On a Magic Night Like This
This story first appeared in Wavelength, the unofficial Van Morrison fanzine produced and edited by the very talented Simon Gee.
February 22, 1971. My first time. Van was playing in Montreal!
For all the good that did me. At least that’s when I first heard them announce it on the radio. It was right about midnight one night late in January, and as was my wont in those days, I was listening to the radio under the covers, the lights were out and the music was barely a whisper. I was firmly ensconced in my final year at St. Helen’s School, and one of the rules was absolutely no sounds after the matron had been down the halls hours earlier declaring “Silence!” Getting caught listening to the radio was worth a demerit, and I couldn’t afford another one.
Boarding school definitely had its limitations. All of which I was getting to experience firsthand. Chapel twice a day, a uniform that consisted of a green tunic, green shirt, green tie, green bloomers, green sweater, with brown oxfords, and if it was Sunday, a green beret and blazer. With black oxfords. Variety would have knocked you over with a feather. Up in the morning at some godforsaken time, barely any light in the winter, a stream of green trooping down to breakfast. Classes, study hall, demerits, walk around the circle two times twice a day for our exercise, lights out, four houses, sixth form prefects, snitches flying around in the air. Oops, wrong school.
The only thing Hogwarts and St. Helen’s had in common is that both had headmasters. Mr. Reid was not a bit like Dumbledore – his worldview did not include 16-year-old girls at his school going into Montreal to see some concert. I’d like to imagine that Dumbledore would have seen the absolute necessity and turned it into an outing for the sixth formers.
So when I heard the announcement that Van was coming to Montreal, it might just as well have been Siberia for all I was ever going to get there.
Fortunately, by the time I heard them announce it a second time, I already had a plan rattling around in my head. This was going to require thinking outside the box, a commodity that was in short supply around me. I kept a diary at the time but it is of absolutely no help as a memory jog of those times – I seem to have been going through my :just the facts, ma’am” period of writing. Plus, a key element of the plan was secrecy – this was definitely on a need to know basis. No point giving it away to prying eyes and risk demerits for something that hadn’t even happened yet.
It was a few nights later that I heard the announcement again – Van Morrison at the Capital Theatre, two shows the night of February 22. I was getting excited – a plan was hatching. My classmate Pixie, whose dorm room was right beside mine, had the luxury of being at the end of the hall and had access to a key element of the plan – a fire escape. And she wanted in – and who wouldn’t want to go see Van? She had another key element – a boyfriend, a boyfriend with a car – and all of a sudden, the plan had legs.
The two of us were just the other side of nervous about how well this adventure would work, but in the end we pulled it off. Well, almost.
We were going to the 11 o’clock late show. The plan was to leave school at 8:15. Fifty-five miles to Montreal – it couldn’t be easier.
After dinner we had study period. For everyone below sixth form, that meant sitting in study hall from 7 to 9, under the watchful eye of one of the matrons. Sixth formers were awarded the privilege of studying in small groups of three or four in the classrooms spread out around the school – out of sight of any matronly gazes. There was the odd night that a matron would come by with a message, but we were hoping this wouldn’t be one of those nights.
Pixie and I had done a switch with a couple of our mates so that the two of us were studying in the room at the top of the stairs that led down to the chapel where we had hidden our street clothes under the altar. At 8:00 we tiptoed downstairs, changed our clothes in the dark, leaving our uniforms underneath the altar for my roommate, Nancy, to come collect after the night’s study session was over.
That afternoon, the need to know had expanded to include the entire sixth form – we needed their cooperation later that evening. We all lived on the same floor, two or three to a room. At 10 o’clock it was lights out. That was when we could expect the matron to come down the hall, poking her head into each room, seeing that we were in bed and turn the light out for us if we hadn’t done so already. And silence, always silence.
Our plan at 10:00 hinged on our dorm mates all being in bed with everyone’s light out, so by the time the matron made it to Pixie’s and my rooms, together near the end of her rounds, she would no longer be thinking in terms of turning on the light just to turn it off again. Plus, for good measure, our roommates were going to stuff our beds. It had turned into an adventure for everyone.
With our aiders and abettors going about their adventures upstairs, Pixie and I, dressed for an expedition to the North Pole, stood just inside the exit door, hoping the alarm hadn’t been set. It hadn’t and we were safe on the other side. All that stood between us and the getaway car was an open field of snow brightly lit by a spotlight from the school. We trudged through the knee-high snow, hoping this would not be the night that Miss Hassell (honest – that was her real name) would decide to look out the window to ponder her life. It felt like a scene out of We The Living. The only thing that was missing was our blood on the snow.
On the other side of the field and up the road around the first bend was the car. Pixie’s boyfriend was driving and in the backseat was a friend of his, another Van fan. During the drive to Montreal, I probably didn’t say more than five words. There was conversation going on around me, but all I had on my mind was in two hours I was going to see Van, so I didn’t have much energy for idle chitchat.
We arrived in Montreal and parked the car with time to spare, so we went for coffee to get warmed up. It was a bitterly cold night. We got to the venue in plenty of time to stand in line and stomp our feet as we waited to be let in. By that time, the liquid refreshment passing up and down the line was a bit more in keeping of the festival atmosphere. Van’s two shows this evening were the big musical event of Dawson College’s winter festival, and the attendees were celebrating. It occurred to me at one point, as I was using the theater wall as ballast, that Van was on the other side of that divide, and frostbite or no, I was right where I wanted to be.
To start at the beginning of the story, go to followshannon.com vanchronicles.
Jump ahead almost 40 years later, and me, still an avid fan of Van Morrison, recounts the year of Astral Weeks live in my book “Astral Weeks Live: A Fan’s Notes.” Get your signed copy here.