Friday, April 20, 2012

Van the Man and Yarrrrragh

Levon Helm just died. The news only broke a few hours ago, but fans were prepared by the previous day's reports of his impending death.

Robbie Robertson got all the acclaim, and not without justification—he wrote the majority of the songs and is a stunning guitarist. But Levon was the real linchpin of the band. Robbie wrote the words—massively inspired by Levon—but Levon Helm was the one who gave them life. A great drummer, a great singer, a great musician. The world is a lesser place today.

This all put me in mind of a post I wrote a few years ago about one of my favorite Band performances—a performance, ironically, not of a Band song and not sung by any of the Band's three fine singers, but by one of the very few singers who was at least their equal. 

So I was channel surfing and I stumbled across The Last Waltz. Levon Helm was giving Martin Scorsese a little history lesson, which dragged me in; Levon's interviews are far and away the best in the film.

I planned on then turning it off, but immediately afterward Van Morrison came on to perform with The Band, which meant I had no choice but to keep watching. Sure, I own the film and, yeah, I've seen this part at least a half-dozen times, but that's not nearly enough. Not for a performance this great.

I wrote about it before, and you can read it here, if you'd like. I'm going to repeat some of what I said, but watching it again a year and a half later was…well, it wasn't like seeing it for the first time, but I noticed things I'd never seen before.

Van is just incendiary. He's on fire. He is Music Personified in one fat little Irish bundle of Yarrrrragh.

He sings "Caravan," a song which is not just the best song about radio ever but one of my personal all-time favorite reasons for being alive. And on this night Van is beyond belief. And the song is, as always, magnificent, as is The Band’s playing of it.

But here's the thing: where the words are normally moving, here they mean nothing. They are simply syllables he's singing, utterly devoid of their initial or indeed any meaning at all. The syllables are nothing more than a vehicle for his voice, his voice being simply a vehicle his body is using to convey his soul. Something like a fractal, the sounds he's making contain all the beauty that is and ever had been and ever will be in the universe.

Yet the words themselves are barely comprehensible at times. Which doesn't matter. They’re wonderful lyrics but in this case they don't need to be intelligible. You don't need to understand a supernova to be overwhelmed by it.

It's fascinating to watch him watching the band. For a musician who so clearly trusts the muse, he's also aware that playing with a band is team sport. This is his song: he wrote it, he recorded it, and it's one of his signature pieces; he owns this song in every sense. Yet playing here with a different group of musicians, you can see him feeling his way. He's good friends with The Band—they were neighbors and drinking buddies up in Woodstock. But it's not his band, and there's a certain tension there, albeit a happy and productive one.

When it comes to the coda, the "turn it up!" section, Robbie Robertson starts dropping tasty little bits of guitar obbligato in. Twice Van goes to sing, pulling the microphone up to his mouth, only to pause and lower it again, waiting for the right place to dive in. There's no wrong place, per se—it's all the same set of chords over and over. But just because there's no wrong place doesn't doesn’t mean that there's not a right place.

And finally he finds it. And off he goes, tentatively the first time, feeling his way in, but pleased, knowing he's on the right track, murmuring, "yeah." The next time he's sure of his footing, and starts scatting. And he and The Band are simply locked together.

And then to the accompaniment of a musical sting he suddenly throws his arm up in the air and you can hear the crowd go wild. Again he does it and again the cheers. The camera pans and you can see The Band—or least Robbie, Levon and Rick Danko—are all laughing. Four, five times he does this, and then finally the camera pulls back far enough that you can see what he's really doing: he's kicking his leg in time to the sting. He does a little prefatory bunnyhop and then the kick.

There are many musicians with outstanding physical grace, such as Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie, Bono and Kurt Cobain, and this is without even going into amazing dancers such as James Brown and Michael Jackson and Prince.

Van Morrison is not one of them. He's chubby and stubby and has perfect looks for radio.

But it doesn't matter. At all. Not one bit. Because this isn't about beauty, it's about joy, music and art and life and joy, which makes even his ungainliness beautiful. Still ridiculous but impossibly beautiful and oh so perfect. Just frosting on the cake that is the universe. All of which, for four and a half minutes, are contained in the music pouring out of one pudgy little Irish troubadour.

Originally published at Left of the Dial

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