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.

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