Original post for Van Morrison’s 70th birthday ~ Cyprus Avenue, Belfast, 2015
“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 crosses my mind again that his music – like Seamus Heaney’s poetry – has scored much of my life. For the crowd gathered up on Cyprus Avenue to celebrate his birthday with him, a sense of wonder; for me, a homesickness Stephen King aptly describes 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 of the thousands of miles that stretch between us.
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 easily to those fans who have traveled from other continents to sit now among the eighty five trees lining Cyprus Avenue and absorb 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 my 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
Specific and evocative, the names of streets in Van Morrison’s songs – Hyndford Street, Cyprus Avenue, Fitzroy – as much as the characters that people them and the rituals that shaped those lives – Madame George, the window cleaners taking a break for tea with Paris Buns from the shop, you taking the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row, kids collecting bottle-tops, all of us tuning into Radio Luxembourg on our transistor radios, going to the pictures, or the chipper, and filling ourselves with pastie suppers, gravy rings, Wagon Wheels, barmbrack, Snowballs – all these with a Sense of Wonder that has a universal resonance.
And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?
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 – places Lowell George immortalized in Willin’. While they turned out not to tourist 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. Can you hear the 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 a wee dander down Sunnyside Street, heading out with my friends on a Saturday night, and this song, so jaunty that it was used as the promotional jingle for a “Belfast’s got the buzz” campaign while our wee country tried to pick itself up from all that had ravaged it.
When I got over getting cancer and 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. And there they stayed until about twenty years later when 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 and collectible for a new generation.
I had worn 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 just one more time or just the opening breath of it, there was no simple replay button, no nonchalant click; rather, 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 “we’ll walk down the avenue again.”
Cyprus. Fitzroy. Belfast. Phoenix. it matters not. We are anywhere and everywhere, underneath the stars. Neither here nor there. It enchants me still – and maybe even Van himself – this song that takes him from a roar through a mumble to a barely there whisper at the end. And when the familiar refrain streamed across a continent into my kitchen in the desert with appreciative whistles from the Belfast crowd, my whole world stopped for a second. Hypnotized momentarily. 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 – having scored tickets from a friendly roadie in the Crown Bar – it felt a bit like being in church, somehow knowing we should behave and be quiet, reverent even, if he was going to take us along with him on this song. And he did.
And the healing begins . . .
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.