Saturday, December 7, 2013

A different theory

A tiny addendum to my Dec. 2 post regarding the genesis of Moondance. Since Astral Weeks was the music equivalent of a big-budget blockbuster becoming a box-office flop, Van Morrison was compelled to stride down a more commercial path. "I was starving. Practically not eating," Morrison said years later—very likely unaware of how an Irishman discussing hunger in any context always lends extra gravity to their words. At any rate, the postscript is this: Maybe Morrison's eagerness to separate himself from Astral Weeks was partially because Northern Ireland's rapid descent into sectarian violence took place in the aftermath of the album's release.

His beloved homeland—a place of eternal innocence and allure that was immortalized by his album—was forever altered. How could listeners from that time period hear "Madame George" and not wonder if the Troubles affected the colorful places he evoked and the dreamlike atmospheres he created? Where they spoiled by bomb or bullet? Would Northern Ireland ever be the same? So perhaps it wasn't just a desire to move more records that inspired Moondance, but his disgust, disillusionment, shame—maybe even genuine heartbreak—over what was occurring back home.

(Quick aside: The Troubles' harrowing opening act took place during the 10 days in-between Astral Weeks' final two recording sessions at Century Sound Studios in New York City. On Oct. 5, 1968, a civil rights march in Derry turned violent when the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's now-defunct police force, boxed in the crowd of 400 demonstrators at Duke Street and baton-charged them from two sides. Those who broke free were driven across Craigavon Bridge with water cannons. [According to Tim Pat Coogan's book The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966–1995 and the Search for Peace, the first use of a water cannon in Northern Ireland.] An estimated 90 to 100 demonstrators were treated for injuries. The RUC reported none. Thanks to an RTE cameraman, who was at the scene in Derry filming, pictures of RUC brutality flashed across the globe. One of the most shocking and enduring images was of a bloodied Westminster MP Gerry Fitt, who suffered a head injury from several baton strikes.)

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