- 27 Nov 20
An expert guide to the magic of The Belfast Cowboy
It’s a good thing that this excellent volume from the eminent Stuart Bailie – veteran music journalist and broadcaster, and doyen of ‘The Northern Scene’ – wasn’t about when Hot Press was putting together the Rave On Van Morrison special issue, or I probably would have nicked at least half of it. The idea is a good one; take seventy-five of his songs to celebrate Van Morrison’s birthday, and offer personal reflections on each one. It fell to me to pick our own seventy-five for a HP playlist. The problem, and I’m sure Mr Bailie faced a similar dilemma (great minds/fools, delete where applicable), was what to leave out. Morrison was, on a good day, an unassailable genius, and he had many, many good days.
Offering his list in alphabetical order is a smart idea too, and probably saved a lot of head scratching in trying to decide which song to put first. Or perhaps there’s more to it than that, for if we merely take the entries under ‘A’ as a microcosm of the book as a whole, we find a pretty convincing argument on its own.
Bailie jumps straight in with ‘Across the Bridge Where Angels Dwell’ from 1982’s Beautiful Vision, and as succinct a summing up of Morrison as you’re likely to find. He “sings about the avenue and the doorway, the viaduct, the threshold and the stairway. Each time he goes there, it’s a bid to reach beyond the everyday and the earthbound… there’s a regular thrill in the music, a suggestion that once again he is past the limits and is communing with the other.”
Stuart pulls the first pointed arrow from his well-stocked quiver of reference, calling upon Yeats who “compared this elusive feeling to ‘the trembling of the veil’” and responded to a doubting Thomas who questioned his mystical bent with the rejoinder, “one has had a vision, one wants to have another, that is all.” One could also recall – and I’m hardly the first to do so - Morrison guesting with Roger Waters for a performance of The Wall in Berlin in 1990, to celebrate the fall of the other wall. Van lent his immortal voice to ‘Comfortably Numb’, “when I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse, out of the corner of my eye, I turned to look but it was gone.” Like Yeats, Morrison has spent his life chasing that distant ship, that smoke on the horizon.
Listening to ‘Almost Independence Day’, Bailie pictures Morrison looking out over the Pacific Ocean - we're not told if there was a distant ship - from San Francisco Bay, just as he had previously looked out from Belfast for ‘Into The Mystic’. He has travelled West as far as he can go without starting to head back home again from the other direction, although if you doubt, for even a second, that Van could have walked on that water back to Ireland then you haven’t heard side one of Veedon Fleece. Bailie puts it better, “if he cannot go further, then he must go higher,” which is exactly what he did.
For ‘Ancient Highway’ from the Days Like This album, Bailie focuses in on the lines, “what about all the people living in the nightmare hurt, that won’t go away no matter how hard they try,” which he sees as a rumination on the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland, connecting it with Anna Burns’ Milkman to emphasise the sad aftermath of the Troubles where, “broken mental health was the collateral.” There’s also room for Homer's Troy by way of Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney, as hope and history finally rhyme.
The “simple elation” of the joyous day out that takes place in ‘And It Stoned Me’ allows the author to eulogise the beauty of the Drumlin landscape around County Down. We don’t have to just take his word for it either as he’s backed up by the great C.S. Lewis – “Heaven is Oxford, lifted and placed in the middle of County Down” – and, representing another demographic, Two Door Cinema Club. It’s merely one example of Bailie's expert examination of Morrison’s work in the context of his native place.
Who amongst us has not – when, like the brassic Fred Astaire in Easter Parade, all our horses have been also-rans – employed the “mode of transport of the noveaux pauvres” – hats off for that line alone – and “walked up the avenue, in style”? There’s a joy in being alive, despite the empty pockets, in Van’s ‘And The Healing Has Begun’ that lesser acts have grasped at, only to find it slightly out of reach. Bailie pinpoints it like Phil Taylor going for a triple nineteen finish.
You don’t have to buy in to Hindu consciousness projection or be familiar with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, or even know the connection between ‘Did You Ever Have A Dream’ and ‘Lazarus’, two songs from the start and end of David Bowie’s recording career, to dig ‘Astral Weeks’ and its parent album, which Bailie has named as a favourite elsewhere. It is, as he points out, “beyond any fashion,” and remains “the gold standard for troubadours, starsailors and artists who wish to ride those cosmic viaducts.” I’m sure there are books out there devoted to Morrison’s beloved 1968 jazz odyssey, but Bailie manages to do it justice in one paragraph.
And that is merely the selection marked 'A'.
I put in a lot time revisiting Van Morrison’s albums - although there are a handful of them that I always keep close - for that special issue. I was pretty Vaned out. I’d be back to him, of course, but I needed a break. Then this showed up and, like all the best music books, it had me digging out the records again. If there’s a Vanoholic in your life, then this is the gift for them, and they'll love you for it. Mind you, it’s been a hard year. Treat yourself.