Thursday, May 29, 2014

The minutiae of the physical world

One of Van Morrison's inspirations on Astral Weeks was his deep, youthful communion with nature—or the idea that our external environments oftentimes reflect the order or turmoil of our everyday lives. Scanning Astral Weeks' lyrics, one finds a total of 70 references to the natural world. That breaks down to 8.75 per track—or one reference every 40.4 seconds. "Ballerina" has zero. Interestingly, the totals in the album's remaining compositions can be arranged in a neat and tidy numerical order: eight in "Slim Slow Slider," nine in the title track, 10 in "Madame George," 11 in "The Way Young Lovers Do," 12 in "Cyprus Avenue," and 13 in "Sweet Thing."

(Full disclosure: I stuck to a somewhat loose, but still well defined meaning of the term "natural world": as in, that which exists independently of human activities—or what exists without human beings or civilization. That meant no "road," "street," or "avenue." "Ditch," which features prominently in the title track, was included in that song's final tally, since a ditch by definition can be man-made or naturally constructed. Meanwhile, words with multiple definitions [i.e., "world" and "air"] were counted. So were "Madame George"'s "frosty" and "cold" since Morrison was not using them to describe, say ... a person's demeanor, but rather the weather. I know you care about all this as deeply as I do.)

Morrison's avid devotion to the natural world and his capacity for drawing inspiration from it puts him shoulder to shoulder with countless other Irish wordsmiths. Tim Pat Coogan's 2000 book on the history of Irish emigration, Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora, details the island's preoccupation with the minutiae of the physical world, the responsiveness of its poetic traditions to "the small details of nature: a bird singing, the moon in the water, a fall of rain, the sudden surge of delight while in the midst of natural things." This Irish reverence for one's physical surroundings—and as an extension, to quote Coogan once more, a reverence for "their families, their native places, their own distinctive sagas"—explains the indelible longing many emigrants have for Ireland, even decades after departing.

So while Astral Weeks' words, themes, and ideas hardly qualify as groundbreaking, they do play a crucial role in preserving what makes Irish writing truly Irish. Nature, and all its countless and extraordinary elements, critically shapes the stories many Irish writers tell. What Astral Weeks accomplished was to take this singular creative approach from the pages of novels and poetry anthologies and transfer it to the grooves of an LP.

For whom the you-know-what tolls

Van Morrison is enamored with church bells. By my count, he has mentioned them in six different songs. Some references are simple, declarative: in "She Gives Me Religion," Morrison sings, "And the church bells chime / On a Sunday afternoon." Others have a tad more color. From "Haunts of Ancient Peace": "The Sunday bells they chime / Around the countryside and towns / A song of harmony and rhyme / In haunts of ancient peace."

Morrison's allusion to bells in "Beside You" is undoubtedly my favorite. "In the evening," he cries. "Just before the Sunday six-bells chime / Six-bells chime." With a dash of alliteration, Morrison identifies them as something more than mere "church" bells. He specifically states the day and time (6 p.m.) when they toll. He establishes a sense of anticipation: any moment now, those familiar, distant bells will peal.

So where in Belfast is the location of the church bells that so deeply inspired Morrison? The quick and easy answer is St. Donard's Church, located at the corner of the Bloomfield and Beersbridge Roads, less than a quarter mile from Morrison's childhood home on Hyndford Street. St. Donard's, referenced in the song "On Hyndford Street," certainly has a prominent place in Morrison's consciousness: his parents were married there on Christmas Day in 1941.

However, this being Belfast and all, a place where religion dominates many facets of everyday life, countless churches dot the city's landscape. There are a number—including Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on Beersbridge Road, Bloomfield Methodist Church on Grand Parade, and St. Anthony's Church on Woodstock Road—less than a mile from Morrison's East Belfast neighborhood. Could the ringing bells have come from one of these?

What we are certain of is why the bells tolled at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Many Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches rang what is often known as the "Angelus bell." It was done three times a day—6 a.m. noontime, and 6 p.m.—as a reminder to parishioners in the community to pray the devotion known as the Angelus.

Knowing Morrison's adolescent ambivalence toward religion, he probably politely declined.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


The Guardian scratches a tiny list itch and catalogs five sophomore albums that were better than the artist's debut. The choices were pulled together from suggestions put forth on Facebook and Twitter (blech). What will interest readers of this blog (all three of you) is that the list was inspired by a cursory spin of Astral Weeks. (Acknowledged in the blog post as "possibly one of the best albums of all time and certainly one of the best second albums of all the time.") Have at it.

"Something happened"

Astral Weeks is very place-specific. If one is cataloging its most crucial elements—those specific ingredients that make Astral Weeks Astral Weeks—the album's fixed setting is among the top three on the list. Van Morrison understood, like many distinguished novelists or short story writers, that a setting doesn't merely contain the story. It often is the story.

This short passage from Alice Munro's "Face" is one I recently considered while listening to Astral Weeks: "Something had happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places."

I also found myself thinking about the writer Liam O'Flaherty, born on the Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. O'Flaherty was of the opinion that the power of his native land came from the landscape rather than its people—that mankind, even at its most enchanting and unspoiled, is simply no match for the anarchic intensity of the natural world.

I won't say Morrison arrived at the same conclusion regarding Belfast ("Madame George" is an example of the Irishman's belief that the pure influence of the city's people is equal to the power of its landscapes). But he certainly does embrace the idea that throughout the course of an individual life, there are few places where, to quote Munro, "something happened." On Astral Weeks, Morrison acknowledges that these specific places forever nest inside us, vivid and noisy and begging to be revisited. And when our lives become muddled or broken, we venture to these places to recover something—some idea of ourselves, perhaps—and start down those paths to inner peace.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"Probably come to die in this town"

Stating that Big Black's "Kerosene" could have functioned as the musical backdrop to Van Morrison's formative years is hardly a gutsy call, because "Kerosene"'s themes of enmity, disenchantment, and urgency have been widely clutched by young people everywhere. As a middle-aged adult, you can't look "Kerosene" directly in the eye. It's ugly and terrifyingly honest; the song leaves you sore from embarrassment, chiefly because you once felt the same way as the narrator (can you imagine?). But in the throes of adolescence, "Kerosene" is pure magic, the rare anthem that simultaneously delivers you to the precipice of tears (finally—someone who understands me for me; *sniff*) and gets the veins in your forehead angrily pulsing (teenager SMASH).

When I read articles and biographies that detail Morrison's immediate pre-Astral Weeks period, "Kerosene" often hisses in my head. Morrison quit Them in 1966 and resettled in Belfast soon afterward. He stitched together a new band and performed gigs at familiar haunts throughout the city. Friends and acquaintances from that time allude to him being extra sullen and volatile. Morrison's sour temperament was the possible consequence of an individual who believed he had just botched his one big shot at stardom.

"I was born in this town," Big Black vocalist/guitarist Steve Albini sneers in "Kerosene." "Live here my whole life / Probably come to die in this town / Live here my whole life / Never anything to do in this town / Live here my whole life."

It's not difficult to imagine Morrison feeling similarly powerless and pointless. But in time, this moody defeatism would stimulate him to unforeseen creative heights. Morrison was not destined to spend his years sitting around at home and staring at walls, to paraphrase Albini. America would soon beckon. And bigger and better things.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A break from your regularly scheduled programming ...

Here's a new footnote in the Astral Weeks creation narrative, albeit a rather small one: Boston and Belfast have officially become sister cities. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Belfast's Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir signed the agreement on May 12. Much pomp and circumstance then followed. A released statement tactfully referenced Belfast's still-healing sectarian wounds ("a world-leader in peace building") and played up Boston's indelible ties to the Emerald Isle (the "Irish-American capital of America").

The signing of the agreement followed recent headlines involving both cities. On April 30, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams was arrested for questioning in connection with the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who was abducted from her Belfast home and accused of being a British Army informant. Adams' arrest was based on allegations contained in taped interviews recorded for a Boston College oral history project on the Troubles. The Belfast Project, as it came to be known, brought together interviews from more than 40 former republican and loyalist paramilitaries. Boston College is now being sued by several individuals who participated.

Friday, May 9, 2014

This is this

Because, God damn it, the world doesn't have enough eight-minute, amateurish, saxophone-drenched, drum-laden, Christmas-time-at-the-local-community-center covers of "Slim Slow Slider."