Sometime in the early Fifties — that seems to be as much as anyone knows — Van Morrison’s father, George Sr., moved to America. Specifically to Detroit. 40-some years later, his son wrote a song about it.
If I’m parsing this correctly, the idea seems to be that George intended to make it big in the colonies — maybe at an auto factory — and then send for the rest of the family. Instead, he returned home a broken man.
Well you came back home to Belfast
So you could be with us like
And you lived a life of quiet desperation on the side
Going to the shipyard in the morning on your bike
Well the spark was gone but you carried on
Well you did just the best that you could
You sent for us one time but everything fell through
But you still kept on choppin’ wood
And that must have been how it felt at the time, though I am told that George Sr. later owned a record store in Marin County, which hardly qualifies as a life of quiet desperation. I wonder, in fact, if he didn’t end up spending all the money he made in Detroit on records — because legend has it that he returned to Belfast with a gold mine of American R&B that would prove hugely influential on his son’s musical style.
What records exactly? I’m working on that. More in the days to come.
I came across this song while listening to The Philosopher’s Stone the other day. Doing a little research, I learned that the words are actually taken from a poem by one Peter Handke, about whom I know nothing. To the Wikipedia!
Peter Handke is a Nobel laureate novelist, playwright, translator, poet, film director, and screenwriter from Austria. Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2019. In the late 1960s, he was recognized for the play Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) and the novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick).
So not exactly a lightweight. You can read the whole poem here. It is pretty great. It also figures heavily in Wings of Desire, which of course required me to have a screening last night. I think I saw this movie when it came out back in the Eighties, but in all honesty I remembered nothing about it. It is extremely German — high-minded, elegiac, pretentious, at times oddly hilarious. Nick Cave is in it. And Peter Falk, fucking Columbo, playing himself. And Bruno Ganz, who plays the angel at the center of the story, went on to play Adolf Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall — and thus be granted immortality in the form of a million YouTube clips. Somehow this joke never gets old; the latest one is a hoot:
So where am I going with this? Good question, and I don’t have a good answer. The brain is a bit scrambled today, but it seemed like time to post something. Go back to the top of the page and listen to Van’s song again; the real writing will resume in due time.
As I continue to make my way at a snail’s pace through Clinton Heylin’s Can You Feel the Silence,1I find myself wondering which biographical details might be important. For instance, Heylin makes much of the fact that Van Morrison’s father was an atheist, while his mother was (at least for a time) a Jehovah’s Witness, and points out that the same was true of Patti Smith (whose first well-known song was a cover of “Gloria”).
A big book could be written (maybe one has, I’m not sure) on the intersection between the Witnesses and popular music. Michael Jackson was brought into the church as a child and left it as an adult, while Prince was converted by Mighty Titan of Bass Larry Graham in the early 2000s and stayed in for the rest of his life. (Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover, Thelonious Monk, and metal legend Dave Mustaine were also raised as Witnesses.) Van Morrison attended meetings with his mom and even wrote a song about it, 1978’s “Kingdom Hall”:
In this portrayal the meetings sound fun, almost like services at a Black gospel church:
We can clear inhibition away
All our inhibitions
Throw them away
And when we dance like this
We will dance like we’ve never before
Oh, they were swingin’
Down at Kingdom Hall
Oh, bells were ringin’
Down at the Kingdom Hall
A choir was singin’
Down at the Kingdom Hall
Clinton Heylin’s Van Morrison bio Can You Feel the Silence (yes, the word “feel” is italicized in the title, ugh) is one of those books it takes for fucking ever to get through, because every page contains a reference to something I don’t know about and feel compelled to investigate. (“An infinite rabbit hole awaits the unwary” — I think Laurence Sterne once wrote something like that.) The situation is complicated by the fact that I don’t really know Van Morrison’s music all that well; now that I’ve had a glimpse of the full scope of it, I’d guess I’ve heard, maybe, 15%?
Not that I mind necessarily. I’m still relatively young and healthy and, inshallah, I’ll live long enough to finish my life’s work, whatever it should turn out to be. But sometimes one is not as zen and moment-centered as one would like.
I cracked open Can You F the S about six months ago, got through 50 pages or so, then lost all my momentum. (I started reading Jim Thompson instead, which is like switching from chardonnay to whiskey… it’s hard to go back.) So when I returned to it I went back to the beginning and after three weeks or so, I’ve made it all the way up to… page 8.
Page 8 mentions both Patti Smith and Lester Bangs, both people I am reasonably familiar with, thank goodness. There’s reference to the fact that Van’s mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, which apparently ties into this song:
And there we go, I’m stuck again. What a stonking beast of a tune, man. I’m going to go listen to it four or five more times and dance around the room. Catch you later.
My intention has been to organize this thing chronologically — no other structure really makes sense, and without structure chaos reigns. But Van Morrison didn’t write songs during his childhood (that we know of), so we are stuck with songs that he wrote later about his childhood.
Biographer Clinton Heylin — whose book Can You Feel the Silence? I am making my way through at a pace glacially deliberate, or maybe deliberately glacial — mentions “The Street Only Knew Your Name,” which originally appeared on the 1983 album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart:
This is not my favorite, to be honest. The longer version from the 1998 compilation The Philosopher’s Stone is more my cup of tea:
Heylin points to the line “Would you prefer all those castles in Spain/Or the view of your street from your window pane,” saying:
Even as a child Ivan was set to develop a very real capacity for seeing beyond temporal reality…. It was a childhood in which he spent long hours gazing out on his street, all the while envisaging “all those castles in Spain.” This was a boy for whom the layers that kept the seen world from the unseen were gossamer-thin, where even the odd astral projection was not out of the question….
The last verse name-checks two Gene Vincent songs:
And you walk around in the heart of town
Listening for that sound
While the street only knew your name
The street only knew your name, your name
Sing it, “Be-Bop-A-Lula”
“Who Slapped John?”
Well the street only knew your name
Both these songs are from 1956, which would have made little Van 10 or 11. So imagine him wandering around Belfast, hearing these strange foreign sounds echoing through the streets. Gene Vincent was from Norfolk, Virginia, which is a long way from Belfast in certain ways of measuring the world. (In other ways, maybe not so much.) But for whatever reason, rockabilly was big in Ireland.
To simulate the effect, you might want to combine this audio:
With this video:
Take a couple minutes with that, ponder it, and we’ll reconvene in a few days.
Biographers like to start with a person’s childhood, which of course makes sound chronological sense. But while occasionally there are some insights to be gleaned — the child is parent to the person (to modernize William Blake), and all that — more often one’s eyes glaze over while waiting for the good parts.
So let’s get a few biographical details quickly out of the way. Wikipedia tells us that
George Ivan “Van” Morrison was born on 31 August 1945, at 125 Hyndford Street, Bloomfield, Belfast, Northern Ireland, as the only child of George Morrison, a shipyard electrician, and Violet Stitt Morrison, who had been a singer and tap dancer in her youth. Morrison’s family were working class Protestants descended from the Ulster Scots population that settled in Belfast.
And yes, I will once again be using Wikipedia as a primary source, though I know that drives some people batty. For my purposes — the subjective exploration of popular culture — I generally find it quite sufficiently reliable, and often surprisingly insightful.
But it can’t go into great detail, so I went in search of a Morrison biography as a companion for this journey. There aren’t as many as you might think — and upon reading the introduction of the one I chose, Clinton Heylin’s Can You Feel the Silence, I found out why: Van does everything he can to stop people from writing about him. Right at the beginning of the book Heylin quotes him thusly:read more…
While we’re at it, here’s a live version of “Cleaning Windows” from 1982:
In bed this morning I realized that I had glided right over a key point — maybe the key point — about this song. In some systems of belief it is held that a child arrives in the world in a state of purity, with its perceptions unclouded by unnecessary thought. As life goes on this purity is gradually obscured by acquired conditioning; the process of enlightenment consists of scrubbing away the accumulated layers of grime. If successful, one arrives again at something resembling the original childlike state.
Childhood is where we’ll pick up next time.
[Note: After a lengthy gestation period, I decided yesterday that I was going to post this today. Then I woke up this morning to find that Van Morrison was trending, and not in a good way — apparently he is upset about having to wear a mask, and has written some songs about it that he wants us to hear. On the one hand this is annoying, and on the other hand it seems perversely right somehow. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?]
A few years ago I was listening to the radio, in the car if memory serves, when a song came on. It seemed immediately familiar, though I only found out years later — just now, in fact — that Mark Knopfler plays guitar on it. It’s a stone groove even before the voice comes in.
But then it does come in, and everything changes. Because that’s what Van Morrison does — pop up in unexpected places, sending my mind somewhere it didn’t know it wanted to go. Here he is scoring a memorable scene in an otherwise forgettable Martin Scorsese movie; being covered by Bill Murray; stealing the show at The Last Waltz; on the radio as I drive away from Fight Club, crooning about the Philosopher’s Stone.
Morrison has haunted me for decades now. For a long time I kept my distance. It wasn’t that I ever disliked him, exactly; more that he belonged to some other realm of music that wasn’t mine. Something about him was too remote, too grown-up, too demanding of one’s patience and attention. Even a relatively straightforward song like “Gloria” or “Brown-Eyed Girl” seemed somehow out of step with the other music you heard before and after it on rock’n’roll radio stations.
So while I never avoided Van, I never really sought him out. And yet, Bowie-like, he kept showing up in different places in different guises. Eventually I had no choice but to start paying attention. I bought an LP of St. Dominic’s Preview at the thrift shop; I read Lester Bangs’ epic essay on Astral Weeks; after learning that Beck’s “Jack-Ass” was built on a loop from “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” I invested in a two-disc set of Them. But all these years later, I feel like I’ve still only scratched the surface.
It’s an intimidating mystery. The music is seemingly infinite, the man is a mass of contradictions: a curmudgeonly, recalcitrant, elusive, ever-evolving seeker who doesn’t just avoid the press, but actively tries to kneecap anyone who tries to write about him. I am a little scared to try, but I’m going to do it anyway.
Over the next few months I intend to embark on a semi-systematic exploration of the Morrison oeuvre. If you’d care to join me, there’s a subscription box up at the top-right of the page. If not, you are excused with my blessing and salutations.
Van really was a windowcleaner in his younger days, in Belfast. We’ll talk more about that later. But on the metaphorical level, this song is also about the lifetime job of trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
He covers a lot of ground in “Cleaning Windows,” which is from his 1982 album Beautiful Vision. In addition to making windowcleaning seem like just about the most glamorous profession imaginable, Van offers shoutouts to important influences, including Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Muddy Waters, as well as Jack Kerouac and Christmas Humphreys, a lawyer who was also probably the most prolific British author of the topic of Buddhism. We’ll talk more about some of these things later, too.
In the middle of everything he belts out “Curiosity killed the cat,” which is possibly a reference to something he read back then. I have not yet been able to pin it down, but there is time.
You will find greater values here. We are told:
“Curiosity killed the cat,
But satisfaction brought it back.”
—The Titusville Herald, December 23, 1912
Satisfaction may come eventually; for now, curiosity remains.
It was not one of my goals, during the current Global Time Out, to set a new personal record for number of books being read at one time. But I seem to have ended up there. Just as it is easier to buy books than to read them, they are generally easier to start than to finish. And it is not unusual for me to have several going at once, but things may have gotten a little out of hand.
By way of motivational self-shaming, here is a brief breakdown of literary works currently In Progress, along with my excuses for not having finished them:
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
No shame in this one, as I am reading in conjunction with the Blind Assassin Meander, which still has three weeks to go. I am liking it but find myself constantly wrongfooted by its peculiar combination of humor, time-and reality-shifting, and an undercurrent of persistent dread.
J.G. Ballard, Hello America
Written in 1981, Ballard’s delirious vision of post-apocalyptic America feels weirdly resonant today — there’s even a 45th president who, despite being obviously crazy and named Manson, seems vastly preferable to the actual one. This is one of those books that would be easy to rip through in a day — Ballard’s stripped-down prose is built for speed — but it’s more fun if you take it slow.
This seems like a good time to update the list, since there have been no shows recently and aren’t likely to be any anytime soon. I finally got an “I” thanks to Iron & Wine, but sadly still no Q’s.
Until further notice, my last concert will have been the Wood Brothers at the Arkley Center in Eureka on March 8, 2020. It was a heck of a show, so no complaints here.
Ade, King Sunny
Amadou & Mariam (x2)
Black, Frank (x-many)
Blind Boys of Alabama
Bowie, David (x3)
Brian Jonestown Massacre
Built to Spill
Butthole Surfers (x3?)
Camper Van Beethoven (x?)
Cave, Nick & the Bad Seeds
Chao, Manu & the Radio Bemba Sound System
Clinton, George & the P-Funk All Stars (x2)
Colvin & Earle
Del the Funkyhomosapien
Doe, John (x2)
Dr. John (x3)
Elliott, Ramblin’ Jack
Farka Toure, Vieux
Ford, Sallie (x2)
Funky Meters (x?)
Gift of Gab (x3)
Hooker, John Lee
Iron & Wine
Jazz Butcher (x3)
Jesus & Mary Chain (x4)
Kool Keith (x2)
Lords of the New Church
Los Lobos (x4)
Love and Rockets (x4)
Low Pop Suicide
Monks of Doom
Murphy, Peter (x2)
Naked, Buck & the Bare Bottom Boys
Overwhelming Colorfast (x?)
Pere Ubu (x2)
Pimps of Joytime
Presidents of the USA
Rebirth Brass Band
Rev. Horton Heat
Richman, Jonathan (x?)
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Ruffins, Kermit (x2)
Run the Jewels
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars
Sippy Cups (x3)
Sisters of Mercy
Sly & Robbie/Taxi Gang
Soweto Gospel Choir
Spencer, Jon Blues Explosion (x2)
They Might Be Giants
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282
Thin White Rope
Throwing Muses (x2)
Toure, Vieux Farka
Trombone Shorty (x3)
Uncalled Four (x?)
Van Etten, Sharon
Voice Farm (x?)
Watt, Mike & the Missingmen
Wood Brothers (x2)
Young Fresh Fellows