Posts Tagged ‘Van Morrison’

Street Song and Street Songs

June 3, 2019

I haven’t posted anything about my book, Street Song, here in quite some time. One reason is that nothing’s happening. My agent has the book and is shopping it around, but so far there haven’t been any takers. This doesn’t worry me at the moment. It’s an unusual book—not the type of book that editors are going to fight over. I put more than 12 years of work into it, and I’m confident that it will resonate with some editor who is able to see beyond the contemporary book market. That’s not to say I doubt that the book would be of interest beyond a small pocket of unusual people. In some ways, it’s a bit of a mystery story—it’s told like one—and I think it would have more general appeal than some industry people might suppose. It’s also about living a meaningful life, and the desire for that is something that never goes away. It’s inherent in the species.

Another reason I haven’t posted anything is that I’ve been totally absorbed in a project that, while starting out as supplemental to the book, has proved to be integral to it. Street Song is in part about my short-lived effort to make it as a musician. It’s also about how the music of the 1960 and 70s reflected the lives and aspirations of a lot of people. It was almost like a religion. In some senses it really was. While writing about my own performances and the songs that moved me and sometimes changed my life, I was bothered by the fact that you can’t really do justice to music with words. I got the idea then to record a few songs as a supplement to the book. A friend of mine, Bruce Kaphan,  has a recording studio, and he was one of the readers of my manuscript as I was working on it. I told him what I wanted to do and asked if he’d be interested in helping me with it. He agreed and we set to work with only a half-baked idea of what I was trying to do. I thought at first that it would be just me and my acoustic guitar doing some of the songs I used to play on the street. But from that simple seed there grew a mighty tree—something I never could have imagined. I thought I was finished with music. Over the years, I’ve only played sporadically. But I’ve been practicing every day for hours on end, and now we have 12 songs with the backing tracks finished and awaiting my final vocals. While working on the song order I found that, without doing it deliberately, the songs I chose to record tell the same story that the book tells. Here’s the list:

Street Song (one of mine)
Strawberry Fields Forever (Beatles)
Poppa John (another of mine)
Farewell (Dylan)
Jackie Wilson Said (Van Morrison)
Sweet Thing (Van Morrison)
Highway (singer/songwriter Lane Tietgen)
On a Slow Boat to China (songwriter Frank Loesser)
You’re So Peaceful (another of mine)
Within You Without You (Beatles)
I Pity the Poor Immigrant (Dylan)
The Arrow You Want (one more of mine)

It’s an unusually eclectic mix of material that covers folk, Tex Mex, psychedelia, jazz, rock, r & b, swing, blues and bluegrass.  The instrumentation includes acoustic and electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, ukulele, organ, piano, drums, bass, saxophone, harmonica, accordion, lap steel, shakuhachi, harmonium, Weissenborn, mandolin, flugelhorn, trumpet, baritone horn, dulcimer, and electronic tamboura. We should have the whole thing mixed and mastered this summer. I’m calling the collection Street Songs and my intention is to make it a free download to help support the book. I’m quite pleased with how the songs are turning out. I’ll write more about it in the near future.

 

 

Progress Report #8: The Second Coming of Astral Weeks

March 4, 2009

When I was in my early twenties, I was a member of a cult—the cult of Astral Weeks. (For those who don’t know it, it’s a recording by Van Morrison.) That record had a big influence on the direction my life took. It gave me a big push toward the street. It’s interesting to me that just as I’ve started working on the section of the book that deals with my encounter with the record, Astral Weeks, and its creator are in the news almost every day. Late last year, Van did a live performance of the entire album at the Hollywood Bowl and included one of the musicians from the original recording, guitarist Jay Berliner. The recording of the concert is out now, and Morrison is promoting it heavily. I stopped following Van years ago, but I was curious to hear how the concert turned out. I know what he’s capable of doing in concert, and I’d been hearing that he really pulled it off, that it was a remarkably inspired performance. I’ve heard it now, and I don’t think so—not at all. It has bursts of energy, but not much else. He’s lost so much of his voice. That happens with age, and I’m not judging the record on that account. My biggest problem with his performance is that there’s so little conviction in his singing. His conviction, his resolute connection to the lyrics, was the quality that made the original recording so astonishing. The general enthusiasm for the Hollywood Bowl performance puzzles me. For me, the star of the show is Berliner.

Progress Report #1

November 10, 2008

I’m working on a book, and I aim to make occasional progress reports on it in this blog. Its working title is Street Song. I started writing it a little over two years ago, and I think I have at least another three to go. (Someone asked me why it’s going to take so long. My spontaneous reply was, “Because it has a lot of layers, and I want it to be good.”) It’s difficult to say what this book is about—although I know very well what it’s about. It’s just difficult to say it. I usually tell people that it’s about the years that I spent living on the streets in North Beach, which is a neighborhood here in San Francisco. But that’s only one part of it. If I had to sum up the book in just a few phrases I would say,

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

There are two works by other writers that serve as inspiration for this book. One is Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and the other is the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. At the front of Tropic of Cancer, Miller quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:

These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly. 

That passage fascinated me. I was twenty years old and a big reader who at one time read nothing but novels. I’d wanted to be a novelist, but had become dissatisfied with the form. I didn’t think novels were true enough. Emerson made me wonder why anybody should write fiction when you could write creatively about real life. If only you had the courage—and a real life…I liked Miller’s attempt at putting Emerson’s idea into practice. I was especially impressed by his decision to abandon everything and descend penniless to the street, making his way solely by his wits. It seemed a courageous thing to do. Today, I find Tropic of Cancer difficult to read. I don’t like his contempt for other people, nor the crudeness of his lust—both of which I think were exaggerated. But I still find his vision for the book strong.

I discovered Astral Weeks around the same time as Tropic of Cancer. For a long time, it was my very favorite work of art. (I prefer Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems now.) I loved the vividness of the world Morrison created. It was both real and poetic in a way that made me think he had actually seen beneath the surface of reality. I loved the story: the movement of a boy out onto the streets and his maturation. And I loved the theme of romantic love taken to the level of mysticism.

Street Song will be nothing like Tropic of Cancer or Astral Weeks. Back In the days that I lived for art’s sake, the two works pushed me in a certain direction. From there I took off on my own. I expect to do three drafts. I’m currently on the second draft, chapter four, which is about a solo trip I took to Europe when I was seventeen.

More some other time.