Andrew Hidas’s blog called Traversing contains this post about Van’s song When the Leaves Come Falling Down. The piece has been edited for brevity’s sake so click on the link for the full original post.
I’ve long felt that fall is fortunate to be so gorgeous, otherwise we would never forgive it for all the grief we feel over summer’s end. Yet deeply interwoven into fall’s beauty is its profound sense of melancholy at time’s passage, all the brightness dimming now as the world inexorably darkens and decay and death spread across the landscape, there for us as reminder, as harbinger, as spur to savor the day.
Fall is a time to begin our long hunkering, but the dream of every romantic is to do so with one’s beloved, in a private enclosing world walled off from the coming darkness and cold. Few artists sketch that world with quite the stark beauty of Van Morrison, and in the vast sprawl of his career over a half-century, few songs have matched the super-charged romantic vision of When the Leaves Come Falling Down.
This 1999 song sees Morrison at both his songwriting and singing best, inhabiting a place mixing profound love and longing with deep melancholy. No season bespeaks this mixture more than fall, and as each of its golden leaves spirals to earth, Morrison is gathering himself and his beloved, seeking shelter in a cocoon made of their regard for the beauty in each other and the surrounding world.
Morrison wastes no time in setting the scene with his first stanza:
I saw you standing with the wind and the rain in your faceAnd you were thinking ’bout the wisdom of the leaves and their grace
When the leaves come falling downIn September when the leaves come falling down
We see the lover here perhaps looking down through a picture window, beholding his beloved below as she braves wind and rain, probably not even noticing but certainly not caring, so absorbed is she in contemplation of the “wisdom” in leaves, and their “grace.”
This lovely poeticism, of ascribing not only wisdom to leaves but also “grace,” speaks to their naturalism, their being no more nor less than they are, knowing exactly what to do in their dying, which is to be blown softly to earth, bronzed or brown or golden in their turn, there to co mingle with other elements as they decompose and become mulch for the future. This will happen to the lovers, too, and the beloved knows it in her contemplation. But meanwhile, her own beloved looks on from above, and there will be time yet to enjoy and reflect on much else before they themselves will spiral down with the wisdom of the leaves.
Then the chorus kicks in early, on the third stanza, and we get more of that Morrison songwriting genius that brings such tender romanticism to so much of his work. His imagery here weaves together the heart and its surroundings, an enchanted place where only he and his lover live, intensely private, as if they are the last (or first) two people in the universe, existing in an eternal now, needing no one or nothing else:
Follow me down, follow me down, follow me downTo the place beside the garden and the wall
Follow me down, follow me downTo the space before the twilight and the dawn
A place—you know, that place, that special retreat we know next to the loveliness of the garden and the wall that sequesters us from the din and demands of the distant world. Wind and rain and my lover’s face. Wisdom of leaves, and their grace. The month of September. Follow me. Garden and wall, twilight and dawn. Morrison has packed in the romantic, dreamy imagery with words that burst with mood, tenderness and soft light, the song already aching in just a few short lines.
And then, out of nowhere, he gives us Paris, yes Paris! City of light, of lovers, and those fabulous French women and the elegant way they shoulder their handbags and move their mouths when they say, “Merci…”
Oh, the last time I saw Paris in the streets, in the rainAnd as I walk along the boulevards with you, once again
And the leaves come falling down
In September, when the leaves come falling down
This is almost not fair, bringing Paris into the picture, but Morrison is just going to follow the smouldering of his heart here; there will be no detour or distraction on the way to joining his beloved by the garden, and then in Paris, because that’s the only city worthy of hosting and containing their love. And there will be wind, and rain…
Then the chorus repeats, after which Morrison gives everything he has to romantics everywhere, every last passionate image in his arsenal firing away now:And as I’m looking at the colour of the leaves, in your hand
As we’re listening to Chet Baker on the beach, in the sand
He is contemplating the colour of fall leaves in his lover’s hand, but the scene has shifted to the beach, probably the most romantic and oft-used image in poetry and pop music (not to mention personals ads), the universal context for long lover’s walks and soft moody thoughts. They’re listening to Chet Baker. He of the tragic downward spiralling of life, lost to drink but blowing such tender-hearted ballads with his trumpet on the way down as to make the angels weep for both beauty and the sadness of his descent.