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
We lost the great Bill Withers this week, and it’s not easy to pick a song to represent his oeuvre. The man wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day,” just for starters… but for the nonce let’s go with something a little less known, a love song of heartbreaking simplicity.
And, hell, while we’re at it, here’s one more, kind of the flip side — this is a love song too, of sorts, but dark and driving:
We’ll miss you, Bill, but you shan’t be forgotten, that’s for sure.
In New Orleans last week we walked into a random club on Frenchmen St. just as the band was finishing a song. As the applause died away I heard the guitarist noodling through his wah-wah pedal with a familiar-sounding riff and my ears perked up. “Are they about to do ‘Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley?’” I asked.
Indeed they were.
“Sally” was written by Allen Toussaint and originally recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1970:
But probably the most famous version, and the one the bar band was clearly drawing its arrangement from, was the one Robert Palmer did — with the Meters as his backing band — in 1974:
Confusingly enough, “Sally” was also recorded by New Orleans musician Robert Parker:
Apologies in advance if that last one is preceded — as it was for me — by a Mike Bloomberg ad. Fucking Bloomberg.
I can say now in all honesty that in my time I have seen Courtney Barnett perform in a barn. Said barn is on the grounds of the Gundlach Bundschu winery in Sonoma, and is equipped with a stage and a sound system; but still.
The whole thing was really rather strange. It was the coldest day I’d ever experienced in Sonoma County, with an icy wind whipping through the vineyards; fortunately the barn was walled in on three sides, at least. After an opening set by a charming little German who calls herself Hachiku, Courtney turned up with her electric guitar looking fresh-faced and chipper. She did some old songs, some new songs, some covers — including “I’m So Lonesome Could Cry” and a set-closing version of Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free,” which she said was “one of the best songs ever written.” I can’t disagree.