An Appreciation of "Madame George"
The following excerpt from The Rest Is History was printed in the February 7th issue of "The Irish Times".
The residential patterning of the parts of the city such as north and east Belfast revealed a scallop-shell of class segregation, not matched by other districts. Clustered around the lough on both shores, the working-class districts fanned out and upwards, via main arterial roads, spliced with boulevard avenues, and often embracing distinctive districts that had once been villages along with, in the 1950s and 1960s, the new estates.
The patterning incorporated rescheduled waterways, rivers, streams as well as enclosing cemeteries, displaced big houses of once prosperous merchants, and maintained parks and green-sites before reaching hillsides such as Castlereagh.
This red-bricked civic landscape of back-lanes, entries, streets, terraces, road and avenues had a definite if rarely articulated class-formation. To move within it was to experience the all-so-visible distinctions of a provincial urban society. To move literally from it was to encounter the shifting magical thresholds between city and country. Van Morrison's songs are powerful testaments to both these levels of perception. The mysterious luminous quality of Astral Weeks is earthed in the wonder, surprise and customs associated with leaving his own back-bedroom, going down his own street ("as we said goodbye at your front door", he says in "The Way Young Lovers Do") to inhabit his own district, its daylight and nightlight, walking through Beersbridge and Orangefield, taking in everything.
Cypress Avenue is not only a place, it was the idea of another place; the railway, the river: all are conduits through which Morrison's imagination is freed.
"Madame George", the key lyric in Astral Weeks, dramatises this condition with a haunting portrait of belonging and leaving. This lyric, with its story-telling and repetitions, the anarchic mantra of the love it seeks to express and its almost obsessive questioning, suggests comparison with the poet Patrick Kavanagh.
It is pure coincidence of course that Kavanagh, who was in the United States in 1965 for a symposium on W.B. Yeats, should remark that he (Kavanagh) was all in favour of the Beat poets. "I like Corso, Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg very much . . . there are these lads in America, these youngsters that I admire very much".
What Kavanagh saw in the work of the Beats is curious given the Irish situation he had in his mind. They had, he said, "all written direct, personal statements, nothing involved, no, just statements about their position. That's all. They are not bores as far as I am concerned". Kavanagh's voice of dissatisfaction with convention ("boredom"), strengthened by his subjective romanticism ("direct personal statements") is very close to the poetic vision of Astral Weeks and in particular to the voice which recites "Madame George".
I first heard the song early in 1969 from the US album somebody had obviously got a copy of and by the time it was released in the UK in September of that year Astral Weeks had become cultic.
Memory plays tricks with historical reality but it seems to me looking back over 25 years towards the twelve months between the end of 1969 and 1970, everyone was playing Astral Weeks throughout the Belfast which I knew.
That year was a watershed for every generation in Belfast, but particularly so for those of us who were leaving our teenage years behind and becoming young men and women. Friends would soon go their own way, across the water to England, taking up jobs, going to college, disappearing. The months leading out of the 1960s into the 1970s correspond, loosely and in an inchoate and inarticulate way, with a social and cultural breakup of life as we had known it.
"Madame George" captured that feeling, and still does. It was a strange quiet before the storm. The clubs were still doing good trade, with parties at weekends, and visiting big names - Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Small Faces - played the Ulster, King's or Whitla Hall. People hung out and there was little aggro, except for the usual sort of fighting that made Belfast city-centre a dangerous place some Saturday nights. But you could still walk throughout the wider city without too much anxiety or fear. But within a matter of a year or so, you took your life in your hands for so doing.
"Madame George" gives that freer time a distinctive sound and context. The shock of hearing the phrase, "On a train from Dublin up to Sandy Row" has never quite left me. An inexplicable connection, coded beneath the words themselves, identified for the first time the actual city in which I lived.
Sandy Row, a Protestant working-class district in Belfast's inner-city through which the train runs, is named; the custom of throwing pennies into the Boyne River (the iconographic site for the Protestant defence of the British Crown and faith in Ireland) which we did without knowing why, and the transfixing "trance".
Sitting on a sofa playing games of chance, With your folded arms in history books you glance, Into the eyes of Madame George.
Much has been read into this extraordinary song. For me, it is an ashling, "a child-like vision" which portrays a world of loss and gain, ceremonies and evasions, past and present, shifting like a carousel between real and imagined people and places.
The soldier boy who is older now with hat on, drinking wine. How many streets and roads had a few such men, tripping home after the pubs closed, at odds with the world they returned to and the front rooms, filled with music/laughing music, dancing music?
"Madame George" is a portrait of a society about to withdraw from public view at the same time as the voice which describes it is also leaving the scene. Memories shift and coalesce. The site of the poem blurs and moves in and out of focus. It is the Belfast of Cypress Avenue; there is a Fitzroy Avenue too. The rituals of collecting bottle-tops/Going for cigarettes and matches in the shops are identifiably Belfast. But the journey is on a train from Dublin up to Sandy Row. Parsing the song in this fashion does not take us far. What is constant is the voice and the connections which the accent makes between raps, cops, drops and gots.
What is unmistakable about Morrison's achievement, from the late 1960s to the 1990s, is the steady, unflinching challenge which first his voice and then subsequently his lyrics and music embodies. The voice is a powerful ambiguity, revelling in itself, but dismissive too, while the lyrics have explored (and anticipated) much of the imaginative ambition and desire of Morrison's poetic peers.