"When the leaves coming falling down
In September, when the leaves come falling down …
When the leaves come falling down in September, in the rain When the leaves come falling down"
–Van Morrison, "When the Leaves Come Falling Down",
Back on Top (Exile Publishing Ltd., 1998)
Leon Wieseltier, contributing editor of The New Republic, has promised for years to write an essay on the music of Van Morrison, the Irish bard/troubadour. Thus far, he has not delivered on the promise. It has been repeatedly delayed — perhaps because Morrison’s work itself is infused with temporality. Delaying, rounding, rummaging, idling, and all forms of prevarication abound. "Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye … Get on the train, the train, the train, the train, the train … This is the train, the train, the train, the train, the train …" Transitions and glimpses of ‘something’ litter the musical landscape, but ‘paradise’ — the eternal now — always slips away. "Got you in my sight, got you in my mind …" For me, Van Morrison’s music will always be infused with the spirit of "the fall" — of impermanence, always-already deferred "transcendence", and somber "autumnal" hues (and cries).
I first understood Morrison’s legendary status — as legendary prevaricator/idler — when I read Hunter S. Thompson’s paean to Astral Weeks in Rolling Stone sometime around 1972-73. I had just started college and Rolling Stone and The Village Voice were available in the library. Thompson’s article circled round Astral Weeks and swooped incoherently down on "Slim Slow Slider" — the most amazing song on this extraordinary 1968 recording made in New York City in one continuous recording session — a journalistic feat utterly consistent with the music. "Saw you early this morning, with your brand-new boy and your cadillac/ You’re gone for something, and I know you won’t be back …" This song shatters the mirror of innocence, played out through the other songs of sexual awakening, e.g., the delirium of "Just Like a Ballerina", and represents the emergence of something purely archaic — expressed in the ravaged, wordless conclusion. This undercurrent is present throughout but irrupts mercilessly at the close of the last song. The infamous, wayfaring journalist was apparently struck dumb by the savage incantation of the song — the young girl "slipping and sliding", riding away into oblivion. "Tell it everywhere you go …" It struck through the Gordian knot of Hunter’s cynicism to his post-romantic soul. Hunter S. Thompson was after all a burnt-out romantic, albeit one obsessed with guns and drugs and Richard Nixon. Many years later in the Woody Creek Tavern, outside Aspen, Colorado, and sitting just below the Hunter S. Thompson memorabilia mounted on the wall, I remembered that first encounter … Too bad he didn’t saunter through the door. He could have tried to explain himself. I’ve been trying to track down this article for years, to no avail. Sometimes I think I may have hallucinated the whole thing.
I heard covers of Van Morrison songs from the Moondance period in bars by local folk musicians in those first years of college. I was 18 years old and the music — combined with rivers of draft beer — was a near-death experience. It mattered little that it was not Morrison singing the songs. The bands were superb folk-blues bands — the place was Northern Maine, where first-class musicians were in a kind of self-imposed exile in the Great North Woods. I eventually purchased Astral Weeks and it was the beginning of following Morrison’s ambling career over nearly thirty years. Before Van Morrison captured my imagination, I had listened principally to the folk minstrels Joni Mitchell, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, and Jesse Winchester. To this day I listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971) … Tom Rush, exquisite in concert, was one of the first to bring early Jackson Browne songs east, from California. Around 1972, he was covering "Colors of the Sun" and "These Days", by Browne, and "Biloxi" (1971), Jesse Winchester’s gift to humankind. "The stars can see Biloxi/ The stars can find their faces in the sea/ We are walking in the evening by the ocean …" In just three short verses, Winchester encompassed the entire world. I wished, then, that "I had a river to skate away on …" I still do.
I’ve never followed any band or artist through every up-and-down cycle. I collect the periodic releases that seem relevant, then dump them later when they seem irrelevant. With Van Morrison it was Astral Weeks (1968), Moondance (1970), St Dominic’s Preview (1972), Veedon Fleece (1974), Wavelength (1978), Common One (1980), Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983), Poetic Champions Compose (1987), Enlightenment (1990), Days Like This (1995), and, in 1999, Back on Top that impressed me. Astral Weeks remains in my collection, come Hell or high water. It resides, permanently, "Way down upon the diamond studded highway where we wander …" The middle period — the 1980s — was typified by Morrison composing music that became almost purely instrumental — the surly and sharp Irish bard’s voice vanished below layers of jazz and new-age sonic (synthesized) improvisation. The Vangelis effect, plus some forays into Scientology … Throughout, however, the saxophone became Van Morrison’s second voice, and it has remained so through the later years — never quite going away. The 1999 music biz buzz about a "return to form", with Back on Top, was, of course, nonsense — in Morrison’s work there is no urform. Van Morrison is a musician’s musician. Like Texan Townes Van Zandt, before and after his recent death, Morrison remains a musical conundrum.
The mysterious presence of the music is the topographic sublimity itself of musical expression. The mystical, rapturous takes on Nature — Wordsworth’s and Coleridges’ Nature deified and defiled — are surrogate experiences of the innermost landscape of language. This sexualized ambience has been perfected since his first raw days with the Belfast band Them. Morrison has since his youth lived in the echoing spaces/passages of music and landscape. What else is ‘Ireland’? He has soaked up the influences of American gospel, blues, and jazz and brought a literary, poetic consciousness to the creative tableaux of his songs. But after all is said and done, there is that Pentecostal fire burning below the stylistic operations. "Give me the fire, ah give me the fire …"
The music of Common One accompanied me through a period of rediscovery of the pure, symbolic realm of First Nature. Living in Southern Maine, and on the coast, I became obsessed with studying the landscape closely for its metaphoric power, but also for the signature of the Real. The songs followed me through snow-covered fields in winter, spruce and pine woods and coastal beaches in summer. Inarticulate Speech of the Heart seemed to me to descend from the starry vault of winter nights — the music carried transcendental and cosmic wave formations (symphonic, emotive, aural dreamscapes). Like David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, the songs had virtually no lyrics other than pure non-semantic fragments of speech — cries and moans — or the phonemes that haunt the foundations of all languages. Later, when I met Crosby quite by chance, I told him that this was my favorite work of his. He said others told him the same thing.
Poetic Champions Compose was a gift from a friend. It was before CDs and I had a tape for years till I replaced it with a CD recently. The haunting "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" remains the formidable experience of that work, just like "Slim Slow Slider" from Astral Weeks.
And then along came Back on Top, in 1999, with the lyric gems "When the Leaves Come Falling Down", "Philosophers Stone", "In the Midnight", and "Golden Autumn Day". I purchased it at the Virgin Megastore at Times Square, where music resembles an avalanche. Where you have to pick your way through a wasteland of musical rubble to "find your way out". At the same time I purchased the 1999 Townes Van Zandt release, A Far Cry from Dead, a sardonic title since it was released (and mastered) after his death. As a poet, Van Zandt inhabited the same musical parallel universe as Van Morrison, plucking songs from the archaic aether as inspiration came and went. "Livin’s mostly wastin’ time/ I waste my share of mine …" Coming from Texas, Van Zandt worked in a far more rustic idiom — country blues and folk. With both Morrison (the bawdy bard) and Van Zandt (the hard-drinking minstrel), music is essentially the landscape of that parallel universe that poetic, primal consciousness inhabits. In Long John Baldry’s a capella version of "Wild Mountain Thyme" I found confirmation of this truth — in a song where landscape and subjectivity collide head-on like a car crash. I listened to that song repeatedly until I learned it by heart. I can still sing a fair version …
The war cries of the poet/minstrel are the pangs of struggle — including lamentations and "rack screams" — or protestations against Being-on-the-Road- to-Perdition (to update Heidegger), or, perhaps, Being-Sunk-in-the-Mire. What else was John Lennon’s extraordinary primal scream phase all about? The existential anxiety of Townes Van Zandt led him to a so-called "shamanistic", haunted country blues oeuvre, and to slow alcohol-induced self-immolation. (There is an apocryphal and questionable all-purpose excuse for why the Irish drink too much as well: i.e., to quell their "native clairvoyance". Given the history of Ireland, one might just as well substitute "drown their sorrows" for "quell their native clairvoyance".) No one has appeared to replace Van Zandt, in terms of poetic intelligence, with perhaps the exception of Sam Phillips. (If only she can stay away from the pop producers …) She is in many ways maintaining a post-Virgin Records vigil for her own soul. Fan Dance (Nonesuch, 2001) is a sign that this vigil is, for now, brilliantly, a matter of "marking time". For the moment, Sam Phillips has escaped the "heart collector".
Morrison, equally a stranger in a strange land, has appropriated Blake, Yeats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and the English-Irish literati (and illuminati) in his lyrical, sometimes mystical perambulations but never Kierkegaard, Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre. Perhaps Leon Wieseltier would be so kind as to explain why.
"Only a dark cocoon before [we] get our gorgeous wings and fly away …"
"There’s a small cafe on the outskirts of town
I’ll be there when the sun goes down …
When the grass is high and the rabbit runs
Though it’s talkin’ to you and I
And every new generation comes to pay
The dues of the organ grinder jam …
And I’ll be standin’ there, where the boats go by
When the sun is sinking way over the hill
On a Friday evening when the sun goes down
On the outskirts of town. I wanna slip away
I wanna slip away, got to get away …
Travelling like a stranger in the night,
all along the ancient highway
Got you in my sights, got you on my mind
I’ll be praying in the evening when the sun goes down
Over the mountain, got to get you in my sight …
And you’ll be standing there, while the boats go by
While the boats go by on a Friday evening
Got to slip away, got to slip away down that ancient highway
In a town called Paradise, in a town, in a town …
And we’re driving down that ancient road
Shining like diamonds in the night, oh diamonds in the night
All along the ancient highway
Got you in my sight, got you in my mind
Got you in my arms and I’m praying, and I’m gonna pray
I’m gonna pray, to my higher self, ah don’t let me down
Don’t let me down, give me the fire, ah give me the fire"
Days Like This (Exile Publishing Ltd., 1995)
"What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt." –Lester Bangs
Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York, New York. and the author of On the Nature of Things, a book documenting the travails of contemporary American landscape architecture in the 1990s.
He can be reached at: email@example.com