Way, Way Back Through the Labyrinth: Van Morrison Haunted on “Cyprus Avenue” and Beyond

This week’s post is an edited excerpt from the upcoming book Divining the Earth: Earthing the Divine: Psychogeographic (and Other) Influences on Poet and Lyricist due to be published on Wyrd Wolf Howl Press in November 2022. The chapter from which the excerpt comes has as its focus Van Morrison’s track “Cyprus Avenue ” and the various influences ( topographical, temporal, cultural and emotional) which were central to its creation.

The music that the young Van Morrison listened to, perhaps like all musicians in their formative years, haunts everything musically and lyrically that he has produced in a prolific career spanning sixty one years and forty two studio albums. Of the musical genres experienced by Morrison as he grew up in post-war Belfast, and these include Country, Blues, Gospel and Folk, it was the Blues which made the deepest mark. The influence of the Blues on Morrison’s early music is highly hauntological in that it is more of a ghostly presence, sometimes identifiable on the surface in the musical structure and the content matter, but more often lurking in the depths, speaking its presence in single words and phrases. Increasingly as the years and albums pass, the blues comes more and more to the surface, dominating whole albums from 1996’s Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison onward.

The blues and country blues have, ostensibly, at their heart a hurt; they are a reaction to the suffering of this life, to the “physical and emotional realities of the material world”.1 They are placed firmly in the first person and, as such, tend to be highly personal focussing on oppression, natural catastrophe and lost love as experienced by the writer/ singer. Morrison’s oeuvre, whilst it is not high on natural disaster, does include a significant number of songs which have as their focus love ( lost, unrequited and re-found) and oppression (prior to the COVID catastrophe this primarily focused on his relationship with the music industry and how he had been, in his opinion, badly treated by it- today he has turned his focus towards the oppression of the people by way of the government’s vaccination policy – where once he joined Bob Dylan on the stage at Slane 1984 to sing “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, now he duets with ‘Junior’ Paisley on the lesser known ditty “Rxxxx Sxxxx is a Dangerous Man”).

Morrison and Dylan on stage, Slane 1984

The ghostly influence on Morrison’s artistic output emanating from the United States is not limited to the medium of music, it also stems from American film, especially Westerns, which were the most popular Hollywood genre from the 1930s through to the 1950s, and American Literature, most importantly the Beat writers Jack Keruoac and Allen Ginsberg.

In amongst Morrison’s back catalogue there are a significant number of songs focused on his home city, Belfast.2 These songs mainly emanate from the singer’s separation from the city: either by distance or time. In these songs with a direct link to Belfast, Morrison envisions the topography of the city, but similar to China Miéville’s novel The City and The City where Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same temporal and spatial location, he processes and combines it with the mythological USA of music ( blues, jazz and country), word and film. What results is quite literally ‘neither here nor there’ an imaginative hybrid where the signifiers of American culture are partially hidden by the described Belfast locations. One of Morrison’s key tracks, perhaps the key track in this respect, “Cyprus Avenue”, reveals not only the US influences via the form (jazz) but also through the inclusion of homagic tropes to the mythology of the western wilderness of the New World.

Considering Morrison’s devouring of American culture in the late fifties and early sixties – the blues and country singers and the beat writers – it is not surprising that the majority of images conjured up in the song spring from there; as Morrison says of “Cyprus Avenue” and the other tracks on the album Astral Weeks:

They are timeless works that were from another sort of place — not what is at all obvious. They are poetry and mythical musings channelled from my imagination.3

However, the haunting of Morrison’s music is not restricted to cultural and artistic spectres; as with all artists, indeed all human beings, the lived-through past, with all of its experiences of emotion: the highs and the lows, the tragedies and comedies, the joys and the heart-breaks, tends to bring its influence to bear on lives and artistic expression. The deeper the emotional wound, the more profound the influence and the more it tends to repeatedly resurface in words, images and music. “Cyprus Avenue” provides us with an entry point into the labyrinth of Morrison influences and, when supplemented by several other key tracks, becomes both map and flaming torch to enable exploration of the darkness therein: a darkness which, as we will see, emanates from one particularly deep emotional wound.

Listen to “Cyprus Avenue” here

Ostensibly the song, released in November 1968 as part of the Astral Weeks song cycle, seems to be an imaginative meditation on a memory of a more innocent time, and whilst that is essentially true, it is, as we shall see, the focus of the meditation, the nature of the innocence and the word-spell cast to recapture the memory that makes “Cyprus Avenue” the key to unlocking a significant and recurrent theme in Morrison’s oeuvre: unrequited/ lost love.

The thread which if pulled will start to unravel the densely packed lyric and reveal the significance of the song is the verb “caught”. It sits prominently in the first line and is repeated three times through the song. The use of the word may convey an idea of guilt, as in “caught in the act”; linking this idea to the apparent revelation at the end of the song of what many critics have identified as the age of the narrator’s romantic infatuation: “young and bold, fourteen-year old” may lead to a misreading of the song – this would be to completely miss the point. Indeed, if we look at the line in context it seems more likely that Morrison is referring to his adolescent self, the younger self that the singer is connecting to, he himself is the “young[…] bold fourteen-year old” – it is therefore a revisiting of an emotion via the remembering of the spatial and temporal location in which that emotion was originally experienced – something which recurs time and time again in Morrison’s work.

Another plausible reading is connected to the activity of scrumping, that is the stealing of windfall apples from orchards, which Morrison and his friends from Hyndford Street undertook in the orchards which lay behind the Cyprus Avenue mansions. It is possible that from time to time Morrison was ‘caught’ in the act, which would add a frisson of excitement to subsequent raids, a feeling that would, when reinforced by every ‘capture’ thereafter, ensure the recall of the activity and its location via the thrill generated by it. There are many recurring tropes in Morrison’s lyrics (gardens, rivers, streams, railways, green fields/meadows, summertime, radio,and rain), however, apples, windfalls, and orchards do not make a reappearance until 1991’s “On Hyndford Street”: the greatest of Morrison’s memory invoking songs:

And walks up Cherryvalley from North Road Bridge railway line
   on sunny summer afternoons
Picking apples from the side of the tracks that spilled over from 
   the gardens of the houses on Cyprus Avenue

Listen to “On Hyndford Street here

Adding significant weight to this interpretation is the fact that when Morrison played Astral Weeks in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008, he tagged some additional lyrics onto the end of “Cyprus Avenue”; these included “pick up those apples” and “got to get a windfall”. [There is an intriguing connection here to childhood innocence via the games of childhood and the forbidden/ stolen fruit which led to the Fall in the Judeo/ Christian spiritual tradition. Spatial and temporal limits unfortunately mean that any exploration of this intriguing thesis will have to take place elsewhere.]

The Castle Picture House in the 1950s (Courtesy of Belfast Central Library)

The idea of a ‘raid’ also connects directly to the Western films absorbed by Morrison at the Castle Picture House on the Castlereagh Road, and subsequently played out via the childhood games on the ‘badlands’ of East Belfast. This can be identified as the most likely source of the overlaying of the streets of Belfast with the Streets of Laredo: the creation of an amalgamated topography (Belfast and the USA) on which much of the action of early songs is played out. There also exists here an intriguing connection to the childhood innocence which Morrison attempts to recapture in his many memory songs: a topic which will shortly be explored.

As we continue to meditate on “caught”, the echo of another line, perhaps the line with the most famous use of that particular word in song, can be heard: the first line of Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds – “we’re caught in a trap”. However the potential connection here proves to be spurious as Presley’s version of the song was recorded in January 1969 and released six months later, almost a year after the release of “Cyprus Avenue” on the album Astral Weeks. However, as the song proceeds the narrator reveals that he is “conquered in a car seat” and that there is “not a thing I can do”. This certainly seems as if he is trapped, a possibility further enhanced by the alliterative “conquered”: caught and then conquered like some medieval army drawn into a confined space, surrounded and then defeated. For Morrison it is the memory of an adolescent love which, when he revisits a key place linked to the original heightened emotional state, “captures” and “conquers” him every time he is drawn back there, helpless to resist and trapped by the memory. Such is the power of the memory that the singer fears it may drive him “crazy” before he gets to the “mansion on the hill,” a reference not only to the heavenly abode which may or may not await the faithful, but also to the location, to Cyprus Avenue and all its mansions on the hill.

Hank Williams on stage in Nudie jacket (Courtesy of Strawberry Tongue Radio and Music Magazine)

There is also here a referencing and subsequent anchoring to a key musical influence on the younger Morrison, Hank Williams, and his 1948 track “A Mansion On the Hill” where in the first verse we find Williams in lonesome mood

Tonight down here in the valley
I'm lonesome and O how I feel
As I sit here alone in my cabin
I can see your mansion on the hill

Listen to Hank Williams “A Mansion on the Hill” here

As Morrison revealed in 1970, Williams had a significant influence on his musical education,

I didn’t really hear a lot of things that were going down when I was [in Belfast]. I heard some of them, and wanted to hear more, but I couldn’t, because it was happening over here [in America]…So I just grabbed as many Lead Belly and [Woody} Guthrie and Hank Williams records as I could grab, and tried to learn something.4

we can safely assume that he was familiar with this particular track. As such then these lines must have had a powerful effect on Morrison, containing as they do the resonating details of emotion and relative place: (Williams/ Morrison in the valley – literally and metaphorically – looking up at the Mansion on the Hill where the object of their love (rejected/ unrequited) lives.

The freighting of meaning identifiable in so many of Morrison’s lines, is present here and revolves around the word “before”, which can relate to both time (before I die) and place (I stood before the mansion). A combination of both interpretations provides us with an image of Morrison returning time after time to stand before one particular mansion amongst the many on Cyprus Avenue: the one which, because of the associations it has for Morrison, has the potential to drive him insane.

We will return to this mansion, and the associative ghosts that it contains, in a moment; but for now, if like a dream influenced by the future not the past, we move forward through the lyrics and then double back to the first line, the cinematic quality of the images created by Morrison – the girls skipping home from school reciting rhymes/song lyrics; the leaves drifting slowly to the ground; the passing trains rumbling through the station, the sun shining through the trees – informs the possibility that he is caught on film, that he is performing “one more time”, that he is caught in the spotlight performing a shamanic moondance to past love, paradoxically in the shadow of the Cyprus Avenue mansion.

Colliding in our backwards motion off the title we rebound to its repetition in the second line, and momentarily pinballing between them the oscillation causes the spotlight to fall on the preposition “up”. In purely geographic terms Cypress Avenue is indeed “up”, a steady climb from Hyndford Street where George Ivan Morrison was born and raised. However, Morrison also moves up to Cyprus Avenue as if it is “that mansion on the hill”, and indeed it is for as Stuart Bailie identified the Avenue “ features in at least six of his songs and much of the time it gives him rapture and intense recall”; for him “ it’s a portal to another time, another place”.5 Most likely the “rapture” was present in the song’s creation, as was the “intense recall”, and both are probably experienced by the artist when he performs the song. This reading is not, to my mind, undermined by Morrison’s revelation to Ritchie Yorke that the song came to him in

“a stream of consciousness thing. Both those songs just came right out. I didn’t even think about what I was writing.”6

as the circumstances surrounding the birth of the song do not have any direct bearing on the artist’s subsequent experience when performing that song. Further, the spontaneous channeling of the song had necessarily as its source the subconscious of the writer, where all his experiences of the outer (sensory) and inner (thought processes, emotions) worlds were stored. Therefore, when Morrison seems to abrogate the possibility of personal significance in the song by referring to a “stream of consciousness” and the fact that he “didn’t even think about what [he] was writing”, what he actually does is to confirm the extreme personal significance of the song, as once he bypasses the logical conscious element of the creative process, the element which would be most likely to veto any extremely personal content or revelation, what comes out is the pure motherload of personal experience, unexpurgated and holding a significance so deep that even he may not be aware of it – initially that is!

Map of Morrison’s Belfast (Courtesy of The Irish Times)

The journey up to Cypress Avenue, whether in reality or a dreamstate, was obviously one taken many times by the singer. As such then the memory recaptured each time is not unexpected, definitely not of the variety of that conjured by Proust’s madeleine in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu ( In Search of Lost Time) which has as its main theme sensory input unexpectedly unlocking a hidden/ forgotten memory. Each time, each “one more time”, the journey is made, the connection between the landscape, the place, the time and, hence, the emotional experience is reinforced. Even so, Morrison includes another type of sensory connection, a back-up to ensure that the memory is vividly reconjured, in the almost direct lift from Elvis Presley’s 1957 hit “All Shook Up”: “My tongue gets tied every time I try to speak/ And my inside shakes just like a leaf on a tree”. This is, of course, not plagiarism, as Johnny Rogan seems to suggest in his less than positive biography Van Morrison: No Surrender.7 Rogan identifies the importance of the Presley lines, but misidentifies the purpose of the words, saying that they “shift the time frame back to the Fifties, allowing the listener to re-enter a world when Morrison himself was 12 years old and walked to school down the avenue”. [my italics]8 If, as Rogan states, Morrison had walked to school via Cyprus Avenue it would have been a very circuitous route to take as Orangefield Boys Secondary School lay south of Hyndford Street and Cyprus Avenue to the north. More importantly his reading of the reason for the lines’ insertion demonstrates at best insufficient engagement and understanding: how could the words “allow the listener to re-enter a world” of which they have no personal experience? The lines, and hence the recording from which they come, may enable the listener to “re-enter a world” of their own younger self, to re-experience an emotional and very personal engagement facilitated by the lines and the sound of Elvis singing them: this is exactly what the lines do for Morrison, taking him back to certain events of 1959, and that is why he places them in his song. Their use here would also seem to have more connection with the Situationist détournement, that is “the integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu”9 or a person’s social environment, than any plagiaristic usage and the creative shortcomings that that would imply.10

Riding the rails: Hobos jumping a boxcar – Bakersfield 1939 (Courtesy of The Library of Congress)

Morrison’s connection to Stateside culture is nowhere more obvious than in the poetic phrase that immediately precedes the entrance of his “lady”: “where the lonesome engine drivers pine”. The ability of poets and songwriters to condense several references down into one freighted phrase is apparent here. As Lester Bangs observed:

“Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost, conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture.”11

At the heart of the phrase we find “engine drivers” not train drivers as we would expect on the railways of Northern Ireland in the 50s and 60s. Morrison’s choice of descriptive language here makes a leap back to when Woody Guthrie, Kerouac and the Beats jumped the engines on the railroads of 1950s USA ; it is foreshadowed by the reference to “railroad” – the preferred destination to drink his bottle of “cherry wine”- again a Stateside reference used in preference to the more prosaic “railway”. Morrison describes the engine drivers as “lonesome” which not only makes a connection with the blues (e.g. “Lonesome House Blues” Tommy Johnson 1928…Muddy Waters “Lonesome Day” 1951 which is directly linked to the Dylan song of the same name from Love and Theft…”Lonesome Road Blues” Muddy Waters 1960 (composed by Big Bill Broonzy 1955) but also, perhaps more significantly in this context, to Hank Williams and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Having established the backdrop of the Mythological topography and the deep despair of the character, Morrison now has the brilliant audacity to complete the phrase with the punning on the verb “pine”, which in the first instant arcs back in meaning to “lonesome” in a satisfying bookending of the phrase; it is the second consideration which draws out the noun element of the word – an evergreen coniferous tree – and thereby establishes the pun. Interestingly if we move sideways from the pine tree, which is profligate in the Sierra Nevada, flanking the railroad there for many miles, and by way of the Corsican Pine which features significantly on Cyprus Avenue, we meet with another evergreen coniferous tree – the cypress, the most famous example of which is called The Lone Cypress, which stands on Cypress Point in Monterey. This gives us an intriguingly linked pathway: Cyprus/ Cypress/ Pine/ Lone/ Lonesome.

Cypress Point from Wintering In California by Charles Howard Shinn

One of several key phrases in the work is “She’s returning from the fair”. Morrison was very familiar with “And She Moved Through the Fair”, one of several Irish folk songs recorded by the famous Irish tenor Count John McCormack and included in the repertoire of songs performed by Morrison’s mother, Violet, who was a fan of McCormack, at the family get-togethers on Sunday nights in Hyndford Street.12 The song tells the tragic story of a young girl who dies before she can marry her lover, and subsequently visits him from beyond the grave. The reference here to “ returning from the fair” brings with it the highly romantic notion of premature death; of young love; and therefore the possibility that the object of Morrison’s affection died young.


Join me next time as we venture further into the slipstream of (slightly) wild, if not totally unfounded, speculation, as I take a sideways glance at another very early song, “TB Sheets”, which may be the key to understanding “Cyprus Avenue”, and by so doing, revealing much, much more of the topography of Morrison’s labyrinth of influence.

Further Down the Rabbit Hole

View the catalogue for Graham Booth’s exhibition of Van inspired art here

Watch Van perform “Cyprus Avenue” at the Fillmore East, New York 23/09/1970 here and at The Hollywood Bowl 07/11/2008 here

Read Stuart Bailie’s excellent “Cyprus Avenue” article from the also excellent local music magazine Dig With It here

Footnotes

  1. Peter Mills: Hymns to the Silence (London: Continuum Books, 2010), p3
  2. Morrison’s songs of Belfast are of two types:(i) Direct reference songs where streets and shops etc are specifically identified – eg Cyprus Avenue, On Hyndford Street, Orangefield, See Me Through, Choppin’ Wood, Got to go Back, The Story of Them, Brown Eyed Girl, Madame George, A Sense of Wonder and (ii) More oblique/ indirect reference songs: eg You Know What They’re Writing About, She Gives Me Religion, Take Me Back, Mystic From the East
  3.  http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/music_blog/2008/10/van-morrisons-f.html 20/11/2017 16:22
  4. Clinton Heylin: Can You Feel the Silence? (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p20
  5. Bailie Stuart  http://www.digwithit.com/?p=321 24/10/2016 19:14
  6. Ritchie Yorke: Into The Music (London: Charisma Books,1975), p61
  7. Johnny Rogan: Van Morrison: No Surrender (London: Vintage, 2006) p358
  8. Johnny Rogan : Van Morrison: No Surrender p 243
  9. Merlin Coverley: Psychogeography, (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2010) p94
  10.  However, Morrison does not subvert the original meaning of the lines – a key purpose of the Situationist usage of the technique.
  11. Bangs, Lester : “Astral Weeks” in Stranded: Rock ‘n’ Roll for a Desert Island ed. G Marcus, Boston: Da Capo Press

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