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:
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.
[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.
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.