Van Chronicles – Chapter 15

Hello, New York

“Are you ready to parr-tee with us tonight?” Haji, doing the MC duties

This is as good a time as any to stop, look around, and take stock of the situation. The Van fan situation. At this point I had been listening to his music for twenty-six years, had been to a total of seven concerts. By definition, the concerts were the icing on the cake, a thin veneer of icing, but it was what it was and it never occurred to me that I was missing something, that I should do more, want more; I just did what I did, listen to the music, at times exclusively, and saw the odd show – that was my life as far as Van’s music was concerned. Contained. Nothing rocking any boats here. I never talked to anybody about Van, I never met anybody at any cocktail party or whatever who knew who I was talking about. Or if they did, they couldn’t have cared less. Not that I was out giving that theory a test all that much; if we were partying at someone else’s house, I’d more likely as not have gone off to wherever they kept their books and be sitting there with my head in a book I’d not seen before. It was like a book previewing service supplied by my hosts. I wasn’t beneath ranking these parties based on the host’s book collection. The world has enough social butterflies. And that’s OK. I love books.

The bottom line is I wasn’t doing a lot of talking about anything, let alone Van, but I promise you, if there had been anyone who showed the slightest interest in Van’s music, I would have put down whatever book it was. I would have fainted first, no doubt. And then I would have put the book down. No, this was a solitary pastime.

Where was I?

Right. I listened to the music, I went to the odd show, and it was a relatively solitary pastime in that I wasn’t meeting people who were even vaguely interested in Van as a topic. With all that solitariness on my hands, you’d have to think the odds on bet is that I spent a lot of that time thinking about the music. But there’s a bet you’d lose. I simply never gave any thought to the music. I listened to it, but I never gave it any thought. In some countries, that is the legal definition of brain dead. Here I was, forty years old, having listened to Van for twenty-six of those years, and I still didn’t have a clue what he was on about. I wasn’t much of a one for looking into the lyrics. Well, I suppose in the beginning I was – trying to figure out what viaducts of your dreams meant, throwing pennies at the bridges down below, but I gave all that up pretty early on. Just as well, because I was getting absolutely nowhere trying to figure out what he was talking about. Van’s world was completely different than mine. On the basis of what I was hearing in his songs, he and I had absolutely nothing in common. We lived in completely different worlds. While he was off in gardens wet with rain and Avalon, I was watching “Power Rangers” with Sean and figuring out new ways to serve up ground beef. So whatever my fascination was, it had nothing to do with the meaning of the lyrics. It had everything to do with the voice. I had no idea where these gardens were or what was going on in Avalon, but whenever Van’s voice took him there, I’d follow along. He’s a pied piper that way. It’s one among many talents.

That’s what I did with my solitariness. I let myself go into the music. It was all about how it made me feel, not about how it made me think. It didn’t occur to me to think. I was simply absorbing it. Just soak up the atmosphere, like a fish inside a bowl. If I’d been paying attention, I would have known that that’s what he was saying anyways – let yourself go. He’s absolutely right. Who needs to be thinking? Apparently, not me.

But in 1995, all that was to change.

Van booked two shows in New York that summer – at the Paramount in Manhattan on Friday, June 30 and at Jones Beach on Long Island on July 1. And the cherry on top was that to lead it off, there was Thursday night on David Letterman’s show. This was the closest to a three-night run I’d ever had.

So there were Dennis and I, glued to the set on Thursday night. Van sang
“Days Like This,” the title cut from his new album. The one memory I have of the Letterman show is the horns. There seemed to be banks of them. Which or course isn’t true – there weren’t banks of them, it just seemed that way. It was big, it was brassy, it was loud, and it was fast. We were in for a couple of nights of serious energy if this snapshot on Letterman was any indication. Two shows in two nights.

ooooh baby, as Brian Kennedy would say.

With the shows in the summer of ’95, all of a sudden, New York was back on the A list. For each of the next five years, Van made an appearance in New York and played at least two shows each time. For someone who had gotten used to going to a concert somewhere between once in a blue moon and about never, things had just moved up a notch. To tell you the truth, more like a couple of notches.

And between Van and me, we couldn’t have picked a better time if we’d sat down and worked at it. Starting with the show at the Paramount.

The Paramount was the refabricated Felt Forum, and soon to become the Theater at Madison Square Garden. We had tickets in the 204 section, and while in no way was I disappointed in our seat location, because honestly, these were probably the best seats we’d ever had, there was a moment when I looked at the relatively vast numbers of people who were seated closer to the stage than I was, and I couldn’t help but wonder if these were all the people who’d beat me to the punch on the Saturday morning I’d spent forty minutes on redial with my friend Ticketmaster to get these seats. I must have some bad karma that’s followed me through to this lifetime – maybe I was the broker for the shows in the lion’s den – seriously bad karma. I don’t think I have one Ticketmaster story with a happy ending, where I hang up the phone, or log off the computer and say, “Now those are two of the finest tickets you’re every going to see.” Hardly. In 1995, forty minutes on redial (we didn’t have a redial button, so it was a constant punching in of numbers). My index finger is permanently bent backward as a result of my Saturday mornings with Ticketmaster. Maybe I had been scalping tickets outside the lion’s den.

I doubt it took more than ten seconds to see that the horns indeed were driving the show. The best way to describe the sound is to picture yourself sitting at a James Brown concert; except it’s not JB up there. It’s Van Morrison. I don’t want to belabor a point, but bowl me over with a feather that every time I see him, he is doing something else, some other Van; the man has never been short on surprises. You just never know what’s going to happen at a Van show. Tonight it happens to be James Brown. This show is probably the closest thing I’ll ever see to James Brown, including the one time I actually did see him years later. James Brown has never appealed to me, which is my loss, I know. I like my R ‘n’ B a bit sweeter. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ray Charles.

But Van doing JB, now that I could dig a dig.

Van has never been one to skimp on the quality of the talent behind him on the stage, in support of his act – the fans have been treated to a roster of some very fine musicians in support of Van over the years. Often I think I could be rightly accused of taking the musicians for granted, because, it’s like David Kemper* said about Jerry Garcia. When asked what he thought of the audience at a show, Kemper said:
“That’s easy: the audience just wanted to be in a room with Jerry. They didn’t care if they were hearing fast music or slow music; they wanted to be in the same room with Jerry. That’s all I could see. And it didn’t matter if it was good or bad or who he had on stage with him. The crowd didn’t come to see me or John or Melvin. They came to be in the same room with Jerry. It’s that simple. And I don’t blame them. Being in the same room with Jerry was a pretty damn wonderful place to be.”

Sound familiar? If it does, welcome to the club. The only reason we’re there is to see Van. If Van weren’t in the room, I wouldn’t have been either. I wasn’t there to hear the other guys play. They were background and yes, I did, I took them for granted. But there was no way of taking this band for granted. Tonight was funk and jazz, Van taking on the role of the master blaster himself.

A show of very large proportion. Since I’ve mentioned the horns, I’ll begin there. Matt Holland on trumpet, Haji Ahkba on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Leo Green on saxophone. Leo has a huge sound and a huge stage persona, very theatrical he was, in an Elvis Presley kind of way. And he plays a great saxophone; so you can’t lose with Leo. Nicky Scott was still on bass, Georgie Fame on B-3, and Geoff Dunn on drums. On guitar there was Alan Darby, of whom I knew nothing then and to this day have not managed to damage my ignorance, and the multitalented contortionist Teena Lyle on everything else, including background vocals. There was no shortness on sound; there never is when Georgie Fame is on the Hammond, his music always in motion.

Here’s where I really wish I knew how to talk about music musicologically. You’re just going to have to trust me on this one: I can’t imagine anyone finding fault with the music this particular night –it was this huge wall of sound and it was relentless. And sometimes, Van would catch one of the waves coming off the wall and just fly with it, work it to the bone. Two songs were indicative of the night: the JB tribute “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” with the slow come-on sultry blues of Van’s harmonica to lead it off and lead into Van singing through the harp mike, at least I think he was, it was a sound I hadn’t heard before – on top of which this is the first time I am hearing this song – I knew it was a JB song and that was the extent of my education on the matter. Like so many other Van covers, the first person I ever heard sing the song was Van; and in some cases, the only version of a given song I’d ever hear. “Man’s World” fits into that category. This particular night – first time hearing it, it was a revelation, that’s for sure. I loved the way the music was all over the place – this incredible use of dynamics Van has – and tonight it feels like he’s bashing these dynamics against me. ** Let’s put it this way: I suppose I was vaguely aware of dynamics in Van’s music up to that point in our collective lives, but I wasn’t really paying attention to that end of things. But I paid attention tonight. It’s not like I really had a choice. Toward the end of “Man’s World,” Van screaming, wrenching the words out, and just like that, he brings it down, I’m a voice crying out in the wilderness and as the song builds to its last crescendo, it’s as though Van is transformed into a shaman, speaking in tongues; there is no way of knowing what is going on, I can only sit there absolutely mesmerized by this stream of what really is gibberish. And because it is New York, the crowd begins its hoots when they can’t contain themselves anymore, they’re ODing on gibberish, and on cue Van takes us to the song’s end, a crash and burn on don’t let me break down. And for those who are counting, there were sixteen DLMBDs tonight. Van’s got it right…it’s too good to stop now. It was one of those songs where you have to adjust your underwear afterward.

But it was “See Me Through/Soldier of Fortune” that stole the show for me. One of the great songs off A Night in San Francisco, released the year before. A great album, no need to pick out favorites. It had a huge cast of talent, it was live, Van was driving it the whole time. Not unlike tonight. The whole first part of the song, Van sings through the harp mike and Geoff Dunn and Nicky Scott were stalwarts up there, keeping it going – a mesmerizing beat behind this electronicized voice, sort of a James Brown does Steven Hawkins thing. It seems a bit science fiction to me. Does it to you? Can you actually picture it? JB sitting onstage in a wheelchair doing “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”? Of course, I’m not thinking that at the time; I’m thinking, whatever this is, I’m along for the ride tonight, lucky me. It’s another one of those songs that relies heavily on dynamics to get the job done. I don’t think I was really aware of the dynamics, at least consciously; they must have been doing their thing for me, but sort of keeping me on a need-to-know basis, and I apparently didn’t need to know. It was taking all my energy to focus on the voice and whatever else the mouth was doing, most notably, playing the harmonica. He was like a crazy man at times, at one point trying to sing into the harmonica and play the harmonica at the same time; and, he’s actually able to accomplish it. And to have it picked up through the harp mike. Makes it look easy, and maybe it is. So what do you call that kind of music? It’s not folk. It’s not rock and roll. It’s not country. It’s not pop. It’s not Celtic. It’s not jazz. It’s not blues (well, it is, in the sense that all music is the blues). What it is, is rhythm and blues. Something that Van is very good at. First he draws you in, lulls you in, and after a bit of that, he takes a jagged left – it’s like one of those hairpin turns on the Wild Mouse, and me and the mouse fly off on one of those turns and now we’re in a game of bumper cars. Earlier I said it was like Van getting hit by these waves flying off the wall of sound. It felt like there was an orchestra in the room, the whole thing filled the space, not a wasted note, played with precision and passion from the whole band. And despite all that incredible music, all I can really hear is Van’s electrified voice and then a bit of harp, building to I’m a soldier, I’ve been wearing my 44 so long, makes my shoulder sore, and I’m going, mine too, Van, mine too. Then he does this crazy harp run, one of those “you can’t stop me now” kind of runs, then it stops on a dime, going up that mountainside with the voice back on the harp mike, and we’ve got virtual reality, baby, virtual reality some lazy harp and voice in the harp and then half-harp, half-voice, half-mike, half voodoo makes for bad math, but you kind of get the picture. He was like a madman with his harp. They should hand out awards for that kind of stuff. No question about it, “See Me Through>Soldier of Fortune” is definitely on my DSL (dream setlist). And if it was science fiction, then I could get in my time machine and go back in time and do it all over again. But we move forward, toward the inevitable end of the show, which was an episode out of the Twilight Zone where the musician goes to sleep as James Brown and wakes up as Louis Prima. To me, it was the oddest juxtaposition. And to make it even more bizarre, part way through the song, “Buena Sera,” Michelle Rocca, Van’s girlfriend at the time, comes on stage, beautiful, statuesque, dressed in white, and begins interpreting the song in her own unique way. It was the strangest ending to any show I have ever been to, bar none. Including Wayne Newton.

And that was just the first night! We did the hour-and-a-half drive home, A Night In San Francisco playing in the car. And there’s still tomorrow to do. Jones Beach, here we come.

*David Kemper was the drummer in the Jerry Garcia Band from 1983 to 1993. In an interview with Barry Smolin, Kemper talks about the JGB days.

**It was only later that I came to recognize “Man’s World” as a workshop song, and that all this thrashing about with the sound is the hook, the next thing you know, you’re at the next level, and when you’ve achieved that level, you move on to Level 3. Each level is a story arc and tends to be very big, lots of music going on within the level, and then you’re drawn into Level 2, and you’re hooked, you’re in it for the rest of the song. By that point in the song, the dynamics are everything. And truly, Van’s dynamics are everything. What a master.

to be continued …

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