(Pictured: Van Morrison and his harmonica, 1999.)
Many years ago, a reader suggested—and not in an especially complimentary fashion, if I’m recalling correctly—that I should just call myself Mr. October and stop talking about it. Anybody who’s read this blog for the 13 years (!) of its existence probably remembers that October has a hold on me that other months do not (but read this if you’d like to know why). Certain music soundtracks this month for me every year: songs from the most significant Octobers of long ago (1976, 1974, 1971, 1970) and others that simply sound like October to me regardless of when they came out. Some full albums make the list, too.
Van Morrison’s 1999 album Back on Top is in heavy rotation at my house every October, but two songs travel with me the rest of the year as well. “The Philosopher’s Stone” sounds like a song about life on the road. The other day, however, I heard it differently, and the following lines in particular: “Even my best friends / Even my best friends / They don’t know / That my job is turning lead into gold.” It strikes me that “The Philosopher’s Stone” is also about the desire for somebody to listen to us, the desire to be heard, and ultimately the desire to be understood. You don’t know what I’m doing here, what I’m going through, what I have to face every day, and I wish you’d take the time to find out. Van’s wheezy harmonica tone doesn’t always serve his songs well, but he sounds great here, expressing a desire for connection so powerful it knocks you sideways.
And by “you,” I mean me.
In “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” Van remembers colorful autumn days and asks his lost love (for surely she is lost) to “follow me down to the space between the twilight and the dawn,” an image not unlike one in “Stardust,” from the introductory verse about the purple dusk of twilight time: “You wander down the lane and far away / Leaving me a song that will not die.” All we have left to remember—you, me, Van, and Nat King Cole in his magnificent 1957 recording of “Stardust”—is the music of the days gone by.
If I misted up a bit in the car on a golden October afternoon while listening to these songs, you shouldn’t be surprised.
Other songs on Back on Top reflect an autumnal theme: “Reminds Me of You,” “High Summer,” “Precious Time,” “In the Midnight.” One song that seems like it should, “Golden Autumn Day,” doesn’t, really—although the music is gorgeous and the refrain is perfect, the verses were inspired by a mugging and are mostly about Van’s desire to get revenge on his attackers. On any album, no matter how beautiful, Van’s gotta Van.
I haven’t done a Links and Notes post lately, so here are a few worthwhile articles that have passed through my Twitter feed recently:
—This piece on what you hear and what you learn from close listening to Robert Johnson left me agog, and wishing I could write something one-tenth as good.
—Wherever you rank Joni Mitchell in your pantheon of significant artists, it probably isn’t high enough.
—Amid the current controversy surrounding the National Anthem at sporting events, it’s worth revisiting the first controversial public performance of it, nearly 50 years ago.
—Not well-remembered, but urgent and important, is “the overlooked legacy of social justice in 70s soul.”
—The social-justice soul era began, as many things did, in the late 60s. Otis Redding and James Brown discussed forming a union of black entertainers to boost opportunity (and bank accounts), but it was Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Ben E. King, and Don Covay who rallied around the idea. The partnership they formed, known as the Soul Clan, was another big 60s dream that didn’t come true, but it left a legacy still felt 50 years later.
—Cat Stevens, who became a pariah in the late 80s when he supposedly supported the Islamic fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, has crept back into the spotlight over the last decade. Like everything else in life, his return is complicated.
—I have never quite figured out what the hell Kid Rock is: rapper, rocker, hanger-on to more talented people, or what. In a piece by the estimable Steven Hyden about the lost phenomenon of heartland rock, one thing we learn is that the best label for him might be “odious twit.”
I think that’s probably enough. Go read ’em.