Saturday, May 4, 2013

Van Morrison - The Solid Ground




Last week I read a review by music journalist Gavin Martin of a September 2012 Van Morrison concert which took place as part of the East Belfast Arts Festival. I found this so interesting as it related to Johnny Rogan's critical No Surrender biography from 2005 which I mentioned in an earlier post. This traced the influence of that particular urban conurbation throughout his recorded output. During the concert Morrison performed the songs On Hyndford Street and Orangefield - both of which mention locales from his youth by way of his own childhood residence off the Beersbridge Road and the secondary school he attended.


Martin also references the the Protestant and loyalist political complexion of East Belfast in the piece:


In the afternoon the hinterlands that provide the setting for Van's artist treasury, his actual theatre of dreams, hosted marching bands from a local tribal tradition. A companion, not of the tradition, had remarked how she was (unexpectedly) impressed by the rhythms these assemblages mustered. Come the evening, after we'd watched the evening sun sink behind Cave Hill, shadowing the city from the North, Van was proving that he was one who had always moved to the beat of a decidedly different drum of many "decidely different" drums. The man in pork pie hat, his neck swathed in an admirably protective maroon scarf, the man they simply call The Man - the greatest and most enduring of all East Belfast local heroes - was back onstage in his old stomping ground for the first time since the 60s.


I saw Van Morrison live on six occasions here in a very different London during the late Eighties and early Nineties - including a brilliant performance with The Chieftains at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and one at the Royal Albert Hall during the Avalon Sunset tour. Been revisiting his material quite a lot recently in turn by way of the great lost Mechanical Bliss album from the mid-Seventies which can now be accessed on youtube. Some very raw hard rock blues jams to be heard here - on You Move Me, Feedback On Highway 101 and Not Working For You - that remain utterly unique within Morrison's work. The album also includes the extraordinary title track as delivered in rambling aristocratic style worthy of our current rulers in Austerity Britain, the driving funk of Naked in the Jungle,  jazz instrumental Much Binding In The Marsh and an original version of The Street Only Knew Your Name which ranks with anything else in the artist's magnificent back catalogue - indeed truly as priceless as the equally reflective Madame George, And It Stoned Me, Saint Dominic's Preview, Linden Arden Stole The Highlights or Irish Heartbeat in my opinion.


Rogan's work incorporated a narrative on the political violence in Ulster which ran in parallel to Morrison's career. One young fan of the Belfast group Them remembered the early days of rhythm and blues at the Maritime Hotel in the city's College Square North long before the fractures of late 1968 and the summer of 1969 put the Northern Irish working classes at each others throats for thirty years: I knew those days were special and everybody there knew those days were special. There was such an aura about those times in Belfast - and it was never to be repeated. Ever.


Morrison's direct musical influence can obviously be pinpointed within songs as disparate as Bruce Springsteen's Rosalita, Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town and Graham Parker's Silly Thing. That mark of a totally unique creative imprint may in turn be traced back to the very beginning of his career. Thus for all of Morrison's own qualifications of Them living and dieing on the Maritime stage - or indeed the clear fact that lineup changes within the same group were so bewilderingly labyrinthine as to replicate the divisions within the labour movement in Belfast in the first two-thirds of the 20th Century - the singles Baby Please Don't Go, Mystic Eyes and Gloria have not dated in the slightest. Likewise the Phil Coulter-penned garage classic I Can Only Give You Everything, the definitive cover of Dylan's It's All Over Now Baby Blue or even the long unreleased Mighty Like A Rose remain equal to anything else in the Sixties cannon of British beat music.


The brief period of recording for Bert Berns' Bang label in America - mainly recalled by way of the Brown Eyed Girl hit - still contains fascinating content such as the lengthy TB Sheets used throughout the movie Bring Out Your Dead, Joe Harper Saturday Morning about the Maritime's caretaker and Belfast's own version of La Bamba in Chick-a-boom - the latter to be covered by the Brazilian group Os Cleans in 1968. The Bang recordings in particular are utterly unforgettable for the thirty or so very brief acoustic recordings later released as Payin Dues - the political reasons behind their creation, purpose and execution representing a high water mark of creative revenge.


The 11 albums Morrison released between 1968 and 1979 remain one of the best examples of sustained high quality musical output in modern times from a solo artist alongside those of  David Bowie and Neil Young - Astral Weeks (1968), Moondance (1970), His Band and Street Choir (1970), Tupelo Honey (1971), Saint Dominic's Preview (1972), Hard Nose The Highway (1973), the live It's Too Late To Stop Now (1974), Veedon Fleece (1974), A Period of Transition (1977), Wavelength (1978) and Into the Music (1979).  Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece - which reached numbers 140 and 41 on the UK album charts respectively - contain extraordinarily ethereal and introspective moments that still defy description. Indeed both albums - alongside Moondance, St Dominic's Preview and the concert album recorded in London and California - are regarded as classics to this day. Although 1980's Common One serioiusly divided critical opinion - alongside other selective output from the early Eighties onwards - the 1986 No Guru, No Method, No Teacher surely stands as the sixth truly great album in his back catalogue.


Morrison's music so often focuses on the vicissitudes of time and memory, recall and loss that constitute such a mainstay of  the human experience. Several pieces of public commentary attached to uploads of And It Stoned Me alone capture this perfectly:


I had 2 friends when I was a boy and teen. I thought we would be together forever. Forever was 12 years 45 years ago. Who knows which way the wind blows and the water flows? The last time I saw them was 32 years ago. Which every way I turn now they are right in front of me in my mind's eye. How can time be so cruel when you can't go back? Those 2 were cousins and there is a veil between them over family matters or what's left of it. Van knows about these things else how could he sing so much about it.


It's amazing how hearing a song takes you back to time in life where you can smell what you smelling and remember who you were with the first time you heard it. Makes my hair stand up...


One of my favorite memories was being a young girl and hanging out with my father and two younger brothers in our basement listening to this album and spending time with Dad. We could never hear this reel-to-reel enough times. My dad introduced us to the best music and we loved listening. There was so much love among us and I'll never forget those amazing memories. Thanks Dad and Van.


I swear the joint i just had didn't have any influence on the fact that i just cried my eyes out to this song. so beautiful man.


My brother would play this album through the night in the next room when I was a boy...Amazing sounds coming through the walls, good memories. Thanks Tom...I miss ya...


Hope someone thinks of playing this song when i'll be dead and even while i'll be dying, please Lord let somebody remember of this for i'm so alone; Thank you to anyone remembering this.


Being away from home and the ones we love can be hard. When time presents itself before us to go home, even the smallest of things in memory can elate and create reality's and dreams of such comfort, it can stone us to our soul. I am away, and can never return and I can say for sure. I feel like I am being stoned.


Reminds me of my best uncle and best friend, driving to the driver having this song on repeat and just having the best time three guys can have. I miss them both and the river is full of only memories now.


I remember fishing with my little brother, walking down the county line from our house to the river. The rain started pouring down, but only in the corn field next to the road. slowly the rain moved onto the road, but had such a straight line along the road that I stood in the rain getting soaked, and my brother stood on the other side, completely dry. only lasted for a few minutes before everything was getting rained on, but it was one of those moments I'll remember forever. like it stoned me.


Alike the folk memory of George Best in turn - the former Junior Orangeman from the Cregagh Road - Morrison's music also fundamentally and atmospherically connects with affection and warmth to a specific time and place and thus towards a Fifties and Sixties Belfast long lost to deindustrialisation, sectarian community division, depopulation and terrorist destruction. 

Northern Irish references to the Ulster countryside and the great port city of Belfast can be found in many Morrison songs throughout his career - Madame George, Cyprus Avenue, Saint Dominic's Preview, Hard Nose The Highway, Kingdom Hall, Celtic Ray, Northern Muse (Solid Ground), Cleaning Windows, Connswater, Sense of Wonder, Got To Go Back, Coney Island, Too Long In Exile and Ancient Highway.

The deeply spiritual and life affirming music Van Morrison produced in a single decade between the late Sixties and late Seventies can yet transcend our times of greed, directionless, lies, angst and rank ignorance. Its power to touch the souls of the undimmed grows stronger by the day.





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