Wednesday 7 December 2016

Blues for Van Morrison

Ode to the singer, by Joseph O'Connor

Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00

Down the Cypress Avenue, Belfast,

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Through the fog from off the river,

A pale boy comes searching

For bottle-tops of song.

The wind from off the Lagan

Brings the voice of Muddy Waters.

Wonder who/

Gonna love yuh/

When you sweetman gone.

City of enmities,

In an island of rain,

The staunch granite buildings,

Dampened flags, broken looms.

But America comes drifting.

From the river's grey mists

Bessie Smith is singing

Got the Mean Man Blues.

And over in St Dominick's,

The choir is rehearsing

Amazing Grace

And Abide With Me

While the banners of war

Tell the story of betrayals,

Of the Somme, and of Ypres,

And of doomed Gallipoli.

At nights he has the radio,

Hilversum, Lille.

Luxembourg, Warsaw.

He isn't alone.

Ray Charles on American Forces Network.

Mahalia Jackson.

Moscow, Athlone.

The bitter, Belfast winter

Of 1956.

The boy is aged eleven

In a city iceberg-hard,

But maybe there'll be nights

For a moondance, he dreams,

As he gazes at the cranes

In the shipbuilding yard.

The phrase 'Harland and Woolf'

Brings a bluesman to his mind.

Great Chester Burnett,

The Howlin Wolf.

'No Surrender' daubed

On the gables by the mart.

In his head, Hank Williams sings

'Your Cheatin Heart.'

Loner. Gospel moaner.

William Blake with the shake.

Sax voiced soul-man; too cool to play games.

In your slim black tie and your pork-pie hat.

High on John Lee Hooker, Ledbelly, Etta James.

And the voice rising up like a rumour of hope,

Thunder-blasted, love-struck, witnessing the joy

That only exists in the country of song,

Where the flags are made of yearning

And trumpets cry like Otis Redding,

And redemption comes in grace notes

Falling like brave angels,

Even as the tawdry cling to fake celebrity.

The healing is begun. Sweet Lord, how long?

I glimpse an awkward, moody boy,

In a city long gone.

Linen-skinned, Ulster,

Hard to impress.

Around him waifs and spectres

Of those radio nights,

Voices once encountered through the spinning of a dial

On a crackling old wireless in his mother's front room,

Where he learnt that a song lights our walk from the tomb,

That healing comes in mercies you couldn't afford,

In Sam Cooke singing 'Darling, You Send Me',

In the sacred alleluia of a minor seventh chord.

A boy on Royal Avenue pauses in the rain,

And the memory of the Lagan is the Lakes of Pontchartrain.

And the ghosts of Belfast rebels

Swirl with all the rest;

The Hurricane Higgins.

Handsome George Best.

Quietly distaining

Mediocrities and fools,

Saying Keep Your X-Factor.

I don't live by your rules.

Where Lagan streams sing lullabies

There grows a lily fair.

The twilight gleam is in her eyes;

The night is on her hair.

And Madame George arises

Like a phantom, and she stops.

'Hush, love,' she murmurs. 'Be cool. It's the cops.'

Wet October leaves on an Orangefield day,

And a boy born in Belfast walks on his way,

As the brown-eyed girls make their beautiful choices,

The greatest voice ever in a land of great voices

Rises up a memory he didn't think he knew.

What about ye, Van?

Rave on,

Rave on.

Have we told you lately that we love you?

We do.

Joseph O'Connor's radio diary is broadcast on RTE Radio One's 'Drivetime with Mary Wilson' on Wednesdays

Sunday Independent

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