The rain outside twanged our ground, and I had just rolled out of a sleep that felt the length of a decade. My head still ached and fogged. There was no question: I’d be up all night. The little lamp on the floor painted the room with Technicolor noir. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror and saw a shaggy beast. For the last week I had been very sick, had felt the horror amass itself through my body during an uneven, ultimately good romantic comedy I watched in theaters on a day that would be the last day I could venture out for a long while. The symptoms were disgusting to the point of self-parody. I couldn’t read, listen, or even watch anything longer than a half hour sitcom. But in that lateness I regained something, a light momentarily twisted strange.
The monitor was closed but the viral universe inside it hummed and whirred like Shatner/Pine’s Enterprise flying on downtime between battles, between movies. All I needed to do was crack it open like a shine-reflecting book and spend the rest of the night in company with pop newscasts and a few hundred Facebook feeds. Facebook: the great novel about the representation of personality, written and drafted by most of the planet. Sometimes it sooths. That night, the prospect of logging on was disheartening. It would even be a defeat. Staying off Facebook is notoriously difficult. Last year I deleted my account and read Joyce Carol Oates and watched the UK comedy Peep Show for two weeks. Of course I came back. Facebook is a healthy place for people who have been found; its even an ok place for the lost because the lost might find each other there if lucky. But when you become one microbe, still lost, still repetitively checking for and instigating unwanted contact, the social network is dangerous, for other people, for yourself.
My friends were asleep. My friends were helpless to the grime demands of late shift blues. I wasn’t lonely, just alone. Not depressed, merely in a post state of numbness before the arrival of a life’s new currency. Plane tickets to Portland, Oregon had been purchased. I was leaving these moist Berkshires very soon. Beginnings and endings were coiled together like mating snakes.
I stepped out the door as teething rain from the back porch hit a little of me and the ground. Calling for the skittish, eccentric cat resulted in no cat-he appears when he wants to, maybe when I shoot Terry Lennox I can complain about this-so I went back inside.
I could feel my blue illness spreading its talons through my body during a showing of The Five Year Engagement, which had Jason Segel and director Nicholas Stoller pIaying a handful of Van Morrison songs and a few repulsive Van song covers. A few crappy days later I had the urge to dive back into Van The Man, listening to a few albums I’d either never heard before or given proper consideration to, and finally reading a massive biography by the meticulous Clinton Heylin I’d had dusting on the shelf for a year. My body was too wracked for movies and fiction, but the rollicking malevolence of Heylin’s bio (which could be subtitled Portrait Of The Artist as a Young, Middle-Aged, and Older Douchebag) and the tucked-away Van works like Veedon Fleece, Poetic Champions Compose and the monolithic Common One were just the ticket, so to speak. Morrison fans who come to Heylin’s tome are in for a traumatic experience, even if they knew beforehand the depressive mood swings and notoriously prolific-yet-uneven output of the artist who made Astral Weeks, the choice of many (myself included) as their personal favorite album. Heylin accomplishes hagiography's cosmic reversal. 2002’s Can You Feel The Silence: Van Morrison, A New Biography offers an epic portrait of a miserable, transcendentally gifted artist whose considerable accomplishments are buttressed by years of childishly sociopathic behavior and reams of contradictions and undistinguished, place-filler music. For the most part it reads not as hatchet job but the attempt of a serious journalist and critic to maneuver through the labyrinthine maze of a legendary man’s deranged personality. Heylin looses his cool only in the last few sentences that close out the book proper before the epilogue finally disengages him from this wretch for good. After freefalls personal and artistic (Heylin coldly relates Van’s flameouts with one confidante and band member after another alongside increasingly blah albums he seems to produce to satisfy workaholic OCD at the end of the twentieth century) Heylin’s disgust breaks through at Morrison’s treatment of vocalist and touring partner Linda Gayle Lewis (sister of The Killer). When relations between them break down he ends up calling her a “fucking cunt,” adding “Don’t fuck with me, I’m not a nice guy.” One of Heylin’s last paragraphs on his subject includes a critique beyond song reviews that we haven’t seen for the last 500 pages. The effect is devastating:
“It seems that the melancholia that has haunted the man from the days before rock and roll has eaten away the will to rise above it all, which once inspired so many of his best songs. As it stands, the intellectual blindness that has resulted from this condition seems to have left George Ivan Morrison with little left to say in song, and nothing more life-affirming than, “Don’t fuck with me, I’m not a nice guy,’ outside of them.”
Young readers of Silence who have had their lives changed by Moondance, Astral Weeks, possibly St. Dominic’s Preview will come away from it with a desire to sail into Common One. This 1980 Morrison release is all-but-forgotten today. In his novella-length critical study When That Rough God Goes Riding, Greil Marcus places Common One within the grid of a seventeen-year losing streak. Heylin disagrees. In fact, he calls “Summertime In England,” the second cut on the album, a song that is quite possibly Morrison’s best work. The book’s title comes from the song’s ending lyric. Lovers of “Madame George” and “Listen To The Lion” take immediate pause, but the book is very persuasive. In the throes of sickness I finally played Common One, and in the ensuing days I rarely stopped.
The track is fifteen minutes long. A fifteen minute pop song. I won’t get into the rest of the album (which I like, even though Heylin hates the equally time-consuming final track “When Heart Is Open”) because, as moody and nourishing as cuts like “Haunts Of Ancient Peace” and “Satisfied” are, Common One is “Summertime In England.” The songs around “Summertime” don’t compliment it. The sequencing reminds me of Neil Young’s American Stars’N’Bars, which contains two of his best songs, “Like A Hurricane” and “Will To Love,” and others that are pleasant yet forgettable. Since being taken off the unreleased Chrome Dreams, the two masterworks needed a home on a platform where they wouldn’t be compromised by anything, good or bad, that could distract from them. That’s how I feel about “Summertime In England.” Either release it alone or with a merely good platter. It fulfills my top litmus test for music: the composition makes me ask myself, “How could I have lived without this song before?”
“Summertime in England” is about falling in love with someone and wanting them to fall in love with the things you have fallen in love with. Van claims the song is addressed to his daughter but, as Heylin notes, lyrics like “Can you meet me in the country in the long grass?/With your red robe dangling all around your body” are distinctly sexual, even fetishistic. Van asks her, this Venus in the long grass, “Did you ever hear about
did you ever hear about
did you ever hear about
Wordsworth and Coleredge, baby?”
He’s sat in a low-lit room reading these men, and now he’s met a woman he wants to share them with. He’s revealing his knowledge along with his heart. And he sounds as vulnerable as if he were standing before her fully disrobed. His conclusion doesn’t strain for anything beyond his typical scatting, “it ain’t why why why/ it ain’t why why why/ it just is…” The instrumentals gallop along with the giddiness of new love and new sharing. (Mark Isham was one of the session players.) I can see it all: the tall grass whipping past our gliding, Van leading the woman with the red dress by hand into his mind and heart. Now I want to hear the response, her song, what she plans to share with Van. We’ll never know. In the years to come, Morrison’s muse betrayed him, and in the duet album with the fairer Lewis the singers’ voices go together about as well as peanut butter and mud.
I listened to “Summertime In England” that rained-out night, again, for what is probably the twentieth time since I finally brushed cobwebs off the Amazon purchased MP3-good luck finding a physical copy anywhere outside Turn It Up. He just goes on and on. He’s uncontainable. “Yeats and Lady Gregory corresponded/corresponded/corresponded/and James Joyce wrote streams-of-consciousness books…T.S. Eliot joined the ministry…” The album’s title is free-associated, though it isn’t the song’s title (one thing Morrison does that I love-see also “In The Garden” from No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River” from his second-best album, Veedon Fleece). “Summertime” isn’t obscure if your “Wordsworth and Coleredge” are movies, comic books, novels, video games, The Sopranos, sports, water sports, whatever, so much so that they’ve become yourself, and you want this new person in your life to drink these things, in essence drink you along with them. I realized that’s what the song was about that exact night, as outside it carelessly poured. I thought of the time I was in high school and screened Barbara Jean’s last song in Robert Altman’s Nashville for a girl I liked. Later, after she kissed me the first time, I said something about how recovering the lost footage The Magnificent Ambersons wouldn’t be better than that.
“Did you ever hear about, Welles and Cotton baby?”
After “Summertime In England” I couldn’t listen to anything else. The song was rich enough for one night’s musical consumption. I went outside, stood under the back porch and called again for the eccentric cat. He vanishes for days and is suddenly at the door unless he’s roughing through an upstairs window ready to eat. I don’t worry about him like I used to, though I still got antsy when he didn’t materialize from the rain that looked like showering glass. This was a time of uncertainty. What was going to happen to all of us? And I wondered if those Veedon Fleeces I couldn’t claim in the turbulent past were still attainable now that life had cycled itself to this voided placidness. I didn’t watch as many movies as before. Now I listened to albums, watched scores of TV shows (mostly comedies and a currently Golden Age period Mad Men) and wrote for this blog. When I was 15 I envied certain filmmakers for the amount of movies they’d watched. Now I tried not to envy them for being able to do what they were born to do and make a living doing it. I used to have a lot of opinions, now I had this: It only takes one person. I took shelter. No cat.
The Dark Side Of Porn was a rather dire series that used to air on the BBC, though you wouldn’t expect anything else from the sensational title. Dark Side was, as promised, a self-serious panorama limning the shadier alleys of an already shady industry (both here and in the UK). The first episode tilled the perpetually plowed field history of XXX’s shutdown in the wake of an HIV outbreak, spearheaded by Dr. Sharon Mitchell, quite possibly the only hero in porn. I’d seen a lot of porn docs, ranging from the HBO toe-dippers to obscurities like Gregory Dark’s astonishingly excellent Fallen Angels, and while there’s everything from gonzo reports on Gonzo (Louis Theroux) to moralizing finger wags (the ones that blast Bill Margold’s talking points far out of context) I hadn't encountered something like the BBC series before. This was objective disgust, which is paradoxically challenging to pull off. There has to be a thoroughgoing commitment to something one hates, which the producers of the show obviously do. They’ve been assigned this world against their collective wills, and everything from the shot composition, pointed narration and juxtaposed sound bytes make the hidden distain perfectly clear, yet I love how Dark Side doesn’t overtly preach despite all this. The program is from-the-trenches reportage, more Joan Didion than P.T. Anderson. (“A writer is always selling someone out,” she once wrote.) The second episode introduced me to a woman who needs her own feature film. In turn, I’d like to introduce you to Frankie.
Episode 2, “Porn Virgins,” chronicles the fortunes of Sahara, an affable young Muslim woman, and Frankie, a successful business woman, wife, and mother in her late thirties, who both want to change careers and become adult movie starlets. Sahara’s rise is just as meteoric as Frankie’s fall. Sahara, with her luminous brown skin, everygirl charm and rarity of type (not to mention her willingness to be on piss websites) is in demand right out of the gate. She can raise her asking price before she knows it.
Why does Frankie want to enter this universe? She confesses self-esteem issues to the camera, enough psychologically to want to be there, yet reveals herself to be skittish with boundaries on set. She won’t do girl-on-girl and she won’t do a certain act illegal in some countries but a veritable prerequisite in XXX. She calls her supportive husband with the time he can expect her home. Frankie rides trains to mysterious amateur shoots with only the crew as her disapproving, arch companion (“Will you meet me in the country/In the summertime in England/Will you meet me?”). When she lands her biggest gig yet, a gang-bang under the eye of England’s top pornographer, the filmmakers cut to Frankie’s pounded shadow and recycle an earlier, gushing VO from the day she quit her job. “I feel so free!” she says, as our humble observers convey to us a nation of otherwise.
Frankie has curly blond hair and a face she’s allowing to age gracefully. There’s just so much unabated awkwardness. Frankie appears happy enough in her nude photos, but we know even then that she’d probably be more content simply as a nudist. She wanders around a dungeon set like a deer in headlights or a high school freshman. She doesn’t want to film a lesbian scene but makes enough of an effort, emptily poking her tongue in the other performer’s mouth. Talking with the jocular director after the gang-band, she hints that she might be interested in doing Anal next time, and plasters a mockery of a smile on her face as he gives her detailed techniques on how to handle it properly. Dark Side makes a point of passing judgment on a business that has no room for someone as particular as her and not actually passing judgment on Frankie. She’s the only person that elicits a margin of sympathy from this austere crew. As she trudges on, Frankie becomes a figure out of Herzog, pulling the weight of herself and that old baggage up a mountain of disapproval in flesh. As the phone stops ringing and Frankie realizes its time to move on, it becomes apparent this isn’t underhanded journalism as much as it is a portrait of someone seeped in their own patterns of emotional masochism. Why is she doing this? We’ll never know. Where could she have ended up? And why write about her?
Because she kept my eyes open that night. I might have gone back to sleep if I wasn’t bleakly invigorated by her story. And I’m glad I stayed awake.
|Frankie trainbound for a shoot.|
|Frankie, waiting for a ride from producers she's never met.|
I checked my e-mail. I had one new message, from “Holly Bain.” Did I know a Holly Bain? The subject line was blank. The message read as follows:
The bad is over. We found each other. I liked you and you liked me, what a surprise, that never happens but it did right now. I was charmed by your hair and other things like your voice and infectious personality. We will touch fingers first then hands, palm to palm, and our skin will know what is happening before we do. Isn’t it lovely how this all worked out. And with me you don’t have to fret. There are no lines in me that you must read between in order to understand. There is no other shoe dangling hangman from my foot. No. This is this and the world is a greenblue globe. We will talk our lives out until the words form a third person who has been released from the shackles of us and who will leave us alone forever once we’ve ridden ourselves of him. I’ll cradle you and we’ll both cry. The tears will dart away like inchworms and follow the man made of words. We are finally alone, just together. I always wanted to lie in your bed. Your pillow is comfy but I fluff it anyway. And then finally you lay next to me and we don’t let go of each other for as long as we can. The only moment we break is when I tell you to put on some music. I rub the small of your back as you place a CD somewhere in the dark. The album reels us in after we’ve reeled in each other. You’re playing it loud. We accelerate together because of the music, as the stars outside your window tear away like outer space seen from within a ship on warp speed in the movies you loved as a child. If we let go one of us will get lost in the music and it could be centuries before we’re reunited again. The music brings me closer to you. I never thought I could get this close to anyone. I’m so glad it’s you! You tell me we’ve flipped over, that the bed is actually on the ceiling and we’re looking down. I open my eyes and you’re right. The music has flown up here with us, ducking a few feet away, crouched and sticky, a spider. You know, we’ve never kissed before now. Let’s remedy that. Ok? The lights from passing cars spilling through your window have been transferred by God into the twinkles of my eyes. Kiss them both and drink the light. That’s an order, my love.
I knew to keep scrolling. At the bottom of the page there was a link to a pay website past the message. Localsluts. A few years ago I might have been fooled. But I was beyond the capacity to get preyed upon by this Internet I’ve so scoured all these many years. I deleted it.
Who ate the time? It was morning already, a wet foggy morning. Outside it was slippery and a mess of green like the body of a toad. I would be up for a while to come. I was hungry. I went back to my lookout spot to smoke a Sherman and try again for the cat. The backyard was marshy, pre-civilized. He was hopefully sheltered in some turned-over glen. The rainfall was calmer but the sky was still dirty and sere. It took me a long time to force myself to live without being in thrall to someone else. I tapped ashes from the Sherman into an empty mug. Soaking birds chirped. I left the back door open a little for the eccentric cat.
I drove through the still-slumbering town to an excellent bagel place for breakfast. I’d driven past these streets, the same cemetery, the houses and apartments. I knew where to go. It was autopilot. I would make sure to get lost in Portland. Thinking was now the best way to cut through the familiar. How could an artist who made something as all-embracing as “Summertime In England” (playing then in the car) be such a loathsome human being? What did Frankie want? I hoped she was happy. I hoped she was still alive. When Van The Man repeats “oh my Common One,” he could be referring to her, or even Holly Bain, who was nothing more than a Tinkerbell forged in the cave of a man perpetuating an advance-fee scam and thinking he’d succeed by compromising the light of the suffering one.
There weren’t many cars at the bagel place. There weren’t many people inside, but the radio was playing old songs as if this was that longed-for juke joint in a fifties heaven we’ve all imagined with winsome sighs and total disgust. The woman who took my order was the kind of virtual stranger you felt safe around, as I’d seen her many times before on the later side of midnight, hanging out in the 24/7 convenience store up the street and killing time before her morning shift began. I took a seat and waited for them to call my name.
I brought Heylin’s biography with me to rescan through some things. I read an insight about “Summertime:” Though the song passes through several tiers of consciousness, it always returns to the temporal state-a day in the country with his daughter and/or sweetheart. In this sense, “Summertime” resembles ‘Cyprus Avenue [from Astral Weeks]. Like its eminent predecessor, it concludes with the singer back in the present, though not alone, as he asks his companion a key question, ‘Can you feel the silence?’” Could Frankie feel the silence? If not, her documentarians felt it for her. It ain’t why why why, it just is. Holly Bain couldn’t feel the silence because she was the silence, another false Internet promise, the red dress with no body of a woman inside. We’ve all fallen in love with a keypad more times than we can count. It all comes down to a planet of want. Or whatever, I didn’t know, it was too damn early for all that.
This concludes with me back in the present, though not alone, as a smattering of elderly couples and early bird students occupied other tables nearby. There was a mirthful ding as more customers entered. A woman and her two children, a young boy and a girl I pegged was just entering teenagehood. Her green eyes were clean and watery. She had slept through the night. Her brother poked her but she maturely ignored him. While their mother ordered for them, the boy opened the cooler to get drinks. The girl wore a sweater that matched the color of her eyes, and a cap that concealed most of her hair. From the girl’s light complexion I assumed she was blond. A song began that really bopped and shimmied. I didn’t know it, and I wish I could say it was Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” but that came on later, after the trio was gone. Then, at that moment, the girl started dancing to this corny old song, jutting her shoulders forward and back, letting the movement propel her across the room. The Woman is the child of the Girl. She didn’t care who was watching, though most likely nobody was beyond me. Her shoulders gyrated front to back. Her little head was delicate in motion. I focused on Heylin's book, smiling silently, and by the time my breakfast was ready the girl and her family were gone. I never caught her name. So I decided to call her