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Madame George - Van Morrison

Sacrilegious though it may seem, I actually prefer the version of "Madame George" released by Bang records on the unauthorised album (by Morrison that is) "TB Sheets", as opposed the more famous version which appears on "Astral Weeks". Recorded before Van left Bang, but released six years later by the label. I bought the LP it when it came out in 1973, mainly to get hold of "Brown Eyed Girl", and I was thrilled to discover this track.

Back then, at the age of eighteen, the track had the dangerous feel to me of being at a really wild student party, with the background noise including conversation and laughter that at times threaten to overwhelm the singer himself. But then, with a hint of drawling emphasis, he asserts himself, and takes the crowd along with him.

After the success of the St Patrick's Day poetry event "Rave on Mr Yeats" (see two posts ago), I used the contacts I made from it to put together ensuing poetry nights and St Patrick's events. One of the poets who performed in "Rave On Mr Yeats" was Maura Dooley. I say sublime because she had that aura of peace and quiet luminosity that many really good poets possess and which comes through in her work.

When I mentioned the list of poets participating in the Yeats night, my Islington Arts and Entertainments colleague, Neville was thrilled. Serendipitously, he had met Dooley as a university student at York. Neville was studying music, specifically the trumpet, and as was the case in those days - and probably still is - hours of practise and rehearsal had let to a gap in his contemporary popular music knowledge. I have come across this phenomena many times, classically trained musicians missing out on the pop or rock or soul music that is the soundtrack to the salad days of their contemporaries. It is a curious fact that until quite recently, if you want to be a successful rock musician, the best place to go for your education was art college, rather than take up studies in music.

At one point Maura, shocked that Neville had never heard of Van Morrison, took him back to her flat and played him "Astral Weeks". I'm not sure what Neville's hopes for this occasion originally may have been, but he told me that this was the moment when he realised there was more to contemporary rock music than he had previously imagined.

The first time I booked Maura after the Rave On show was for a St Patrick's Day poetry and music event at the Studio Theatre that used be round the back of the Union Chapel in Highbury. True to the team I'd worked with before, amongst the poets I booked were Matthew Sweeney, Michael Donaghy and Maura. Half way through the evening, the normally demure Maura pulled me aside and demanded why I was paying her less than Matthew Sweeney. She hazarded a guess that I had paid Donaghy more as well, and accused me of arrant sexism. Faced with a limited budget for any event, my normal approach was to ask any performer what their fee was, and to pay them accordingly. My view was that I paid them what they asked for if I could afford it, and if I couldn't then I'd make a counter offer of what I could afford; if they didn't accept that, then I'd look elsewhere. One of the most expensive poets that I employed in those days, for example, was Simon Armitage, another Carol Ann Duffy, both of whom even then were much more expensive than many of their contemporaries who seemed to me to be equally talented. Reputation and success was all., I reasoned, the Beatles would cost more than, say, Van Morrison and his band. Sweeney had named his price, and so had Dooley. Donaghy also was paid more, but he was also performing as part of the ceilidh band I had booked for the occasion.

I was mortified when Maura called me out on this, and also dismayed that Sweeney, mischievously perhaps, had divulged his fee to her. Also I was upset that I had upset Maura, who I considered a friend, Was I being sexist? This was the mid 1990's and the thought had never occurred to me that this what what I may have unwittingly been, but, embarrassed, I immediately said I would stump up the difference, even though it meant going over budget.

Pondering this later, I realised Maura was right: even though Sweeney may have been "topping the bill" (and, significantly, even now I can't remember if he performed before Maura or not), I should have paid all the poets that night an equal amount for each poetry reading. None of them had the headline literary status of a Beatles, such as Seamus Heaney say, or Alan Ginsberg, so the opportunity was there for me to bring my belief in equality to bear directly to my own work, and I'd unthinkingly missed that chance. I didn't again, always budgeting the same for all participants in the same event wherever practicable.

I'm not sure that Maura ever forgave me, but in turn I will always be grateful for the lesson I received from her. You can think that you are adhering to your own beliefs and criticise others who don't, but unless you realise that having ideals isn't a passive thing but requires constant rigorous scrutiny of your own actions, it's all just mirror talk and will not change anything.

The words of the "TB Sheets" "Madame George" are slightly different: there's a verse that's not in the final version, plus it omits a couple that were added later. But, to my ear, the earthy poetry in the first rendering scans better, and is imbibed with the magic of the moment and the freshness of recent invention. Certainly it is a kind of party, at the very least a houseful of noisy people, friends and neighbours perhaps, with Van the Man looking back at the teenage schoolboy Morrison in the middle room, drinking it all in, like a virgin pint:

"Down on Cyprus Avenue with a childlike vision leaping into view the clicking, clacking of the high-heeled shoe, Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George. Marching with the soldier boy behind, he's much older now with hat on drinking wine and the smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through, the cool night breeze like Shalimar

and then your self control lets go

suddenly you're up against the bathroom door

the hallway lights are trimmed and getting dim

you're in the front room touching him

and outside they're making all the stops,

kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops, gone for cigarettes and matches to the shops happy taken Madame George ah, that's when you fall, ah, that's when you fall,

ah, that's when you fall, ah , fall -

you fall into a trance

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 outside the frosty window raps she says "be cool, be cool, I think that it's the cops", stands up, drops everything she gots, it's not easy now, you know, And you feel you gotta go, you gotta go,

catch a train from Dublin up to Sandy Row and the winter rain and fog and such and snow,

keep on going, keep on going on,

we all said goodbye, oh goodbye, goodbye, goodbye,

we know you're pretty far out,

all the little boys come round-

they've got gold cigarette lighters in their pockets,

walking away from it all - so cool, so cool, so cool,

- yeah, tell me more

that's when you fall,

ah that's when you fall,

ah that's when you fall....."

Maura Dooley is a great poet too, nailing feelings and moments precisely and carefully, like pictures to a wall:

".....I don't think of

the packing away of china

or the moths that gather for

a winter solstice. In my dream

the house will be full of dancing,

a small boy's face presses

against the pane, light will pour

from the tall windows into his hands."

(from The house Will Be Full of Dancing © Maura Dooley.


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