Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Halloween 1969 was a bad day for Van"

Barry Schneier snapped a number of now-iconic pictures during his many years as a rock photographer. Back in September, many of his photos were part of an exhibit at Monmouth University's Pollak Gallery. One of Schneier's most recognizable photographs is the one posted above. ("People have really gravitated to that image," he recently told Boston.com.) The photo was taken in May of 1974 at the Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge, Mass, during Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's opening set for Bonnie Raitt. (Quick aside: Springsteen and crew were allegedly massive fans of Astral Weeks. The album compelled Springsteen to ask Richard Davis to play double bass on "Meeting Across the River." Said guitarist Steven Van Zandt: "Astral Weeks was like a religion to us.")

The Monmouth exhibit also showcased photos of a Van Morrison gig in March of 1974 at the same venue. It was one of several concerts Morrison did in the Boston area in the years following Astral Weeks' release. Touted as a dramatic homecoming for the Irishman, the show was, according to Schneier, notably void of any sentimentalism. This is what the photographer emailed me:
Van didn't say much of anything to anyone if I recall. I know he did acknowledge that he was glad to play again in the area. He originally wasn't scheduled to play in Boston. The promoters saw he was scheduled for a show in Providence and saw an open date between that one and I think a show in New York. They contacted his manager and tried to get him interested in adding the Cambridge date. His manager wasn't sure at first. The promoters got him agree to play by selling him on the idea they were going to showcase him in a smaller venue, a movie theater in Cambridge.
Schneier also attended a Halloween gig in 1969, when Morrison opened for the Band at Boston's Symphony Hall. According to a story in The Heights, the independent student newspaper for Boston College, Morrison and his backing band "appeared out of nowhere as an unbilled 'warm-up group.'" The writer then takes the Irishman to task for his boorish behavior.
Perhaps it would be kinder to say that Halloween 1969 was a bad day for Van; perhaps it would be kinder to say that he was stoned out of his mind. In both concerts Friday night he came across a performer who was miles distant from his audience and who simply didn't care. For someone whose only appeal lies in a voice that connotes, rather than denotes, emotions, it was an illusion-destroying show. Van Morrison appeared nervous, distant, and singularly unemotional. The show was so bad that he ended his second set lying flat on the stage in frustration.
Adds Schneier: "What I remember is he said very little. Just came on stage after the band did an opening instrumental and started his show. That was it."

The kneejerk reaction is to say this was simply more barbarousness from the notorious Morrison the Mad, that grotesque gig monster who demolished countless live shows with his belligerence and propensity for tantrums. I wonder if it was something more complex. Maybe this return to the Boston area left Morrison pondering the album he partially wrote there and released the previous fall, the second consecutive LP of his to be labeled a commercial flop. Maybe Boston drew out buried feelings of irritation and resentment and self doubt. Maybe all the artistic and personal defeats compelled him to orchestrate his own defeat, right there on stage for thousands to see, since doing so temporarily eased those feelings of powerlessness.

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