The second post in a series in which we ask what book or writer our contributors have returned to again and again.
Every reader, starting from childhood, draws his own map of the world of letters. There is liable to be some outside guidance here and there, naturally. Certain landmarks are supplied to us, say in English class. But teachers aren’t found only in school. As a kid, my chief literary mentor was the rock critic Lester Bangs, who wrote for Creem magazine and The Village Voice in the seventies and early eighties. He shaped my nascent taste, and taught me to read much the way I still read now. And as much as I relied on his irresistible humor and wisdom for advice on how best to blow my birthday money at the Licorice Pizza record store, I sought him out still more to learn about books, in particular the forbidden and arcane books no conventional teacher would ever mention.
Lester Bangs was a wreck of a man, right up until his death in April of 1982, at the age of thirty-three. He was fat, sweaty, unkempt—an out-of-control alcoholic in torn jeans and a too-small black leather jacket; crocked to the gills on the Romilar cough syrup he swigged down by the bottle. He also had the most advanced and exquisite taste of any American writer of his generation, uneven and erratic as it was.
Bangs, who was born in 1948 and grew up in El Cajon, California, had been driven out into the wider world by a complicated, shambolic family: his mother, Norma, was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and his father, Conway, was an incorrigible drunk. Many imaginative kids who feel trapped in oppressive surroundings find solace, pleasure, excitement, and every other kind of relief in music and literature: in Bangs’s case this tendency was exceptionally pronounced. The community of Witnesses Bangs’s family belonged to believed in an end-is-nigh ideology, and they disapproved of Christmas presents, birthday parties, and education beyond reading the Bible. Here is the root, perhaps, of the seductive ease and fluidity with which Bangs riffed on culture high and low. As the Witnesses equally rejected Coltrane, Miles Davis, Superman comics, and science fiction, so did this rebellious son love and accept them all equally and on the same plane. Bangs’s biographer, Jim DeRogatis (“Let It Blurt”), described Bangs’s nascent rebellion—and his growing sense of the untrustworthiness, incompetence, and hypocrisy of authority.
“The drawer where I kept my Classics Illustrated collection was subject to stringent, arbitrary and rather sudden swoops of censorship,” Les wrote at age twenty. “Things like ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells and ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ by Jules Verne, my literary mentor of the third grade, would suddenly appear in ripped piles atop the ashes when I’d go out to empty the trash into the incinerator on a winter morning. My mother thought science fiction was demented nonsense; all the Witnesses do. They hold that since the Bible never mentions life on other planets, there must not be any, and no one can sway them from their conclusions.”
And yet Norma indulged Lester enough that he seems to have managed a childhood of nonstop reading, listening, writing. “Days home from school faking flu I would put Trane on loud … and stand up on a hassock reading Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl,’” he wrote. But there are indications, too, that mother and son were very close. When Bangs found himself broke and washed up, his mother and sister would enclose sawbucks along with the Watchtower tracts they sent him. They had all shared Conway’s disgrace and death: they loved him, it seems, but he died in a fire, drunk and alone, having fled the family in shame.
The adult world outside Bangs’s childhood home bore unmistakable evidence of the same weaknesses he’d discovered inside it. The false Donna Reed visions of a happy, healthy, snow-white America of the postwar years, the disillusionment of the Vietnam war, and Nixon’s downfall; everywhere, the rebellion that had begun to precipitate in the Summer of Love now saturated the air and fermented. Bangs developed a pure hatred of the lies and whitewashings of religion and government, his mutiny balanced against a bone-deep love of the truth—no matter how messy or unpretty it might turn out to be—which he equated with the refuge he’d found in literature and music. In fact, the messier, the more “real” art could be, the better. He talked about this in what might be his most famous review, of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”:
[T]he fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled almost to none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid … [“Astral Weeks”] assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. It sounded like the man who made “Astral Weeks “was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison’s previous works had only suggested; but … there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.
Along with many of his contemporaries, Bangs concluded that if “authority” was not to be trusted—and clearly, it wasn’t—then whatever “authority” detested must be O.K., or probably great. Hence the reactionary excesses of the nineteen-seventies, the chancy legacy of “don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Cocaine: a pure plant-derived substance that wouldn’t hurt you. Government: barely worth ignoring. If the squares were in favor of monogamy, then monogamy must be avoided at all costs, whether it appealed to you or not.
As for Bangs’s audience, the children of those years were far more sheltered from adult culture than they are now. While the rock stars whom we so admired were getting high and indulging their vast sexual appetites, the adults who were in charge of children were hell-bent on terrifying us with tall tales about sex and drugs and rock and roll: take acid and you might throw yourself out a window, certain you could fly, or become permanently convinced that you were a glass of orange juice. The cruel fates of these mythical victims were transparently bogus even to ten and twelve year olds, particularly those whose older siblings were already getting us stoned. Growing up at that time felt something like “The Truman Show”: the young intuited that they might break through the papier-mâché walls at any moment and into the “real world,” which probably really was scary but at least would be real. We sought reliable guides who wouldn’t lie to us, infantilize us, or sugar-coat anything, however flabby and wild-eyed they might be.
Sure there were other magazines and there were other writers. But for a certain cohort of bookishly-inclined kids, there was only one magazine and only one writer. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that my contemporary, the late David Foster Wallace, had dedicated his first co-written book, “Signifying Rappers,” to Lester Bangs.
Bangs, then, was a moralist. He understood that what young people wanted was something still more than to break free of parental bonds. We wanted to know exactly what was being hidden from us. Bangs’s great gift to the kids who formed his most passionate following was the news that this information was available to us; it could be found in books.
It would be difficult to say where the expression of Bangs’s moral universe was clearest, because he’d habitually compress a sublime insight into any old photo caption or throwaway remark, in whatever throwaway piece about whatever throwaway band. But a lot of fans, I suspect, would nominate the aforementioned review of “Astral Weeks” for the honors.
“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, paralyzed 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. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. 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 that hurt.
All this would send the questing reader straight to “Les Fleurs du Mal.” There was scarcely a book mentioned during Bangs’s tenure at Creem that I didn’t eventually hunt down (including a new edition of Borges’s “The Aleph”; I couldn’t make head or tail of that.)
In this way, a whole generation of kids was led to see “subversive” or countercultural literature through the lens of rock and roll—and also to become attuned to a new kind of critical voice, a voice far more intellectually honest than that of the academic critics. Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” holds itself at a lofty, self-regarding remove from its determinedly hip subject matter, but Bangs never held anything at arm’s length in his life; he was rushing headlong into the sea of the world, arms thrown wide open, to embrace it, to drown in it.
Let’s take “Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or, Who’s the Fool?,” published in Creem in 1970. I was too young to have read this when it came out; I would have read it in one of the thick bound volumes I used to spend summer afternoons with at the library, some years later. This is just to give an idea of the fun that Bangs could provide in such an afternoon, if you were a young teen-age fan fiendishly devoted to the Stooges and their “crazed quaking uncertainty.” Because Bangs had already won you over with his uncannily exact description of your own love of the Stooges: “an errant foolishness that effectively mirrors the absurdity and desperation of the times, but … they also carry a strong element of cure, a post-derangement sanity.”
The perfection of this assessment led you breathlessly through the rest of the piece, which mentioned: Malcolm Muggeridge, the Panthers, the Yips, Holden Caulfield, “I took acid four days ago and since then everything is smooth with no hangups like it always is for about a week after a trip?” (ugh, speak for yourself, Lester); “fantasies of a puissant ‘youth culture,’” “Jimmy Page’s arch scowl of supermusician ennui,” Mountain, Cream, Creedence, “imagine throwing a pie in the face of Eldridge Cleaver! Joan Baez!” “the onetime atropine-eyed Byronic S&M Lizard King,” an MBE returned, “a giant pie stuffed with the complete works of Manly P. Hall,” “that infernal snob McCartney and those radical dilettante capitalist pigs the Jefferson Airplane,” Marxists, A. A. Milne, Mick Jagger (“a spastic flap-lipped tornado writhing from here to a million steaming snatches and beyond in one undifferentiated erogenous mass, a mess and a spectacle all at the same time”), “the bastion (Bastille) stage,” “the oppressor is fat and weak, brothers!”
Artaud, Tinkertoys, épater la bourgeoisie, Ed Ward, the “I Ching,” sock hops, “A.B. Spellman’s moving book ‘Four Lives in the Bebop Business,’” “Trout Mask Replica,” “the essence of both American life and American rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Mark my words.”
“Some peglegged Golem hobbling toward carny Bethlehem,” Porky Pig, “beautiful Pauline Kael.”
It ends like this:
Some of the most powerful esthetic experiences of our time, from “Naked Lunch” to Bonnie and Clyde, set their audiences up just this way, externalizing and magnifying their secret core of sickness which is reflected in the geeks they mock and the lurid fantasies they consume, just as our deepest fears and prejudices script the jokes we tell each other. This is where the Stooges work. They mean to put you on that stage, which is why they are super-modern, though nothing near to Art. In Desolation Row and Woodstock-Altamont Nation the switchblade is mightier and speaks more eloquently than the penknife. But this threat is cathartic, a real cool time is had by all, and the end is liberation.
Don’t even doubt that I looked up every single book, every musical reference, hell every single word I didn’t understand. You bet your sweet bippy, I did.
Bangs openly lamented having been born too late to hang with the Beats, but he loved William Burroughs and wrote about him constantly. Suburban librarians generally hadn’t the faintest clue what was in any of these books (or maybe, just pretended not to) and any curious teen-ager could borrow them freely at the public library, or buy them at a bookshop, head shop, or thrift shop. “Naked Lunch” certainly made a striking contrast with, say, “The Catcher in the Rye,” a book you might be reading at school. I was surprised to find, returning to “Naked Lunch” just a few years ago, how full of sap and hilarity it still is. The funniest thing is that “Naked Lunch” turns out to be a moralistic book, making a better, truer, scarier case against becoming a junkie than whatever nonsense you were liable to be hearing in health ed.
The literature of mysticism and the occult, representing as it did the anti-religious, was also of interest during this time; parents were still attending church regularly. Hence the popularity of unreadable Satanist tracts, astrology, Aleister Crowley, and assorted metaphysicians of all nations. What did the anti-religions have to say? I can still remember the pseudo-mystical mantra-recommendation sung by Todd Rundgren on the album, “Initiation”: “Steiner, Gurdjieff, Blavatsky, and Boooo-dah.” I went dutifully along to the library to investigate and was soon bored out of my tree. By golly, that Madame Blavatsky is a pill. In general, you were liable to get some crackpot literary recommendations from your favorite rock stars. But Bangs could draw the marrow forth even from the metaphysicians. In the essay, “James Taylor Marked for Death,” he wrote:
Number one, everybody should realize that all this “art” and “bop” and “rock-’n’-roll” and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognize the fact that it’s nothing but a Wham-O toy to bash around as you please in the nursery, it’s nothing but a goddam Bonusburger so just gobble the stupid thing and burp and go for the next one tomorrow; and don’t worry about the fact that it’s a joke and a mistake and a bunch of foolishness as if that’s gonna cause people to disregard it and do it in or let it dry up and die, because it’s the strongest, most resilient, most invincible Superjoke in history, nothing could possibly destroy it ever, and the reason for that is precisely that it is a joke, mistake, foolishness. The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious. I could even be an asshole here and say that “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” which is true as a matter of fact, but people might get the wrong idea. What’s truest is that you cannot enslave a fool.
Here was one of Crowley’s favorite notions (“Nothing is true; everything is permitted,”), by way of Nietzsche, but Bangs brought it out of occult Thelemist incomprehensibility and into the question of discovering a practical intellectual justification for the satisfaction of every appetite. This was the way the twenty-somethings we admired were living. Why these strictures? What good were they? What if we simply chose to live real life in the U.S.A. entirely unhampered by any of them at all? It took some time, but eventually one inevitably blundered into Nietzsche himself, and asked the old question from a philosophical or logical, rhetorical or moralistic perspective. Was nothing true? Was everything permitted? What was spiritual freedom? Was Kerouac free? Was Burroughs? Was Bangs?
What he was really leading us to was the one true church of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. There was subtlety and elegance in his reasoning, generosity, and the best kind of skepticism: the skepticism that turns back on the author himself. This last aspect of Bangs’s writing was the most revelatory to me. It was the virtue I sought most to emulate, then and now.
Indeed no other writer gave me this feeling again so purely until I ran across David Foster Wallace, so many years later, and found he’d learned the very same thing; I suspect he learned it from the same doomed, messed-up, wounded, alcoholic genius of a teacher.
In 1977, Bangs accompanied the Clash on tour, which resulted in an immense three-part interview published in the NME.
Finally [Mick Jones] looked me right in the eye and said, “Hey Lester: why are you asking me all these fucking questions?”
In a flash I realized he was right. Here was I, a grown man … motoring up into the provinces of England, just to ask a goddamn rock ‘n’ roll band for the meaning of life! Some people never learn. I certainly didn’t, because I immediately started in on him with my standard cultural-genocide rap: “Blah blah blah depersonalization blab blab blab solipsism blah blah yip yap etc. …”
“What in the fuck are you talking about?”
“Blah blab no one wants to have any emotions anymore blab blip human heart an endangered species blah blare cultural fascism blab blurb etc. etc. etc. …”
And even though this was meant for kids to read, note that there’s not a particle of condescension in it. That, too, made young people love and trust Lester Bangs with unswerving devotion. Indeed I’ve never swerved once in all these years.
Maria Bustillos is a writer living in Los Angeles. Read her recent piece for Page-Turner on the reading lists of George Orwell, Henry Miller and others.
Photograph by Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images.
by Lester Bangs
Van Morrison's Astral Weeks was released ten years, almost to the day, before this was written. It was particularly important to me because the fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled to almost none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid. I spent endless days and nights sunk in an armchair in my bedroom, reading magazines, watching TV, listening to records, staring into space. I had no idea how to improve the situation and probably wouldn't have done anything about it if I had.
Astral Weeks would be the subject of this piece - i.e., the rock record with the most significance in my life so far - no matter how I'd been feeling when it came out. But in the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what's more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. (My other big record of the day was White Light/White Heat.) It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison's previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work
I don't really know how significant it might be that many others have reported variants on my initial encounter with Astral Weeks. I don't think there's anything guiding it to people enduring dark periods. It did come out at a time when a lot of things that a lot of people cared about passionately were beginning to disintegrate, and when the self-destructive undertow that always accompanied the great sixties party had an awful lot of ankles firmly in it's maw and was pulling straight down. so, as timeless as it finally is, perhaps Astral Weeks was also the product of an era. Better think that than ask just what sort of Irish churchwebbed haints Van Morrison might be product of.
Three television shows: A 1970 NET broadcast of a big all-star multiple bill at the Fillmore East. The Byrds, Sha Na Na, and Elvin Bishop have all done their respective things. Now we get to see three of four songs from a set by Van Morrison. He climaxes, as he always did in those days, with "Cyprus Avenue" from Astral Weeks. After going through all the verses, he drives the song, the band, and himself to a finish which has since become one of his trademarks and one of the all-time classic rock 'n' roll set-closers. With consumate dynamics that allow him to snap from indescribably eccentric throwaway phrasing to sheer passion in the very next breath he brings the music surging up through crescendo after crescendo, stopping and starting and stopping and starting the song again and again, imposing long maniacal silences like giant question marks between the stops and starts and ruling the room through sheer tension, building to a shout of "It's too late to stop now!," and just when you think it's all going to surge over the top, he cuts it off stone cold dead, the hollow of a murdered explosion, throws the microphone down and stalks off the stage. It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it's sensational: our guts are knotted up, we're crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we've seen and felt something.
1974, a late night network TV rock concert: Van and his band come out, strike a few shimmering chords, and for about ten minutes he lingers over the words "Way over yonder in the clear blue sky / Where flamingos fly." No other lyrics. I don't think any instrumental solos. Just those words, repeated slowly again and again, distended, permutated, turned into scat, suspended in space and then scattered to the winds, muttered like a mantra till they turn into nonsense syllables, then back into the same soaring image as time seems to stop entirely. He stands there with eyes closed, singing, transported, while the band poises quivering over great open-tuned deep blue gulfs of their own.
1977, spring-summer, same kind of show: he sings "Cold Wind in August", a song off his recently released album A Period of Transition, which also contains a considerably altered version of the flamingos song. "Cold Wind in August" is a ballad and Van gives it a fine, standard reading. The only trouble is that the whole time he's singing it he paces back and forth in a line on the stage, his eyes tightly shut, his little fireplug body kicking its way upstream against what must be a purgatorial nervousness that perhaps is being transferred to the cameraman.
What this is about is a whole set of verbal tics - although many are bodily as well - which are there for reason enough to go a long way toward defining his style. They're all over Astral Weeks: four rushed repeats of the phrases "you breathe in, you breath out" and "you turn around" in "Beside You"; in "Cyprus Avenue," twelve "way up on"s, "baby" sung out thirteen times in a row sounding like someone running ecstatically downhill toward one's love, and the heartbreaking way he stretches "one by one" in the third verse; most of all in "Madame George" where he sings the word "dry" and then "your eye" twenty times in a twirling melodic arc so beautiful it steals your own breath, and then this occurs: "And the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves."
Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost, conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he's waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along. Sometimes he gives it to you through silence, by choking off the song in midflight: "It's too late to stop now!"
It's the great search, fueled by the belief that through these musical and mental processes illumination is attainable. Or may at least be glimpsed.
When he tries for this he usually gets it more in the feeling than in the Revealed Word - perhaps much of the feeling comes from the reaching - but there is also, always, the sense of WHAT if he DID apprehend that Word; there are times when the Word seems to hover very near. And then there are times when we realize the Word was right next to us, when the most mundane overused phrases are transformed: I give you "love," from "Madame George." Out of relative silence, the Word: "Snow in San Anselmo." "That's where it's at," Van will say, and he means it (aren't his interviews fascinating?). What he doesn't say is that he is inside the snowflake, isolated by the song: "And it's almost Independence Day."
you're probably wondering when I'm going to get around to telling you about Astral Weeks. As a matter of fact, there's a whole lot of Astral Weeks I don't even want to tell you about. Both because whether you've heard it or not it wouldn't be fair for me to impose my interpretation of such lapidarily subjective imagery on you, and because in many cases I don't really know what he's talking about. he doesn't either: "I'm not surprised that people get different meanings out of my songs," he told a Rolling Stone interviewer. "But I don't wanna give the impression that I know what everything means 'cause I don't. . . . There are times when I'm mystified. I look at some of the stuff that comes out, y'know. And like, there it is and it feels right, but I can't say for sure what it means."
There you goI haven't got the slightest idea what that "means," though on one level I'd like to approach it in a manner as indirect and evocative as the lyrics themselves. Because you're in trouble anyway when you sit yourself down to explicate just exactly what a mystical document, which is exactly what Astral Weeks is, means. For one thing, what it means is Richard Davis's bass playing, which complements the songs and singing all the way with a lyricism that's something more than just great musicianship: there is something about it that more than inspired, something that has been touched, that's in the realm of the miraculous. The whole ensemble - Larry Fallon's string section, Jay Berliner's guitar (he played on Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady), Connie Kay's drumming - is like that: they and Van sound like they're not just reading but dwelling inside of each other's minds. The facts may be far different. John Cale was making an album of his own in the adjacent studio at the time, and he has said that "Morrison couldn't work with anybody, so finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes."
Starin' with a look of avarice
Talking to Huddie Leadbetter
Showin' pictures on the walls
And whisperin' in the halls
And pointin' a finger at me
Cale's story might or might not be true - but facts are not going to be of much use here in any case. Fact: Van Morrison was twenty-two - or twenty-three - 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, paralyzed 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. It's no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled 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 that hurt.
Transfixed between pure rapture and anguish. Wondering if they may not be the same thing, or at least possessed of an intimate relationship. In "T.B. Sheets", his last extended narrative before making this record, Van Morrison watched a girl he loved die of tuberculosis. the song was claustrophobic, suffocating, mostrously powerful: "innuendos, inadequacies, foreign bodies." A lot of people couldn't take it; the editor of this book has said that it's garbage, but I think it made him squeamish. Anyway, the point is that certain parts of Astral Weeks - "Madame George," "Cyprus Avenue" - take the pain in "T.B. Sheets" and root the world in it. Because the pain of watching a loved one die of however dread a disease may be awful, but it is at least something known, in a way understood, in a way measureable and even leading somewhere, because there is a process: sickness, decay, death, mourning, some emotional recovery. But the beautiful horror of "Madame George" and "Cyprus Avenue" is precisely that the people in these songs are not dying: we are looking at life, in its fullest, and what these people are suffering from is not disease but nature, unless nature is a disease.
A man sits in a car on a tree-lined street, watching a fourteen-year-old girl walking home from school, hopelessly in love with her. I've almost come to blows with friends because of my insistence that much of Van Morrison's early work had an obsessively reiterated theme of pedophilia, but here is something that at once may be taken as that and something far beyond it. He loves her. Because of that, he is helpless. Shaking. Paralyzed. Maddened. Hopeless. Nature mocks him. As only nature can mock nature. Or is love natural in the first place? No Matter. By the end of the song he has entered a kind of hallucinatory ecstasy; the music aches and yearns as it rolls on out. This is one supreme pain, that of being imprisoned a spectator. And perhaps no so very far from "T.B. Sheets," except that it must be far more romantically easy to sit and watch someone you love die than to watch them in the bloom of youth and health and know that you can never, ever have them, can never speak to them.
"Madame George" is the album's whirlpool. Possibly one of the most compassionate pieces of music ever made, it asks us, no, arranges that we see the plight of what I'll be brutal and call a lovelorn drag queen with such intense empathy that when the singer hurts him, we do too. (Morrison has said in at least one interview that the song has nothing to do with any kind of transvestite - at least as far as he knows, he is quick to add - but that's bullshit.) The beauty, sensitivity, holiness of the song is that there's nothing at all sensationalistic, exploitative, or tawdry about it; in a way Van is right when he insists it's not about a drag queen, as my friends were right and I was wrong about the "pedophelia" - it's about a person, like all the best songs, all the greatest literature.
The setting is that same as that of the previous song - "Cyprus Avenue", apparently a place where people drift, impelled by desire, into moments of flesh-wracking, sight-curdling confrontation with their destinies. It's an elemental place of pitiless judgement - wind and rain figure in both songs - and, interestingly enough, it's a place of the even crueler judgement of adults by children, in both cases love objects absolutely indifferent to their would-be adult lovers. Madame George's little boys are downright contemptuous - like the street urchins who end up cannibalizing the homosexual cousin in Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, they're only too happy to come around as long as there's music, party times, free drinks and smokes, and only too gleefully spit on George's affections when all the other stuff runs out, the entombing winter settling in with not only wind and rain but hail, sleet, and snow.
What might seem strangest of all but really isn't is that it's exactly those characteristics which supposedly should make George most pathetic - age, drunkenness, the way the boys take his money and trash his love - that awakens something for George in the heart of the kid whose song this is. Obviously the kid hasn't simply "fallen in love with love," or something like that, but rather - what? Why just exactly that only sunk in the foulest perversions could one human being love another for anything other than their humanness: love him for his weakness, his flaws, finally perhaps his decay. Decay is human - that's one of the ultimate messages here, and I don't by any stretch of the lexicon mean decadence. I mean that in this song or whatever inspired it Van Morrison saw the absolute possibility of loving human beings at the farthest extreme of wretchedness, and that the implications of that are terrible indeed, far more terrible than the mere sight of bodies made ugly by age or the seeming absurdity of a man devoting his life to the wobbly artifice of trying to look like a woman.
You can say to love the questions you have to love the answers which quicken the end of love that's loved to love the awful inequality of human experience that loves to say we tower over these the lost that love to love the love that freedom could have been, the train to freedom, but we never get on, we'd rather wave generously walking away from those who are victims of themselves. But who is to say that someone who victimizes himself or herself is not as worthy of total compassion as the most down and out Third World orphan in a New Yorker magazine ad? Nah, better to step over the bodies, at least that gives them the respect they might have once deserved. where I love, in New York (not to make it more than it is, which is hard), everyone I know often steps over bodies which might well be dead or dying as a matter of course, without pain. and I wonder in what scheme it was originally conceived that such an action is showing human refuse the ultimate respect it deserves.
There is of course a rationale - what else are you going to do - but it holds no more than our fear of our own helplessness in the face of the plain of life as it truly is: a plain which extends into an infinity beyond the horizons we have only invented. Come on, die it. As I write this, I can read in the Village Voice the blurbs of people opening heterosexual S&M clubs in Manhattan, saying things like, "S&M is just another equally valid form of love. Why people can't accept that we'll never know." Makes you want to jump out a fifth floor window rather than even read about it, but it's hardly the end of the world; it's not nearly as bad as the hurts that go on everywhere everyday that are taken to casually by all of us as facts of life. Maybe it boiled down to how much you actually want to subject yourself to. 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? Perhaps the numbest mannekin is wiser than somebody who only allows their sensitivity to drive them to destroy everything they touch - but then again, to tilt Madame George's hat a hair, just to recognize that that person exists, just to touch his cheek and then probably expire because the realization that you must share the world with him is ultimately unbearable is to only go the first mile. The realization of living is just about that low and that exalted and that unbearable and that sought-after. Please come back and leave me alone. But when we're along together we can talk all we want about the universality of this abyss: it doesn't make any difference, the highest only meets the lowest for some lying succor, UNICEF to relatives, so you scratch and spit and curse in violent resignation at the strict fact that there is absolutely nothing you can do but finally reject anyone in greater pain than you. At such a moment, another breath is treason. that's why you leave your liberal causes, leave suffering humanity to die in worse squalor than they knew before you happened along. You got their hopes up. Which makes you viler than the most scrofulous carrion. viler than the ignorant boys who would take Madame George for a couple of cigarettes. because you have committed the crime of knowledge, and thereby not only walked past or over someone you knew to be suffering, but also violated their privacy, the last possession of the dispossessed.
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 it's entire side of songs about falling leaves. In Astral Weeks and "T.B. Sheets" he confronted enough for any man's lifetime. Of course, having been offered this immeasurably stirring and equally frightening gift from Morrison, one can hardly be blamed for not caring terribly much about Old, Old Woodstock and little homilies like "You've got to Make It Through This World On Your Own" and "Take It Where You Find It."
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. I said I wouldn't reduce the other songs on this album by trying to explain them, and I won't. But that doesn't mean that, all thing considered, a juxtaposition of poets might not be in order.
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 againVan Morrison
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 the 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