in this particular instance, Belfast's striking natural beauty. Gerald Dawe dutifully described it in his book My Mother-City: "Coming into Belfast is like approaching a sunken city. It lies inside a horseshoe of surrounding hills; the coastal land to its southern shoreline is the rich, undulating landscape of County Down; to Belfast's northerly shores is Country Antrim: a harsher, dramatic terrain that faces Scotland across the narrow straits of the sea of Moyle."

And as I once wrote for One Week // One Band:
In Belfast, the serenity and relief of the countryside is always within one's grasp; you can hop in an automobile and drive from the city center to the base of Divis, a mountain that looms to the northwest, in roughly 20 minutes. The allure of that serenity and relief is inescapable. During our trip to Belfast, we took a morning walk up the Lisburn Road from our rented flat on College Gardens and I noticed how each glance down a narrow side street offered breathtaking views of the nearby mountains.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Soft and hard emotion

On Sunday afternoons, May Kelly's Cottage hosts a weekly seisiun. For those not blessed with the divine ability to communicate in the Irish tongue, seisiun simply means "session" and it denotes those informal pub gatherings in which musicians assemble to play traditional Irish songs. May Kelly's weekly seisiun is a heavily-attended event. You arrive early if you wish to sit. Your ears buzz from the cacophony of fiddle, button accordion, and bodhran, and clapping hands and chattering voices. And when those four pints of Smithwick's demand an immediate departure, you inadvertently step on feet and jostle elbows as you maneuver through dense herds of humanity.

One Sunday, a man with a head like a pencil eraser and a chassis few could wrap both arms around sang "The Leaving of Liverpool" and when he neared the final rendering of the chorus he began to slowly amble backward toward the room's entrance and after belting out the tune's closing phrase he swept one arm in an exaggerated good-bye flourish and quickly departed, hearing only the start of what was raucous applause for his performance.

And on another Sunday, a man brought a double bass to the seisiun. The effect of seeing such an instrument at such a gathering and in such a setting was like watching a rickshaw mosey up to the starting line at the Indianapolis 500. When I saw the man with the double bass enter a room where the weighty burden of Irishness being hefted by countless listeners was practically palpable (burdens both real and imagined), I couldn't help but think of Richard Davis and the weighty burden of Irishness he encountered when he walked into Century Sound Studios in New York City.

Davis is responsible for the most compelling instrumentation on Astral Weeks. His basslines are so smooth, so melodious, and so pure that you almost fail to notice his achievement. But that was possibly his goal. Davis' bass is the soft emotion that rests beneath the hard emotion of Van Morrison's vocals and acoustic guitar—Morrison expresses power while Davis suggests vulnerability.

Davis is also responsible for one of my favorite quotes regarding Astral Weeks. In a Rolling Stone piece the bassist discussed the album's twilight recording sessions: "There's a certain feel about a seven-to-ten-o'clock session. You've just come back from a dinner break; some guys have had a drink or two. It's this dusky part of the day and everybody’s relaxed. I remember that the ambience of that time of day was all through everything we played."

Saturday, November 16, 2013


So this one dude covers "The Way Young Lovers Do." He's standing in his well-furnished living room and he's wearing freshly ironed slacks and judging by the light coming through the curtains, it's the early afternoon. You know what happens in the early afternoon? Newspapers are delivered, gutters are cleaned, kids come home from school, housewives sip coffee and lick the moisturized tips of their index fingers and flip through newspaper flyers. The bright, bland light of early afternoon is no time to be singing about the way young lovers do this, that, and the other thing. So I found the dude seen above. He's got his shade pulled down; it's dark outside. Young lovers thrive in the dark. Listen to him turn the pages in his songbook. He's suffering from romantic agitation. Or maybe he's aroused and the sexual energy has seized his fingers. Plus he's shirtless! Shirtless is part of the young lovers' dress code. In fact, I bet Van Morrison was shirtless when he wrote the song in his Belfast bedroom.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"What difference does it make where you were born?"

Van Morrison was recently presented the Freedom of Belfast Award (only the second person in 10 years to receive the accolade). He spoke glowingly of his native city. On Friday, he will play a free concert at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. When considered separately, these events range from momentous to relatively unremarkable. Taken as a whole, they are evidence that it's possible to reconcile a troubled past with a promising future. (This relates to Morrison's relationship with Belfast, but could also reference the relationship between the city's religiously divided communities.)

Strong are Morrison's current ties to Belfast—ties forged by: a decade-long creative burst in which he churned out some of the most intensely autobiographical compositions of his career (two of the better numbers from that time: "Cleaning Windows" from 1982's Beautiful Vision and "Coney Island" from 1989's Avalon Sunset); a willingness to highlight live performances from Northern Ireland (1984 release Live at the Grand Opera House); a request to assume a small role in the peace process (the title track from Morrison's 1995 album Days Like This was used by the Northern Ireland Office in an advertising campaign promoting the Good Friday Agreement). So strong are these ties that it's virtually impossible to recall the extended period when Morrison was estranged from his home.

Soon after the release of "Brown Eyed Girl" in July of 1967, the singer-songwriter left Hyndford Street for the U.S. He took an extended tour of the Republic of Ireland in 1973 and embarked on trips to Dublin in the following months, but Belfast was never on the itinerary (much to the dismay of fans and the irritation of music journalists). For 12 years Morrison shunned Northern Ireland; his self-imposed exile didn't end until February of 1979, when he played a pair of shows at Belfast's Whitla Hall. During his time away, Morrison's public comments about his home were typically tinged with apathy and displeasure. One oft-repeated quote: "What I'm not part of is the hatred thing. What difference does it make where you were born? It's just a piece of land. All I can say is that I'm neutral."

How Morrison was able to speak negatively about his birthplace in sit-downs with newspapermen while venerating Northern Irish places in his art is several hundred words for another day. (In short, Morrison firmly believes that the seemingly innocent Belfast of his adolescence and the violence-ridden Belfast of The Troubles are two wholly and distinctly different places. One has zero to do with the other. And thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, which has delivered a period of relative peace and prosperity, Morrison can draw parallels between present-day Belfast and the Belfast of his bygone years. That's my theory at least.) What can be stated is that Morrison's reverence for his home has never been so profound and undeniable. For a long time, it felt like the nickname "the Belfast Cowboy" was waiting to be taken up and dressed in, that Morrison's long absence from the city meant the moniker wasn't quite his to wear. Today, that's all changed. Today, the name fits snugly.

For the Belfast Cowboy, the word place is no longer something physical that is perceived by the senses. It's become something constructed through experience, something shaped by memory and emotions, something to be carried around internally, now and until the end of his days. It took leaving Belfast for him to realize that Belfast will never leave him.

Friday, November 8, 2013

"This is THE WORST place"

The door to 1120 Bolyston Street is locked. Wait long enough, however, and someone inevitably approaches with a key to enter. (The amount of constant entering and exiting is what initially urged my accomplice—who works nearby, but has never set foot inside 1120 Bolyston—to assume that the door was always unlocked or didn't sport a lock at all.) We sneak in behind a key-toting gentleman, step slowly down a long flight of stairs. At the bottom is a snaking, dimly-lit hallway haphazardly painted in shades of burgundy and cream. There are numerous doors off the hallway; each one is numbered and shut tightly. These are the rehearsal spaces Doug Ferriman mentioned in his email, spots where Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory students come to refine their skills. As we walk down the hallway, the din emanating from behind the doors is overwhelming. A drummer works on heavy fills, a guitarist brashly repeats a few chords, a saxophonist plays shrieking runs. It sounds like each student is practicing alone.

We walk down another flight of stairs and enter a hallway identical to the one above us. There are more closed and numbered doors, more ear-rending rehearsing. My accomplice mentions that there's been complaints from individuals in her office regarding the unbearable noise emanating from 1120 Bolyston. (This is from an online review I unearthed regarding the address. It seems to indicate that aside from serving as practice space, permanent residency is permitted as well: "Living here for few months was one of the worst decisions I've ever made in Boston! ... In the building, this is where the Berklee students live so you can constantly hear someone playing their guitar/contra-base/saxophone. If you're looking to live in a peaceful and quiet neighborhood, this is THE WORST place.")

We pass a grimy, communal bathroom. Mouse shit is piled in corners; down one dead-end hallway we find an expired rat stiffening in a trap. The hallways are gloomy—not enough to make walking precarious, but enough to generate an atmosphere of slight unease. The air smells of dirt and decay and sour sweat. Our steps stir papers stuck to walls—flyers with tear-off tabs advertising the services of amp repairmen and experienced upright bassists. People occasionally pass us in the halls, but for the most part, the only sign of human life is the instruments playing. A location so maze-like prompts me to joke about the need for a breadcrumb trail to find our way out. I mention my visit to the catacombs underneath Paris and how worthy parallels could be drawn between there and 1120 Bolyston.

Back on the street, we blink our eyes as they adjust to the afternoon light, breathe in the autumn air. My accomplice and I speculate on what live shows in such a squalid setting were like. Today's area venues are pristine, sterilized. The journey into Boston's old Catacombs club leaves me fully admiring Van Morrison's strength of vision. Astral Weeks' gestation took place in a shadowy cavity hollowed out of the dank earth beneath urban streets. Yet such murky origins never altered Morrison's belief that these songs were spirited, vibrant, sweeping reflections of his gold-rimmed adolescence. Hell never touched his heaven.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Truly deserving of the name 'the Catacombs'

So I'm sorting through the bits of conflicting information I have received regarding the whereabouts of the Catacombs. Bear with me here ... When I met with Liz Lupton, publicist from Berklee College of Music, I had the honor of getting a full tour of her office, which is located on the second floor at 1126 Bolyston Street.

During my visit, Lupton, as well as a co-worker of hers with extensive knowledge of the Boston music scene, said they were quite confident their office space was the former site of the club. When Lupton and fellow Berklee employees moved into the location roughly a year ago, they were informed that a well-known live music club was once situated in the office space directly above 1120 Bolyston (a piece of information, according to Lupton, that absolutely thrilled the musicophiles in her office).

When Lupton saw my email about the Catacombs and 1120 Bolyston, she naturally concluded that the venue I was inquiring about was the one formerly located at her workplace. However, after leaving her office, slinking through the street-level door that sits at 1120 Bolyston, and exploring the spaces one and two stories below, Lupton felt differently regarding the Catacombs' true location. And I couldn't help but agree with her. The subterranean expanse beneath 1120 Bolyston, with its labyrinthine hallways, musty darkness, and slight air of secrecy, was truly deserving of the name "the Catacombs."

Here is further proof that this underground setting was where the club resided: This is information I received from Doug Ferriman, founder and CEO of Crazy Dough's Pizza, which has a location at 1124 Bolyston St.:
Its funny you ask about the catacombs. I tell stories about that place all the time! Long story short, the space was handed down from band to band over the decades (the last band being close customers of mine) and served as an underground musician/band hangout/jam venue. It was very cool down there, old stage, an old bowling alley way back when it was a jazz joint ... The space has been broken out into multiple rehearsal studios for Berklee and Conservatory kids. I don't think there is any characteristics left of the old hang out. It is owned and operated by the Hamilton Company ... I believe I am one of the last people down there before it was gutted. My memento was an old steel drum I always eyed on the wall, so it was nice when the guys gave it to me.