Friday, 16 January 2015

Veedon Fleece: Insurance Policy for the Soul?

Here's most of Mr Meade's genius post about the greatness of Veedon Fleece. Mr Meade has certainly come up with a brilliantly written piece that traces his discovery of Veedon Fleece and contrasts it with Astral Weeks. I tried not to steal all of this but found it difficult to edit much out.  See the post in its entirety by clicking above.  

The Van Morrison Insurance Policy for the Soul 
by Matthew Thomas Meade  May 6, 2014

Part I: Where I Tell you How Much I Love Van Morrison

I never would have listened to this record had it not been for that breakup.  
Sometimes you need a good breakup to lead you into something.  You use the end of the relationship as an excuse for working out more, or gardening, or maybe even something creepier like pursuing lepidoptery.  Every once in a while your aching soul will lead you to a record like the oft overlooked Veedon Fleece.

I fell in love with Morrison back in those days when the fact that my parents also loved the guy was a good thing.  They giggled while I danced arrhythmically to Ro Ro Rosey in the living room with my toddler’s Buddha belly and peanut butter and jelly crusted cheeks.  I can remember It Stoned Me coming on my mom’s oldies radio station.  We would belt out the chorus singing, “Ohhhhhhhhh the water… Ohhhhhhh the water… Let it run all over me,” neither one of us were aware of the implications of the song. 

After that, I made sure to keep his Best Of catalogue handy, digging on Domino and Jackie Wilson Said when I needed a changeup from Otis Redding or The Animals.  I learnt a bit about Them and grooved on their version of Please Don’t Go. I discovered Gloria (by way of Jimi Hendrix, of course), and I came to hate the sexless and vapid John Mellencamp/ M’chel N’degochelo cover version of Wild Night.

I bemoaned the grumpy, late career slide into MOR mediocrity that was happening concurrent to all the discoveries I was making during my adolescence in the 90s, but I refused to allow a bad word to be spoken in my presence.  Only I could complain because Van knew I loved him.  Van and I had an understanding.

Part II: The Part Where I Fell in Love with Astral Weeks
And then, as can be expected, a shaman like friend, one familiar with the dark arts and bad weed, introduced me to Astral Weeks.  I bristled at first.  I resisted its strange rhythms, its pulsing, mystic waves.  I complained of the way it would tempt with the vaguest whiff of the accessible, carefree melodies of Morrison’s early work, and then trap you when you fell for the trick, thereby imprisoning you behind the bars of its bittersweet musings.

Though I had resisted at first, I soon came to love, and embrace the record and then quickly eschew all other Van Morrison work once I realised that this 40 some minute record, impossibly made by a 23 year old alcoholic, was probably the most extraordinary and perfect musical achievement of the 20th century.

As my teen years gave way to my 20s, my love for the record grew.  I started putting Ballerina on mix CDs for girls I hardly knew, thinking this would surely make them love me forever.  I told people on a regular basis that “I would never grow so old again,” to which they would inevitably respond, “Bob Dylan, right?”

And then I discovered that there was someone who loved Astral Weeks as much as I did.  It made me feel like the kid running from song to song on that record, all fresh for the world and bursting at the seams with love.  We moved in together and ignored all of our problems and listened to Van Morrison almost constantly.  For a 6-month period in my early 20s we lived on nothing but tap water, 2-day-old pastries discarded by Starbucks, and the innocence and purity that gushed from the song The Way Young Lovers Do.

And I am pretty sure I was sublimely content. I won’t go any further into what the contentment was like because it was special and private and a little embarrassing.  It’s also none of your damn business, and I’m not really comfortable discussing that kind of happiness, but rest assured it was magnificent, and rest assured the break up happened soon after the apex of our happiness. 

I tried to listen to it, of course.  I played the tape at night, with the lights off, in secret, nude and wrapped in nothing but a sleeping bag.  I would don my headphones and press play, but the imagery was too blinding, the smells too potent, the memories associated too vivid.  The record was not just a shimmering achievement of its own.  It had the ability to take on the qualities of those it had encountered, like Chiang Sung from Mortal Kombat, and it could assume the identity of my ex, torturing me with smiles and smells, allusions to, and images of happier times.  It proved too daunting.

So for a period of time, my life was without Van MorrisonI wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself.  Then Veedon Fleece emerged. I wasn’t looking for it.  I was actively avoiding all things Van Morrison by this point.  But the record just sort of appeared, finding me in a way that was too supernatural and strange for me to get into here.  Suffice it to say that I may as well have acquired the record from a mysterious curio shop in Chinatown.

Perhaps the strangest thing about it was that, I had never heard of it.  If the title had ever come up I must have lumped it in with all that out of touch late period stuff that I thought I could ignore.  Stuff like the too smooth Wavelength (1978) and the embarrassing Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983).  But it turned out that this record had a reputation, like some legendary figure you hear about in your highschool, some hip thug whose name was called in homeroom everyday, but who never appeared. I learned that Robyn Hitchcock had covered Fair Play, C. J. Chenier (son of fabled king of zydeco Clifton Chenier) had done a zydeco tribute to Comfort You and Elvis Costello gushed about Linden Arden Stole the Highlights.

It was Sinead O’Connor really confounded me.  I had been using to nurse my post relationship wounds, (like you do) and I stumbled across excerpts from an interview on the Dave Fanning show where she did the unthinkable.  She compared Veedon Fleece favourably to the record that everyone knows is Van’s masterpiece.

“It is far superior to Astral Weeks,” she said.  “This is the definitive Van album with the definitive Van song, Who Was That Masked Man?

Some people never got over the fact that O’Connor tore up that picture of the pope.  For me, daring to challenge the supremacy of Astral Weeks was a far more rebellious act.  A far more daring demonstration.  Not only that, but she compared it to a record of which I was only vaguely aware.  I mean, had she said that St. Dominics’ Preview was doing something that Astral Weeks wasn’t she would have been wrong, but at least she would have the celebratory Redwood Tree to bolster her argument.

What is this strange record?  What did these others know that I didn’t?  Could they possibly be onto something that I had missed?  Was I too busy obsessing over the contentious, unreleased Bang recordings?

Was I finally being punished for complaining about how much of a pussy he sounded like on Moondance? (I had only been denigrating the song.  I swear to god.  Not the entire album…)  Should I have been worshipping at the altar of Astral Weeks? Had I been doing wrong all along?

Part III: The Part Where I Talk About Veedon Fleece
Once I put needle to vinyl, it felt like I was somewhere familiar.  Not home, of course, but a place I was supposed to be.  It wasn’t the place I was used to, decorated with cracked steel rims, smelling of Shalimar, with a clear view of Cyprus Ave. It was somewhere new. Incense and pot smoke were present underneath the splashes and strokes of the acoustic guitar.  Mustiness stored for decades wafted up from the swirling piano.  The flute was the steam from a mug of tea.

Though the record is serious, it doesn’t bog you down with its own heavy sentiment, or mire you in unnecessary intellectualism.  Here the soulful mysticism that you have heard so much about is fully on display, matured and leavened into a shape the likes of which could only be made by someone in their 30s.

Released in 1974, Veedon Fleece was recorded after Morrison’s on-stage persona had evolved from the precocious, to the bold, to the eccentric, to the sublime.   By the mid-70s Van Morrison had become more than just a rock star.  He was spoken about in hushed tones by people who knew what they were talking about (scribes like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus), and emulated by people who knew what they were doing (people like Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and anyone who ever made looking like a middle school math teacher sexy just because of what they were saying).

Indeed Veedon Fleece was released during this period, two whole years before the infamous, scenery chewing appearance in the Last WaltzWhat is a veedon fleece?  Exactly?  If I were to define it, if Morrison were to define it, it would sap it of its mysterious protean quality.  All people head out to SF in one way or another when they are young.  All young people are searching for the veedon fleece. 

In Who Was That Masked Man? Morrison asks “Ain’t it lonely when you’re living with a gun?”  The generation who was making music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was learning all too well what a weight it is to live with a gun.   But a gun is only one of many things the people who populate these songs have to learn to live with.

In Who Was That Masked Man? a butterfly trapped behind glass becomes yet another allusion to the idea of youth and beauty frozen in time.  It is that same youth and beauty that seizes Linden Arden, that makes him so jealous, and makes him react so violently. 

How is it that Van can sound simultaneously like a grumbling 66-year-old miner and a like a shrieking 13-year-old girl?  The way he mumbles and squeaks, hisses and whines, makes him sound like some mad, animated caricature.  Some distant, deranged cousin of Steamboat Willy. But everything he does and says, every kick, every howl and grumble is a part of some abandon the music is making this man experience.  Some singular emotion he is channeling and trying to allow you, the listener, to experience.
The songs on this record are not about the evening fading into morning.  But it’s not about the darkness either.  It’s not a record about how things are over now.  It’s a record about the cruel heat of the afternoon, and how you can keep your temperature low enough to survive until sundown.  It’s a record about how to keep going after you’ve lost your sight from staring for too long at the sun.  A record about how the light can kill everything at the same time that it makes the grass grow and your soul clean.

The record blossoms from this heat and light, beginning with the first notes of the deceptive invitation that is Fair Play and evolving through the pristine first side.  The suite at the end of the record, comprised of Comfort You, Come Here My Love and County Fair is misleading.  It hints at a soggy pastoral bliss that is dishonest in the context of the rest of the album.  If there is a flaw on the record it is the way that this finale sort of meanders too pleasantly to a close.  But that is no matter because any flaws, any failings of the record are incinerated by the blinding, radiant, near nuclear light of the record’s centrepiece.

Part IV: Where I tell you about You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River

You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River is nine minutes long, but it presents itself as an even longer work. It sucks you into as if it were not a song, but some kind of lost season, releasing you only after you’ve lived folded inside of it for a period of months, emerging to find bruises you don’t remember acquiring and dry, dead leaves in your hair.

Now, if you hear the first few moments of the urgent 12/8 time signature of You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River and you don’t know what the song is about, you should just turn it off, because you are not yet ready.  You should go get in a near fatal car accident, or fall in love with a man who will never love you, or be accused of a crime you didn’t commit or some shit like that.

Those first few scat-like utterances of You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River are the exclamations of a man who has gotten to “That Point.”  That Point is a place in your life where you realise how futile are your efforts, how unfair is the world, how exhausting is the plight.  Which plight?  The Plight.  You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River, is a paean to that realisation.  It’s a building constructed to process the paperwork created by the kinds of anxieties people like Cervantes and  Moses made careers writing about.

And that’s the magic of the record.  It gives you a place you can go when everything else has been taken from you.  It does the kinds of things for people that the man who made Astral Weeks didn’t even know people needed to have done for them.

Part V: Where I Pit Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece against one another in some sort of Sick Mono Y Mono style battle To the Death

Now, I have no interest in pitting these records against one another in some sort of sick, mono y mono style battle to the death, partly because it’s brutal, and partly because I would be worried Veedon Fleece would emerge from the Van Morrison cock fight pecked to within an inch of its life. (Though, you never can tell about these things. The record is elusive and chimeral, surprising you at every turn, telling you it is one thing and then emerging as another. It is a master of the stick and move, of the fake, the faint and the roll, and this just might keep its head attached to its body were it to fight the younger, stronger more Clubber Lang like and permanently younger Astral Weeks.)

But, here is the thing: I am not recommending that you listen to this record.

This is your insurance policy for the soul.  Try to imagine, if you will, a world where someone takes Astral Weeks from you.  Try to imagine that you too have lost this record in a messy divorce, or you have contracted some strange form of Oliver Sacks type neurological Musicophilia where the songs from Astral Weeks no longer cohere as music, or that you have been enrolled in some kind of a Clockwork Orange style hypnotism program which will take from you the ability to enjoy gang-rape, ultraviolence or the effervescent Slim Slow Slider.

Buy the record for that eventuality.

Now, let me be clear, just because Veedon Fleece is under glass, awaiting your inevitable emotional collapse, it doesn’t mean that you should stop listening to Van Morrison.  You should continue spinning his records.  As often as possible.  You have plenty of options, besides Veedon Fleece after all.  You could enjoy the hyper sweet Tupelo Honey, the rich and soulful His Band and Street Choir, or It’s Too Late to Stop Now, the great, two disk, live record which would be pretty much perfect even if it didn’t include the superlatively boozy cover of “Bring it on Home to Me.”  You could always throw on your trusty copy of Astral Weeks, of course.  I do.

For my money though, I don’t think you can do any better than the aforementioned performance from The Last Waltz.  In a single song, it sums up everything you need to know about getting your heart broken, putting it back together again, and loving Van Morrison.

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