Scene: A darkened ground floor room in a dusty house at 1133 Shotwell Street in San Francisco on an evening in August 1998. Three young men in their 20s are variously seated and sprawled on sofas and a chair, lit by the light from the adjacent, cluttered kitchen. Bottles rest and lie on the floor, alongside bags of chips and foil burrito wrappers.
Me (sipping from a 40 ouncer): This sounds great. What’s it off?
J: It’s Into The Mystic.
S: It’s from Moondance.
Me: It’s something else. Play it again, will ya?
That was the first time I heard Into The Mystic.
Despite the beer (more than one 40 that night, I’m sure), the passage of time and the thousands of other songs I’ve heard for the first time since, those three minutes on that long-departed evening are still as clear as day, or a Mission summer night, to me.
They bring me back to that room every time.
The song’s one of a few dozen compositions that return me, within four beats, to the time and place that I either listened to or heard them first (I mean, really heard them).
Van Morrison has more of these tunes than most. The opening piano fill on St Dominic’s Preview puts me in Alamo Square Park on a sunny afternoon that same summer.
Beside You brings me to the house I grew up in in the Irish Midlands in the early hours during a late 1990s’ summer; Tupelo Honey to a climb of Carrauntoohil in 2010; Linden Arden Stole The Highlights to the kitchen of W’s home, overlooking the river Shannon, on an evening sometime in the past decade.
In such instances my mind’s-eye vision is such that I can almost step back into the scene, whenever, wherever. The piece of music kicks off a mental movie in my head.
Physiologically this seems to occur because our medial pre-frontal cortexes (the bit of the brain behind our foreheads) respond to both musical chord changes and, separately, reflective auto-biographical recall. But at times the two functions overlap, it appears.
Why this happens more with Van Morrison (and a small number of other composers) is unknown to me.
Fast forward 15 years to the last time I heard Into The Mystic, a week ago. There were no 40 ouncers in a dusty room on that occasion. Two good friends of ours, R an P, had chosen it for the first dance at their wedding.
It was a fitting choice – a holistic hymn sung from the deck ahead of a voyage into a wonderful unknown future.
“The song is just about being part of the universe,” Van Morrison once explained.
A universe that stretches through time, space and memory from a long-gone night in San Francisco to an idyllic wedding ceremony on an Irish country estate.
And on, and on, into the music.