What’s my line?
I’m happy cleaning windows,
Take my time,
I’ll see you when my love grows.
‘Cleaning Windows’ – Van Morrison
It was September and I had just returned from the U.S. having completed a J1 student visa. I stood in a seaside field on the West Coast of Ireland smoking a cigarette; alone. These white things protruding from the grass grabbed my attention as I retreated towards the car and went to flick the cigarette away. But as my curiosity got the better of me I turned back with a newfound drive and began inspecting what I realised were mushrooms: magic mushrooms. And they were huge feckers; massive feckin’ things. So I grabbed an empty Coke bottle and began picking those I suspected were genuine magic mushrooms (those with a little nipple on the top) and stuffed them into the bottle. I was returning to my place in Galway for college that evening and had arranged to meet a friend I hadn’t seen in months for a night out. I thought the mushrooms might come in handy. We could put them into a pot of tea, drink the tea, go for a few pints and a have laugh. Or at least this is what I thought might happen.
Fast forward to 11.30 pm that evening. I am sitting on my bed in the apartment I share with three other students. I am completely wired, aware that I am having what is called a ‘bad trip.’ I am scared shitless to move off the bed, such is the chaos of colours and patterns emanating from the bedroom carpet; colours and shapes heightened by an intense hallucination. The Best of Van Morrison is playing on the stereo, loudly. Earlier that evening, at 9 pm precisely, my friend and I had served up a brew of mushroom tea made from the ‘shrooms I’d collected by the sea earlier that day. We began drinking a few beers sitting in the apartment kitchen, intent on heading up to the GPO, a niteclub on Eggleston Street that was open on almost every night of the week. And then we had tea. I could feel things go a bit strange as we left the apartment and by the time we arrived at the niteclub, everything went berserk. I knew I had to get out of there. I grabbed my friend and said I would see him back at the apartment later, that my head had gone. Ten minutes later, I was sitting on my bed with a carton of orange juice with Van Morrison playing on the stereo. The album played consistently on repeat well into the early hours, at which point I made my way into the sitting room and watched TV. I survived the ordeal in one piece, but learnt two valuable lessons. One: I am not suited to hallucinogenic drugs (I’m not suited to drugs at all). Two: I could rely on Van.
I often thought back to that evening, wondering why I reacted as I did. It was September and I was entering the final year of my degree. I had been a good UCG student up until that point in time; doing as little as possible as often as I could. But in the second semester of the previous year I had suddenly remembered that I was meant to be studying for a degree, and that I loved studying English more than anything. Now I was back in my degree year and I was back acting the maggot in the first month. Maybe guilt got the better of me and the mushrooms simply heightened my guilty disposition. But the other thing I often wondered about was why I had chosen, from all the albums in my collection (and there was a lot), Van Morrison to shepherd me home on this bad trip. I listened mainly to techno, house, and ’90s rock at the time. I was obsessed with Spirtualized and My Bloody Valentine. Why didn’t I turn to either of these? What was it about Van that I associated with bringing me back home safely, when home is a reasonably healthy psyche? Why did I equate the music of Van Morrison with ‘safety?’
I am still not sure. And I’ll probably never know for sure. But these thoughts came back to me over Christmas when reading Gerald Dawe’s recently published book, In Another World: Van Morrison and Belfast, a collection of Dawe’s writings on Van from the ’90s to the present that was given to me as a present from my sister Kate. Gerald Dawe is a highly acclaimed poet in his own right, hailing from the same part of Belfast as Van (Orangefield). Both attended the same school and both, although coming from a Northern Protestant background, have lived ‘down south’ in the Republic for a significant number of years. Dawe reflects on the Belfast of the 1960s, Van as a product of the city’s music culture, in a broader discussion on the universality of Van’s work as a lyricist and poet. There is genuine awe in Dawe’s writing on Van. There is genuine adulation for his legacy, adulation that, like so many Van fans, comes back repeatedly to one of the greatest albums ever made: Astral Weeks. It is a credit to the impact that Dawe’s text had on me that I quickly ordered the collection of selected Van lyrics, Lit Up Inside, that he references through the book and proceeded to work my way through the lyrics of songs many of which are on Astral Weeks, like Dawe, I’ve grown to love.
In Another World is a timely publication for other reasons. It enters the on-going debate about poetry Dylan’s Nobel Prize award instigated. The claim Van should be, like other lyricists that this debate has foreground – those such as Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon – a potential recipient of the Prize, is not an outlandish one. It is a genuine issue of concern. It was perhaps Dawe’s rendering of Van’s poetic lyricism that made such an impact I began listening to Van’s back catalogue again over the next few weeks. The music brought me back, again and again, to that September evening lying on my bed when Van’s music helped smooth the journey otherwise known as a ‘bad trip.’
I then started thinking of my first encounter with Van Morrison. It was when I was a kid travelling with my father from Tuam to Galway when he was going to work. We listened to two tapes called Poetics Champions Compose and Irish Heartbeat (a collaboration between Van and The Chieftains). Both albums drew my attention to a Morrison other to that of ‘Jim.’ Van had written the song Jim Morrison of The Doors made famous. I was obsessed with The Doors then. But I learnt about this songwriter musician from Ireland who was just as, if not more, famous than Jim. And when I discussed Van working with The Chieftans with my father I learnt about a Protestant from the North who was embracing music I associated with a politically nationalistic disposition. I can’t recall now what I thought of the album but the cover left an image of unity, investing something of the paternal and secure in the name Van Morrison. It is intriguing then that Van’s interest in traditional music, or that music called ‘Irish,’ is discussed by Dawe, as overreaching sectarian division. His text brings us back to a pre-Troubles Belfast when ‘music’ was perhaps just ‘music’, and the ideological investments of politics in music that would come later had yet to raise its ugly head.
Few songs sway me in the way ‘Madame George’ does. Like another gem ‘Into the Mystic,’ it is a song so open to interpretation; opening doors for everyone to find some way in. Maybe, in the throes of my bad trip I listened to both of these songs. And maybe the line ‘when you fall into a trance, sitting on a sofa playing games of chance’ from ‘Madame George’ stayed with me even after I started to feel more like myself again? However, the strange thing is the song I actually remember from that night in September is ‘Cleaning Windows,’ a song that in its focus on the mundane, is the perfect antidote to the hallucinogenic. Now, however, I think, that ‘cleaning windows’ is a pretty obvious metaphor (for me at least) for maintaining mental sanity. We clean windows in order to see clearly. We clean windows to keep ourselves pure.
But this doesn’t fully explain why, beyond every other CD that lay in its path, I chose The Best of Van Morrison that night, and that I kept the disc playing on repeat. It is only on reflection that I have a deeper understanding of that time and experience. A bad trip is just that, a bad trip. It is like being chucked into the sea and told to swim for safety. Things become primal. You reach for what you know. You pray to whatever God you can. Some people will pray to Jesus: the son who is also the father. But in my case Van Morrison is both son and father; the paternal figure who links my parent’s generation to my own; who links the security of childhood with the precarious present. Van is that resource I share with the 60s generation; the Morrison who penned the lyrics for the ‘Gloria’ I savoured as a teen. He is the one who tells us ‘we were born before the wind.’
‘Born before the wind, also younger than the sun’ was my ‘go to’ lyric in later years when I lived in a box room in a house I shared with a group of trainee teachers in England. Like many twenty-two year olds, I had no idea where life was taking me. ‘Into the Mystic’ was like a soother given to a child; only I was very much an adult struggling to understand my place in the world. I would lie on the bed listening to ‘Into the Mystic’ trying to figure out its meaning; what the mystic is or was. I’d wonder if Van’s yearning for home is the same yearning I had to be back in Ireland. I would question whether the mystic is the unknown that we all face; the unknown both feared and craved at the same time. The song’s celebration of ‘coming home’ was now an appeal to the migrant in me that I would come to realize is universal; the migrant who is afraid of what the future brings yet yearns for this future nonetheless. When I lay back on my bed, the song became a safety blanket to pull over me like a quilt, a life jacket holding me up at sea. Then I’d realize safety blankets come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are little yellow jackets thrown to us as we drown in the sea, at other times they are arms around us married to words of support. And sometimes they are songs that work mainly by propositioning us not to be afraid; songs that simply say ‘I don’t have to fear it.’
In Another World: Van Morrison and Belfast by Gerald Dawe is published by Merrion Press, 2017.