Tag Archives: Van Morrison

‘I can hear the fireworks’

I can see the boats in the harbor, way across the harbor
Lights shining out, lights shining out
And a cool, cool night
And a cool, cool night
And a cool and a cool
And a cool and a cool, cool night and across the harbor

I can hear the fireworks
I can hear the people, people, people shouting out
I can hear the people shouting out
Up and down the line, up and down the line
And it’s almost
And it’s almost Independence Day

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‘Get on the train’ – early morning, California, 1999

guitar1

US, 1999. Pic: Fiona Gunn

There was a time, before dinner parties, insurance ads or any of the other clichés with which his music’s been since associated, when David Gray provided the soundtrack to the parties, road trips, bedrooms and breakups of a certain generation of Irish people.

For these listeners, now creeping towards and past 40, Gray’s 1990s albums were music collection staples.

Back then word of the Welsh songwriter spread mainly by word of mouth. I first heard of him from a guy who lived next door to me at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 90s.

Knowing I was a Dylan fan he mentioned Gray’s name to me one morning. I picked up A Century’s End a week or so later at the old Tower Records store on Wicklow Street, the assistant breathlessly informing me that this was “a great album”.

I listened and eventually shelved it. At the time I was travelling in my mind nightly with Hank Williams’ car across West Virginia – there was little place for a Welsh singer-songwriter on that particular highway.

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Fast forward a year or two to  a small road cutting through hillside trees on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe, California.

I’m walking home at 5am from a night-shift at Caesars casino. Ten hours on my feet has left me exhausted. To bank my cash I’m in the habit of strolling home, with nothing to soundtrack the hike except the occasional night driver passing and wildlife rustling in the undergrowth.

And David Gray’s White Ladder. I have – like almost everyone I knew – a copy of the album, in my case on a Sony C-90 cassette.

South Lake Tahoe Pic: Mark Milller

South Lake Tahoe
Pic: Mark Milller

The song I’m listening to is the album closer, a cover of a 1980s Soft Cell ballad. Perhaps it shouldn’t work in the hands of the Welsh strummer, but it does. A ballad of love and rejection in the back streets of Soho, with Gray’s Van Morrison-esque treatment Say Hello Wave Goodbye has become the sound of the early morning.

Most of his performance is serviceable but Gray’s long coda, where he works in ghostly fragments of Into The Mystic and Madame George (“get on the train, the train, the train…”) is what I want to hear as I walk along Pioneer Trail each morning.

These closing two minutes capture the feelings of escape and movement and solitude, loneliness and distance and excitement, that cross our paths only a handful of times. “In the wind and the rain now, darling, say goodbye.”

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I recently read that Gray has released a song called  – and I smiled at this, given my work in Lake Tahoe back then – Snow In Vegas. He’s still around, still making music, even doing it with the likes of Leann Rimes. And so times move on.

Last weekend as I walked home from the store, idly shuffling through the contents of my iPod, up popped that bass-heavy acoustic downstrum and the opening lines, “standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain…”

As it does the years, the trains and the rain, the jobs, the long parade of faces and names and situations, the good times and the bad, disappear. It’s 4.30 on a July morning and I’m on the Pioneer Trail again, and it’s all open and in front of me.

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The punk persistence of Patti Smith 

patti-smith-horsesIt’s almost 40 years since Patti Smith released Horses – a recording she will perform live in Dublin next Monday.

As music, as image, as artefact, Horses stands apart – a repository of Smith’s punk reveries and the deconstructed rock music of her band.

The record propelled the poet-singer to stardom, of a sort – as a boho-punk queen who blew aside the machismo that saturated the first generation of rock music. The music on Horses was as direct as the singer’s stare on the front cover of the album.

The record itself is full of literary and musical influences, from Arthur Rimbaud to The Ramones, Wilhelm Reich to Them.

But you can also hear something on Horses that goes back beyond these inspirations, past the iconography, the legend and the acclaim that surrounds the album, to a younger Patti Smith.

By the time Horses was recorded, in 1975, Smith had been pursuing her muse for eight years, since leaving her New Jersey home aged 20 for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, by way of Brooklyn.

She’d waitressed, attempted to work as a book restorer, been a clerk and a salesperson, all jobs which helped her scratch out a living while writing poetry and painting.

justkidsedit1Her memoir Just Kids recounts these early, almost always drizzly New York days; and the nights spent in cold-water flats or, at the outset, sleeping in doorways or rough in Central Park. There are moments of bright light too, afternoons spent with her partner Robert Mapplethorpe at Coney Island, evenings in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel with Harry Smith or William Burroughs.

The commitment to writing, the mental persistence of these early days in the face of poverty and doubt and illness, lies at the heart of Horses.

Tracks like Land (which paid tribute to Rimbaud) or Gloria (a track which begins with an anti-prayer – “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” – before reincarnating Van Morrison’s original) stand out on early listens of the album.

But its core is the simpler, touching Free Money, a song which gives us Patti Smith before she became the Patti Smith. There are no allusions to French symbolist poets or cries to God here.

Addressing her penniless lover Mapplethorpe, Smith instead asks: wouldn’t it be great if we won the lottery?

Every night before I go to sleep
Find a ticket, win a lottery,
Scoop the pearls up from the sea
Cash them in and buy you all the things you need.

She never did, of course. Instead she pulled her way up page by page, pushing and persisting until she sounded a call which resonated with thousands of others like  – and unlike – her.

Drudgery, rejection and poverty turned to poetry and music – that’s what makes Patti Smith punk.


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The gift of sounds and visions

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.

Into the music.

Into the music.

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.

Wedding

‘Together we will float…’

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.

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