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January 16, 2008

Nobody's Smiling--Listening to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks


Fact: Van Morrison was 22--or 23--years-old when he made this record; there are lifetimes behind it. What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralysed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.... Maybe what it boils down to is one moment's knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict the hurt.

--Lester Bangs on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks

I had a nightmare a few nights back. I was standing in a crowded paddock, the central part of a community fair. It was dusk, and the dream atmosphere was creaking with the toxic portent found in the Coen Brothers' vision of Texas.

A squadron of planes flew high overhead, offloading hundreds of parachutists. Some carried banners listing the thanks of the fair's organisers. The darkening sky quickly filled with bodies and flags, and the crowd's pulse quickened a little. It all unravelled quickly.

Discernible was a pocket of 50 or so jumpers whose 'chutes had not opened, and they fell like black sheet rain, pushed at an obscene angle by the wind. I scanned the area of the paddock where I judged they would fall--about 300 metres away--and watched in horror. As the men crashed to earth they flattened tens of onlookers. The body count would be high.

With a few others, I began to sprint over to the crash site. I got half way before I thought: "What will I do when I get there? I'm not skilled to help these people, and so is it worth absorbing this horror scene, which will live with me for the rest of my life?" As I slowed I noticed a young, blonde newsreader lying on the ground, wrestling with what appeared to be the demonically possessed leads of her microphone and recording equipment. They snaked around her neck, and as I ran over to her I noticed the blind panic on her pale face.

As I began to loosen the cords, I realised that in fact there was nothing demonic here; rather it was her own wrestling and writhing with the wires that encouraged their death grip. As I loosened the leads, and attempted to calm her, they came away easily. She was saved--she had just needed to control her fear. And I had done something, after all. I woke dripping wet, showered, and went to work.

That day at work I thought of the Canadian girl who had sat on the train tracks at Itaewon station in Seoul. With my prompting and pulling, she came back off. I'm sure she always intended to. What I thought about more, though, was the paralysed boyfriend standing on the platform, and the riding around with the two of them for an hour on the train afterwards. I won't forget her screaming, nor will I forget the eyes of the guy. They contained horrible things, but I won't bother to describe them here.

The crash came later, after I had said goodbye to the couple--the shock of recognition, the proximity of death, the physiological break-up that comes post-adrenalin rush. Help came in the way of an American football match, bagels and companionship, but I eventually had to make the long cross-town journey back home. It was a lonely and miserable time.

The next week a friend with a big mouth mentioned my story to a US Army Ranger. The Ranger said some nice things, I told him I didn't want to talk about it, and asked him instead about Middle-Eastern operations. "I can't even talk to my wife about these things," he said. We departed. Once you see anguish--I mean really see it--it stretches forever and inspires vertigo. It ain't up for conversation.

A few weeks back, between Christmas and New Year's, that time when, around these parts at least, the psychic pollution stinks to heaven, I saw two guys duking it out in the carpark of the local KFC. No biggie. I was carrying booze home to assist with the imminent heartbreaking departure--my best friend and lover and I would, if luck prevailed, reminisce warmly, and then, not so luckily, make our final, very wet goodbyes. And so I kept walking, keeping my eye on the two, when the big guy fell to the ground. And then the boots came down. I switched my iPod off--I would love to tell you what I was listening to, but I can't remember--and ran down to the scene where I gently touched the aggressor's chest and told him that I meant no disrespect, but that perhaps the fight was over.

Rage can have a narrowing effect, that is it effectively arrests your peripheral vision and induces a sort of myopia--you have eyes only for your prey. The guy barely registered my presence.

The police came, the guy with the injuries flipped, and was tasered. And that was that. The cops thanked me and I was back off to my porch to have the most difficult conversation of my life. Selah.

The truth is, I knew the guy in green, the guy that brought the boots down. I mean that he was a stranger, but that I recognised his rage. That was the shock of recognition. The guy in green had been assaulted with a chair in the restaurant (I didn't know this before my intervention) and had kicked back. When I was beaten unrecognisable by four thugs in Northbridge years ago, I stalked back into Northbridge after I had washed my face at home, and spoken to the police. Ostensibly--this is what I told housemates--I was purchasing cigarettes. I wasn't. I wanted vengeance. I was looking for them, and God knows what would have happened if I had found them.

The shock of recognition is sickening. It rattles the teeth. It is barbarism and civilisation circling each other like opposing vultures. It's the space between them that's the bastard.

If you accept for even a moment the idea that each human life is as precious and delicate as a snowflake and then you look at a wino in a doorway, you've got to hurt until you feel like a sponge for all those other assholes' problems, until you feel like an asshole yourself, so you draw all the appropriate lines. You stop feeling. But you know that then you begin to die. So you tussle with yourself. How much of this horror can I actually allow myself to think about?

--Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks

I've never cried on a bus before. That's still the case, but only just after yesterday. I was thinking about Erich Fromm's qualities of mature love--care, responsibility, knowledge, and respect--and how wonderfully (preposterously?) close we had achieved those fine things. And yet it was not enough. Which might be to say that they weren't there in the right amounts. The artist in my ears rapped away and I choked back tears, just because I thought that perhaps anguish may bring us closer to rapture, if we're willing to avoid self-medication and sit down with it. Or--and here's the rub--perhaps I was just bogging down into infantile solipsism.

I got home and put on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks--I'm listening to it now--which may be one of those damned brave/stupid/masochistic searches. It is a difficult album to discuss--Lester had trouble, or, at least, he thought so--because it positively radiates the raw, beautiful energy of a genius attempting to transmit the shocks and tremors that come with a sensitivity to pain--his pain, but mostly others'. It is a deeply compassionate record, and deeply harrowing, as when Van sings about witnessing Madame George, a lonely transvestite who is exploited by the young boys he entertains to keep away the wolves. The important verb there is "witnessing"--it is not just the anguish that exists, but the small death that comes in spectating it and walking away.

Such knowledge is possibly the worst thing that can happen to a person (a lucky person), so it's no wonder that Morrison's protagonist turned away from Madame George, fled to the train station, trying to run as far away from what he'd seen as a lifetime could get him. And no wonder, too, that Van Morrison never came this close to looking life square in the face again, no wonder he turned to Tupelo Honey and even Hard Nose the Highway with its entire side of songs about falling leaves.

There was a funeral today for a TV personality. I clicked on the story online, hoping for a photo of it--a snap of the congregation of mourners, each stricken and holding onto each other. Fucked, eh? And so I listened to Astral Weeks, which said much, much more:

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where the mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch and the backroads stop
Could you find me
Would you kiss my eyes
And lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again

--Van Morrison "Astral Weeks" (title song)

And what else is there to say? I love you? Come back? Be strong? Be proud of your strength? Know that it'll lead to more? All of the above? I do not care to ponder on the fact that my mother would listen to this record during extended periods of clinical despair. A line must be drawn somewhere.

On the other hand, it might also be pointed out that desolation, hurt, and anguish are hardly the only things in life, or in Astral Weeks. They're just the things, perhaps, that we can most easily grasp and explicate, which I suppose shows about what level our souls have evolved to.

Old Lester ends his review of Astral Weeks with a poem to juxtapose with the above lyrics. It's quite something:

My heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees.
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than those seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap
and a wooden sword.

--Federico Garcia Lorca ("Stranded", 1979)

Make that a water pistol and a cricket bat, and, Lord, we might have a deal.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at January 16, 2008 10:40 AM