Mr. Morrison, Meet Mr. October
Last year at this time, when I spent the whole month of October waxing lyrical about my favorite month of the year and the music I most associate with it, a reader suggested I should just start calling myself "Mr. October." That's an excellent idea, because I am all about this month--less than a month, usually, and often only a week or two--when the temperature falls, the leaves change, and time runs in reverse. As I wrote a year ago:
The deeper we get into October, the more I retreat into my Top 40 past. The reasons are in the very first post on this blog [in July 2004]: "[T]he record charts became the calendar of my life, and . . . down to this very day, certain songs transform me into the person I was when they were hits so long ago." Sometimes I think the autumn me was the best of me in those years--although honesty compels me to report that it was often the worst of me, too.Apart from the hits of Octobers past, other music finds its way into my CD player in the fall, and not all of it is 30 years old. My most essential autumn album is Van Morrison's 1999 release Back on Top. Other Morrison fans can spend their time talking up Astral Weeks or Moondance--to me, what the young Morrison did was interesting, but what Morrison has done lately, in his 50s, is even more rewarding to listen to.
What I love about Back on Top is that it's filled with the wisdom you can acquire only in real time, one year or one mile at a time. For example, "Philosopher's Stone" (which is also the title of a double-disc collection of Morrison outtakes and rarities):
Up in the morning, up in the morning out on the roadPart of the charm of autumn is the way nature summons up all its energy for one last go, even though it knows winter is going to win the battle. It's what people do, also. We carry on, even with the knowledge that some day, we'll have to give in, too. But not today.
And my head is aching and my hands are cold
And I'm looking for the silver lining, silver lining in the clouds
And I'm searching for, and
I'm searching for the philosopher's stone
"When the Leaves Come Falling Down" is less philosophical and more personal. Once you understand how Morrison writes--often improvising songs in the studio while the tape is running--this song becomes especially poignant.
And at night the moon is shining on a clear, cloudless skyIt's pretty clear to me that whomever Van is singing to, it's somebody he lost a long time ago, yet the torch continues to glow.
And when the evening shadows fall I'll be there by your side
When the leaves come falling down
In September when the leaves, come falling down
Follow me down, follow me down, follow me down
To the place beside the garden and the wall
Follow me down, follow me down
To the space between the twilight and the dawn
(This song is also notable for the line, "As we're listening to Chet Baker on the beach, in the sand." Baker was a jazz trumpeter who made some beautiful records in the 1950s but lived a famously dissolute life, using illegal drugs almost daily from the 50s until his death in 1988. I'd never heard Baker until I heard this song, and started listening to him essentially on Morrison's recommendation.)
Of course, Back on Top wouldn't be a Morrison album without at least one song complaining about being famous ("New Biography"). And "Golden Autumn Day," which by title alone should make it one of the centerpieces of the album for me, is actually about a mugging incident. But never mind: it's a worthwhile listen from start to finish, and in spots, it rocks. "Goin' Down Geneva" is a great blues number; "Philosopher's Stone" features Van playing harmonica as well as I've ever heard him do; "Precious Time" is a throwback to Van's early-70s R&B days. In the end, however, it's hard for me to imagine that Van himself didn't intend this as his autumn album, given the many references to summer, Indian summer, the passage of time and reminders of the past.
If you were going to own only one Morrison album from his vast catalog, this would be a good one to have. In October, it's a necessary one.