But darlin’, those days are gone
And live on in the future
But darlin’, a-don’t look back
Don’t look back
— John Lee Hooker
Ah, but we do, don’t we? We always look back. Seeing the shapes, getting the measure, going the distance, and finding that the safe harbors of your life require a spiritual sextant for sighting the fixed stars. It’s a ghost ship’s voyage with what lies ahead a blank white screen while what is behind fades into the smoke of the world well lost. On this voyage, there are shallows, shoals, and the fatal allure of Sirens and the lee shore. There are the times in irons, then the times in storms, then stretches of clear open ocean on a broad reach, but still with the sense of hidden reefs and an always unknowable destination. It helps to track others’ voyages, to follow similar arcs, to watch if they pass, or seem to pass, the same checkpoints. Some are siblings. Others are friends and lovers. Still others are artists that, at some point, strike us as sharing if not a life then at least a similar trajectory.
Everybody navigates their life with a different set of charts, but some overlap. Among these are the singer-songwriter/poets of our era. These are our troubadours, the most influential of which in our time, is Bob Dylan. Indeed, I’ve often thought that it must gall the endless pile of disposable poets stashed in the academy or wheezing and grunting in “Slams,” that, for all their pallid effort, the greatest American poet of this era is Dylan. But Dylan, for all his protean output and achievement, misses the music as much as he hooks the mind.
For my money, the singer-songwriter-poet among my contemporaries, that both hooks the ear and brings the music is Van Morrison.
Not only for his ability to play his voice like some transcendental jazz choir, nor his manner of mining the blues and jazz traditions and his own life but also because — like Dylan — he endures. Not only that, but he reports back. And like a few others in music, painting, and writing, the arc of his life seems to resonate with mine. It may be just a fluke of years lived in the same unfolding history, but it seems larger. It seems, as it always seems with the great souls, that there’s an emotional and spiritual concordance happening, as one bell might pick up the tone of another nearby even though it has not itself been struck.
“Take me back, there, take me way back there…”
But that was later, and this is earlier, much earlier — previous, previous. Back before there really was “Van Morrison.” Back when he was just a singer. Back when he was one of THEM.
Comes a-walkin’ down my street
When she comes to my house
She knocks upon my door
And then she comes in my room
Yeah, an’ she make me feel alright
Remembering that song the first thought is “Who, but who, was ever that young?” But of course, we all were. And the number of times that the 45s of Mystic Eyes and Gloria were spun on the turntables in those years pretty much surpass memory. I do recall they made for some long and fine white nights. Gloria, played at the right time, could pretty much close the deal.
“The cool room, Lord, is a fool’s room.”
Make-out songs weren’t the only thing in Van Morrison’s bag, even in those years. Something else was there. Something that lived in the deep and would insist upon rising.
Within two years Morrison left “Them” and soloed, releasing the trendily titled Blowin’ Your Mind! from Bang Records. The hit on that album was “Brown-Eyed Girl” and it has, thanks to the continuing and increasing supply of brown-eyed girls in the world, stayed pretty much a perennial since then. Boomers used it first for seduction and later for lullabies.
But there was another song on that first album that foreshadowed Morrison’s deeper work — “T. B. Sheets.” This is a dark and haunting evocation of death and sickness. Junkies like to think it’s about them, but junkies think everything is about them. It’s bigger than that. Much bigger. And it is, in its provenance as well as its lyrics, nothing like any pop song that came before, and very little like any that came after. In the other songs on Blowin’ Your Mind! you hear a young singer pulling out everything he knows in quest of a hit, any hit. But “T. B. Sheets” is vastly different. In it you hear the song of an old soul, one that has been here before; one that knows the deal and has paid the bill.
The origin of “T. B. Sheets” is, figuratively and literally, in nightmare.
His mother, Violet Morrison said that the song originally had emerged from a nightmare her son had and that he had felt it so strongly that he couldn’t tell it to her but sang it instead with verses lasting for an hour.
An hour? The song on the album runs nearly 10 minutes, twice the length of any of the others, and an eternity for a pop album of the mid-60s. But an hour? Just to stay in that mental space for 10 minutes is enough for most people. (The song did not chart.) But an hour is inconceivable.
It’s a song that first insinuates itself deep into your lungs and then crawls down your bones. It’s not for the tenderhearted:
So open up the window and let me breathe,
I said, open up the window and let me breathe
I’m looking down to the street below
Lord, I cried for you, Oh, Lord.
The cool room, Lord, is a fool’s room,
The cool room, Lord, is a fool’s room,
And I can almost smell your T.B. sheets
And I can almost smell your T.B. sheets, on your sick bed.
I gotta go, l gotta,
And you said, please stay.
I want, I want a drink of water,
I want a drink of water,
I went to the kitchen to get me a drink of water,
I gotta go baby.
I send, I send, I send somebody around here later,
You know we got John comin’ around
Later with a bottle of wine for you, babe.
So much for the easy pop songs from a handsome young jazz singer who had gotten mixed up in rock-and-roll. There’s Milton’s “darkness visible” writhing at the center of that song, something seldom seen in pop music — rarer still in the days of “Do you believe in magic/ in a young girl’s eyes?”
Not that Morrison could not rock it and kick it with the best of them. Here he is with the band that should have always been his back up band, The Band:
“Darkness visible.” That was to be a recurring image in Van Morrison’s work. That and a search for the light as well.
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
— Traditional hymn, recorded in Hymns to the Silence, 1991
Light seen sometimes in the present, and sometimes in the past. But always with a sense of trying to learn, in the end, what he hears from John Lee Hooker:
Don’t look back
To the days of yesteryear
You cannot live on in the past
Ah, but we do live there. Don’t we?
But Van the Man does not live in the past. He lives on the threshold. He moves on; moves on ahead of his fans and the world, making it all higher, brighter, finer; singing his way out of hell and towards heaven with a soul that thrives on faith and freedom. His latest release here in the iron year is: