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,I 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.