Friday, January 15, 2010
“[it] 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.”
That is Lester Bangs from his 1979 review of Astral Weeks. By just including that quote at the top of this post, I have committed – to my mind, at this time – the four cardinal sins of writing: starting with a quote, starting with someone else’s work, starting blatantly with someone else’s work, starting a music themed piece with a Lester Bangs quote.
The problem is, is that it wasn’t until I was rereading Lester Bang’s article in order to write this piece that I realized how poignant that quote is in general to life, let alone the work of Van Morrison, especially in his prolific 1968-1974 period. What Lester Bangs touches on in that quote is, at essence, what we look for in all the great works of art – the moment of epiphany, or recognition that this world is so big and that no matter how hard we try to control it or confine it with devices like art, it is ultimately made of concepts far bigger than us – love, chaos, death, nonhistory, nonexistence. Our great art simply points us to these words and concepts. Heidegger has explained it. Hart Crane has exhibited it. Joyce, Picasso and Jesus mastered it.
The Joyce line will have to be excused in the realm of this blog post because of the obvious Irish similarities between Van Morrison and because on Astral Weeks in the song “Madame George,” Van steals a line from the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses when he says, “the love that loves to love the love that loves to love.” However, Astral Weeks is the closest that music or the “song” has come to the epiphany, economy and poignancy of the short story and the epiphanies that occur in both Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece do contain the Joycean tone and vision.
We will start with vision, but in a different sense. My college roommate is the person who first directed me towards Veedon Fleece as he directs me towards so many musics, CDs, mp3s, .rar files, and iPods. This same roommate also made the declaration about Animal Collective that he didn’t like to listen to them with other people – he only liked to listen to them alone. I had written off this inclination for the most part. Admittedly, there are albums that we enjoy listening to alone. We are afraid to share our tastes or how they affect us with other people, just as we are afraid to share with other people the effects that other arts or objects in this world have on us. However – and this is not meant to cut these arts short – those albums, books, movies, plays don’t have the overall poignancy that a Veedon Fleece has. The reason why Veedon Fleece had me thinking about my old roommates musings on Animal Collective is because as I sunk into the album for the third time, I realized that it was opening up visions in me that were unwarranted: pictures of a dim lit room on a fall night, friends all around me enjoying the album, me and the girl I loved making small gestures of love to each other: the push back of hair, the caress of an ear, in rose-red light, the memories of family I knew passing me by in shades of sepia. However, these were just illusions, dim shades. And as these dim shades flickered before me, I tried to place something concrete upon them: the who, the what, the Dave Eggers. Yet, that was not possible, my heart or my mind would not stop on someone or something concrete that this music directed me to, it was all illusory, it was all the vanity of who I thought I knew.
The moment I am speaking of is the moment Lester Bangs is speaking of: the enormity of what we can comprehend. This music was bigger than me, it had textures and nuances that needed an understanding, just as the people who moved before me in shades were part of a bigger world and that no matter how much I loved them and thought that I could perceive their taste of enjoying this music, were part of something bigger and my devices, my artifices, my designs and images could not reign that in. The music pointed me to this revelation, unwittingly or not, deservedly or not. Now, the music is at the mercy of my medium and I will take the life out of it and wring it dry so that you all know what it speaks.
Astral Weeks took us to all the places that we knew, if perhaps more vividly than we had ever known them before. We’ve known our Cyprus Avenues, the places where we were conquered in a car seat without a thing left to do. Maybe you knew it as the Stop N’ Shop parking lot, or the hill at the center of your town, where you tried to take a girl, where you saw the damn creek that ran through your town and thought about how cold it got in winter and maybe, maybe you couldn’t even try to love this girl when there was something so cold sitting out there, waiting to take a hold of your soul. Astral Weeks reminded us of walks home from school in the cold, whether it was your elementary or high school where things were warm and safe and orange, or it was your upstate college where the streets were neat and the sidewalks had just the right cracks in them and April was moist enough and everything was warm and safe and brown and reminded you of a vinyl record and a used couch. In the end, Astral Weeks was like that description in “Cyprus Avenue” of that avenue of trees. No matter who you are or where you are from, there is a vision in your mind that flashes, that vision of youth, and there is the place and the light that you think of – almost nearly unexplainable. It is that sense memory that you chase after all your life, creating new memories and new senses, trying to understand what that brief flash was. But that flash wasn’t so brief, that flash was your youth, your life and it stretches on and creates colors and smells that remind you of how big things are and how good they can be. That tree-lined avenue is what makes you stay up at night and think of yourself as eccentric, hungry and adventurous. That is what Astral Weeks was. Poignant, ambitious, full of energy, beauty and hunger.
If, Astral Weeks, owned those adjectives and if it was full of want and strumming guitars of heartswell and heartache, then what does Veedon Fleece have for us? What is so damn good about this album, Domino, that you’re wasting all our time with it?
“Looking for the Veedon Fleece there.”
There is a lot on Veedon Fleece to waste your time with, but we can’t go song by song and try to wring the meaning out of it all that way. No, we’ll have to wring the meaning out of it in a whole different way. Starting with the centerpiece of the album, which is “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River.” This song is the centerpiece of the album because it is the most dramatic, the most moody and it contains the title within its lyrics. Critics and listeners have called Veedon Fleece Van Morrison’s tribute to Ireland, whether by feel or by lyrics. The album and the song “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River” both contain many literary references, which is one of the sticking points of pride in Ireland – most writers per capita. However, in this centerpiece song, we are talking about “William Blake and the Eternals standing with the Sisters of Mercy/Looking for the Veedon Fleece there” and “Goin’ as much with the river as not.” Of course, he is going to the West, which means going further into Irish tradition, but that’s not what I’m interested in. We’re interested in the Veedon Fleece, what he’s looking for, what we’re looking for. This is a song about looking for soul with the people in the country, the people of his country. However, heartfelt the delivery (and there is nothing short of heartfelt on this album), this seems like an extremely artificial pose. Going to the country to find the real soul? That is one 70’s platitude that was dragged kicking and screaming from the 60’s where it was misappropriated from the 50’s and now has become every person’s excuse to sound more considerate about life and its great mysteries than they really are. If Van was going west to seek out soul than he was full of it. What he was really looking for was that Veedon Fleece. But what the hell is it?
The album is filled with outcasts. Starting with the delicate piano of “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” (one of Elvis Costello’s favorites and you can hear him sing it in that sickening whiny damn good voice of his), we are introduced to a character who loves the morning sun and that whiskey ran like water through veins and who loves to go to church on Sunday even though he’d been drinking. When men come from San Fran to kill him, he meets them first and kills them instead. However, he regrets it when he realizes that he loves the children of his town as if they were his own, and that it gets lonely when you’re living with a gun. This segues into the falsetto sung “Who Was That Masked Man,” which has the first lines “Oh ain’t it lonely/when you’re living with a gun.” What is Van doing singing about outlaws? These are outlaws who have soft spots for children and who are compared to fish bowls and who have ghosts that visit them at night, ghosts that teach them that there is good and evil in everyone. These two outlaw songs come after the idyllic sounding opener “Fair Play” and right before the outlaw-sounding “Streets of Arklow,” which has extremely Anglican and poetic lyrics. This brings up one of the best aspects of the album – the way that feel plays into such a big part of it. Even though I value words as much as anyone, when it comes to music, I don’t usually pay attention to them, I pay attention to feel. That is what much of Veedon Fleece is about. It’s the feel. It’s the feel of the songs and the delivery that should tell you what they’re about, not necessarily the lyrics. “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights” does the best job of matching lyrics to feel. It’s a simple tune about a simple man who likes to drink and there is something about that that makes him an outlaw, that makes him murder and regret it. Murder is a strong metaphor but who doesn’t end up screwing the simple things up. It all makes sense to drink and enjoy whiskey in the sun, just like it makes sense to go out west and look for the real soul, but we all mess that up and end up living with a gun. Living alone, living with those burdens that separate us and make us outlaws and outcasts, but which we can shed at some point, we can escape, because no matter what they tell you, there is good and evil in everyone. That’s why we’re looking for the Veedon Fleece.
The album is about people trying to find homes. The back to back songs of “Bulbs” and “Cul De Sac” could be part of a concept album of leaving Europe to come to America. In “Bulbs” we get a girl trying to come to America but ends up getting caught lost and thinks back to her brothers and sisters in her homeland and the old times they used to have drinking too much together at the bar. The narrator tells us how he hears hear lonely cry while she’s standing in the shadows down where the streetlights all turn blue. And meanwhile in “Cul De Sac” the narrator doesn’t care about who you know, but about who you are and the fact that anyone can double back to those cobblestones and end up in the quiet of the cul de sac. This is moving stuff to focus on. The fact that no matter how far you go, no matter the ambitions and illusions you have about who you know, you can always circle back to that cul de sac. The cul de sac is the same as the tree-lined avenue. Its that place that reminds you of comfort and of weakness. The places you can find solace in because you have found yourself under those shadows where the streetlights all turn blue and you cry out for loneliness because its all you’ve got trying to make it in the world. None of those comfortable drunken places of your mind exist anymore, they are part of your memory and this world can be too big for your memory, because while your memory is vivid, it doesn’t move. This world moves and so do you – those photographs of your friends, those still-lifes of their white wooden bookshelves with papers scattered in the air, the dry white linens, those images are foreign to you as you move away from one country to the next. But does it change what they mean? Does it change the love you have? Your assurance of yourself? You are looking for the Veedon Fleece there – letting out your lonely cry underneath the blue streetlights.
The best song of the album “Comfort You” is perhaps the simplest song on the album. This song is maybe the best song of all time, by the way. Simple in its lyrics and in its chord progression. It has maybe the best chord progression of all time as well. We don’t need to analyze lyrics and meaning in this song – the title says it all. If you listen to this song in the cold of winter walking on the streets, it will make you feel more alive than you have ever felt in your life. Your gloved hands will turn to fists and you will feel like you are leading those stuttering drum kicks and that your every move prompts the band and the rhythm. The lyrics become a mantra “I want to comfort you.” I don’t think there is anything else that can be said beside that. As Beach House so recently said about taking care of you, Van already had it beat back in ’74 with comforting you and letting your tears run wild like when you was a child down on “Cyprus Avenue where the childlike visions creep into view.”
“Looking for the Veedon Fleece there.”
So, what does the Veedon Fleece become then? Van said he just made it up. Is it as simple as youthful brio or hunger versus experience and maturation? No, I don’t think it is as simple as pitting those two things against each other, otherwise it wouldn’t be as interesting as it is. Force isn’t what makes this world perpetuate itself, its hunger and its love – although force does make for some good basketball rivalries, but that is really just love in the end, isn’t it? The Veedon Fleece that we’re looking for is that protection that Van first felt that he needed when he was singing Astral Weeks. There are obvious pains and realities in this world that we have to face in order to move forward. Not only the pains about the world at large, about the tragedies of fate and of the luck of the dice and how you can end up in Haiti or in New Orleans when it all comes down or avoid that kind of catastrophe for your entire life, like so many do. But also the pains about yourself, the shortcomings you have for your own ambitions and for what you can give or understand about the people you know and hope that you love. There are those moments when we are stunned by life, completely overwhelmed and they don’t just happen when you are young – they very often happen when you are older and can be even more devastating. However, what Veedon Fleece is trying to say, through its mood and its feeling and the control that it has over Astral Weeks’ catharsis is that maybe as you get older you have a better perspective to deal with those tragedies, because you’ve messed up the simple life with jealousy and envy, you’ve chosen your heartbreak, you’ve chosen to leave the easy life behind to cry out alone. Maybe you’ve seen your fate and chosen to live with a gun, whatever a gun may mean. I think “gun” means what Cheyenne said in Once Upon a Time in the West, when he said about Harmonica, “People like that have something inside... something to do with death.”
And that’s what it comes down to, that Veedon Fleece is what is going to protect us from that change from what once was to what is, to what we have to inevitably face. Being conquered in a car seat on “Cyprus Avenue” was one thing and we can’t keep those poses up our entire lives, we have to move forward and see those flashes of youth in our eyes and remember those scents and colors so vividly – the smell of saltwater, the sound of water on rock, the feel of someone’s hip and thigh, the light through trees in the summer. However, we can always go back into that eternity and look for the Veedon Fleece there, that protection that enables us to face the inevitability of the world, that meaning that pushes us on.