Thursday, April 30, 2015

An ode to an ode

"Sweet Thing" is a love song, quite different from other love songs on Astral Weeks in that it's not communicating a love of Belfast or adolescence, but a love of another human being. In the Waterboys' cover version of the tune (which appeared on 1988's Fisherman's Blues), Mike Scott doesn't sound like he's emulating Van Morrison and expressing his deep love for a woman. No, his sweet thing is "Sweet Thing" itself. Scott's taking Morrison's art strongly in his arms again. An ode has become ... an ode to an ode.

Back in Larry Fallon's room

Awhile back, I likened Astral Weeks to a house: "You enter a room and stay there for a bit and explore how you like; you sit and stand, amble back and forth, touch the walls and furnishings, maybe stretch out on the hardwood floor. There are seven rooms in this house, each one occupied by one of the seven musicians who made significant contributions on Astral Weeks." I spent some time with the musicians residing in these rooms and then I stopped spending time with them. I got distracted; it happens quite frequently these days.

Well, it's time to reboot this little series. I will kick things off with Larry Fallon, who is not only the album's arranger and conductor, but is the musician behind the harpsichord on "Cyprus Avenue." (The quasi-call-and-response interplay between Van Morrison's wistful vocals and Fallon's elegiac melodies makes the top 10 list of my favorite things from Astral Weeks.)

Just like in previous entries, the goal is to acquaint myself with the work Fallon, Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Jay Berliner, etc., did prior to Astral Weeks as well as any material recorded around the time of the album's 1968 release. Fallon handled the arrangements on Jimmy Cliff's 1969 LP Wonderful World, Beautiful People, the first album (as far as I can tell) that he worked on following his tenure with Morrison.

On Wonderful World, Beautiful People, Fallon's tactics run contrary to what he did on Nico's landmark Chelsea Girl two years earlier. (Read it about it here.) On that album, he was all about balance: some light here to offset a shadow there. Cliff's upbeat reggae anthems are the work of a man who is comfortable in his own skin. Fallon's arrangements take this into consideration; they enhance and expand Cliff's self-assuredness and compassion, his missives of positivity. They deliver light to a room already bathed in light. Cliff's music brings a smile to your face; Fallon's arrangements ensure that smile reaches your eyes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The hiss of tape

So it's pure laziness that compels me to reach for a mobile device and not the record in the tattered sleeve. Both are within arm's reach, mind you.

In some newfangled music streaming app, a favorite song is searched for and then selected. There is buffering, much buffering; the pops and crackles of a silently spinning record have been replaced by a progress bar and a percentage counter. (Try and guess which one is better at building anticipation.)

It's only karmic and fitting and whatnot that just as the song reaches its emotional apex and I have been whisked away to the distinctive place that only this song can bring me, the music suddenly stops. Streamus interruptus. A popup message stares back at me: my mobile device only has 20% battery left.

There are other ways, other formats, better outcomes. There is a cassette tape in my pocket—and it can go all night.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Lists suck

Readers of Northern Ireland's The Daily Mirror recently voted for the province's top 25 songs. A pair of Van Morrison tunes made the cut: "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Astral Weeks." Here is what the publication had to say about the latter, which came in at number 14:
Pretty much every track on Astral Weeks received a vote, and most would happily sit in this rundown. For the sake of convenience I've chosen the title track to represent the greatest album anyone from this island has ever created. Listening back to "Astral Weeks" (the song or the album), I'm reminded, as I always am, of the scope, the ambition, and the astonishing musicianship on what remains a jaw-dropping collection of songs. "Astral Weeks" was written when Van Morrison was 22.
It's certainly not my first choice if I'm selecting one song from Astral Weeks (and it probably wouldn't even make my top three). Nonetheless, it was satisfying to see the album recognized as a Northern Irish cultural milestone. The list also left me wondering what a top 25 LPs list would look like and where exactly Astral Weeks would rank.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"The city falling ruinous, slowly by weather"

Still got weather on my mind ... Perhaps it's because the curtain finally came down on the most merciless New England winter in recent memory.

A quick follow-up to my previous post: Van Morrison's lyrics about the Irish weather evoke the words of several of his countrymen. From the novel Watt, penned by Dublin-born writer Samuel Beckett: "And of course the snow and to be sure the sleet and bless your heart the slush." From British poet Carol Rumens: "'My' Belfast is a muse-city, a city of weather and uncertainty." And Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson: "The weather was then as the weather is now: a defiance of supposed seasonal norms."

Finally, there is this excerpt from John Hewitt's poem "Because I Paced My Thought." Hewitt, like Patterson, was born and raised in Belfast.
Because I paced my thought by the natural world,
the earth organic, renewed with the palpable seasons,
rather than the city falling ruinous, slowly
by weather and use, swiftly by bomb and argument
I found myself alone who had hoped for attention.

Days of grey weather

Grantland's Molly Lambert made the observation that Los Angeles is not a great "bar town" for one obvious reason—all the driving—and one not-so-obvious reason: "There is nothing," she writes, "that is not better in Los Angeles when done outside."

Ireland's natural beauty is simply invigorating. There is much to be enjoyed when outside. To stroll through Killarney National Park, to take in the Slieve League, to sit beside Clew Bay—it's like opening the windows for the first time in spring; the mind is cleared, the soul refreshed.

At the same time, the notorious Irish weather means there is much that is better when done inside. Like sipping a pint in a pub. Where, by the way, a frequent topic of conversation is the weather. I don't know if the Irish engage in more weather-related chit-chat than folks from other parts of the globe. They probably don't. But from my experiences, the Irish may possibly be the most unapologetically fickle about it.

Van Morrison has something neat and tidy to say about the Irish weather. From "Madame George": "And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow." And then later: "Say goodbye in the wind and the rain on the back street." All the major elements of the Irish weather are mentioned. And when the song's central character departs, the weather adds a touch of melodrama. Morrison's lyrics also have something meaningful and personal to say about the residents of Belfast: Despite days of grey weather—the ashen cloud cover, the ever-changing precipitation, the stubborn winds—they still live lives of tremendous color.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

This is an ellipsis

James Salter's Light Years is beautifully distressing. I don't know if that's possible, as it sounds oxymoronish to some degree. And I don't know if it's healthy to admire art that can be classified as such. "It's what turns you to powder," Salter writes in one passage, "being ground between what you can't do and what you must do. You just turn to dust." The novel has numerous passages such as this one—instances where I am shaken by how a character becomes utterly lost in the complexity of their life, yet at the same time, I am intensely moved by the lucidity and elegance of Salter's writing.

I read this once, but don't recall where or when: "Just like sentences have parentheses, so do lives." Light Years delivered the realization that lives can also have periods, full stops. That life can end, even as it continues. A sort of emotional paralysis takes hold. What is desperately coveted is always a teasing fraction out of reach. The world becomes a claustrophobic place—a place of inertia and perpetual disappointment and frustrating stalemates. One disappears into everything and nothingness. Eventually, the grindstone Salter alluded to stops spinning, the job completed. Then you are dust; then nothing.

Unless ... You press pen to paper and add two periods to the one already in place. Make it an ellipsis, a suspension point, a momentary pause. Live each day as if—to quote an essay on Salter—all "things seem urgent, profound, and necessary." When Madame George gets on that train, I like to believe it's not another everyday rail journey. No, this is an ellipsis, a new beginning, a crossing of the threshold. An individual stepping out of the fog and choosing to live more, to feel human again. It's a small drop that will create big ripples.

Another Cyprus Avenue gig for Van

So back in February, we posted about the granddaddy of all Van Morrison gigs: a birthday performance on Cyprus Avenue, the East Belfast thoroughfare immortalized on Astral Weeks. A crushing demand for tickets compelled Morrison to schedule a second show. Both will take place Aug. 31—his birthday; he will turn 70—during the annual EastSide Arts Festival. Tickets for this additional performance go on sale April 22 at Visit Belfast.