Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Lit Up Inside: Van Morrison at 71

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find itVan-Morrison extremely necessary to leave city limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

As most Morrison fans know, the redwood chapter of the Irish singer-songwriter’s story was relatively brief, compared to his life in music, now in its sixth decade. And yet the period beginning when he emigrated to America (coinciding with family life and a big burst of creativity) and ending with his three-year hiatus from performing and recording (following the release of Veedon Fleece) is notable: Morrison’s Bay Area tenure produced such an abundance of songs there was a surplus; moreover, they were consistently played on the radio and still are, forever ensuring his place in local music history. Van’s persistent presence, in and on-the-air here, has not only soundtracked our lives: it’s in our DNA, the songs passed on by Irish immigrant and hippie parents, down to their tattooed love children (and their children), even when concerning faraway characters like the “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Madame George.” Chances are whether you live in Nor Cal, North Carolina, or Northern Ireland you feel this connection too, yet the combination of deep personal content and universal humanity tucked inside Morrison’s songs was largely lost on me until reading the verses as a whole in Lit Up Inside (City Lights, 2014), the first published collection of his lyrics, handpicked by the songwriter.

Van-Morrison-bookIt is within these songs—written in Morrison’s own Irish, romantic, soul code, with their carefully planned lines and studied notes and phrases, learned from jazz and classic blues and early rock ‘n’ roll—the story of Morrison’s life unfolds. Whether in the concise rock ‘n’ roll tale, “The Story of Them,” the timeless “Gloria,” “Lonely Sad Eyes,” and “Mystic Eyes,” or epics like “T.B. Sheets” and “Tore Down à la Rimbaud,” we get a glimpse into the people and places of Morrison’s heart, while every sha la la la la la la la la lala dee dah, every your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye rolls off his tongue with the same ease it does our own.

Rarely a day passes in which I don’t silently quote from Morrison’s common poems and prayers. In fact, it is from one song, “Domino,” from which I draw most phrases, using them as mantras (though not necessarily in the order they were written). Popping forth, just when I need them most, the words have saved me needless worry, disgrace, despair, disgust, and other things worse. Dig it: There’s no need for argument. Don’t want to discuss it. Think it’s time for a change. Get some heavy rest. There you go. Lord have mercy (not that Morrison holds a copyright on that bit).

While “Domino” isn’t included in Lit Up Inside (it doesn’t need to be), others that work similar magic are included: “Blue Money” (take five, honey—when this is all over, you’ll be in clover, etc.), “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (as we gaze out on, as we gaze out on), “The Great Deception,” (you don’t need it): All are timeless, rich, and just that much sweeter for capturing a place, a time, a San Francisco (or other locale) that no longer exists.

And then there are the hymns, so many of them, providing the book’s heft, conjuring the Almighty, and the music itself, and the ability to heal, whether for the skeptic in “Dweller on the Threshold” or the believer in “See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk with Thee).” Literature serves as savior in “Summertime in England,” the book’s centerpiece, as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Eliot join the gospel of Mahalia Jackson in one hella hallelujah chorus. In his celebration of the oneness (“Rave on John Donne”) and explorations of the dark (“Tore Down à la Rimbaud”) there is an unremitting acceptance of the what is.

Even in what some might call the middle of the road songs, “Days Like This” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Morrison provides simple truths served up by a full service songwriter, and the kind of warmth, companionship, healing, and love too often in short supply in real life (in spite of a reputation that has painted him as a bit gruff). Reading these works on the page I was not only mesmerized, but delivered to a place where recordings cannot always take me. I’m astonished by the depth of the songs, unaccompanied, and their illumination of the Vanness—of a life lived intentionally yet with imagination.

In keeping with the new tradition of assigning the task of writing about musicians to those who generally write on other subjects, Irish professor Eamonn Hughes, American poet David Meltzer and Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin provide the book’s largely personal front material. Both forwards include testimony of the ways in which music in general and Morrison specifically aid transition and provide a vision toward destinations unknown. All the contributions refer to Morrison’s Belfast past and soul while Meltzer makes a case for the Irish songman belonging to the City Lights family of outsider poets and dissidents. Though I had not previously given much thought to the idea of Morrison—maker of hit singles, taker of world tours and recognizable throughout the West and way beyond it—as an outsider, the songs compiled are certainly a validation that fitting in is for squares, being on trend is for the birds, and speaking one’s mind may not win you any popularity contests, but in the end, truth wins. Lit Up Inside is further evidence, as if more was needed, that Morrison’s burr takes us toward our own truths and serves as a guide for the weary and restless on their way home. An artist for the ages, his songs are timeless contributions to poetry, written and spoken word, and shall remain in the air, long after we’re gone and the very last foghorn blows.

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, California, ,

“George Jackson” and Bob Dylan

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Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the conditions were perfect for hard-hitting topical rock and soul songs to step in and document the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine,” the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” “What’s Going On?” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. At the height of the era of music for change, it was more or less expected serious artists would weigh in during times of trouble with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was Blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was spurred on by their chart successes. Of course it was Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs that were the catalysts for the decade’s new strain of rock and soul music with a message.

Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene informed equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, found him mastering pointed and topical song form early on, from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”  He followed his first act with his famous retreat from political songs and folk music. Resisting the tag, “voice of a generation,” he leaned more toward poetical and philosophical lyric forms, rather than those polemical or topical and developed his own world of song perhaps best exemplified by the rambles, “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row,” and other epics on the trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  From 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile, off the road and away from the spotlight.

Making his way back to performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1971 at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for all of today’s all-star charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war plus a cyclone and the flooding and famine that followed. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” as well as a handful of more apolitical songs. Not long after the concert, on August 21, 1971, George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged prison escape and Dylan would once again  pluck his subject matter from the headlines, returning to his roots as a social and racial justice singer. One could suggest it was Harrison’s and Shankar’s example of engaging with the world outside their door that inspired Dylan’s subject, though perhaps it was more a matter of his coming to terms with his own gift for topical songs.
Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for over 50 years; his life and songs have been over-analyzed and well-examined, but the 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out remains one of his most intriguing cuts.  Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring, its subject remains almost mysterious and misunderstood to the general audience as the singer himself.
Landing in California following a life on the streets of Chicago, a 70-dollar robbery is what landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Jackson immediately found trouble on the inside too when guards took an instant dislike to him and his sentences were extended following events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three Black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, Jackson studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crime in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one and set out to decimate them. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause célèbre. But a few days before the Jackson trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain and Jackson was among those killed as he ran across the yard in an alleged escape attempt.
Less than a month after the prison shooting in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was the call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also leaves a record of Jackson and his story.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards

The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”

Filed under: Black Power,, Bob Dylan, California, Civil Rights, video, , , ,

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