Van Chronicles – Chapter 8

For those of you keep score, no, you didn’t miss Chapter 7. There is a Chapter 7, but, much to my surprise when I opened it up, it’s just the barest of outlines for this grand idea I had to cover the trinity of Van’s music – the physical, the emotional and the spiritual – which would mostly give me an excuse to listen to a lot of Help Me, It’s All In The Game, and Summertime In England. A huge and extremely rewarding project when I got to it, but I’d have to get back to it some other time. For right now, there’s Chapter 8 …

Make It Real One More Time Again

Living a block from the lake has its benefits, especially in the summertime. Hot days that have beach written all over them. Toronto’s beaches are on the northern edge of Lake Ontario and are far too cold for swimming, except for maybe one afternoon in late August in a 100 degree heat wave; but it was always nice to go down and lie there with a book, giving the impression that any moment now we were going to head in for a dip. Beautiful days. That particular summer of 1986 I was pregnant with my first, who would be born in the fall. I was the blimp on the beach.

I didn’t look particularly pregnant – I just looked plump. Overgrown. It all had to do with the way I dressed. Fashion sense has never been my strong suit, and pregnancy did nothing but confirm the fact. To me, being pregnant was the perfect excuse to dress down. Wear oversize T-shirts and shorts that had big elastic bands. And when it got cold, sweatpants. If I was glowing, I just wiped it off on my sweatshirt. No one ever asked if I was pregnant; everyone just assumed I’d been into the Haagen-Dazs a bit more often than I should.

The Toronto stop on Van’s tour in support of No Guru, No Method, No Teacher was July 6, landing right in the middle of our annual two week removal from the beach down the block to the beach at the cottage up in the Muskokas – beautiful country to the north of Toronto, filled to the brim with cottagers during the summer months. It worked out perfectly. Van was playing at the Kingswood Theatre, an open-air theater located on the 330-acre Canada’s Wonderland, located far enough north of the city that it would actually be a more pleasant drive down from the cottage than if were we heading there from the city. Not to mention we’d be driving against cottagers returning back to the city on Sunday night, undoubtedly with smiles on our faces from ear to ear after the show and knowing we had an entire week ahead of us to hang out at the cottage.

Cottage life was a treat. It was an almost annual tradition of Dennis’s family, which included Mom and Dad, a brother, and two sisters, to all pitch in and rent a cottage on Three Mile Lake (Lake, not Island), for two weeks in July or August. We went back to the same cottage for years, because it was perfect. The lake was ideal for swimming; out about a half-mile out there was an island in the middle of the lake to swim to; lights dotted around the lake at night; a dock to dangle your feet in the water; a hammock to waste away the day in. We took turns making dinner and cleaning up afaterward. As the cool evening air blew in through the screen door, we got the board games out and sat around the table and played till long in the night. We were the board game wizards on Three Mile and when we tired of that, out came the cards for poker. It was cutthroat – mind you, when it’s penny-ante and bumps are a dime and a quarter, there is limited enthusiasm for winning; it was always embarrassing the next day at the beer store counting out pennies for that day’s supply of brew. Six quarters and 13 dimes plus empties, which were a nickel apiece, still left a lot of pennies to count for a case of 2-4. Fourteen sixty-one, fourteen sixty-two, fourteen sixty-three…you’d be there all morning. Sixteen twenty-seven, sixteen twenty-eight… God forbid you loose your place in the count. It was a great two weeks.

Made all the better for a Van show in the middle of it. And for the first time, I wasn’t going to be up in the nosebleeds. Mind you, that mostly had to do with the outdoor theater coming without a balcony, but it did have the outdoor theater equivalent of a balcony – the general admission grass area in the back. But we had floor seats under the tent about three-quarters of the way back. On the aisle, which would be perfect when I wanted to get out and waddle down to the front and throw my panties up on stage. As long as I could get my sweatpants off.

It was a perfect night for an outdoor concert. A July night in Ontario perfect. It’s the kind of night you think of in Neil Young’s “Helpless,” except by any standards, we are in southern Ontario. But all those trees and lakes in the Muskokas make you think of northern Ontario. The band slowly meandered in – Pee Wee Ellis, David Hayes, backup singers Susie Davis and Carol Kenyon. Dahoud Shar on drums, Bob Doll, Jeff Labes, John Platania, and if that’s not enough good music right there, more than enough, there’s a four-piece string section, with Nancy Ellis on violin and Terri Adams on cello. This would turn out to be one of the most exquisite nights of live music I am ever likely to hear.

The strings tuned up for quite a few minutes, then a moment of silence, and with a nod of the head, they led into “Lark Ascending,” Vaughn Williams’ concerto for violins written on the eve of his going off to war in 1914. Tonight’s version is arranged by Jeff Labes, and it remains the most evocative, in the heart-breaking sense, piece of string playing to come off Van’s stage. Elsewhere on the tour “Lark Ascending” served as the intro to other songs, but tonight Labes’ piano led into “Got to Go Back”…summer is almost here…meditation, contemplation too…got to go back…healing go on with the dreaming…baby, got to go back…is there really any reason to ask why?

The theme of going back, getting the healing done in the going back, is one of the recurring themes in Van’s music. The explorations that Van has taken on the theme of going back cover the gamut, from way back Celtic mythology to discovering that the Irish spirit has eyes from the past through to Belfast during his early years. Looking at the traditions of religions and cults, philosophy and literature. Not content to just read about it all, he dabbled in everything he read about that interested him – a true autodidact. And when he was done exploring all that, he began to explore a little further into the music he first listened to, going back to the people who kept the traditions of their music alive and creating a sound that got Van’s number – Kansas City jazz, Lonnie Donegan skiffle, Mississippi blues, Hank Williams country, Chicago blues, Louis Prima, Ray Charles, Joe Turner. Going back, when things were more real.

But tonight’s going back was of a physical return from exile in another country meshed with a spiritual return, seemingly all the more mystical for the luscious strings.

to be continued …

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