Overture to The Windowcleaner

[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.

Bands I’ve Seen 4.0

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.

Abstract Rude
AC/DShe (x2)
Ade, King Sunny
Amadou & Mariam (x2)
Ash, Daniel
Barnett, Courtney
Beck (x4)
Beta Band
Beulah (x2)
Bird, Andrew
Blacc, Aloe
Blackalicious (x3)
Black, Frank (x-many)
Blind Boys of Alabama
Bombino (x2)
Booker, Benjamin
Boss Hog
Bowie, David (x3)
Breeders (x2)
Brian Jonestown Massacre
Built to Spill
Burnett, T-Bone
Butthole Surfers (x3?)
Byrne, David
Camper Van Beethoven (x?)
Cave, Nick & the Bad Seeds
Chao, Manu & the Radio Bemba Sound System
Chicano Batman
Chilton, Alex
Clinton, George & the P-Funk All Stars (x2)
Colvin & Earle
Costello, Elvis
Cracker (x5)
David, Anthony
Del the Funkyhomosapien
Depeche Mode
Devo (x3)
Doe, John (x2)
Dr. John (x3)
Elliott, Ramblin’ Jack
Erickson, Roky
Farka Toure, Vieux
Flaming Lips
Ford, Sallie (x2)
Funky Meters (x?)
Gabriel, Peter
Gift of Gab (x3)
Grateful Dead
Guy, Buddy
Harvey, PJ
Hold Steady
Hooker, John Lee
Iron & Wine
Jane’s Addiction
Jazz Butcher (x3)
Jeffreys, Garland
Jesus & Mary Chain (x4)
King, B.B.
Kool Keith (x2)
Kristofferson, Kris
Levy, Barrington
Lords of the New Church
Los Lobos (x4)
Love and Rockets (x4)
Loved Ones
Lovett, Lyle
Low Pop Suicide
Lyrics Born
Malkmus, Stephen
Masekela, Hugh
Meat Puppets
Monks of Doom
Murphy, Peter (x2)
Murray, Bill
Musselwhite, Charlie
Naked, Buck & the Bare Bottom Boys
Overwhelming Colorfast (x?)
Ozomatli (x2)
Pavement (x4)
Pere Ubu (x2)
Perry, Lee
Phair, Liz
Pimps of Joytime
Pixies (x5)
Presidents of the USA
Prophet, Chuck
Public Enemy
Rebirth Brass Band
Rev. Horton Heat
Richman, Jonathan (x?)
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Ruffins, Kermit (x2)
Run the Jewels
Shankar, Anoushka
Shriekback (x2)
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars
Sippy Cups (x3)
Sisters of Mercy
Sly & Robbie/Taxi Gang
Smith, Patti
Smither, Chris
Snider, Todd
Soft Boys
Sonic Youth
Soweto Gospel Choir
Spencer, Jon Blues Explosion (x2)
Starlight Mints
They Might Be Giants
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282
Thin White Rope
Throwing Muses (x2)
Tin Machine
Toure, Vieux Farka
Trombone Shorty (x3)
Uncalled Four (x?)
Van Etten, Sharon
Voice Farm (x?)
Wailing Souls
Waits, Tom
Watt, Mike & the Missingmen
Wild Magnolias
Wilson, Brian
Wolfgang Press
Wood Brothers (x2)
Wu-Tang Clan
Young Fresh Fellows
Ze, Tom

Song of the Week, 4/4/2020

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.

Song of the Week, 2/22/2020

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.

Song of the Week, 2/8/2020

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.

Song of the Week, 1/25/2020

Amazingly enough this song, which I learned about when it was used in Killing Eve, was written by the same guy who wrote “Seasons in the Sun.” That would be Canadian Terry Jacks, who at this time (1971) was playing with a unit called the Poppy Family with his future wife, Susan. Darkness seems to be his métier — this is just a fucking great, chills-down-the-spine banger.