The first time I heard Van Morrison was in David’s apartment on West 12th Street.
He was the fashion editor for a well-known men’s magazine and George’s lover. George and I were in an off-Broadway play about then. We thought we were the epitome of cool. It was less than a year after the Stonewall riots. Kent State was still ahead of us. And Van Morrison’s Moondance album was playing in David’s elegant West Village living room when I first heard the words “And it stoned me to my soul/ Stoned me just like jelly roll …”
I heard them again just now, on a CD in the Virginia mountains, but with a different ear: “Half a mile from the county fair, and the rain keep pouring down…”
In the forty-some years since the West Village, I’d started listening to Van Morrison’s words. A tape that a pressman at the Philadelphia Inquirer gave me sometime in the ‘90s had a haunting song called “Coney Island,” with its refrain, “and the crack was good.”
It was a while before I learned that the Van man wasn’t bragging about an illegal habit. “Crack” or “craic” is Irish and British slang for conversation, the kind you’d have with a really good friend while rambling hillsides overlooking the sea.
And that was also when I started to hear the strains of home in Van Morrison’s lyrics. His home, Northern Ireland. He wasn’t just a self-created great jazz and soul singer on American radio, with “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Tupelo Honey.” He was a man who deeply remembered places in Belfast and all that the Troubles brought, and who sang of rambling the small coastal towns of County Down, wolfing down mussels and potted herring before going home to the streets of Belfast.
And so “And It Stoned Me”:
Half a mile from the county fair/ And the rain keep pouring down
Me and Billy standin there/ With a silver half a crown …
… Hope it don’t rain all day.
Yeah. Two kids on the way to the fair with a fortune (about 25 cents, actually, but that was then) in their hands, and it’s raining, like it always does. But the sun comes out, and they fish and swim, hitch a ride, drink some brew.
About that time I saw The Commitments, about a hapless Dublin garage band in the making, and I thought of Van Morrison, and wondered … so many parallels … but no, , turns out there was a bit of bad blood between him and the movie’s screen writers in the early stages, when they were looking for a musician to play the lead, or perhaps help with the score, or whatever.
I still think there’s a connection, even if it’s only in a parallel universe kind of way.
And I think of how little we really knew or understood back there in 1970, when Moondance was climbing our charts and we were dancing and smoking and roaming the woods of upstate New York barefoot and unscathed in the days before Lyme disease. We wound vines in our hair and waded through streams, and he stoned us to our souls. We thought we were part of the caravan he was singing about. We thought we were the gypsies. Little we knew.
All the while, in his soul, he was roaming Irish roads where “gypsy” is a compliment or a slur depending on your view, or the fastnesses of County Down, where streams run down from the Mountains of Mourne. His is not is not Brooklyn’s Coney Island with its iconic Cyclone, though Brooklyn’s island too was suffused in its time with Irish culture. His Coney Island – for the conies, the wild rabbits that run there – is just one of many off the Irish coast.
But in the end, his longing is ours too. George is dead, a friend just told me – we don’t know how or even when. He was still young, at least in my mind, younger than me for sure. I don’t know where David is. The island, the Coney Island of the mind, is where you find it, i’n’t it?
On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
Heading towards Coney Island …
I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes
Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine
And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time.