[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.
I’m with you about Van. I’ve known people who idolize him, of course. Looking forward to this series, Mr. C.