Thursday, March 5, 2015

Caught one more time on Green Street


This is from a Smithsonian Magazine piece on Edgar Allan Poe's house in the Bronx. (Quick aside: I am awestruck by the structure's out-of-placeness, the way its wooden clapboards and slate shingles contrast with the steel and concrete of its urban landscape. Check out the picture above.) It's a wonderfully-written passage that argues in favor of preserving the former residences of important artists:
"The home of an author or a poet, whose memory has been marked for the honors that posterity alone confers, becomes a magnet for men and women the world over ... The personal facts, the actual environment, the things he has touched and that have touched him are part of the great poet's wonder-work and to distort them or to neglect them is to destroy them entirely."
I have become consumed by the idea of locating and visiting the Cambridge, Mass., dwelling Van Morrison once called home. It has become a magnet, to nick a phrase from that Smithsonian piece, a place I'm drawn toward, where I can possibly gain a better understanding of both the Irishman and his work.

Here is what I do know: Morrison's one-time digs were located on Green Street. It's a one-mile street that runs parallel with Massachusetts Avenue, a well-trafficked thoroughfare that cuts through Cambridge's popular Central Square. When Rolling Stone compiled a list of the 100 greatest artists, former J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf penned the entry on Morrison (he came in at No. 42). Here is what Wolf had to say about Morrison's place:
Van was living in a small, street-level apartment in an old wooden house on Green Street in Cambridge. He, his new wife, her young son. They were flat-out broke. The place was bleak and barren, with little more than a mattress on the floor, a refrigerator, an acoustic guitar and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. They had no phone and little food. It was hard times: He was in exile, with a family to feed, no money, no band, no recording contract, and no promise of any safe or legal way out. Even the reason he moved to Boston remained a mystery.
Then there's this, from a 1996 Boston Phoenix piece penned by Brett Milano:
And the memories go on. As we walk down Green Street, Wolf recalls the time in the late '60s when Van Morrison lived there. "He had a mattress on the floor, living on Green Street with his wife and kid, and absolutely no money. I remember him sitting there with an acoustic guitar, playing what would eventually become Astral Weeks. That's one of the great moments that comes to mind."
So we know it was Green Street. But what was the address? In a 2009 Boston Globe article, Steve Morse wrote this: "Van lovers will recall that he lived on Green Street in Cambridge (a block down from the Plough & Stars) when he completed the original Astral Weeks." Is Morse telling us the Irishman's home was one block down from the Plough and Stars (which would be the intersection of Green and Hancock Streets)? Or is he just helping readers better understand where the relatively unknown Green Street is located? Or am I totally over-thinking this?

Further digging unearthed a music board post that mentioned Morrison residing above Charlie's Tap, which is now the Greet Street Grill. The address of that establishment is 280 Green Street, approximately half a mile from the junction with Hancock. However, that information contradicts what Wolf wrote: that Morrison was holed up in a street-level apartment.

I've sent out a number of emails—to music journalists, to the Cambridge Historical Society, to folks with knowledge of the 1960s folk scene—and I'm still going through the responses. As always, stay tuned ...

4 comments:

  1. Absolutely brilliant Ryan, as usual. This is a fascinating post and I hope Van's address from the 1960s can be tracked down.

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  2. Thanks, dude. When I see your comments, I always think of that joke ... "I read your blog." "So you're the one!"

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  3. Boston Magazine just did a great write up about Van's early days in Boston. It made me wonder where his place was and if I'd ever been by it without knowing. I hope you're able to locate the adress!

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  4. My guess is it's 586 or 577 Green Street at the intersection of Bay Street. You can see it on Google Maps. It coincides with Peter Wolfs account in the Boston Magazine article ...
    "Once they’re close, Wolf slows down to a crawl, because neither of them has been here in a long, long time, and it looks barely familiar. Just past the intersection of Bay and Green streets, Wolf points out the window, to the left, where Morrison and Janet lived in 1968. "

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