Make It Real One More Time Again
By the time I got into town and parked the car, it was well after 8 o’clock. The street was all but empty in front of Massey Hall, which was no small surprise. It was a safe bet that anyone who had a ticket for the show was comfortably inside, enjoying what they’d spent their money on. There was certainly no one around with a spare. I’m not sure I would have had the money to spend on a ticket, even if there was one to sell.
I couldn’t very well walk through the front doors and expect a miracle to happen. So I started off around the building to see what there was in the way of a back entrance. The west side door off the alleyway was locked, so I headed to the back, with no luck there. As I rounded the corner to the east side, the only door I could see was up a fire escape. It was my last hope. I bolted up the stairs and tried the door, gave it a good rattling, but no luck. It, along with the rest of the doors, was locked. As I stood there, trying to come up quickly with Alternate Plan B, the door opened from the inside.
This big bruiser of a guy was standing there, and he didn’t look altogether pleased. I gave it my best shot, rambling on about being Van’s biggest fan, tickets being sold out, what was a poor girl to do. Was it possible for me to just step inside and stand there, so I could listen? Pretty please? I was pitiable. Something worked, because the next thing I knew, he was telling me I could come in and was directing me up a flight of stairs.
“You go up there, and you stand there. You don’t make a noise. You just stand there. When the show is over, you come down these stairs and leave by this door. Don’t make me regret letting you in.”
I could have kissed him, but there was no time. He didn’t look like the kissable type anyway. I was up those stairs two at a time, opened the door at the top, and found myself in the SRO section at the very back of the top balcony. Balconies were getting to be a bad habit for me. It was packed up there (was my friendly bruiser letting in everyone with a sob story?), but I found myself a spot just inside the door and turned to face the stage. And there was Van bent over, wailing away on the harmonica into a handheld mike, then doing a deep southern blues as he poured the words like molasses into the same mike, then back to the harp, putting Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” into overdrive. Holy Todedo and then some! This was some seriously good 12-bar blues. What had the guy told me? Stand there. Don’t make a noise. Oh man, I was going to be in trouble now.
History went on to show that I had missed at least thirty minutes of the show and in the process had missed “Vanlose Stairway,” “St. Dominic’s Preview,” and “All in the Game.” In retrospect, there are a few half-hours in my life that I would willingly trade in exchange for being in the theater for that first half-hour of the Massey Hall show. But at that particular moment, engaging in hindsight was the last thing I was doing. My sights were on the moment and facing forward. In my mind, the show started the moment I got there.
And what a start! “Help Me” has been a staple in Van’s set over the years and is one of those songs that never gets old. It has aged well. Bring me my nightshoit. Whether Candy Dulfer is blowing on her sax, James Hunter is kicking up a storm on his guitar, or Van is wailing on his harp, this song will get me off my sorry butt every time, dancing in the aisles. Upstairs, back in that back balcony, our aisle was making the support beams work overtime. Two thumbs up and a spot on the USL (Ultimate Set List).
I was loving every minute of it. The raucous pace was finally cut short for “Sense of Wonder” a few songs along…you might call my love Sophia. The poetry of Van, so often seemingly rooted deep in Ireland. The Celtic winds blow a gentle breeze over the green fields and into the mind of the poet…but I call my love philosophy. Then the poet unleashes it, with a passion reserved for our ears only on this night, and time is locked in a box. The intricate parts of the band seamlessly support the voice, sometimes driving it, sometimes challenging it, until finally it serves as a cloud-filled cushion that carries the voice around the room. It turns out that was just a warm-up for “Ballerina,” perched a few songs later in the setlist.
Oh, my. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. Astral Weeks has some of the most beautiful music of all time deep within its grooves. And none more beautiful than “Ballerina.” I closed my eyes and let myself go back to lying in bed as a fourteen-year- old, listening to this for the first time. It’s from the second side, the side where the sad women lived in their own worlds. It’s getting very, very late. I can’t remember the last thing I said. The show must go on. Step right up, just like a ballerina. Keep moving right up. When I opened my eyes, it was like a new world – I had been transported. I’d been taken somewhere and had been brought back. Yes, it was like the album, but no, it was nothing like it. It must be like listening to Mahler’s 5th Symphony recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic. You’d been listening to it for years; then one night, you are in Vienna and have tickets to see them perform it live. Yes, it’s the same; but no, it’s not at all. Those moments when all sense of time is lost and you are lost in the music – moments that can’t be surpassed. There might be a lot of things that are just as good, but nothing beats live.
He led up to “Summertime in England” with “What Would I Do?,” a little song by Ray Charles that got lost in his pantheon of works, but here it is resurrected by Van. I’m crazy about my baby, crazy ‘bout my baby, lyrics that were to come back many years later, but the song itself had a very short shelf-life on the setlist. Another one of those covers that Van takes on as his own and it becomes his song.
But if I thought the show was good up to this point, that was only because I didn’t know what was coming next. I didn’t recognize the song at first. Common One wasn’t heavy in my rotation; up to this point, listening to “Satisfied” was too high a price to pay to listen to “Summertime in England.” Arguably Van’s magnum opus, “SIE” is a story in three parts, first of Avalon; then the lineage down to the writers Dylan Thomas, D.H. Lawrence, Wordsworth and Coleridge, baby, W.C. Auden, Seamus Heany; and then the glory of it all in the beauty of the light. I was going to have to go home and give this one another listen on the album. The strength of the words, the breadth of the music, the passion in the call, it felt like the Lord’s Prayer, the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen. Real breast-beating stuff.
The rest of the show was a blur; I think I spent the whole time trying to pick my jaw up off the floor. And then in a flash it was over. Van was off the stage and I’d just had the night of my life and wasn’t sure how it could get better than this.
We left in the usual crush of people heading toward the exit. No matter that it was in the exact opposite direction of the stairs I had come up. I just fell into step and played follow-the-leader. At one point I started raving about the show with a fellow who seemed far too young to be clutching a worn copy of Tupelo Honey to his chest. He was heading down to the bowels of Massey Hall and hoping to get there in time to get Van to sign the album. I had a momentary vision of my friendly bruiser and wondered just how much regret I was going to face if he saw my face anywhere else other than exiting the door to the fire escape. What’s the worst he could do, I wondered, as I headed down the stairs to the basement. We ended up joining the small throng of fans lined up against the wall of the walkway. It was brightly lit with fluorescent bulbs, making it very hard to blend into the woodwork if the need arose.
And then around the corner, heading our way, came this throng of big guys. OH NO, there’s my bruiser – and there in the middle of the throng was Van, towered over by his handlers, red in the face from his exertions upstairs, chewing what seemed like a very large bone with the guy keeping pace with him as they all walked by toward the hospitality suite up ahead around the corner. It looked like the autograph opportunity had just passed by, not that it much mattered in my case; I didn’t even have a ticket stub to my name, let alone the assortment of albums the rest of the wall people had in tow. I decided to call it a night, but when I looked around I realized I had no idea how to get out of the Massey Hall catacombs. What I should have done was turn left, but instead I turned right in the general direction of Van’s troupe and smack dab into the bruiser’s line of sight. I was just about to find out what form regret takes in situations like this.
I don’t think he meant the part about my mother, but he sure said it loud enough to sound convincing. He made it quite clear that any rebuttal on my part was unnecessary. I didn’t need to be told twice; I hightailed it out of there as fast as my legs could carry me. I was never so glad to get out of a building.
The music was ringing in my ears all the way home. Just wait until I told Dennis about the show he missed. He was definitely going to have to come to the next one. But before we did that, let’s give that “Summertime in England” a couple of spins on the old record player.