If you have never heard Van Morrison’s yearning, keening voice—its blues and jazzy swag , the way it stretches words into birds that fly you to heaven, its worn beauty—well, then, you’ve never heard it. But I bet you have; Van the Man, as he is often dubbed (and for good reason), sings at most weddings and bar mitzvahs, plus nearly all soirees destined for the over-fifty set. Party jams like ‘Brown Eyed Girl,’ which is one of the most beautiful songs ever, and ‘Moondance,’ which is one of the most irritating, are as stapled to the celebratory circuit as a celebrity’s stomach is to itself.
Having had experienced an adolescence nearly void of celebrations—I’m told I tended more toward continual bliss—I hadn’t heard Van until I was about sixteen; to be honest, I had hardly come close: my favorites until then were fellows like Cam’ron, Fabolous, Field Mob. But let me recall for a moment a younger self, sitting at his computer late into the early morning, skimming through Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Albums” and downloading as many as he could. Somewhere in the 20s, amongst the thirty junky Beatles and Rolling Stones albums that lace the list, lay buried Van’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks. For months, it lay fallow on my computer screen, just another collection of classic mp3s toward a projection of ‘good taste,’ a few files, whatever.
Just files—it’s so odd to think of them as such now. And, honestly, I don’t know how they transcended that form into their full beauty; it might have just happened. Looking back, I can only remember the points of departure and arrival: a moment of never having heard and, some time later, a moment of always listening—by then, already consumed, already transcending. I know I was there; I know I am here.
But how I arrived! And how this arrival is reiterated in perpetual rediscovery! How I still remember riding the school-bus home at night late last March, leaning against the window, the rain falling sadly in streaks. How I still recall ‘Sweet Thing’ from Astral Weeks—‘and I shall raise my hand into the night-time sky,/ count the stars that shining all/ in your eyes’—rising from deep within Van’s potbelly and stirring mine, ‘and I shall raise my hand’ leaping from the music and suspending itself, like his hand, in my ear, the force of his voice imagining the confident force of the gesture, its self-assuredness. Despite the dreariness and the rain, a million stars inside, twinkling.
Van’s all about dancing in the rain—what are stars, if not those dancers in the dark? And the seeing of stars in another’s eyes, dark or not, is, despite that other’s despair, or that projected from oneself, the hopeful gesture par excellence, itself a form of dancing in the rain, of raising the fist through night. Dancing in the rain, not away from it. He cherishes sadness, for it is as human as joy, and is beautiful as such.
There is a moment in ‘Madame George,’ from the same album: her boys, who seem to be orphans working for the cross-dressing drug queen who gives the song its name, are leaving, this time for good, ‘walking away from it all/ so cold.’ But right ‘as you’re about to leave’—the you presumably a boy, departing, but also every you, all of us, at those moments of irrevocable departure, those most painful of moments—she jumps up from her florid couch—the room is dusty and draped in red, stuffy—and reaches, saying, softly, to them, him, us, ‘you forgot your glove,/ and the gloves to love/ that loves to love the love/ that loves to love.’ Despair is here shown to produce love-reaching—in the real reaching of the Madame, and in the symbol of the glove as both the mediator and resister of contact—which is the reaching of love through despair and in despair toward love, or toward the possibility of love.
‘There you go,/ standing in the sun darling,/ with your arms behind you/ and your eyes before;/ there you go…’ From ‘Astral Weeks,’ the transcendent moment of love—or, rather, the transcendent motion of love. The glove, as the symbol of the caressing reach across the chasm (which is despair), loves; in other words, love is not a place to be reached, or a thing to be had, but a process that can only occur in sadness. ‘Standin in the sun darling…’ Imagine that! That’s Van’s love racing across a long, green plain atop a scraggly cliff on the Irish coast, racing to its edge that overlooks some ocean, and, at the lip, in the wind, standing there with her arms out and singing. The current of love runs above the of the sea of sublimity, right through the ineffable chasm of interaction that can only be entered through leaning, ‘with your arms behind you,’ fully exposed—the chasm which is despair in its uncertainty, its indecipherability and, thus, danger. And you feel, when you’re listening to Van,The music, the music! It races and then hangs, like she, on the pure ecstasy of his exclamation—there you go! The racing and hanging, not knowing if you’ll fall, like the Road Runner before he does. To love is to fly in that moment—and in every other moment—in spite of it all, in spite of the winds…
Not knowing if you’ll fall. Madame George proclaims, ‘and when you fall…’ But you will fall: into the motion of love, or back into the motion toward the possibility of the motion of love. You’re always falling. But you must let your self fall to fall through despair into the motion, the current of love through despair; you must race across the meadow to the cliff, not knowing the lip, not knowing the sea. Everything will fall; as death befalls us all and as Fall will fall, as presently does Spring. Nature is all about falling—leaves fall, and darkness falls, and snow falls and then falls away.
From this past Fall, until about two weeks ago, I hardly listened to any of Van’s music. I had listened to it continuously since the past Spring, and only to a few songs: all of Astral Weeks and a couple scattered songs (“Caravan,” “Shenandoah,” and “And it Stoned Me” to name all of them). To mix metaphors, I was burnt out from over-listening and the flowing aura of my world was frozen over by Winter. Though Winter is surely Nature, and often beautiful, its world is not the one in bloom that intertwines with Van’s music in transcendence: the snow, though it falls, is still when seen and cold; the air is cold and still; the ice; and we, we are not simultaneous with Nature—we are cloaked, covered.
But look outside! The flowers are all blooming in the cemeteries and the town greens! The trees’ leaves are blooming! Very fertile things are rising to the surface! A cool breeze caresses the face of the earth, the ‘gardens all misty wet with rain, sha-la-la-la…’ (‘Sweet Thing’); you’re ‘making love in the green grass’ (‘Brown Eyed Girl’), ‘walking down the avenue of trees, when the sun shone through’ (‘Cyprus Avenue’). Oh mango, sunshowers!
Now, we’re in Van territory: the warmth in the wetness, the always coming Spring. Now, I’m in Van territory, back in the swing of things, and there’s nothing like it. Earlier this week—that high-sixties day, the one with a slight breeze, and a sky clouded just right—I sat outside of Firestone and removed my shoes and listened to Astral Weeks all the way through, and it was pure bliss. The feeling exceeds words, but, perhaps, it is related to being washed over by tidal waves of love, or standing at the cliff’s lip, the whole world before you. Whence this bliss? In fragments: the dancing of light on green grass and the music’s joyous skip joining; but also, the dancing of shadows, the slight-dance of rain on the pavement, performing, as the limp in the skip is revealed; the power of the bloom and Van’s voice—like the grass, but also like the dirt that births it; the songs’ beauty, seen, in ‘gardens all misty wet with rain;’ the sadness…Or what about walking through Prospect Garden at sunset—what about that? There’s no one I’d rather accompany me on that walk, with a spring in our step, than Van and his songs: their joy blending with the sunbeams, their sadness with the falling dark; this moment, nothing but love in its ultimate form, springing between light and dark, Winter and Summer—in Spring, in Van’s music.
Nowhere, perhaps, is as Sprung as ‘Astral Weeks’—which is to say, as evocative of and simultaneous with the motion of love and Spring—and he sings, yearning, keening: ’If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dreams, could you find me? Would you kiss on my eyes?’ I love that; I love love that. Imagine it! Imagine kissing the eyes of the love who resides in your mind! Imagine what their eyes would see inside you! How they would weep! I mean, it’s a sad song—’where immobile steel rims crack’—and a gritty song—’and the ditch in the backroads stops’—but what’s so brilliant is how Van finds beauty not only on that rolling meadow, but in the sewer and in the steel, in the dirt and hurt of the here and now.
Perhaps, then, Spring is what Van’s music does: spring Winter into Summer; spring despair into love; spring whoever listens to it into the world that blooms and is beautiful. Spring is the wrong word: his music is always springing, because it is love, and love is motion, from heights to lows and from lows upwards—always springing, always falling. Springing, because love is always in the ‘ditch’ and ‘despair,’ too. Springing, because listening to it alongside the springing of Spring and of flowers and sunlight and sunshowers can do nothing but take you ‘way up in heaven,’ to ‘another time, in another place’ (‘Astral Weeks’). Van Morrison’s music is transcendent, for its sadness and joy and running through meadows is love in motion, and is so much more than just files, and is, for me, so moving—which is in motion toward love.