Song of the Week 11: Van Morrison – Madame George

Hola,

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There´s been plenty said already about the album Astral Weeks, and its centrepiece Madame George, but just in case you haven´t ever given it the due consideration it´s due, I´m re-opening the Song of the Week vaults. It might be an acquired taste. It might take a few listens to get into it, but it´s worth your while. It´s a unique song on a unique album, and there´s plenty of magic on show if you give it a little time.

Van Morrison is in his own words “an introvert in an extrovert business” rock and roll star who has never been a fan of the pop business and fame. He does his best to stay out of the limelight, and hasn´t given many interviews in his career. A young journalist once asked him about Astral Weeks and he got annoyed, telling him, you´re just a kid, you weren´t even born when I recorded it, then stormed off. I have a friend who said hello to him once back stage, and got the polite reply: “Fuck off!” Okay, not so polite. Let´s just say he´s not a big fan of people in general. A critic, Jay Cocks once said about him: “Reaching down into himself seems more important to him than reaching out.”

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After the success of Brown Eyed Girl, Morrison said he had to beg Bang Records just to give him a few hundred dollars as he was broke at the time despite having a number 10 hit in the U.S. He had recorded 8 songs to be released as four singles, but the record company put them on an album, Blowin´ Your Mind!, and released it behind his back. The first Van heard of it was when a friend rang him up to tell him he´d just bought his new album. Van wasn´t happy with it, claiming in 1972 that the label had picked the band and the songs. Morrison had a different concept for what he wanted. No wonder he wanted to take a new direction with his next offering.

The album Astral Weeks came out in November 1968, and received plenty of critical acclaim at the time, but wasn´t promoted by his record company who Van claimed “buried it”.

In 1967, Morrison had been having an argument with Bang Records label founder Bert Berns, who wanted Van to keep doing pop numbers, whereas Van wanted to do something new. Berns died of a heart attack late 1967 (he had been born with a heart condition) and his wife, Ilene Berns, apparently blamed Van for his death. Hence the contract dispute worsened. She inherited ownership of the label and Van´s contract. He was legally bound to Bang Records, so he wasn´t able to record during this time, and no clubs in New York would hire him for fear of reprisals from the label. Meanwhile, Ilene noticed that her now deceased husband hadn´t kept up with the paperwork to keep Van in America, so she reported Morrison to Immigration in an attempt to have him deported. Morrison married his then girlfriend, Janis (Planet) Rigsbee and as a result was allowed to remain in the US.

He moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and started playing in local clubs. He took up with some local musicians, first for an electric combo, retaining the bassist Tom Kielbania from the Berkeley School of Music when the others had to leave town for various reasons, deciding to go for a more acoustic sound, as the two of them played gigs as a duo. Kielbania invited a jazz flautist John Payne to meet Morrison after hearing him play, and Van asked him to play with them. The trio continued playing local gigs for the next few months, and then Warner Brothers got in contact due to the success of Brown Eyed Girl. Warner Bros sent Lewis Merenstein, a producer to one of these gigs to hear what Morrison was up to, and when he heard the song Astral Weeks, he said “30 seconds into it, my whole being was vibrating.” This was the 60´s of course, so it´s possible there may have been other stimulants involved, but nonetheless he was very impressed. His business partner/manager Schwaid then went to work on resolving the contractual issues, and the long and short of it was that Van was once again able to return to the studio.

Schwaid managed to free Morrison up to record again, along with several conditions. The first of those was that Morrison had to submit three songs per month to Bang Records over the course of a year. It was a fairly ridiculous demand on any songwriter, and Van responded to it accordingly. He recorded 36 nonsense songs in one session. 🙂 A nice little ´screw you´ to the record company who had screwed him over in the past. They also wanted half the copywright to any Van Morrison single released in the next year. Warner didn´t release a single that year. Lastly, they wanted control of two of the compositions on his next album. These were Madame George and Beside You, which had first been recorded in the nonsense song session, but were markedly different in form on the album Astral Weeks.

John Cale was in the studio next door at the time and said: “Morrison couldn’t work with anybody, so finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes.” This was pretty much untrue, but it´s understandable how he got that impression, as most of the songs were recorded live with Van in the booth and the jazz musicians playing along. Some string overdubs were later added. Merenstein brought in veteran bassist Richard Davis, who ended up being the session leader, Jay Berliner, a guitarist who had previously recorded with Charles Mingus, and Connie Kay, a drummer from the Modern Jazz Quartet, and percussionist Warren Smith Jr. Kielbania and Payne were replaced, but Kielbania said he first taught Davis the bass-lines, which Davis went on to embellish. An uncredited, and as yet, unnamed session flautist took over Payne´s parts on Cyprus Avenue and Beside You, but after pleading Payne ended up playing every other song on the album.

Merenstein said that the album was led by Davis, with the musicians at times following his bass and at other times Van´s voice.

Davis said of Van that there was “no prep, no meeting…He was remote from us, ’cause he came in and went into a booth… And that’s where he stayed, isolated in a booth. I don’t think he ever introduced himself to us, nor we to him… he seemed very shy…”

The drummer Connie Kay told Rolling Stone he went to Morrison and asked him what he wanted him to play, and Morrison said, play whatever you feel like playing. It was more or less a jam session.

Berliner recalled that “we were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what he felt.” He appreciated the freedom they had during those sessions. As a classical guitarist, it was unusual to be asked to play in such an improvised way.

Morrison said in 2009: “They were jazz musicians and the approach was jazz. They were able to follow me. I’d tell them: Just follow where I’m going…follow my vocal, and follow the best way you can, and don’t get in the way.”

The recording engineer for the album Brooks Arthur recalled in 2009: “A cloud came along, and it was called the Van Morrison sessions. We all hopped upon that cloud, and the cloud took us away for awhile, and we made this album, and we landed when it was done.”

Van Morrison says he wrote both Cypress Avenue and Madame George in a stream of consciousness: “[‘Madame George’] just came right out…The song is just a stream of consciousness thing, as is ‘Cyprus Avenue’…I didn’t even think about what I was writing.” The latter references the former in the first line, so that´s where Madame George is set.

A childhood friend of his from Belfast, Roy Kane, said of Cyprus Avenue, it “…was the street that we would all aspire to — the other side of the tracks … the Beersbridge Road had the railway line cut across it; and our side of it was one side of the tracks and Cyprus Avenue was the other… there was an Italian shop up in Ballyhackamore, that’s where all the young ones used to go of a Sunday… we used to walk up to the Sky Beam for an ice cream or a cup of mushy peas and vinegar… We used to take a short cut up Cyprus Avenue, ’cause that’s where all the expensive houses and all the good-looking totty came from…mostly upper-crusty totty…There’s a couple of big girls’ grammar schools up ’round that direction…That would have sunk in my head as much as his.”

The critic Lester Bangs claimed the song was about a transvestite as many believed, but Morrison has always denied this. The original title was Madame Joy, and Morrison later changed the title, but he actually sings “Madame Joy” in the song.

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The famous rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a review of the album in 1979, ten years later, which has since gone down in rock folklore as timeless. It was included in the publication Stranded Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, which is well worth a read:

http://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/~murray/astral.html

“Van Morrison was twenty-two or twenty-three—years old when he made this record; there are lifetimes behind it. What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.”

Well, enjoy…

“Get on the train, say goodbye, goodbye…”

Down on cyprus avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe
Ford & fitzroy, madame george
Marching with the soldier boy behind
He’s much older with hat on drinking wine
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
The cool night air like shalimar
And outside they’re making all the stops
The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops
Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops
Happy taken madame george
That’s when you fall
Whoa, that’s when you fall
Yeah, that’s when you fall
When you fall into a trance
A sitting on a sofa playing games of chance
With your folded arms and history books you glance
Into the eyes of madame george
And you think you found the bag
You’re getting weaker and your knees begin to sag
In the corner playing dominoes in drag
The one and only madame george
And then from outside the frosty window raps
She jumps up and says lord have mercy I think it’s the cops
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below
And you know you gotta go
On that train from dublin up to sandy row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to madame george
Dry your eye for madame george
Wonder why for madame george
And as you leave, the room is filled with music, laughing, music,
Dancing, music all around the room
And all the little boys come around, walking away from it all
So cold
And as you’re about to leave
She jumps up and says hey love, you forgot your gloves
And the loves that loves to love the love that loves to love…
To say goodbye to madame george
Dry your eye for madame george
Wonder why for madame george
Dry your eyes for madame george
Say goodbye in the wind and the rain on the back street
In the backstreet, in the back street
Say goodbye to madame george
In the backstreet, in the back street, in the back street
Down home, down home in the back street
Gotta go
Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Dry your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye…
Say goodbye to madame george
And the loves to love to love the love
Say goodbye
Oooooo
Mmmmmmm
Say goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye to madame george
Dry your eye for madame george
Wonder why for madame george
The love’s to love the love’s to love the love’s to love…
Say goodbye, goodbye
Get on the train
Get on the train, the train, the train…
This is the train, this is the train…
Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye….
Get on the train, get on the train…
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