Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A little stolen moment

"And you know you gotta go / On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row ..."

BBC Radio Ulster produced a wonderful two-part documentary on the cross-border train service between Dublin's Connolly Station in the Republic of Ireland and Belfast's Central Station in Northern Ireland. John Toal ambled from car to car, mastering the well-balanced gait necessary for a moving train, conversing with a myriad of native and foreign workers, shoppers, and tourists.

While chit-chats occasionally veered toward the delightfully mundane—one gentleman was on the train to pick up a secondhand bench vice; it was apparently more economical to have it shipped to Northern Ireland and pick it up in person rather than have it sent directly to his Co. Galway home—the primary purpose of Toal's rail journeys was to consider the border separating the two countries as well as what each "side" thinks of the other.

On the south-to-north excursion, one man alluded to a distinct change in atmosphere after crossing the border. He believed that folk from the Six Counties had a discernible edge, that the average Northerner possessed a finely-sharpened ability to demonstrate caution around strangers. A woman from the Republic classified her compatriots as overly casual and detached before accusing them of too often evoking that oft-heard Irish expression of cheery indifference: "Ah sure, it'll be grand!"

The most welcoming revelation, however, was one passenger's assessment that the border is no more than an "invisible irrelevance." Because such pronounced apathy was largely absent when Van Morrison wrote "Madame George" nearly 50 years ago. Back then, the border was a very real and very severe dividing line. But after Toal interviewed a composer traveling from Belfast to Dublin, I began to ponder whether there were underlying political, social, or cultural contexts to the lyric quoted above or whether Morrison was perhaps simply inspired by the sensual, steady-tempoed aspects of a train ride.

Said this composer about his rail journey: "It's kinda like a little stolen moment ... There's something extremely relaxing about being on the train ... Has something to do with the rhythm of it, the general underlining pulse that flows through everything."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Catacombs redux

Vocalist/guitarist Van Morrison + bassist Tom Kielbania + flautist John Payne.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

And we don't care about the young folks

Of the many astonishing aspects of the Astral Weeks creation story, the one I find to be the most stunning (and thoroughly humbling) is this: when Van Morrison trotted into Century Sound Studios for the album's first recording session, he wasn't even a month past his 23rd birthday. Consider the mindset of the average early-twenty-something, an individual freshly removed from settings in which standards of responsibility and accountability are largely and obnoxiously absent. (Beautifully illustrated here.)

How does a newly-minted 23-year-old become so ruthlessly committed to a particular artistic vision? Where does an individual of such physical and emotional immaturity acquire a voice of such titanic fervor? When has someone so inexperienced drawn from such a deep well of experience? Or better yet, when has someone so young ever sounded so adult?

At 23, Morrison already understood that it's possible for one to grow old while also preserving childlike senses of delight and wonder. To the person who just exited teenagerdom, adulthood is something that's inevitable and grotesque; for Morrison, it was already wildly edifying. Some take lifetimes to arrive at such realizations. Others, I suppose, never do.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wildly iconic

I spun Love's Forever Changes the other night and as "The Red Telephone" played, I had visions of Arthur Lee striking his best Michael-Corleone-at-the-end-of-The Godfather: Part II pose—plunked in a chair, hand to mouth, all withdrawn and brooding and menacingly handsome. Looking wildly iconic and shit.

Of course, there's more to Love's masterstroke than men transforming themselves into icons (all while firmly preserving what makes them human). Released in November of 1967, Forever Changes was issued during a period when the album was becoming the preferred creative medium for artists. But like a certain LP regularly picked apart here in our tiny corner of the Internet, Forever Changes forced listening audiences to reconsider how albums were composed. How should you immerse yourself in an artist's long-player, when you know that it will all end swiftly and pitilessly? Love's response to this question was to communicate something new and vital: albums are not about beginnings and ends. They're about journeys—paths chosen, emotions experienced, knowledge gained, connections established, hatreds cultivated, new loves forged, time beautifully spent.

Forever Changes and Astral Weeks are heavily infused with movement; every word and note conveys a sense of action. Listening to either album, my heart flutters, the soles of my feet vibrate—I feel like I'm in a rapidly speeding train, the scenery outside the window an opaque blur of color. Where I am going is inconsequential—that I am moving is what matters.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fair play

Stereogum dives headfirst into the Van Morrison oeuvre and nearly drowns. After wringing out their hair and wrapping themselves in towels, the writers rank Morrison's 30-plus albums from worst to best. Not surprisingly, Astral Weeks failed to claim the top spot. You know why. These music-list exercises, so ubiquitous in today's world of dead-on-arrival music criticism, resonate with added irrelevance whenever the sorely obvious choice as No. 1 is crowned as such. See for yourself which album is considered the pinnacle of Morrison's career.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Early Friday evening, I sat on the subway and thought about moving in a straight line. Going directly from one point to another with no abrupt turns or sudden changes, no adjustments on the fly, no returns home because someone forgot their [insert important object they were advised not to forget but inevitably forget any time a journey is taken somewhere] was simply wonderful. I was the subway's only smiling passenger.

I listened to Astral Weeks and while "Cyprus Avenue" was playing we ambled by a derelict train car and as Van Morrison sang "If I pass the rumbling station where the lonesome engine drivers pine" I saw that on the side of this car was spray-painted the words "Young hungry thieves." Or perhaps it was "Hungry young thieves." Either way, there was no comma separating the adjectives. The thieves are young—punctuation doesn't concern them. Then a commuter train traveling on the adjacent track suddenly thwarted my view of the graffiti, and then we trundled into North Station and the subway shuddered and stopped.

Outside, it was raining softly. The streets turned dark and slick. I walked briskly, my hood pulled tight. Later, while sitting at the bar, mp3 player and earbuds sprawled out next to my pint, I heard a song playing, faintly and faraway. I had forgot to shut off the music on my device: Astral Weeks was still working its magic, spinning for absent audiences, serenading the void. I brought the earbud close and caught a few notes. It was like something had been stolen from me and then returned.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The first principle of artistic economy

This here is a particularly engrossing piece on James Joyce. It was penned by Harry Levin, a distinguished literary critic who was one of the foremost authorities on Joyce. His 1941 book James Joyce: A Critical Introduction is regarded as the first literary criticism of the Irish writer's oeuvre. While reading Levin's work, a number of phrases and passages leaped off the page—I nabbed them with forefinger and thumb and then gently pressed them inside the pages of a heavy book. I take them out at opportune moments, such as now:
Communication, however, brought further difficulties, which it was his special triumph to overcome. If "his destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders," it was because he reserved his energies for order of another kind. "The first principle of artistic economy," he had found, was isolation; he had detached himself from his nationality and his religion; but he found his medium, language, pointing back to them.
Van Morrison achieved a similar discovery, only his pathways were fraught with dissimilar hurdles and hindrances. However, at this moment, I'd rather not highlight the manner in which Morrison's emotional and physical isolation made Astral Weeks tremble and throb, but instead, why the album demands near-identical shades of isolation from listeners. Because when I hit play or drop the needle, I typically do so while sealed off from others. A particular sort of solitary confinement is necessary to truly appreciate Astral Weeks' labyrinthine journey into the heart of what sustains us, what moves us, what remains with us, and, perhaps most important of all, what leaves us feeling incomplete and defeated. In short, it's this: the artist being alone to make music to be alone to.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Tick all the boxes

If I had a tick-list of things to look for in the perfect "Astral Weeks" cover, this rendition would tick all the boxes: viaduct pronounced as "via-DOCK"; a teeny bit of falsetto; a guitarist ditching their pick mid-song; a guitarist getting all giggly mid-song; a lyrical brainfart; raucous foot stomping; a sung word that may or may not have been profanity; an artist who loses the plot entirely, comes back to their senses, then teeters on the edge of madness once more; a young person whose from-the-very-depths-of-their-soul performance makes it clear they simply can't exist without Astral Weeks.