For two weeks straight, I played that sucker till my arm was sore from picking up the needle. And every day my mother would yell up the stairs, “Would you TURN that bloody racket down!” That would probably have been around the fifth listen, when I’d have cranked it up, on my little suitcase record player. But that was OK, because I liked it quiet too.
When the two weeks were up, it was time for me to head back to school – a boarding school for girls, fifty-five miles south of Montreal. This was my fourth year at St. Helen’s and I was going into Fifth Form. Just like at Hogwarts. For the uninitiated, Fifth Form is Grade 10, my junior year of high school. And I had Astral Weeks to take with me and share this find with whoever wanted to listen. It turned out that nobody cared. No one could hear what I was hearing. At 14, listening to Van was a solitary passion. And for the most part, it still is.
For all that listening, I still didn’t have a clue what Van was on about in his lyrics. I was sure there was meaning in there; I just didn’t have a clue what it could be. Everybody else I listened to sang linearly and I could handle that, but with Van, I couldn’t hold on to the lyrics, there were thousands of them, these images flitting into view, blown away by the next image, an onslaught, none of which I could make head or tail of. Red shoes. Pointing a finger at me, ain’t nothing but a stranger in this world, in another land, so far away. We are going to heaven. Way up in heaven. In another time, in another place, in another space. Whatever that means! And that was the easy part. There are immobile steel rim cracks, a look of avarice, pictures on the wall and viaducts. I was never going to get the title track right, no matter how long I listened to it. The lyrics became secondary, probably more out of necessity than I’d care to admit. But in my defense, the lyrics had extremely stiff competition from the voice. As soon as I put the needle down on if I ventured in the slipstream, it was always the voice that did the transporting. If there were thousands of lyrics, there were tens of thousands of what it is that Van does with his voice. To call him a singer is to understate the case.
There are times when following his voice in song reminds me of Family Circus in the Sunday funnies, when the little boy is called home for dinner, and rather than go straight home, the cartoon shows a dotted path that goes in circles around the page as the boy discovers all the things there are to do on the circuitous way home. And when the voice brings you home, you go, I made it, didn’t I? And all you want to do is do it all over again.
Van’s voice has the ability to go anywhere it wants to go and do it in any number of ways – never the same way twice. It’s never a simple trip through Van’s music. To never never wonder at all. To never never never wonder why it’s gotta be. It doesn’t matter where you drop the needle, you drop into Van’s voice, and the voice let’s you rest in it and carry you along, wending through, over and around the story he is telling. And I shall drive my chariot down your streets and cry, “Hey, it’s me, I’m dynamite and I don’t know why. If the words are the streams of consciousness, and the leaves fall one by one by one by one, call the autumn time a fool, then the voice is the river that runs through it; first you are standing here, as it rages, overflowing the banks of consciousness, over waterfalls, creating eddies; and when you think you’re about to drown, it takes you meandering among the green banks, and you are standing there, articulating a slice of heaven, way upon, way upon, you came walking down, in the wind and rain, the sun shone, nobody, nobody stop me from loving you baby.
So young and bold, fourteen years old, and “Cyprus Avenue” winds down to the end of side one. No wonder my arm got sore lifting that needle up and starting all over again… If I ventured into the slipstream…
When I rushed up to my dorm room after lunch, with 12 minutes until classes started, it was always a tough decision – go to side one or wipe off side two and listen to “Madame George” one more time again. With a running time of 9:25, I could just squeeze the lovely lady in, if I ran to class. I got really good at dropping the needle onto the shiny black line between the first and second songs, and Van would be off down the Cyprus Avenue. I would dash off to class with the images and sounds of the clicking clacking of the high heel shoes, throwing pennies at the bridges down below. I wouldn’t have a clue what he was singing about ever. In those days, I wouldn’t have even known how to spell transvestite let alone imagine one in song, and Ford and Fitzroy could have been an accounting firm for all I knew.
Van’s were not the kinds of songs you’d sing in the shower. For showers I had “Lay, Lady, Lay” but as I found out very early on, it’s a tricky business trying to do Van a cappella, whether the water is pouring down or not. Ask me again tomorrow, but the best place to do Van is listening to him with the lights down low in that time between wake and sleep. It’s just you, and the music touches you…the room is filled with music…soft music…playing around the room…and the music hits the wall…hits the other wall…and it goes around the room and it hits you…and the music becomes you…and you are the music…and you are the room…and the music becomes you.
OK, maybe second best place. As I was about to find out, first best, by a country mile, is getting to hear the music live.