Van Chronicles – Chapter 16

Don’t let me break down

Into each life a little change must come. I was game. Now that the kids had graduated from the diaper stage, had passed toilet training with flying colors, could dress themselves, and eat with a knife and fork, we were ready to take on the world. It’s 1996.

Homeschooling couldn’t have been working out better. Sean was nine and Bridget, seven, and they were sponges, soaking up everything. I just kept trying to open doors for them – get them to see the world, with the protection of someone who loved them. We spent a lot of time, or as much time as we could, with fellow homeschooling families. We’d even formed a group, called Between Counties. We’d do things together – one mom organized all these wonderful field trips…we were all on a budget, so the key was to find things to do that were free, or with a deep discount. The good thing about homeschooling is you could do all these things while everybody else was in school. We didn’t have to wait for the weekend to have fun; every day was fun, and the great part about it is we never had to fight the crowds during the week. We were the crowd. We were a fairly eclectic group – representing all sorts of religions, or lack thereof; and our politics, or lack thereof, were all over the map, which ended up meaning we probably had less in common than more. But the one thing we did share is what brought us together in the first place: our decision not to outsource our children’s education. Anne, Robin, Bonnie, Tammy, Luz, Lisa, Nancy, Peggy, Beth, Alice, Trish, Debbie, Deborah, RoseAnne, and Ginnie. Another thing we had in common is we all liked to go to Owen Fish Park in Fairfield once a week when the weather was good. The kids played and the moms sat around at picnic tables chatting, and it’s hard to say who had the better time of it.

In a world where most parents can hardly wait for the kids to be old enough to go to school and out of their hair, it can be a bit scary being in the minority – actually wanting to have your children stay home. So it was good to have the support of other parents and share stories of the neighbor with the evil eye and the grandparent who thought we were leading our children down the path of ruin. I’m was never sure what those evil-eyers thought the kids were missing: Having to ask permission to go to the bathroom? Learning to stand in straight lines? Getting gold stars? Dealing with bullies? Whatever we were doing, at least we weren’t doing that. I owe all these women a debt. We watched each other’s children, we watched our own, we learned from each other, and my children and I couldn’t have found ourselves a better group of friends.

The park came with the requisite swing set and seesaws, slides, and a huge sand area, and it had one of those roundabout things, which will go pretty fast if you could just get a mom to come over and do all the pulling to make it spin. My shot-put arm is thanks entirely to my years of spinning those kids dizzy. Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop! There was a little stream that wended its way along the outer edge of the park and emptied into a pond of limited means. The park was named after someone called Owen Fish, not a fish called Owen, but that didn’t matter to the kids; if there was fish in the name, there was bound to be fish in the pond. It turns out that I was the go-to mom on fishing, based solely on the fact that I was the only one who could hook a worm without throwing up. My skill set didn’t extend to what would happen if anyone actually caught a fish: hooks and worms are one thing, hooks and fish are quite another. Fortunately we never came close to dealing with anything live in that pond attaching itself to a hook. We sure did give those worms a workout, though.

One of my jobs with the group was acting as the central warehouse – the organizer person, keeping communication open, getting the news out. By far the best part of the job was I got to write these quarterly newsletters. Computers were new for me. I still did all my writing freehand and used the computer only as a typewriter. I had no clue what the Internet was.

One day I met a young woman named Rosemary, who lived in our town, was a “graduate” of homeschooling, and had a job as the editor of the town weekly paper The Easton Courier. Bless her heart, she offered me a job – to be in the paper’s stable of writers – and she’d call me if she needed me. And since the paper didn’t have a photographer, I got to put “photo” in front of the journalist part of the job title. How about that – I had my first steady gig as a paid writer and photographer. I was tickled pink. I didn’t have a clue about journalism, except the pyramid thing I learned at St. Helen’s School, a skill that so far hadn’t been used since I left school. But I was going to learn; and they were paying me a dollar for every column inch. Seriously…the day the paper came out, I’d get out my ruler and count off inches to see what I got paid.

So, I wasn’t getting rich. But I was having fun. At first. Sadly, I didn’t get any of the hard news to report – a blessing in disguise, really, because that meant I also didn’t have to cover town council meetings. The downside was I wasn’t out chasing cars and peeking in anyone’s windows, either, digging up town dirt. My stories were about the Memorial Day Parade and the Book Sale and Pancake Breakfast at the Legion and I had the library beat covered. I dragged Sean and Bridget with me to all of them. We ended up going to some neat things – none of which we would have gone to if it weren’t for me having to be there; so we got out and about in town. And on the homeschooling report I filed at the end of the year with the authorities, I dutifully checked off civics.

But there are only so many parades and pancake breakfasts in me, and I cried uncle. But instead of quitting, I pitched them the idea of running a history column in the paper. And that’s how I got to be writing a history column. Drive around town enough in search of parades and pancakes and you start to see some of the history of the town and I’d become rather fascinated by it. Not that there was much startling to it, but it’s fun to track down the stories of the people lying in the graves around town. After reading the one existing history book about Easton, I was certain there were enough good stories in there that could stand to see the light of day, and least enough to generate a history column in the newspaper.
So with our pen and notebook ready, off the kids and I went exploring this little corner of New England history. The Native Americans, the English, the Church, the American Revolution, the Civil War. Our town was somewhat off the beaten path of history; the major events of the day happened somewhere else. Even the minor events happened somewhere else, so once again, I wasn’t going to be digging up any murders or family feuds or hangings – Easton had been a town of hardworking farmers who didn’t have time for any of that juicy stuff; they worked six days a week and went to church twice on Sundays. And the men went off to fight in the wars, on the side of the “good guys,” or at least the winners. It was going to be fun, exploring all that, so off the kids and I went, in our time machine, and for homeschooling purposes, I called that “History.”

Which is all to say, in a lot of ways, life was good. And into a life a little more good doesn’t hurt at all. Van’s coming to New York for a four-night stand at the Supper Club was just the ticket. A barometer of my Vanaticism, if that’s the word to describe it, was such that I never seriously gave any thought to going to all four nights, two would be enough. We opted for the first two nights, Sunday and Monday, April 28 and 29.

The tickets were general admission, so as Joe Hauldren said, all we had to do was get there four to five hours early and be guaranteed one of the front row tables. For the Sunday night show, Joe and his sister Colleen did indeed show up the requisite five hours early and had been standing there for a couple of hours at the front of the line by the time Dennis and I arrived just after 5:00. The Supper Club is one of those intimate affairs, and for Van’s run, it was set up with small tables around the floor – the tables were big enough to fit your drinks and not much more, and ours, like everyone else’s was a stone’s throw from the stage. Which was about the size of a pup tent, but somehow the band crammed in there, all eleven of them, including a four-piece horn section made up of Haji, Matt Holland on trumpet, and Leo Green and Pee Wee Ellis on saxophone standing to our left. Robin Aspland on piano, Alec Dankworth and Nicky Scott on bass, Geoff Dunn and Ralph Salmins on drums, Ronnie Johnson on guitar, and Georgie Fame on organ. For a second it looked like Van had booked two complete bands and at the last minute had decided since they were here anyway, they might as well all play. And play they did, filling the space and then some. Apparently it was all but unbearable up on stage, with Van complaining to us about the sound a couple of times, but to a man out here in the audience, we were thinking “Keep it coming.” What a night. As Dan said, “One for the ages,” fueled entirely on alcohol with a heavy dose of jet lag thrown in. And don’t tell me that Leo didn’t add fuel to the fire – Leo on a good night, which is about any night, could have taken the room on solo.

At the end of it, everyone had been put through the wringer. How the roof stayed on I don’t know. The first set was pretty much a showcase for the new album, How Long Has This Been Going On, recorded with a lot of this same band. He also plugged “Mule Skinner Blues,” this time for the Jimmie Rodger’s tribute album, this being Van’s contribution. A couple of songs later Van and band did a simply superb version of “Moondance,” with Van going all guttural on “dance,” and we were having a hard time fathoming what kind of problem Van might be having with the sound if he could do all this. Van goes off for a “break,” as Georgie described it, leaving Georgie to fill in a little time with “The New Symphony Sid” and “Jumping With Symphony Sid.” A strong first set, Van seemed glad enough to be here, talking a bit, seemingly very loose, like he’d come to have some fun. He and Georgie looked like their appearance here on this stage was simply the continuation of what might have been one long day that had begun more than 24 hours ago. The show was just one more stop along the road. You also got the sense it had been a drinking day for our two heroes. Tonight, Van was busy on the champagne, pouring from a flute all night long.

And perhaps more of same while off-stage. When he came on to lead off the second set with “Slim Slow Slider,” he was in a reflective and chatty mood, telling us
Thank you very much,
I appreciate your patience level
We’re trying to work this out,
This is from a record I made here in New York a long time ago,
Astral Weeks

…slurring the words just a bit. Then he turns his attention to his guitar, looking like he often has over the years with it, that painstaking face that he reserves only for when he’s playing the guitar. He never makes playing it look easy. It’s a quiet dirge, never any release from it – it has such a pall over it, Van taking it down to whispers and up to screams, but the release is never there. The most surreal version of the song I’m ever likely to hear. Not that I have a lot to compare it to, given that he doesn’t pull it out of the hat too often, and when he does, it’s not likely to be when I’m anywhere around ( so much for predicting the future!). But it wasn’t until three songs later, “Vanlose Stairway/Trans-Euro Train,” you could see that whatever was bottled up in “Slim Slow Slider” was slowly unleashed and the evening began to make its move from one of restrained hysteria to full-blown crazy. Extraordinary. He growled his way through Trans-Euro, moving back from the mic at each iteration into Aspland stunning us with a piano solo that was trademark Aspland, and with the piano playing Van turns to Georgie and spars back and forth on it and again the song ends on a dime and straight into “Satisfied.” One of Van’s least satisfying of songs for me. It gave me a chance to divert my attention and the first thing I noticed was that the guy sitting at the table in front of us was still slumped over, passed out in his seat and had been since “Mule Skinner Blues.” If “Satisfied” doesn’t wake you up, it’s hard to imagine what would. “Tupelo Honey” took us back to the sweet spot, Van calling out “that’s it, that’s it” to Ronnie Johnson whose solo followed on an equally sublime riff by Dankworth on bass. It got Van going, this time dig-a-digging with Pee Wee’s [or was it Leo’s] sax, and we’re into “Why Must I Always Explain?” The performance artist at his best, spitting it, crying it, yelling it, why must I always explain? And then Pee Wee absolutely plastered the song with a screaming solo to blast it out. And we’re only getting started. “See Me Through” beguiles us with its delicacy, the tinkling of the piano, a timeless solo by Matt on trumpet, and on Van’s verbal cue, they’re into the bridge of “some day, one day” to “Soldier of Fortune” when Van gets reflective and chatty again, this time talking about some day

some day starts here
some day might be this, might be that

rewind, rewind,
how did you get here
we started somewhere
way back sometime
I booked this gig four months ago
and that was like some day
and now some day is here, right?
you’ve got to do it!

And in another minute or two Van is wailing away on the harp to beat the band, who escalate the song behind him and the lid has blown off the roof. And in one movement with his hand, it’s back down to a whisper to start the build for the house on the hill, money in the bank, cars in the driveway, color TV, mobile phones, computer programs, virtual reality, and then down to the quiet place to go up that mountainside where the water runs crystal clear and for once a New York audience is unable to open its singular or collective mouth as he draws us into the silence intoning at the end to see us through. Absolutely spectacular. We were primed for “Summertime” and another sparring match with Pee Wee, causing Van great glee round about the Nottinghill Gate and the mystic church, then Georgie is drawn in, and the three of them create a circle the equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon snowball at the top of the hill that gets bigger and bigger as it rolls down, and at the bottom of the hill is a crowd full of people that go flying when they get hit square on. Van in the end going off into his tongues and we’re all going wild, and so are the horns. As Van walked offstage, on came Jimmy Witherspoon for a medley of some of that serious deep down sad blues. It was a short break for Van – he was back on to join Spoon for “Little Red Rooster,” referring to Spoon as the master of the blues. Van gave Spoon the floor for “Jelly, Jelly,” tell him Spoon is coming home. Witherspoon was delightful – the perfect antidote to whatever it was that Van was doing – he was a touch of reality, southern style.

And then begins the third set where you would have had to have been prepared to see it coming. “Lonely Avenue” builds quickly to loud and Van starts this sing-song talking voice, I’m going to cry, I’m going to die and he asks the band to keep it there because he’s got something more to share…first about the sound up on the stage being considerably subpar, then to continue with the “some and one” theme…

sometimes you don’t know where one is
but you find out anyways
we’re just trying to be cool

…and we get treated to this extraordinary cool piece of jazz from the band, and my guess is that we’re all pretty cool with that. I know I am. And then he stops, because he has more he wants to share…and he’s telling us the recording history of “Lonely Avenue” blah blah blah and that Ray Charles had done a version. So don’t go thinking this is my song, or words to that effect, which segues into an anecdote about Lou Reed, which I paraphrase here: Van was talking to Lou on the phone a few weeks earlier and been telling Lou about the noises and voices he could hear in his head, and that sets Lou off into this long diatribe about, well, you know Lou, it could have been anything, but at the end of this long oration, Lou said to Van, “Whenever I hear voices, I say, ‘That’s not me, that’s somebody else.’”

And right now that somebody else is Ray Charles. This was definitely not my parents’ Ray Charles. Musically cloistered as I am, the only Ray Charles I was familiar with was “Hit the Road, Jack,” so the first time I ever heard Van reference him, which would have been in “Cleaning Windows,” I couldn’t help thinking “You’re kidding? Where’s the connection?” It took until tonight to finally figure out there might be more to Charles than ’60s pop. And a few more years before I did anything about it. Move on down the line, it’ll be fine, fine, fine, fine, fine. What began as a tastefully executed jazz piece grew into this monster truck of blues. They could hear this stuff out on the street, you just know it. Nothing was keeping this song down. As my piano teacher would have liked to have said to me more often, “Good use of dynamics.”

“In the Garden” started out with Van in gruff voice, playing off the piano, then, as Dan said, “ruining it by complaining about how loud the sound was in the venue,” which turned into another audience participation rap. By the time he got back to the song, he’d lost whatever enthusiasm he might have had for it.

But as so often happens at a Van show, it’s not what’s preceded, it’s what’s now.

Now has us captive to one of the wildest, bat out of hell things I am ever going to witness up on stage – a forty-eight-minute version of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” that came in as a blues shuffle, no edges to it, but every once in awhile he’d let out a scream, which suggested he had places to go with it. But before the song takes off, Van interrupts himself with a rap, wondering if we’re with him yet. Back to singing, he picks it up a notch, but pulls it back with another rap, this time leading up to Haji’s riff that started off with flamenco trumpet, per Van’s request. Fifteen minutes into the song we come to the “Where – are – you – at?” segment of the show, where he has a bit of ’splaining to do about the real Van, the perplexities of the old Van and the new Van. Which involves getting impresario Ron Delsner up on stage, who, after producing a wad of bills out of his pocket, kindly explains to us how a ticket to tonight’s show is cheap at twice the price: referring to the $75 price tag – an astronomical price, one that I sincerely hoped wasn’t a sign of the times to come. With the soliloquies over, it was back to making music, solo from Haji, and then fall-into sax solos from Pee Wee with only the piano to support him at times, weaving back into another crescendo, a little bongo/piano bit, and a bass/piano bit – for jazz, these guys had it all.

The melodrama of the song continued, and the story continued to unfold – at one point Van says, “I want to tell you the facts of life,” which included but were not limited to establishing that he was not Depak Chopra, he wasn’t a genius, he was nothing but a regular guy, and the whole thing has become Van’s World. Audience participation had been part and parcel of the show and much of it fueled his fire, but none so much as during the middle of another of Van’s raps, when a guy in the audience yelled out, “Take no prisoners!” and that’s about how it went from there on out. It began with Pee Wee blasting out on sax, the band picking up the vamp, taking it up a notch, Van brings it back down with his hand, and just before he lets loose, his final admonition to us was “I don’t really know what’s going on.” I don’t suppose by the end of it, any of the rest of us did either. There he was intoning “Don’t let me break down,” an onslaught of them, moaning them, screaming them, crying them, being taken in by the force, turning and standing on the drum riser, screaming “don’t let me break down, don’t let me break down” fifty-eight times, according to Joe Hauldren,* before he was finally done with it, walking offstage. I often wonder what it must have been like for Salmins during that whole thing. What do you do with Van standing on your riser, almost impaling himself on the drums, screaming DLMBD into your face, gone crazy? That’s a rhetorical question. If you’re drumming for Van, you keep the beat – that’s your job. It doesn’t matter what the boss is doing.

When Van came back to close the night, people were still reeling; well, except for the guy in front of us who hadn’t budged an inch. He probably wouldn’t have believed it if he’d seen it. After something like that, what do you do for an encore? It wouldn’t much matter, but in this case it’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” which carries on while we sat there like a collective pile of mush, trying to recover from the cyclone that had just come through.

Unbelievable to me, the reaction at the end of the show was mixed. All would agree it was something to behold. But not everyone was impressed. Van’s language, which veered into the gutter on a steady basis over the course of the night, turned off a few. Others (or maybe it was the same people) complained that the noise level was extraordinarily high. No question about it, if loud music and streams of expletives is not your thing, this was definitely not your show.

The rest of us just stood there, with these blank looks on our faces, wondering what had just happened. Dan called it exorcism night. Van, the exorcist, getting rid of the demons. Although musically speaking, the next night was better, Sunday night’s show was the one you couldn’t escape from when all was said and done. This has top five written all over it.

And the good thing was, we got to do it all over again the next night. Well, maybe not all of it all over, but a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The second night was much more your mother’s show, in the sense that Van refrained from extemporizing with a stream of invective. And that is if your mother likes her music loud, with lots of good horns and that jazz sound that Georgie gets around so well. The first set was much like the night before, but a much better sound; Van was serious the night before about the sound problems, and they got it fixed.

He closes off the first set with the new “Healing Game” and then “Moondance.” I don’t spend a lot of time in this book waxing poetic about “Moondance,” so let me make amends here this one time: this band outperforms any others of Van’s on this song – a most tidy version tonight. They all get their solos, but it’s what’s going on behind the solos that makes the song. This is the way I like my jazz, a lot of silk to bring back the sharp edges, Georgie leading the way…and then one of those moments, when Van goes inside his voice and comes out with sounds like a dying farm animal; like a sheep in its last moments. Wow. You never know when that voice is going to take a tour and how it’s going to turn out.

The second set, musically, followed closely on the previous night, but tonight “Vanlose” is sacrificed for “In The Afternoon” and it’s a kicker, building very slowly, with the harp establishing the mood. Finally he gets taken in and starts intoning, but in one of those moments when I feel I could have stood for more of that, he’s out of there and wrapping up the song. Eight minutes was just not long enough for “Afternoon” tonight.

In hindsight, he might have been saving it up for what was next – one of those big versions of “Summertime in England.” Not big, monumental, but big, loud. In this small room, with this band, PeeWee on sax, it wasn’t going to be anything different. Van seems very relaxed during his and Pee Wee’s call-and-response, laughing about Pee Wee turning it into a response-and-call at one point. “Slim Slow Slider” gets another outing. It’s two different songs, last night and tonight. It seemed a half ton lighter tonight – it was the gentler touch Van gave the guitar. Maybe with the sound going right behind him; he didn’t have to force the sound. Whatever it was, he got the sound he was looking for, giving it over to Dankworth on bass. Hold it right there.

A sweet “Tupelo Honey” leads into “Why Must I Always Explain,” which gives Van a golden opportunity to explain about what’s bugging him right here, right now. Fuck Rolling Stone (OK, so maybe it wasn’t your mother’s kind of show) and all the assholes. The assholes rule the world, referring to a considerably less than positive review of Days Like This by Tom Moon in RS. It was his expression earlier, though, that killed me. It might have been on the first chorus, where he goes “Why must I always explain? Over and over and over and over and over again.” I’ve got a job you know. Perfect delivery.

And then something you don’t hear very often – a rumba version of “A Town Called Paradise” that went flamenco on us, and it was just one of those songs that you feel quite certain you’re never going to hear this way again. The rhythm section had this one together, and at one point, after one of those superb Dankworth solos, and this one really was superb, Van puts a squeal, like a real pig squeal, to his voice and he’s wanting that squealin’ feeling. The song gets my vote for Miss Originality on the night.

He closes out the second set with “Have I Told You Lately” and the band follow him off the stage. Followed by one of those moments that, if you weren’t there, amounts to little on paper, but if you were there, it was a moment in time. A Van Morrison audience’s version of the baseball wave. With the band offstage, the crowd got up on its collective feet, clapping like mad, and then a beat gets going. One voice begins, da da da da da, da da da da da, and the voice becomes two, then four, until the entire room is da-da’ing the “Jackie Wilson Said” refrain, and it goes on, building in fervor and decibel level. Undoubtedly the most enthusiastic and on-board song request by an audience. There’s movement offstage, and we raise the pitch as Haji comes on. It looked to me like he was trying to quash our rebellion, as though to say, “It ain’t on the setlist, so get over it.” He’d have to try harder than that, though, to get us to stop. The rest of the band came on, and we just kept going, a few more minutes of da da-ing, with the band starting in, tentatively at first, as though still not sure this is going to work and Georgie calls out “Keep it going” to the band, not to us. Everyone in the room was jumping; it felt like six or seven minutes had gone by since we’d started, and there was no way of knowing what was going to come of it. So when Van walked in and lit into “Jackie Wilson said it was reet petite,” we had the release. Hands down, best audience request for a song. Ever. Later, Dennis told me he was the one who started it all off, and I believe him. Bravo, Dennis!

A relatively brisk run-through of “It’s a Man’s World” at a mere twenty-three minutes tonight gives him a chance to rant some more, as does “Lonely Afternoon,” so by the time “In The Garden” comes along, any chance of a pastoral rendition is long past. He scamps through it, heading offstage at the end of it, to return for the final song of the night: “Healing Game.” Did he forget he’d already played it earlier?, which is easy enough to believe – there’d been enough music in the meantime, and the way the music came at you all night long, it was hard to remember what happened five minutes ago, let alone two-and-a-half hours earlier.

And there you had it – night two, clocking in at over three and a half hours for the second night in a row – another extraordinary night of music. I was completely wrung out, and honestly, if anyone had asked me, I don’t think I would have had the stamina to go through two more nights like these past two. I was going home a happy camper and quite willing to leave the Tuesday and Wednesday night shows to others with more fortitude. Like Joe and Dan, who were there for the entire run.

Tony Carlson, who’d come down from Ottawa for three of the nights, remembers the shows as true theatre, melodrama, great music and probably his favorite band. I can’t fault his logic on any of that.

Apparently, the third and fourth nights lacked much of what made the first two nights nothing short of a slice – the Tuesday night show suffered simply from taking place on the dreaded third day of jet lag, and by Wednesday, the demons were gone, as was “It’s A Man’s World,” replaced by Richard Gere, complete with voice and guitar on three songs in the third set. A different kind of slice. I’m sorry I missed the last two shows, but not all that sorry.

*Joe’s complete transcription of Van’s speaking part in this whole night’s production first appeared in Wavelength.

Chapter 17
















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