And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it
~ from “Had I Not Been Awake” In The Human Chain by Seamus Heaney.
Had I not been awake early this morning, I would have missed the goings-on on Cyprus Avenue. It is Van Morrison’s 70th birthday, and it occurs to me that his music – like Seamus Heaney’s poems – could have scored much of my life. For the lucky fans gathered up on Cyprus Avenue to celebrate his birthday with him, a sense of wonder. For me, a certain homesickness such as that Stephen King once described as “a terribly keen blade.”
Social media and BBC Radio Ulster are doing their best to assuage the lump-in-my-throat melancholy, while at the same time making it worse, reminding me I am not there. I am not there, with my college friend Ruth, to sing along and wonder if he might indulge us with a rendition of Cyprus Avenue which everyone surely wants to hear – for old times sake and because it is fitting. But you never know where you are with Van; you just remember where you are from.
Eight hours behind and a lifetime away from where the second concert of the day is now underway, I relate with ease to those fans who have traveled tens of thousands of miles and now sit among the eighty five trees lining Cyprus Avenue, and who are absorbing Van’s Belfast, if only for an hour or two. Clicking on the link to the BBC Radio Ulster broadcast, I was transported instantly to a bedroom in my parent’s house on the Dublin Road, a teenager again and tuning in to Radio Luxembourg – in the Days Before Rock and Roll.
Justin . . .
I am down on my knees
At those wireless knobs
And I’m searching for
Athlone, Budapest, AFN,
In the days before rock ‘n’ roll
It’s not just the streets of his songs – Hyndford Street, Cyprus Avenue, Fitzroy – it’s the characters that people them and the routines and rituals that shaped those lives – Madame George, the window cleaners taking a break for tea with Paris Buns from the shop, kids collecting bottle-tops, us tuning into Radio Luxembourg on our transistor radios, going to the pictures, or the chipper – filling ourselves with pastie suppers, gravy rings, Wagon Wheels, barmbrack, Snowballs. All this with a Sense of Wonder that has a universal resonance. Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?
Maybe I understand the pull that brings fans from other continents to Cyprus Avenue today. I am reminded of the time I drove from Tucson to Tucumcari and Tehachapi to Tonopah – the places Lowell George immortanlized in Willin’. While they turned out not to be dream holiday destinations, nor did I see Dallas Alice in every headlight, I could hear Billy Payne’s grace notes on the piano and Lowell George growling about her every mile I covered. Too, I remember visiting San Francisco drawn less by St. Dominic’s Preview and more by the sight of orange boxes scattered against a SafeWay supermarket in the rain. Maybe there’s an echo of Patrick Kavanagh in Van Morrison’s songs, finding God in ‘the bits and pieces of everyday.”
As a new mother, almost eighteen years ago, far away from my Northern Ireland home and in Arizona, it was “Brown Eyed Girl” that I sang to my green-eyed girl to help her fall asleep. When she did her first little dance as a toddler, a jaunty “Bright Side of the Road” kept her going. As she twirled and clapped her hands, I reminisced about walking with my friends past Sunnyside Street on our way out on a Saturday night. This song, so jaunty in fact, that it was even used as the promotional jingle for a “Belfast’s got the buzz” campaign, as we tried to pick ourselves up from all that had ravaged our wee country. When I got over getting cancer, when I turned a corner in the world of widowhood, it was to my favorite Van Morrison song that I turned and turn.
“When the Healing has Begun,” is a tour de force from “Into the Music,” the first Van record I bought from Ronnie Miller’s Pop-In record store in Antrim. A far more satisfying thing than the school lunch I was supposed to buy – it fed my soul. I played it until I knew the lyrics by heart. About twenty years later, I found a pristine copy, a German import, still in its protective plastic, at Tracks on Wax then a treasure trove for lovers of vinyl in Phoenix, Arizona – before vinyl became cool again.
I wore out that song, which required some effort. In the days before record players like mine had to compete with tape decks, CD players, and MP3 files, if I wanted to hear a song again or just the opening breath of it, there was no simply replay button, just the knack of placing the stylus right in the groove, in “the sweet spot,” where it would pick up the familiar repetitive rhythm, the violins, a “yeah” from Van, and then “we’ll walk down the avenue again.”
Cyprus or Fitzroy … it matters not. We are anywhere and everywhere, underneath the stars. It enchants me still – and maybe even Van himself – this song that takes him from a roar through a hypnotic mumble to a barely there whisper at the end. And when the familiar refrain streamed across a continent into my kitchen in the desert, and the appreciative whistles from the Belfast crowd, my whole world stopped for a second. Such is the “aesthetic force” of that song for me. Back street jelly roll . . .
I remember the first time I saw him perform it, at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Leaning forward from the good seats in the balcony – we had scored tickets from a friendly roadie in the Crown Bar – I remember feeling a bit like we were in church, somehow knowing we should be quiet, reverent even, if he was going to take us along with him on this song. And he did. And the healing had begun …
And we’ll walk down the avenue in style
And we’ll walk down the avenue and we will smile
And we’ll say baby ain’t it all worthwhile
When the healing has begun
Thank you, Van. For all of it. Happy Birthday.