There aren’t many “open days” left till the end of the year (and the end of this series), so for today’s open day I’ll go with one of the greatest songs ever recorded. “Madame George” is Van at his best and it is found on one of the truly great LPs of the 1960s, Astral Weeks. This is an album that seems to get better as the years pass, in part because it seems somehow to be a distillation of its era, not in any political way or even in the manner of a hit machine that became a common reference point. I daresay the album, except to fans of Van, is still a bit obscure. But there’s something in that: there’s an esoteric quality to the album that comes from how “out of the way” its environs are—Belfast and Dublin, Ireland, specifically—and how unusual the music on the album sounds. It’s famed by critics and it’s influential, but is probably still not fully “embraced” by the general public. And that’s how I’d have all my favorite masterpieces, thank you very much.
Clocking in at over 9 minutes in length, “Madame George” is one of the most striking of many Van tour de force performances, where he takes a meandering tune and keeps it unfurling. In a sense, there’s no reason it has to end when it does—on a long fadeout of a long goodbye—except that, well, yes, it’s time to “get on the train, get on the train,” and “say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” It’s that sense of parting that makes the song so monumental. It feels as if the entire scene that the song describes is being parted from. It’s always been easy for me to imagine it as Van’s farewell to Belfast, even if it’s only a projected one at that point. There are so many wonderful little glimpses of a world known—such as “throwing pennies at the bridges down below / And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow,” one of the most beautiful couplets in this beautiful song. Then there’s the “kids out in the street collecting bottle tops / Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shop.” Remember collecting bottle caps to turn in for change?
At the center of the song is Madame George, a transvestite, one assumes (“in a corner, playing dominoes in drag”), who adds an air of the exotic and of the demimondaine to the song. That and the “everything she gots” that is dropped “down into the street below” the minute she says “Lord have mercy, I think that it’s the cops.” We glimpse a kind of salon situation where folks into drugs congregate, and “the one and only Madame George” holds court.
Our hero/narrator is present as a kind of witness, but is also aligned in spirit with “the little boys come around, walking away from it all, so cold.” There’s a distance here, as our narrator puts upon his earlier self a bit of that spirit Dylan contained with his Mr. Jones: “With your folded arms and history books you glance / Into the eyes of Madame George.” It’s not that something is happening here and he don’t know what it is, it’s more like he’s brought to this scene his own expectations, his own sense of self—no doubt somewhat arrogant—and at the heart of the song is the pathos that comes from the encounter with Madame George: “She jumps up, says, ‘Hey, love / You forgot your glove.’” Trivial event, but the kind that Van’s master James Joyce would call an epiphany.
And that’s what is circulating through the entire song, that sense of a glimpse, a glance, a shared moment—things that shouldn’t count unless they do. And Van keeps the feeling changing as the song begins slow and laconic—and “that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through / The cool night air like Shalimar”—as though “nobody feels any pain,” letting the details of Madame George—“the clicking, clacking” of her high-heeled shoes, her perfume, her “soldier boy” (defined by that great line “He much older now with hat on / Drinking wine”), her boys out to get cigarettes—slowly congeal into the moment of trance: “wo wo wo, that’s when you fall.”
“You’re getting weaker and your knees begin to sag”—it could be from drink, sure, but sounds like it’s from daring to look the one and only Madame George directly in the eyes. The trance is broken by the rapping at the window and the fright that it’s the cops. Then comes my favorite verse:
And you know you gotta go
Ride that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
The lines are charged with the full melancholy of leave-taking, of looking ahead at the long journey, of having to go out into the cold and away from the comforts here. But the epiphanic feel remains in play, reaching its ecstatic moment with “And as you leave the room is filled with music / Laughing, music dancing all around the room” and those little boys walking away from it all. Free, and leaving on a high note, even as the long farewell, supported by flute and strings, keeps that music dancing along with us, to “dry your eye your eye your eye your eye” with thoughts of “the love that loves to love the love that loves to love.”
What Van does, that no one does quite like him, is ride that epiphany out to its furthest edge. Letting the moment of goodbye prolong for over four minutes, he gives us—and his hero—ample time to muse upon this moment, to feel the parting and the possible love, the sadness and necessity all together at once, with the memory of the backstreet and the wind and the rain surging into view, but, finally only the emphatic “get on the train” becoming “this is the train.” The song itself ultimately conveys the speaker away from the moment, the scene, the memory where he threatens to be stuck.
It’s a commanding performance, so full of what it evokes, letting emotion guide us through the scene. I have images of rooms and of what seems to me early dawn, but that’s all just conveyed by the sound itself, and Van’s voice is able to chart this world with a feeling of detachment shaded with sorrow. It isn’t really the speaker’s scene, but there is a fulsome temptation there that haunts.
With a childlike vision leaping into view.