Calling on the Wavelength

One of the first singles I ever bought with my own money was Van Morrison’s “Domino,” sometime in January 1971. I’d like to say it was because the song ends with “Hey Mr. DJ, I just wanna hear some rhythm and blues music on the radio, on the radio,” but I doubt it. Even though my radio love was blooming at that moment, I didn’t know about Morrison’s. I don’t intend to suggest that what follows is an exhaustive list, and I’m probably missing some hugely significant song (because that is how we roll around here), but beyond “Domino,” here are a few of my favorite Van Morrison radio songs:

“Wavelength,” the title song of Morrison’s 1978 album, starts with 70s vintage synthesizer noises that are intended to put you in mind of tuning a distant station. The song itself is an extended metaphor about radio as lover and a lover as the radio: “When I’m down you always comfort me / When I’m lonely you see about me.” And it calls back to Morrison’s past as a listener, growing up in Northern Ireland: “I hear the voice of America calling on the wavelength.”

(Wavelength is a mighty fine album, by the way. You can’t go wrong with “Kingdom Hall,” “Natalia,” and “Venice U.S.A.”)

“In the Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll” is from Morrison’s 1990 album Enlightenment. It’s a collaboration with the Irish poet Paul Durkin, who had written a magazine article about the poetry in Morrison’s work a couple of years before. Durkin recites most of the lyrics, a long poem about tuning the radio: “I am down on my knees / At those wireless knobs.” The poem is delivered in an odd cadence, sprinkled with references to a mysterious “Justin,” who might be one of a couple of real people in Morrison’s life, or a poetic invention of Durkin’s. Toward the end, after Durkin invokes a number of artists who “would not have come in without those wireless knobs,” there’s a line that Morrison does not sing so much as he breathes it, as if it were a prayer: “Come in, come in, come in, Ray Charles, the high priest.” Radio listening as religious ritual: been there, done that.

(Another track from Enlightenment, “Real Real Gone,”  name-checks several artists who influenced Morrison’s work, beginning with “And Sam Cooke was on the radio / And the night was filled with space.”)

“See Me Through Part 2/Just a Closer Walk With Thee” is on the 1991 album Hymns to the Silence. It’s a beautiful version of the old hymn, with a monologue in the middle in which Van once again pays tribute to the radio. It’s well known that Morrison’s albums are often largely improvised in the studio, and in this monologue, you can almost hear the gears grinding as he tries to figure out where he’s going. But its spontaneity makes it an honest expression of the mystical power radio holds for Morrison, and how he hears its call back to the days of childhood: “Sunday afternoons in winter / And the tuning in of stations in Europe on the wireless” and “This is the way it was / More silence, more breathing together / Not rushing, being.”

Now that the tuning of distant stations on the wireless is no longer a part of the average young person’s life, I don’t know what the contemporary analogue would be for those connections that were once so influential in so many lives. I don’t know if there needs to be one. The important fact is that for Van Morrison, and for me, and maybe for you too, there once was that connection. Without it, Van wouldn’t have become Van, and none of us would have become what we are.

2 responses

  1. I remember hearing the album version of “Wavelength” on the radio and loving it… and then hearing the single edit and feeling that all the magic had been cut out. To this day, I can’t tell you what they cut or why I felt that way.

    I’d probably heard different versions of songs before, but this was the first one where I was aware of how editing could completely change the feel of a song. It made me appreciate that songs aren’t just things that fall from the sky (or the airwaves) fully formed, but are fluid creations that can be changed, molded, and transformed.

    That may seem obvious to us as adults, but for me as a kid, it was a revelation.

  2. Van the Man played this song on an SNL gig sometime late fall ’78. Pretty good stuff.

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