Wednesday, December 31, 2014

More Vaniac support group

Checking in with another Van Morrison enthusiast who is well known in the blogosphere ... This time we fired off a few questions to John Gilligan, who launched his unofficial Morrison blog, Mystic Avenue, way back in 2006 (he's currently at 578 posts; amazing). Gilligan throws up photographs, set lists, gig reviews, recent news, and his own Van-related ruminations.

Throwing Pennies: What is your favorite song and album by Van Morrison?

Gilligan: Hard to name just one song. This month my favorite Van song is "Wavelength." Favorite album this month is Hymns to the Silence.

Throwing Pennies: What was the impetus behind starting a Van Morrison blog? What keeps you going? Finally, any chance Van is aware of what you do and how long you have been doing it for?

Gilligan: I had the idea to do a blog for a couple of years before I created it. I just want to gather all information, concert reviews, set lists, and photos—in one place in a timely manner, as I believe that's what Van's fans are most interested in. Not sure if Van is aware of the blog, but his management is!

Throwing Pennies: In a few words, tell me why you find Van's music so compelling?

Gilligan: It's about healing and redemption. Today you got the blues and all seems lost, but if you wait, tomorrow is a Brand New Day.

Throwing Pennies: Where would you rank Astral Weeks in Van's vast, rather immense discography?

Gilligan: Definitely at the very top. It's more of an experience than an album.

Throwing Pennies: How do you think Van will be remembered by history? In other words, what do you think his music legacy will be?

Gilligan: They'll be talking about Van's music 1,000 years from now. I think he will be remembered for bringing spirituality to rock and roll and pop culture. He also will be remembered for bringing a mystical vision of Belfast and Northern Ireland. It has made places like Cyprus Avenue, Hyndford Street, Orangefield, Coney Island, the Beechie River, etc., a tourist destination for people all around the globe.

"When two young people share the same taste, their hearts are one"

Behold one of "Madame George"'s most colorful and homespun images: "The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops / Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops." It's a couplet that probably makes a few of today's listeners wince, thanks to the growing stigma attached to tobacco use. (Years of vigorous anti-smoking campaigns and legislation have done the trick. In April of 2007, it became illegal to smoke in Northern Irish workplaces and enclosed public spaces. In September of the following year, the age of sale of tobacco products rose to 18.)

During Van Morrison's adolescence, cigarette smoking wasn't just socially acceptable—it was out-and-out cool and sophisticated. According to Action on Smoking and Health, in 1948 an astounding 82 percent of British men smoked, of which 65 percent smoked manufactured cigarettes. Consider this passage from Peter Smyth's book Changing Times: Life in 1950s Northern Ireland:
Before the end of the decade cigarettes were being presented in more attractive ways in crush-resistant packets with flip tops, and gift vouchers began a new craze. Brands like Kensitas and Ardath led the voucher charge which was soon to be followed by other brands, the manufacturers calculating, rightly, that the prospect of a free gift was a short-time inducement to smoking far more alluring than any thoughts of long-term consequences.

Smokers in Northern Ireland seemed undeterred by possible health risks, and local tobacconists dispensed Four Square, Park Drive, Woodbine, Gallaher's Blues, Craven A, Bristol, Airman, Dunhill, Senior Service, Players, du Maurier, Baron's, Churchman's No 1 and Olivier among others at prices ranging from 3-4s (15-20p) for 20. Cigarettes with filter tips had been re-introduced after the War to cut down on the amount of tobacco which had to be imported, and although these were at the cheaper end of the spectrum they were, at least initially, disliked by smokers accustomed to getting an undiluted inhalation of nicotine and tar. In terms of advertising no hold were barred. Craven A, for instance, was portrayed as the cigarette for young lovers: "When two young people share the same taste, their hearts are one. When that taste is Craven A ... Their preference is based on rich, fine tobacco, so cool to smoke, so kind to the throat ... With a natural cork tip that protects the lips and keeps the end firm ..."
So now that Morrison couplet becomes even more colorful: East Belfast kids tumbling out of their local tobacco shop, clawing open crush-resistant packets, sparking up Woodbines or Craven A's, inhaling deeply, exhaling with smiles, sharing the same taste, their hearts as one ... Look away, anti-smoking folks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Vaniac support group

Been reaching out to fellow Vaniacs who curate blogs ... Say hello to Wiltshire's Pat Corley, who's been running Visions of Pat since way back in 2004. Corley has dedicated countless words to reviewing Van Morrison's albums as well as the dozens of live gigs he has attended. He answered a few of my questions via email. Check it out (and please check out his blog).

Throwing Pennies: What is your favorite song and album by Van Morrison?

Corley: Favourite song, "In The Garden." Favourite album, Astral Weeks.

Throwing Pennies: What was the impetus behind starting a Van Morrison blog? What keeps you going?

Corley: I started my blog because I like to write reviews. What keeps me going is every time I go to a concert I write a review.

Throwing Pennies: In a few words, tell me why you find Van's music so compelling?

Corley: I find Van's music compelling because it is timeless. The albums never date.

Throwing Pennies: Where would you rank Astral Weeks in Van's vast, rather immense discography?

Corley: I would rate Astral Weeks not only as Van's best album, but one of the greatest albums by anyone.

Throwing Pennies: How do you think Van will be remembered by history? What do you think his music legacy will be?

Corley: I think Van's music will be listened to in hundreds of years time. He will be remembered as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th/21st centuries.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"On the way back home from school"

Was recently in touch with John Martin, who works for the Belfast Education and Library Board. Like many of the Northern Irish folks I have contacted over the past two years, Martin was quick to respond to my query and more than willing to assist in my research efforts.

The following couplet, repeated twice by Van Morrison in the track "Cyprus Avenue," has long been a favorite of mine: "And all the little girls rhyme something / On the way back home from school." Martin is in the process of helping me narrow down the list of schools that are located, or were once located, near Cyprus Avenue.

In the meantime, there's this: The self-guided Mystic of the East trail, which gives Morrison fans the opportunity to visit the East Belfast places mentioned in his songs, starts at Elmgrove Primary School. Elmgrove, which opened in 1932 and is still in use, sits on the Beersbridge Road, a 10-minute walk from Cyprus Avenue. Morrison attended in the 1950s—a fact that makes Elmgrove the heavy favorite to be the school from the aforementioned couplet. More to come ...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Train train, comin' down, down the line

A brief follow-up to a post I wrote back in September ... In an effort to unravel Astral Weeks' railway-related lyrics, I reached out to Mark Kennedy, curator of road and rail transport at National Museums Northern Ireland. Kennedy confirmed that "Madame George"'s "Dublin up to Sandy Row" train was the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise, which departed and arrived at Belfast's Great Victoria Street station, located near the Sandy Row neighborhood.

The rail mention in "Cyprus Avenue" ("If I pass the rumbling station / Where the lonesome engine drivers pine") has proven more difficult to decode; it could be another allusion to the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise line or a reference to the Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR), which ran through Van Morrison's Bloomfield neighborhood and is now the Comber Greenway, a 13-kilometer linear park for walking and bicycling.

The BCDR station closest to Morrison's home was Bloomfield (it would have been a 10-minute walk). Recently, I unearthed a bit more information on the station. According to this link, it opened in May of 1879 and closed in April of 1950. Also, I came across this little tidbit in the map for the recently launched Mystic of the East, a self-guided trail that gives Morrison fans the opportunity to visit the East Belfast places mentioned in his songs: "Bloomfield Railway Station and level crossing (both now gone) were situated at the Cyprus Avenue end of the Beersbridge Road. The station platform stood near its junction with Evelyn Avenue."

Lastly, I found two passages on Bloomfield Station on a website dedicated to the history of East Belfast. The site is run by Aidan Campbell, a retired business consultant who has published several books on the history of East Belfast. The two passages are posted here:
In the East Belfast Historical Society Journal Vol. 1 No. 3, Louis Gilbert talks about his early life in an article entitled 'Love in the Black Lagan Valley': In 1924 when I was a wee lad, I lived off Ravenscroft Avenue not far from the Holywood Arches. There was an electricity sub-station at one end of the street and a school across the road. At the other end, on a high bank, trains from the Belfast and County Down Railway Company's Queen's Quay station chugged and puffed on their way to Newtownards, Donaghadee, Downpatrick and Newcastle. There was a level crossing on the Beersbridge Road and the signalman at Bloomfield Station closed the gates and stopped all traffic every time there was a train.
Bloomfield station in the early 1900s [pictured above] which the Belfast & County Down Railway opened in May 1879 and it looks like cattle are being herded along the Beersbridge Road towards the level crossing. The station was designed by engineer Berkeley Dean Wise (who lived nearby at Knock Road). This portion of the railway line had been opened in 1850 with the aim of eventually providing a service to Donaghadee and the connecting mail-packet ship to Portpatrick. However the route from Larne to Stranraer was favoured, which meant that the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway gained the benefit via their route to Larne Harbour.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"It's lyric poetry, sparrowfooted"

Last week, I shared some Astral Weeks-inspired worship from Canadian writer Sean Michaels. The 32-year-old Montreal resident, who recently won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize (Canada's most prestigious literary award), took a few moments to answer my questions via email.

Throwing Pennies: I read one of your posts from awhile back in which you were critical of pretty much everything Van Morrison has done other than Astral Weeks. In your mind, what is it that makes Astral Weeks the outlier? What is it that sets this album apart—way apart—from the rest of the music in his catalog?

Michaels: Maybe it was the fight in him, maybe the insecurity, maybe the improvisational element or just dumb luck: But Astral Weeks doesn't sound like any other Van Morrison album. The production, the arrangements, the singing: for all its filigree, it's barer. It's truer and barer, unguarded. Morrison so often indulges himself, or drowns his singing in cheeseball arrangements. Here the stakes feel high. Here, nothing's syrupy. Neither too posed nor poised, over-pretty. This is just folk music, or jazz; it's musicians finding out as they go.

Throwing Pennies: What's your favorite track on Astral Weeks?

Michaels: "Sweet Thing" is it for me. I've never heard another song that's so in love and still so searching—trembling, swooning, certain, cresting. That bassline and the high, high, hidden strings: I'm absolutely somewhere else, and absolutely alive.

Throwing Pennies: Did you hear the Astral Weeks live album that was released in 2009?

Michaels: What a shit-show. Take this music and gussy it up, fix its gait, electroshock the damn heart. Turn a perfect house into a crummy cathedral.

Throwing Pennies: I cringe when I hear Van mentioned as a "poet" and that his name should be placed alongside Ireland's great writers. At the same time, I occasionally bring up James Joyce when writing about Astral Weeks, specifically because of how both Joyce and Morrison created art with a really powerful "consciousness of place." Do you think there's any sort of literary value, for lack of a better term, to Astral Weeks' lyrics?

Michaels: I prefer Astral Weeks' lines sung to when I see them on the page. You're right about his capacity to conjure placeness, timeness, but he also has the admirable rare [ability] to make ten-dollar words feel like ha'penny ones. Which is to say—some of these lyrics that look prim or over-reaching, written down, feel so musical as they're recorded. Reading Astral Weeks' verses, it can seem like slightly purple poetry, stuffed with stuff—but on record the lines land so lightly, for me. It's lyric poetry, sparrowfooted.

Throwing Pennies: Bear with me for this last one ... Awhile back, I had a discussion with fellow Astral Weekers on the album's "molecules." The album is so dense, grandiose, boundless, etc., yet at the same time, filled with an endless amount of these small and specific moments—a couplet, a string of notes from Richard Davis' bass, a Van Morrison yelp, a brief interplay between two instruments, etc.—wonderful little moments that you reach up and grab, and hold onto to and repeatedly examine and find some meaning in. So my question is: Do you have a favorite moment, a favorite molecule, from Astral Weeks?

Michaels: In "Madame George," there is a moment near the end when the drums appear. (Or really, essentially, a single cymbal.) Every time it is astonishing; every time it is as if a secret door is opening, a sign toward some hopeful progress. And "Madame George" feels suddenly like a useful goodbye, or a young beginning.