Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moondance (1970)

(Previous attempts here and here.)

I have belabored the point about the first side of this album. Hearing "Old Old Woodstock" from Tupelo Honey recently, I realized I have surely oversold the whole thing. I mean, sweet God, Tupelo Honey is a masterpiece, and Blowin' Your Mind! and Astral Weeks. And the freakin' second side of Moondance. Nonetheless, it seems my platte hath troth and beachhead made. Oh the water, let it run all over me. This is five songs—"And it Stoned Me," "Moondance," "Crazy Love," "Caravan," and "Into the Mystic"—about birth, life, and the eternal, in totality as perfect as anything could ever hope to be. In them is found everything. Sometimes I wonder why I need anything else at all.

Of course it comes down to the personal. The personal as much as anything is what propels the things we love. I picked up on Moondance nearly 10 years after the fact, part of a record buying binge at the beginning of a school break all full of reading Dave Marsh or Robert Christgau or some such record guide. I liked the album, but it generally seemed lightweight, ethereal, too soft, too hippy-dippy. I kept coming back to the first side then because of the jazzy title song, which frankly I was surprised even just now to find missing from my Billboard book. It feels like a monster hit, always did.

Around then, with Moondance in possession and sating myself daily on "Moondance," I began to notice the imposing way that "And it Stoned Me" stepped into the picture. It's the first song on the side, right in front of "Moondance," the ways of vinyl, easier to start the album from the start and play through then set the needle down by hand. And "And it Stoned Me," it turns out, is a heavy, heavy song, the core of the whole thing in many ways. It is full of matters of the soul, pitching face forward right into it: "Half a mile from the county fair / And the rain came pourin' down." It is reminiscent in its attack of the Band's "The Weight"—equally biblical, and easily the superior in pagan realms, no beseeching of some higher power but rather exulting, glorying, in higher power, opened to the divine, Walt Whitman style. Because what happens in the song is the singer positively, rhythmically revels in the hirsute wild ways of nature, Heathcliff style, pounding home the message until one nearly feels the sluicing of the late summer rainwater and the mud and the open sky of brooding gray clouds, on the way to the county fair. "And it stoned me to my soul," he sings. To my soul.

It made quite an impression the more I heard it. Then of course it was on to the real star of the show, "Well it's a marvelous night" and those piano chords and the swishing hips dancing to it and knowing all the words in time. So that was good. Now I grant you I have finally become a bit tired of it after all this time, but for a long while it was right up there for me with "Brown Eyed Girl" as impossibly sweet blasts of sound, so swellingly great I almost felt embarrassed by them sometimes. Playable constantly. Perfect songs. The rest of the side seemed to have potential too, and the other side as well—this hippie older brother perennial mainstay name-check Van Morrison, yeah I was thinking maybe he had something to offer, after a lifetime hanging back from him. In the mix of that particular school break, however, for perspective, The Pretenders and Armed Forces received the most airtime on my stereo. Also some new old Stones and Beatles, and other things. And so, too soon, back to school.

Then, just to get past it, I met a woman and fell in love, someone I had seen in classes and bumped into around. This was spring quarter, so that too. The glories of a real girlfriend, for the first time, and nature busting out all over. And, naturally (I say "naturally" now), I found myself drawn back to Moondance and "Moondance" and "And it Stoned Me." It sounded like I can't tell you. The sheer power of the one, the utter poise and charm of the other, never sounded better. And then, what's this? "Crazy Love," which had turned me off before, as too much of ... some ... gypsy lover thing ... now sounded ... lagalabalagalab. Words fail. It is pure romance to me, working at brainstem levels. It continually overpowers me. Yes, driven I believe now by being fully in the throes of my first real live relationship, I just went headfirst into this album. It felt like falling into another world. A nice one, where it was spring, and there was a woman waiting at home. "Yeah and it make me righteous, yeah it make me whole." This grunting, whispering, beautiful shuddering thing felt like life, fully engaged. It's uncanny—uncanny to me still. The way Morrison can use the word "soul"—which comes up all the time across these five songsand sound like he knows what it is, no airs or pretensions. I know I have swallowed the hippie kool-aid now.

I can't imagine I will have to work hard to convince anyone of the merits of the last two songs (if you're with me this far!). They are among the greatest in Van Morrison's catalog. Both songs have made numerous appearances in movies and on TV. Nick Hornby, in one of those exercises we do, named another version of "Caravan" as one of his 31 favorite songs. For all its unusual qualities, "Into the Mystic" has been covered numerous times (Johnny Rivers, the Allman Brothers Band, Ben E. King, many others). This raises questions of cover, demo, alternative, outtake, and/or live versions of songs. We won't be getting into those questions here.

At 5:03, "Caravan" is the longest on the side (which as a whole, by the way, clocks in at 20:20). And at 5:03, it may be a little short by long-song album-capper standards. It is deceptive, the luxurious tempo and arrangements, particularly in the furry horns, which take their time building to their full power. From small acorns, etc., and a powerhouse is what it turns out to be, simply by the immaculately soft way in which it enunciates the rhythm. Even with the title, we are now full into self-conscious gypsy territory, and indeed there is something a bit Seventh Seal Black Plague about its style and textures (thankfully lacking the tambourine). But it is decidedly modern as well, with its invocation of the radio—"turn it up, radio, so you know you got soul." There's that word "soul" again. And suddenly the rhythm and the horns are positively hypnotic. It is nearly impossible to stop moving with this. I'm serious. The last two minutes are a kind of forest fire, with nothing changed but now totally possessed of sweeping, rocking power, led by the horns and even more so by the surge of feeling. Now and then, I'm pretty sure it might have precipitated actual levitation for several minutes at a time, though I never want to jinx it by reaching back and feeling for the floor.

"Into the Mystic" plays like an oceangoing ship setting out for the high seas, finally arriving at harbor (doing all that within four minutes), which is not a coincidence. The entire album side has invoked the word "soul" whenever so moved, but here is where it properly gets its license to do so, necessarily descrying a bracingly candid, open, and unhesitating embrace of The Universe and Its Great Powers, a something we do not really know but think we feel deeply from time to time. But I don't actually feel it from time to time when "Into the Mystic" is playing, but nearly always, dampened only by occasional inability to genuinely open myself to it. The funny intimacy of the strummed guitar, the grounding of the earthy horns, the rhythms and textures of Morrison's breath, the surging, rolling, rising way that it mimics ascension—achieves ascension. "And when that foghorn blows I will be coming home." It is the end, beautiful friend, a place where nothing ever happens, take your children home, I am one, G-L-O-R-I-A, and as transcendent a moment in rock 'n' roll as I believe I know. It ends quickly, almost abruptly, as if nearly on an Icarus note of desperation, flushed by second thoughts, "Too late to stop now." But the reverberations play in one's head for minutes, hours, days, a lifetime. It can feel like stepping off of an amusement park ride, out of a horror movie, away from an auto accident, exhilarated, grateful, and uniquely attuned to the senses. There is before and after.

On Moondance, as nowhere else, Van Morrison seems to me possessed of unearthly wisdom, channeling it intuitively and with spooky accuracy. Yes, I know I have swallowed the hippie kool-aid now.

No comments:

Post a Comment