Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mystery train

Astral Weeks has a pair of strikingly vivid lyrical moments that involve trains: the first is found in "Cyprus Avenue": "If I pass the rumbling station / Where the lonesome engine drivers pine"; the second (which gives this blog its name) is from "Madame George": "And you know you gotta go / On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row / Throwing pennies at the bridges down below."

Because of its proximity to Sandy Row, I had long suspected that in "Madame George" Van Morrison was referring to a train pulling into Belfast's Great Victoria Street railway station. I contacted Mark Kennedy, curator of road and rail transport at National Museums Northern Ireland, and he confirmed as much via email:
The train to Sandy Row is indeed the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise train, which would have departed and arrived at Belfast Great Victoria Street station when Van wrote the song and when he was a child. It was closed for many years, from the mid-1970s, but is now open again. Great Victoria Street station is very close to Sandy Row.
Kennedy then offered this interesting tidbit:
I have always assumed that the line "throwing pennies at the bridges down below" refers to the old custom of throwing a penny out of the railway carriage window whilst crossing the River Boyne at Drogheda and making a wish. It is no longer possible as you can't open the railway carriage windows anymore because the train is air-conditioned.
The rail mention in "Cyprus Avenue" is a bit trickier to unravel. It may be another reference to the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise line. There's also the possibility it's an allusion to the Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR), which ran through Morrison's Bloomfield neighborhood in East Belfast.

At its peak, the BCDR covered 80 miles, all within County Down. Desmond Coakham's book on the railway states that during its heyday the BCDR carried the heaviest passenger traffic in Ireland. According to a link Kennedy provided, the station closest to Morrison's home was Bloomfield. However, based on information from that same link, the BCDR's Belfast-Comber-Donaghadee line closed in April of 1950. Morrison turned five that August, so any memories of Bloomfield Station, the BCDR, and the lonesome and pining engine drivers would likely be murky at best.

Today, a linear park known as the Comber Greenway follows the path of the former BCDR. It's about a 10-minute walk from Morrison’s former home on Hyndford Street; a portion of it runs between Martinez Avenue and Cyprus Avenue. A pamphlet describing the greenway urges visitors to look for the remains of former railway platforms.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


I'm reading James Joyce's Ulysses. Then again, my sense is—300-something pages in now—that one doesn't merely read Ulysses. Instead, you fall prey to Ulysses; you are submerged in its abyssal waters, lost within its labyrinthine passages. Ulysses breaks you into tiny pieces and then puts you back together in a totally new form.

Like Astral Weeks, Ulysses draws you into its vivid settings, its narrative spaces. These are the works of artists liberating themselves from the conventional bonds of form, style, and content; artists expressing the grandiose idea that, to quote John Lingan's piece on Ulysses, "the entirety of existence, even a seemingly inconsequential midsummer day, is suffused with just such an ocean of memories, emotions, and history."

For Ulysses, that "seemingly inconsequential" day is June 16, 1904. On Astral Weeks, Van Morrison is similarly determined to wring out the memories and emotions and history from everyday, ordinary events. And while there's never been any indication that the Irishman was replicating the approach of Joyce and earnestly detailing the events of a particular day in Belfast, recent listens of Astral Weeks are steering me toward some adventurous fantasizing.

"Astral Weeks" and "Slim Slow Slider" are beginning to feel like bookends, like a starting point and a finishing line, a sunrise and a sundown. The opener overflows with optimism; curtains are pulled back, light floods a room. The song's abrupt start is like rousing in the morning, that moment when you are suddenly thrust into wakefulness. Morrison sounds like an individual with his whole day in front of him, someone with tasks to perform and places to visit and opportunities to seize. He sings of venturing and finding, of pushing on doors, of back roads, of being born again. He sings of a boy being dressed (possibly before he's shuttled off to school or to play or to church), delivered kisses, wheels put in motion. "Astral Weeks" is the bright, sunny promise of a new day.

"Slim Slow Slider" is a moment of evening contemplation, when all the day's pluses and minutes are tallied. The song captures the dusky, muted vibe of the evening; it's sluggish in tempo, stripped down to just acoustic guitar, bass, and flute. Morrison sounds fatigued, resigned, quite mournful. "I know you're dying," he sings. "And I know you know it, too / Every time I see you / I just don't know what to do." Sometimes a new day doesn't deliver a remedy to what ails us; that's what tomorrows are for.

So if Astral Weeks does depict a "seemingly inconsequential" day in Belfast, what day is it? (Please; just play along.) I thought it was essential to: find a day of some historic importance; find a day that took place during a period of considerable transition, both for Morrison and Northern Ireland; find a day from before the province descended into sectarian violence (because Astral Weeks is about the Belfast from before the fall); find a day from Morrison's adolescence (to match the album's themes of youthful innocence and imagination).

So after researching this (not thoroughly, of course), I settled on the following date: Sunday, April 7, 1963. (Again, please play along.) Spring that year was preceded by the Big Freeze of '63, a winter still discussed in Northern Ireland. Snowdrifts reached 10 feet in height, schools closed, buses and trains came to a standstill, emergency supplies were delivered by helicopter to isolated rural families, Lough Erne froze. The cold and snow didn't let up until March.

On the 25th of that month, 1st Viscount Brookeborough, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, stepped down after two decades in office. His successor was Terence O'Neill, whose proposed social and economic reforms—designed to modernize Northern Ireland in such a way that sectarian bloodshed would be relegated to antiquity—helped usher in a period of optimism. The March evictions of Catholics in Dungannon aside, there was no hint of the horrific violence to come.

That spring was also a time of cultural progression. The Beatles were roughly a week away from making their first national television appearance (on April 13, they recorded three songs for BBC-TV's "The 625 Show")—an appearance the music-obsessed Morrison was likely aware of. At the time, the 17-year-old Irishman was performing with the Monarchs, headlining gigs in Carrickfergus and Lurgan as well as a favorite Belfast haunt of theirs, Thompson's Restaurant on Arthur Street. That spring, the Monarchs were on the precipice of something bigger; in the summer, they toured Scotland and then Germany.

Finally, April 7 is a day of minor importance in Irish history. Over the years, this date has seen its share of tragedy (in 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed Belfast for the first time), its share of innovation (in 1927, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company made the first successful demonstration of a television transmission; the demonstration included a performance by a vaudeville comedian named A. Dolan, who appeared as an Irishman), and its share of utter absurdity (in 1926, Dublin's Violet Gibson attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini; Gibson shot him three times, twice hitting him in the nose).

April 7, 1963: In my over-imaginative mind, it's an ordinary yet extraordinary day in Belfast—a day of immobile steel rims, Sunday six-bells, ferry boats, cherry wine, fields all wet with rain, games of chance, ballerinas, and Cadillacs.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Astral Weeks II: The Revenge

Van Morrison was notorious for distancing himself from his work. In fact, he often took to disparaging an album immediately after its release. Morrison did it with His Band and the Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, Hard Nose the Highway, A Period of Transition. Not even Astral Weeks was spared.

In the years following its release, Morrison feigned apathy ("I didn't really get into it as much as I thought I would"), lobbed accusations that he was handcuffed during the album's recording sessions ("I was kind of restricted, because it wasn't really understood what I really wanted"), and forced the idea that his label, Warner Bros., or his producer, Lewis Merenstein—or both!—were responsible for sabotaging his work.

Said pal and collaborator John Gershen: "There is a reoccurring theme in a lot of conversations I had with him [Morrison] ... That [Astral Weeks] as it came out, as it was released, was not the album he intended it to be. That was a consistent theme: 'They ruined it for me. They added the strings. And when they sent it to me, it was all changed. That's not Astral Weeks.'"

Morrison was so steely and steadfast in his decision not to cut a follow-up in the vein of Astral Weeks that when Merenstein brought in three of the album's key musicians—bassist Richard Davis, guitarist Jay Berliner, and drummer Warren Smith—for the initial Moondance sessions, the Irishman quickly dismissed them. There would be no quote/unquote sequel—leave that shit to Neil Diamond, Meat Loaf, and Kiss.

Or to us fans ... Time for a little bit of speculative fun. I decided to come up with my own Astral Weeks postscript, a collection of tracks that best emulates that album's style, tone, and mood. I selected songs from the most imaginative and compelling period of Morrison's solo career: the six years following Astral Weeks, from 1970's Moondance to 1974's Veedon Fleece. Potential titles for this fictitious release include, Astral Weeks II: Still Venturing in the Slipstream, Astral Weeks II: It's a Long Way to Belfast City, and Astral Weeks II: Double Back to a Cul De Sac. Equally pretentious suggestions are welcome. And away we go ...

Track 1: "Saint Dominic's Preview" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
"Saint Dominic's Preview" ranks as one of the most Belfast-centric songs of Morrison's early catalog (he even mentions the city by name, something he never did on Astral Weeks). It's also possibly a response to those criticizing his staunch refusal to discuss the Troubles. The song's lyrics allude to Protestantism's most cherished color, the symbols of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide ("All the chains, badges, flags, and emblems"; this lyric may have been a direct reference to one of the province's most controversial pieces of legislation), and the negative physical and psychological consequences of the endless violence ("No one's making no commitments / To anybody but themselves / Hidin' behind closed doorways / Tryin' to get outside, outside of empty shells").

Track 2: "Cul de Sac" (from Veedon Fleece, 1974)
Similar to Astral Weeks, our sequel opens with a rousing and elevating opener followed by a slow-burning, deliberately-paced number. "Cul de Sac," for all its specific nostalgia, is also wonderfully vague when it comes to eulogizing the past. Astral Weeks achieved a similarly delightful balance.

Track 3: "Tupelo Honey" (from Tupelo Honey, 1971)
An achingly pretty love song in the same vein as "Sweet Thing." But while the couple in that track sound like they're blissfully caught up in the physical components of their relationship (physical, as in strolling, jumping, and walking; and physical as in bumpin' uglies), "Tupelo Honey" is less active, more meditative, more about the emotional completeness that a partner brings. Also, a bit of trivia: Astral Weeks alum Connie Kay handles the drums on this track.

Track 4: "Listen to the Lion" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
Next, we have an 11-minute odyssey built on a foundation of Morrison's otherworldly vocals. Very Astral Weeks-like, no? "Listen to the Lion" features growls, incantations, whispers, sudden changes in tempo—it's the Irishman at his improvisational best. (Kay is also again behind the kit.)

Track 5: "And It Stoned Me" (from Moondance, 1970)
A sonic change in pace and a palette cleanser, "And It Stoned Me" is a chance to catch your breath before you dive into another mammoth track. ("The Way Young Lovers Do" serves an identical role.) The song mimics Astral Weeks' enthusiastic devotion to the natural world while overflowing with imagery from Morrison's adolescence.

Track 6: "Almost Independence Day" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
Pay particularly close attention to Morrison's vocals at the 1:45 mark of "Almost Independence Day." One of the most Astral Weeks-y moments that's not found on Astral Weeks.

Track 7: "Streets of Arklow" (from Veedon Fleece, 1974)
An album finale in the mold of "Slim Slow Slider." "Streets of Arklow" slowly unfurls, taking its time to stretch and loosen up and unleash its charms. But like the greatest Morrison compositions, it rewards the listener for their patience. It's vulnerable, it's dense, it's a beautiful memory—it's the perfect way to close our imaginary sequel.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake"

You Can't Go Home Again is a novel by Thomas Wolfe. The title has become a neat and tidy response to those expressing the magnetic pull one's home can exert. The idiom enjoys widespread appeal: It says a lot with few words; it simply wrenches at the heart. However, this excerpt from You Can't Go Home Again, while a bit cumbersome, is far more potent, far more devastating. Wolfe informs us that the journey to "return home" is an absolute dead end.
You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake, back home to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of “the artist” and the all-sufficiency of "art" and "beauty" and "love," back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
I've long wrestled with whether or not Van Morrison shares such a belief on Astral Weeks. Does he also accept that one can't go home again, back to that place that was lived in and loved, back to that most sacred of settings, "back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting?" I blow hot and cold; I'm certain and uncertain. And then I hear Morrison's otherworldly chant from "Madame George"—"In the backstreet, in the backstreet, in the backstreet / Down home, down home in the backstreet"—and the conjured images of Belfast are so vibrant and sharp it's like the Irishman is there, on Hyndford, the backstreet, his home before he even knew what a home was.

And it's then that I believe Morrison is telling us that you can search the world over for what you truly need, but you will only find it when you return to the old forms, the old systems of things, to where you cataloged the most delicate and enduring moments. You will only find it when you go back home again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Doodling doodles

There was a piece in yesterday's Guardian on how Google celebrated Leo Tolstoy's 186th birthday with a doodle that cartoonized three of the Russian writer's most well-known works. The delightfully vibrant images were created by artist Roman Muradov (who also designed and illustrated the graphic deluxe edition of James Joyce's Dubliners; I purchased a copy today—just look at that cover).

Muradov's illustrations—depicting notables scenes from Tolstoy's War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich—got me wondering: Could an artist do the same for Astral Weeks? Could moments from Van Morrison's masterpiece be illustrated to—I'm directly quoting Muradov here, from a piece he wrote on Google to accompany today's doodles—"evoke the atmosphere of the stories without giving away too much of the narrative or details." If an artist were to attempt this, what would those moments be?

Perhaps one from "Cyprus Avenue," slightly embellished ... The narrator with a vessel of cherry wine tucked in a pocket, a deserted train station, a vacant locomotive idling, an engine driver smoking idly. This scene highlights Astral Weeks crisp and distinct "consciousness of place." Our wine-quaffing narrator and our brooding conductor unwittingly meet at the train station, a place one visits to visit other places. They are both preoccupied with escape: one doggedly pursues it while the other actively facilitates it. Then there are the splendid parallels between the locomotive and the wine, each a means of attaining freedom from others and ourselves.

Where are the Muradovs who read this blog? I need one of you to get cracking on this illustration ...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Slainte, part 2

A few weeks back, I wrote about an American Pale Ale named Astral Weeks. Two days ago, I had it confirmed that the beer is indeed inspired by the Van Morrison album. Nathan Zeender, head brewer at the company responsible for Astral Weeks, Right Proper Brewing, emailed me this: "The beer was brewed with Galaxy and Equinox hops, which was the 'astral' part. And it was fermented for three weeks, which is the 'weeks' part. We have a fresh batch of it that should be on tap sometime next week."

Zeender, of course, is a massive fan of the album—and quite possibly one of the more dedicated and expressive ones I've come across. His love for Astral Weeks compelled him to create an entirely new thing from scratch, a complicated and time-absorbing thing that never existed before. I just run a poorly read blog; I feel insignificant.

Anyway, this is what Zeender had to say about Astral Weeks: "I've had the record for several years. I don't really think of it as an album of songs, so much as an overly romantic young man's rambling through his hometown."

Right Proper Brewing is located in Washington, D.C. I smell a road trip.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The pitiless city

Mike Gibson, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, recently penned a nice piece on Van Morrison and his reconnection with the place of his birth. Several years ago, when writing about the track "Orangefield," I referred to Belfast as "a pitiless city that wasn't ready to love back." Well, perhaps it finally is loving back—and that's why Morrison's relationship with his home has never been stronger. This is from Gibson's story:
We begin to forgive home for the sins we attached to it, recognise that in our impetuous, grab-at-life youth we were partially to blame for our acrimonious separation and start to make our peace. And perhaps Van has now turned this life journey into one of the most artistically poignant performances we are likely to witness.