Sunday, March 30, 2014

Back in Richard Davis' room

Richard Davis' CV is damn impressive. Seriously; check it out. One could compile an all-legend lineup of the men he recorded with: Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; Eric Dolphy, saxophone; Elvin Jones, drummer; Charles Mingus, composer. You would give up 10 years of your life to hear this bunch in a live setting. Don't try and deny it. Davis also did recording work with a number of other highly influential jazz artists, including saxophonist Booker Ervin, pianist Andrew Hill, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

And so here's the thing: finding an entry point for Davis' career can be challenging. Where do you begin? His resume is littered with classics, each one begging you to give it a whirl. Friday, during my lunch break, I chose Dolphy's Out to Lunch!, for no other reason than it has luscious blue cover art. (It's also regarded as a masterpiece of the free jazz sub-genre. So it looks good and sounds good.)

On Out to Lunch!'s title track, Davis exhibits a puerile recklessness that you don't hear on Astral Weeks. One snippet of his bass solo reminds me of the classic tip-toeing cartoon character: quick and exaggerated steps, balanced on their toes, an index finger placed over the lips. But just as quickly as that image forms, it vanishes. Davis' notes then fall and tumble and bump into one another, like a child spilling a bucketful of blocks across the floor. Then my favorite part: the bassist plays the same notes over and over, almost as if he's gleefully mocking himself. Now we're having some fun.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wrapped up in books

A hastily tossed together summary of various Van Morrison-focused writing. By no means is this list comprehensive. All of these books are currently sitting on a shelf directly to my left. Feel free to come by and borrow one.

In terms of pure biographies, Clinton Heylin's Can You Feel the Silence? Van Morrison: A New Biography (published in 2002) ranks as the most thorough and competent examination of the Irishman's life and career (even if it does tend to overemphasize Morrison's various shortcomings). Steve Turner's Too Late to Stop Now (1993)—which is sparse on content, heavy on the photography (though several of the shots are worth the price of the book alone)—is ideal for the Morrison newcomer who is just finding their way. Meanwhile, John Collis' biography Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1996) occupies a middle ground between Heylin and Collis' tomes: It's exhaustively researched and informative, but by no means all-inclusive.

Brian Hinton's Celtic Crossroads: The Art of Van Morrison (1997) is sprinkled with biographical information, but primarily reads as a series of penetrating albums reviews, Morrison's vast catalog enduring a meticulous song-by-song dissection. In a somewhat similar vein is Peter Mills' Hymns to the Silence: Inside the Words and Music of Van Morrison (2010), an "anti-biography" that reassess the artist's career purely through the context of his music. Perhaps the most curious approach was undertaken by Johnny Rogan. Aside from an in-depth study of the Irishman's life and calling, Van Morrison: No Surrender (2005) includes detailed information on the Troubles—the colloquial name for the conflict that raged for three decades in Northern Ireland. However, the conflict is often curiously accompanied by parallels Rogan draws between Morrison and one of the Troubles' most polarizing figures, Protestant politician and preacher Ian Paisley.

Also worth citing are several lengthy essays on Morrison. These were featured in collections by the author cited. In Spirited Men: Story, Soul, and Substance (2004), Brian Doyle praised the latter chapters of Morrison's career while spotlighting various apocryphal stories and half-truths regarding the Irishman's many eccentricities. In When That Rough God Goes Riding (2010), Greil Marcus draws connecting lines between his politically-charged college days at Berkeley, the seeming impossibility of Bob Beamon's historic long jump at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and the boundary-shattering legacy of Astral Weeks. Finally, there are Gerald Dawe's essays on Morrison from My Mother-City (2008) and The Rest is History (1998); both stroll through the landscapes of post-war Belfast, revealing how the city plays a key role in shaping individual identity.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cold, wet cloths

Long, long before they were garbed in harpsichord and vibraphone and strings, and burst with a grandiosity unprecedented in the rock era, the songs on Astral Weeks were uncomplicated affairs, rough-hewn sketches, midnight bedroom musings accented by basic chords strummed softly on an acoustic guitar. What I absolutely adore about Glen Hansard's Astral Weeks covers (besides their frightening intensity; I have to lie down and place a cold, wet cloth on my forehead after hearing them) is how he whisks us back to the album's clean, simple origins, how he reminds us that the album's spine is, and always will be, Van Morrison's vocals and guitar playing. Hearing Hansard perform a stripped-bare and scuffed-up version of "Astral Weeks" ... I shake my head and sigh. Surely this is what the song sounded like in its primitive, early form.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Breaking endless circles

There were always photographs: black-and-white and grainy, bunched together in the middle of books, displayed on glossy and silky photo paper, captured scenes of sectarian savagery. My eyes moved past the piles of broken brick and the bulky armored vehicles and the drooping banners proclaiming "No Surrender" and the inky black smoke, and they lingered on the faces. And whether it was Catholics or Protestants, Republicans or Loyalists, Nationalists or Unionists, the faces contorted in the same grotesque fashion whenever the horror or the sorrow or the hopelessness became too much to bear.

For a long time, this was Northern Ireland to me: a land of monochrome violence, colorless existences, social catastrophe. A Northern Ireland I cobbled together from dense history books and hard-boiled fiction; a Northern Ireland that came into existence following an awakening of sorts in 1997. That summer, I returned from a trip to Kinsale and Co. Kerry with the rather embarrassing realization that my knowledge of Irish history, culture, and identity wouldn't fill your standard bar tumbler. So I read; then read some more. Then kept reading. (This being that dark age before the Internet reached the mainstream, when following the paths of self-education didn't include stopovers at Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia.)

And then I went to Northern Ireland, nearly 10 years after my first trip to the island. The morning we arrived in Belfast, unkempt and dried out from airplane booze, we walked down Donegall Place in Belfast center. I saw teenage girls with fresh, salon-primped hair and neon drainpipe pants and pastel high heels, and even younger boys with color-mottled football jerseys and dazzlingly chromatic sneakers. I saw a boy ran up behind a girl and goose her and then scurry back to his mates. The girl yelped and planted fists on hips and stared with mock outrage, and the boy laughed and raised his arms in triumph, like he had just converted a kick from the penalty spot.

And then a thought arrived: Here, on this street, nearly a decade after the Good Friday Agreement, are young men and women born long after the violence captured and depicted in the old books I once read. For the first time in generations, there are adolescents growing up here with the understanding that it's possible for endless circles of hatred and violence to be broken. They are recognizing that a life circumscribed by sectarian and political boundaries is a life that is futile.

This is the Northern Ireland of today: a place, as I wrote once before, where the future is uncertain, where there's a steely determination to reconcile with the past, and where the present is laden with so much hope and optimism.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ostensible reasons

This photo of Green Street in Cambridge, Mass., was posted by Ryan Walsh on his blog, Ryan Walsh Escapes His Fate. Walsh is the singer/guitarist/songwriter of the Boston-based band Hallelujah The Hills.

This excerpt is from Clinton Heylin's Can You Feel the Silence?:
The choice of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was an interesting one. Essentially a university town, centered around Harvard University, it lies across the river from that most English of New England cities, Boston. Morrison enjoyed the fact that it had "a lot of funky clubs, and a lot of bars where you [could] see R&B performers," and it was still no more than four hours from the hubbub of New York City. Morrison rarely revealed his real reason for being in Massachusetts, though his long-standing bassist Tom Kielbania remembers him once alluding to the fact that "he didn't have a very good relationship with Bang Records. There was a lot of hostilities there, and he [had] got paranoid of the whole situation." By the time John Payne joined the pair in September, his ostensible reason for skipping New York had become "wreck[ing] some PA equipment at some clubs, [so] no one would hire him any more."

Living down on Green Street, Morrison could take in the various clubs that served the student population. He was also able to connect with the small music community based in Boston. Almost the first musician to befriend Van was the lead singer in a local rock band, the Hallucinations (shortly to be renamed the J. Geils Band). Peter Wolf remembers how he and Morrison "would spend hours listening to music and hanging out at clubs. [Back then] there seemed to be a certain hopefulness—a sense that your dreams, if you worked hard enough, could come to fruition."

Friday, March 7, 2014

Moments of knife-sharp anguish preserved

Other's people dirt. In hotel rooms and rented lake houses, it makes me recoil, sends tiny shudders through my body. But when it comes to vinyl and cassettes (not so much compact discs), I embrace it. Occasionally it's an invisible soot that comes off record sleeves, and sullies fingertips and settles on clothing. But it can also be a little more tangible, a bit more revealing: a faded boarding pass, a pleated ATM receipt, a shopping list chicken-scratched upon a yellow sticky note. Other people's dirt—what the great unwashed are inadvertently and perpetually leaving behind, an incomplete legacy of grit and skin flakes and random curio.

When I first opened my used cassette copy of Astral Weeks, purchased long ago on eBay for $2.99 (plus free shipping!), what I instantly noticed was that the tape wasn't properly rewound before it was sold. Since the cassette was placed in the case with Side B facing out, I assumed this was the last side the previous owner listened to. So I popped it in my radio and played Side B.

Now, owning a used cassette stopped mid-album was certainly not "other people's dirt" in the same way that possessing a record with a faded personalized seal on the sleeve was "other people's dirt." (On the lower right-hand corner of my copy of The Mississippi Blues, No. 3: Transition, 1926-1937 is a purple-inked stamp from Dick Freniere of 385 Powder Mill Road, Concord, Mass.) This used tape suggested what was possible, it hinted at something obscured—a fleeting moment observed through a slightly cracked door.

When I hit play, I immediately heard the second "Yes it is" from "Ballerina"'s "Alright, well it's getting late / Yes it is, yes it is," the plunging valley before the song's astonishing, emotionally-charged apex, and I envisioned a listener who could no longer bear the cosmic strain of Morrison's lyrics and vocals, so he checked out. The sheer, impassioned weight of "Ballerina" crushed him, even before he experienced its climax; he ejected the tape and summarily placed it inside the case. So his moment of knife-sharp anguish was preserved with the click of the "stop" button, like a city clock frozen at the moment a titanic bomb exploded.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Catacombs revisited

I chatted briefly with friend of the blog Doug Ferriman, who provided me with much helpful information on the Catacombs last year. Ferriman recently confirmed what I long suspected: that the subterranean space at 1120 Bolyston St. in Boston was indeed the old music club known as the Catacombs—the spot where Van Morrison performed during the summer of 1968, refining a collection of songs that eventually became Astral Weeks. (I sought clarification because after my November visit with the good folks at Berklee College of Music, there was some confusion over whether the venue's former location was 1120 Bolyston or at some of the school's offices at 1126 Bolyston St.).

Ferriman—who is founder and CEO of Crazy Dough's Pizza, as well as a neighbor to the old Catacombs club (one of his restaurants is located at 1124 Bolyston St.)—said that even after the venue stopped hosting live shows, it remained a fixture (though a highly secret one) on the Boston music scene.

"The space was handed down from one band to the next," Ferriman explained. "The last to occupy it was a local heavy metal act. Bands used it to hang out and practice. It was a party place for any artists coming through town. I heard Bob Dylan visited—even bands like Megadeth. They would go down there to party and jam. It was totally off the grid. Nobody knew about it except this small network of artists. It was very cool."

Ferriman, however, isn't too fond of the Catacombs' current purpose. "It's a little sad," he said. "The place has lost much of its lore. It's just a rehearsal space now, without any of the character it once had." ​