Friday, July 18, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 199): "CUL DE SAC" (1974) Van Morrison

Van Morrison released a streak of great records from 1968 to 1974, culminating in Veedon Fleece. The only dud in that stretch is Hard Nose the Highway (1973), which can be skipped, pretty much, but that’s made up for by the extraordinary live album, Too Late to Stop Now! (1974). In any artist’s—or writer’s—life, there’s always a period, generally only noticeable in retrospect, when they hit a creative peak, are fully empowered, have the wherewithal to produce what only they can produce. At least that’s how I like to think of it. Of course, when you’re talking about creative arts that have a very commercial side to them, there’s a lot of other factors that push and pull on that notion of artists doing what they do—for the sake of their audience and their own artistry. Still, even when we come upon work much later than when it first appeared, we can feel that vibe, that sense that a work was produced under the right auspices.  With Van Morrison that’s worth thinking about, since his albums can sometimes just be almost first take affairs, just the right feel, the right spirit, and we’ve got it.

That’s the way much of Veedon Fleece was recorded. In Van’s life it was a period of transition from one marriage to another, and the time of the first visit back to Ireland since 1967 and the beginning of that great period. Don’t know what it is about Irishmen in exile, but . . . .  Anyway, Veedon Fleece, though I heard it way back in my “intro to Van” period of 1978-79, wasn’t an album in my collection till around 2002 and the release of a remastered CD. Seems there was another release in 2008 with a bonus track and an alternate take for today’s song.

“Cul de Sac” was the B-side of “Bulbs,” and both songs were done in NY with different musicians from the rest of the album. Consequently they do stand out from the more lyrical, Celtic Twilight sound of the rest of the record. “Bulbs” is a feel-good song as only Van can deliver—it’s the song that keeps alive the tradition of upbeat tunes (radio songs) like “Caravan,” “Domino,” “Wild Nights,” “Jackie Wilson Said.” But “Cul de Sac” is something altogether different.

My choice for today is no doubt dictated in part by the choice from yesterday—“Perfect” situated me in 2006 and an incredibly hot summer here in New Haven at this very time of month (I’m happy to say this summer has been mostly pleasant, so far), and maybe it’s the intensity that sends me back to memories of that time. I also think that “Cul de Sac” took over as my favorite track on the record then—as opposed to “Fair Play,” which I can remember mooning around to in the fall of 2002. I guess my love of the album was on a resurgence due to a fresh discovery. And “Cul de Sac” is a suitable celebration of “tucked away” pleasures.

Or at least that’s what I assume. It’s hard to know, sometimes, with Van, what a phrase he gets all emotive over really is meant to indicate. “Veedon Fleece” is a case in point. What is it? Besides being a great phrase that echoes a bit “Astral Weeks,” it’s not clear what it represents: something you search for, the way Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece? OK, mythological symbolism may be intended. But a cul de sac? In normal parlance it’s simply an arrangement of streets such that the street doesn’t go “through”—it’s a dead-end, with usually a turn-around space in it. The point of living on a cul de sac is that rarely does anyone not coming to your house drive down that street. It’s more isolated, private. So it can be a figure for private activities. A “getaway,” if you like.

In the song, Van keeps mentioning that “you double-back / To a cul de sac”—like you’re going back for more. There’s also the idea, obvious enough perhaps, that a cul de sac (as an entrance and exit both) could easily be adapted to mean a certain part of the female anatomy that you enter in one state and exit in a different state. A glance at the lyrics shows Van not being coy about it: “It’s been much too long / Since we drifted in song / Lay it down wet / In this hide-away.” And that’s reason enough for me to feel the call of the revisiting, since sex to songs is something from way back in my past by the time this song was known to me, though it perhaps forms a bridge to that earlier time.

The fact that this is a love-making song is vivid enough in Van’s delivery throughout—as he follows a pace that starts slow and that he keeps punctuating with forceful vocal riffs, nowhere more so than when he starts vamping a saxophone part, taking it way down low into guttural growls. It’s the kind of scat-soloing that few rock singers ever try and Van is a master at it. At that point, words fail, y’know?

One of the phrases that Van has got hold of on this track—though not with the endless permutations of “Geronimo” on “Fair Play”—is Mount Palomar, which seems to be here as, well, an eminence, but one with a view of the stars. It’s a good enough figure for the opposite of navel-gazing, I guess—an omphalos that scans the heavens.

The guitar playing on this song is very sensual and very much in a kind of mind-meld synch with Van that happened as well on the sessions for Astral Weeks. I don’t know how he does it. But this album and Astral Weeks bookend, as his two major musical accomplishments, Van’s most magical period.

And we don’t care just who you know / It’s who you are.

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