Caught In The Legend Caught In The Mood (A Week In Santorini)

I didn’t travel to Santorini by mistake but there was a touch of “How did I get here ?” about my journey there. I had arrived in Athens after 3 days on a not-so magic bus from London (no, never again). My travelling companions included 2 young American men & 2 Australian sisters box fresh & wide-eyed on their first international adventure. It seemed wrong to abandon these puppies to the bustle & hustlers of Omonoia Square. Instead of saying good luck & goodbye I suggested that they could follow me in search of somewhere to hang their backpacks. It was more  luck than judgement that only 10 minutes later found us checked into just the kind of cheap & friendly hostel we were looking for. When we were offered the flat roof space I bit off their hand. That first warm night, under a clear starlit sky they (& I) were excited to be where they were. That guy who had walked it like he talked it, that would be me then.

During the days I pointed them in the right directions for  the Acropolis, the National Archaeological Museum, tourist sites maybe but world-class sights & memories. I went off to revisit favourite cafes, that place in Monastiraki with the stacks of old film stills, ill-lit, dusty basements where you could probably buy a Gremlin. In the evenings we joined the cosmopolitan Athenian street-life, hit bars where the simple trick of being able to say in Greek  “Hi, good evening. I’m good & how are you ? Good, I would like 5 beers please” got you off the tourist tariff & paying local prices. At the end of the week my new friends asked if I would join them on their trip to Santorini. I was here for the summer, the plan was that there was no plan & these good people were insistent  so, why not ? Let go into the mystery.

 

Santorini (Thera) is a volcanic outcrop in the Aegean Sea. 4,000 years ago, while we were still banging rocks together, they had got it going on as part of the Minoan civilisation based in Crete. Ideally placed between Greece, Egypt, Turkey & Palestine these traders were doing very well until one of the largest eruptions in history blasted much of the place to the sea bed & covered what remained in 200 feet of ash. The mythical submerged city of Atlantis, first mentioned by Plato, well, this must be the place. After a night ferry from Piraeus, low sleep, hi-jinks, we waited in the morning sunlight to enter the harbour. I listened to Van Morrison’s “Poetic Champions Compose”, his positive, calming collection from 1987. Now I’m not the world’s most spiritual man but there could not have been a better soundtrack to this moment. “I saw the light of Ancient Greece towards the One. I saw us standing within reach of the sun. Let go into the mystery of life”. Just as soon as I get off this boat.

We headed for Perissa, a black sand beach on the Eastern side of the island. When I joined my friends for the evening they had hooked up with 4 Italian men so obviously our table was the loudest at the beachside taverna. It was an enjoyable night, I have always found the food on the islands to be better than in Athens. Good company too, the US college boys were a little thrown by the brashness of these guys, their talk of sex, drugs, rock & roll, football & Ferraris. I liked their liveliness. They said that tomorrow night was a full moon (don’t ask me) & that we should return to this friendly place to celebrate it. I guess that I could re-organise my diary for that.

 

To help my summer along I had brought along a small bag of magic mushrooms. Hey, no TV for 3 months, a man’s got to have something to look at. I liked the Italians & the next night offered around the “funghi magici” as a digestivo after our meal. 30 minutes later we were either hovering above or rolling around on the beach, shouting & laughing fit to bust, the speakers rocking to REM’s “Reckoning”, another record I really could not be without for the summer. Was that the night we made it to a noisy bar ? I don’t remember too good (but I think John Lennon was in it !). I lost the ragazzi & spent the last hours of the trip back on the beach happily breathing in synch with the sand, the sea, the cliffs & the moon. A sunrise would have been the perfect finale but I passed out before then…another time yeah. The others must have enjoyed themselves. When I caught up with them the next afternoon they stood & applauded my arrival on the beach ! Y’know that could happen a little more often.

It was a good week but… I had not come to these beautiful islands to party.  I had seen Mykonos & Ios, true party islands back then. Santorini’s Eurotrash seemed  provincial, even a little desperate. The hedonism in London was more to my taste. It was time to leave, find a smaller island, a little bit of Greek peace. I said goodbye to the young Aussies & Americans & thanked them for their company. I exchanged addresses with the Milanese, a football game at the San Siro as part of a weekend away could be a good time. My final day on Santorini was spent checking beautiful frescoes & late-Cycladic ceramics preserved by the volcanic dust then a meal at a cliff-top taverna with the greatest sea view. You should go.

 

I was back at the port at Athinios, away from the town, my ticket for the ferry to Folegandros, an island I knew nothing about but I liked the name, in my pocket. I had intended to travel alone for a couple of months, had gone with the flow of other people & now I could get right down to the real nitty gritty. Time for a cold beer (or three) & another shot of Van the Man. Oh my, “If my heart could do my thinking & my head begin to feel. I would look upon the world anew & know what’s truly real”. I loved living in London, loved my friends there. Taking time away from the city, time by myself in such peaceful & vibrant surroundings was a re-charge, an opportunity to get things straight so that I was ready for whatever came my way.

From the bar I saw a familiar figure walking past about 30 yards away. It was Luca, one of the men from Milan, he was supposed to be on the other side of the island. I ran over to him & asked about his business. “I’m coming with you” was his surprising reply. “Well…you’re gonna need a ticket for the ferry” , what a practical fellow I am ! “I’ve got it” he said. OK…I honestly never thought that it would have been nice if he had asked, nor that it was odd that he would leave his friends on Santorini. He was a good guy, as good as any to share adventures & experiences with. Whatever came my way eh ? The lone traveller, what ? Come on Luca, I’ll buy you a beer & let’s see what the night has in store for us both.

 

 

 

So Real And So True (Van Morrison)

Wow ! Train wreck TV at its best here. Young Van Morrison has had his hair done, got a new jacket and been rolled out to promote “Ro Ro Rosey” the follow up to the smash hit “Brown Eyed Girl”. On “Greendale” Neil Young wrote “it ain’t an honour to be on TV and it ain’t a duty either”. Van looks as if he agrees with this. It’s a surprise that he makes it through the song because there are times when he absolutely quits on the lip-synch and you expect him just to walk out of shot. He has, of course, a reputation for being an awkward man. I have never bought this, it seems an easy and lazy tag to hang on an artist who obviously creates music of such emotional honesty. If this travesty was a tipping point and he decided that this was the last time he got screwed around by a media that could not care less then all power to him.

I like “Ro Ro Rosey”, it turns up on the collections of his recordings for Bang, it’s a cool little R&B stomper with some good fuzzy garage guitar. So where did those backing vocals come from ? They are not on the version I’ve got in my collection and just fill space that really has no need of filling.

Now, this is better. Just over 2 years later, 1970,  and Van is at the Fillmore East with a cool band, a fringed waistcoat and a great LP “Moondance” to play. I’m not sure if he was headlining shows, I have seen posters for the Fillmore West at this time when he supported Joe Cocker. He has not yet got the Caledonia Soul Orchestra  but it sounds pretty good to me. “These Dreams Of You” is one of my personal favourites from “Moondance” over the better known “Into The Mystic” and “Caravan”. It’s a cracking soul song but here it only lasts around one minute and twenty seconds, not long enough, not enough “Hush-a-byes”. So, I have let the clip run because if there is one thing I know about life it is that you can never have enough versions of “Cyprus Avenue”. This is an outstanding version too. The “It’s Too Late To Stop Now” take is a show-stopper while this builds subtly before hitting a similar intensity, great stuff.

Fast forward to 1997 and a fantastic version of the classic “Saint Dominic’s Preview”. I have a theory about Van Morrison which arose from prolonged listening to and enjoyment of the live record “One Night In San Francisco”. A Van Morrison performance brings elements of over 50 years of popular music together in a unique way. It is adult entertainment played by adults for adults. It is not an attempt to recreate the sound of the records but to play the songs well with the same energy and honesty. I would call it “cabaret” but that word is so discredited. I do know that I would rather see Van Morrison playing his songs with whatever band he decides to play with than almost any other artist of such longevity. Here “Saint Dominic’s Preview” is re-visited and a great song is given a mature treatment by a classy band which includes the Irish singer Mary Black on vocals. It may lack the exuberance even the vituperation (just to be hip and get wet with the jet set)  of the original, no-one wants to see 60 year olds pretend to be 25, that’s no good for anybody.

Let Your Soul And Spirit Fly Into The Mystic (Van Morrison)

The ferry was waiting to dock in Santorini just after sunrise. The overnight trip from Piraeus had been a blast and I had caught little sleep. A young American guy I was travelling with had finally got the Odyssey as we passed shadowy Aegean islands and I am always up for a discussion on Homer. My sleeping bag ended up adjacent to an attractive  German woman (Man, my luck was in). She worked as a magician’s assistant. The conversation we had about the mechanics of being sawn in half made a very pleasant change from the usual Eurotrash platitudes. Athens had been good, sleeping on the roof of the hostel with new friends was fun. I was looking forward to island life so I took a little time for myself, gathered my pack, put on the headphones and listened to this.

What a result. In those pre-I pod days I took along Van Morrison’s “Poetic Champions Compose” LP because I loved the positive, philosophical, poetic Celtic sensibility that the singer had developed in the 80s. I had forgotten that Van had been reading Greek philosophers before he wrote some of these songs…perfect. “I saw the lights of Ancient Greece” he sings in “The Mystery”. “You’ve got to dance and sing. And be alive in the mystery. And be joyous and give thanks. And let yourself go”. Well alright, that’s why I’m here.

“I Forgot That Love Existed”,with it’s name-checks for Socrates and Plato fitted right in there too. Such a simple and beautiful thing built on a simple piano hook and a saxophone solo by Van the Man “If my heart could do my thinking and my head begin to feel. I would I look upon the world anew and know what’s truly real”. OK, let me off this boat and onto this historic volcanic outcrop, I’m ready.

“Cleaning Windows”, the class of a classy field from “Beautiful Vision” (1982). A funky, nostalgic romp back to a simpler, happier time . The days before rock and roll when Van was in Belfast, a “workingman in my prime” just “blowing saxophone at the weekend in  that down joint”. I am so on this description of a young working guy enjoying the “craic” at his day job with a soundtrack of blues legends while reading Kerouac and Christmas Humphreys ( a leading British barrister and judge who founded the Buddhist Society and was a leading proponent of the religion in the West). There is an authenticity about this bantering slice of Belfast working class culture. The job may be mundane but the music and the books are not and they are as much a part of his life as the buns, the lemonade and the Woodbines. As a teenager I worked on a friend’s construction firm. There was a satisfaction about using all that energy and about being part of a working community for the first time. Van Morrison captures this perfectly in this song and reminds us not to forget it.

I could do these things about Van Morrison every day through the Winter there are so many good songs. The one about the wonderful blue-eyed soul singles of the 70s is just too obvious. If you don’t know and love the delight of “Jackie Wilson Said” then you are missing out. So this last choice is a return to the soul rave, from 1990, “Real Real Gone”. Van wrote so many songs about joy, the search for it and it’s many physical and spiritual forms. His quest has produced some of the most passionate, convincing and moving articulations of how human beings are. That first LP I bought, “Moondance”, I bought it again recently. Now this computer has all this music inside it “Moondance” may be the last one I buy. That’s a circle coming round that I am completely happy with.

“Real Real Gone” is a fine reduction of how love and joy can make you feel. It checks for Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Gene Chandler and Don Covay, others who have attempted and inspired attempts to tell it like it is while a funky horn section aids and abets. Soul music…music for the soul.

Honey From The Bee (Van Morrison)

Between 1968 and 1972 Van Morrison released 5 LPs of outstanding quality. “Astral Weeks” is an essential record, “Moondance”, the first full price LP I ever bought. To choose a favourite depends on which you have listened to most recently. These songs, together with his time with Them, formed a formidable body of work and, in 1973, when he undertook a major tour, he assembled a group to do them justice. The Caledonia Soul Orchestra included brass and string sections together with talented and committed soloists. This clip is long but shows Van and the band at the top of their form. There is a guest appearance by Van’s daughter, Shana.

The show was Morrison’s take on a Soul Revue. He had recorded only his own songs but included versions of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Sonny Boy Williamson songs in the set. This “Cyprus Avenue” is more muscular than the ethereal original but has the same power and beauty. Van’s incantatory vocal is a thing of wonder. It may seem awkward and hesitant if you are new to this but I find it convincing and soulful. I saw him doing his thing once and an audience member tried to join in with the rapture. A brusque “Fuck Off. I’m working” and Van had left the stage. It seemed fair enough at the time, he is serious about his art.

The “It’s Too late To Stop Now” tour, captured on vinyl and on film, is one of the great rock tours. A year later I was pretty thrilled to get a ticket to see the Caledonia Soul Orchestra at a summer festival. Just weeks before the gig we were so looking forward to Van broke up the band. We did not have to worry. He got a pick up band together and they sounded like this…

“Street Choir” from “His Band and the Street Choir” LP is a personal favourite of mine. This version, stripped of the responsive backing vocals, cuts the song to its Celtic Soul bones and I love it. This band was a little too dependent on the keyboards of Pete Wingfield but it also put the spotlight back on Van Morrison. I have seen better concerts by him but you always remember your first time, don’t you ? He was great, encored with “Brown Eyed Girl” and then the Allman Brothers played for three hours. What a good way to spend a day with your friends.

In 1977 Van Morrison released an LP appositely titled “A Period of Transition”. As a maturing artist he still searched for a fusion of craft and spirit. I think the craft was perhaps a little more evident on these records. “Veedon Fleece” (1974) is not the record to introduce someone to Morrison’s work but it is still an impressive piece of work. In concert he continued to add value to the great songs of the early 70s and in 1980 returned to Montreux with another big band.

Now “Tupelo Honey” is an LP to impress the uninitiated. There’s a softer, more romantic feel perhaps reflecting his domestic life. The celebratory “Wild Night”, the bodacious energy of “Moonshine Whiskey” and the classic country tinge of the title track are all outstanding. Here Van is moving into the 1980s, into a style and fashion which would produce further great work.

Some of his Caledonia Soul brothers had rejoined him, still sympatico maybe less freedom to take it where they found it. Van had hooked up with another musical giant who became the arranger and musical director of the band. Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis had worked with James Brown in the 1960s. He has co-writer credits on “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (O.M.G. !). He brought the touches of jazz, of blues, of soul to wherever the songs needed them. His opening notes to “Tupelo Honey” capture the warmth and the beauty of the tune.

I saw Van play with Mr Ellis a couple of times. The opening instrumental, maybe “Moondance”, would be used for the band to feel their way into things and could be a little safe. All this was forgotten as a great band and a wonderful singer move through the gears and just flew together. A sense of wonder and a sense that you were watching a unique performer and performance. Good Times.

Belfast Blues Brothers (Them)

Watching “Charlie Is My Darling”, the film of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 tour of Ireland we were struck by how well spoken, particularly Mick and Brian, the band was. The London R&B boom was centred on the Art colleges. Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, members of the Yardbirds and Manfred Mann had all been students at one time. These educated boys found an energy and an attitude in this American music which was lacking in a British society still looking back to the War and a time when youth were expected to show deference and to know their place. It was two groups from the British provinces who produced some of the most interesting interpretations of both the rhythm and the blues. The Animals, from Newcastle, had worldwide success with their 2nd single “House Of The Rising Sun”. Them, from Belfast, did not enjoy such renown or longevity but their almost primal take on the music was to influence the sound of garage rock and the punk bands which followed later.

“One, Two Brown Eyes” is the B-side of Them’s first single. A young Van Morrison’s ecstatic vocals and an equally wild guitar part from Billy Harrison sat on a dirty simple backbeat. Iggy Pop at his maddest covered the song but even he struggles to capture the abandon of this original. The band had a reputation as an awkward squad. They were just serious about their music and did not quietly jump through the hoops put in front of them. In lip-synched TV appearances they look uneasy and uninterested. Interviews were not helped by the intricacies of the Belfast accent, an alien tongue to London journalists. At a 1965 award winners concert the band stepped off schedule and delivered a wild, ramshackle 6 minute version of “Turn On Your Lovelight” rather than just play the hits. Their first LP was aptly titled “The Angry Young Them.

This is the best clip of Them around. “Mystic Eyes” was a single, “Gloria” was a 1965 B-side that has become a rock classic. The more I watch the better it gets. Of course, at the centre of it all is Van Morrison, singing the music he loves and working out a way of putting his own feeling and experience into it. Billy and the rest of the band are totally on it. From Belfast bars to TV in Paris to The Fillmore in San Francisco. It was a big journey in a short time and it did not last. At the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles the opening act was the Doors, on the last night the two bands and the two Morrisons, Van and Jim, jammed a 45 minute medley of “Gloria” and “In The Midnight Hour”.

Arguments about money led to Van and bassist Alan Henderson leaving. In 1973 Morrison said “You can’t take something like that, put it in a box and place a neat little name on it, then try to sell it. That’s what they tried to do. That’s what killed Them.” The group had released a second LP, “Them Again”.

Van stayed in America. He hooked up with Bert Berns, a New York pop manager/ producer and immediately had a hit record with “Brown Eyed Girl”. In 1967 Berns died and Morrison was maturing as a musician. By the next year he had extricated himself from a contract he should not have signed and released “Astral Weeks”, a cycle of songs of unrivalled agony, ecstasy and magnificent enigmatic beauty. The rest of the group, already marginalised by the time of recording the second LP, gigged for a while but Morrison had been the heartbeat of the group.

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is a jewel of a Dylan cover. Greil Marcus called it “dramatic and terrifying” as Van struggles and conquers the up-tempo keyboard hook, later sampled by Beck for “Jackass”. Every British R&B group was maturing and changing in 1966. This track gives an indication of what them could have achieved had they still been around for that Summer of Love musical explosion.

Because Them burned brightly and crashed so quickly the group is not considered to be in the premier league of golden British groups. In the US the energy and abandon of their music influenced so many of the young garage bands of the day. I am not going to list who covered what and who sounds like Them because it is too long a list. Their straight ahead no-bullshit attitude came around again in 1976. I don’t have the band’s complete work in my collection but that’s OK. I’m still encountering 60s blasts of wild and imaginative soul-blues and thinking…Well, I know who this is by !