Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"It's Too Late to Stop Now!" -- Van Morrison's performance at the Rainbow Theater happened 40 years ago

It's Too Late to Stop Now

Every life has some days that seem to bend time. Days that not only linger in our memories long after the sun as set but that take on a life of its own. They defy logic or expectations. They are so good they must have happened to someone else.
Only they didn’t. They happened to you. Really.

You have to remember it, don’t you? How could you not? The memory of it has carved a deep gash in your soul. It’s as much a part of you as your right hand.
Stealing into game 6 of the World Series in 1980 with my brother Paul was one such day. And playing softball against Bruce Springsteen in the summer of 1975, well before he became an American megastar, was another. I’ve told those stories many times to many people. They always bring a smile.

This is another such day and it’s a story I mention less frequently. But in its own way, it’s just as iconic as seeing your childhood team win the World Series in person or meeting your favorite rock star on the field of competition in a friendly ball game.
After graduating from Loyola University in New Orleans, I flew to London in the summer of 1973 to take a six-week graduate course in “Modern British Fiction” in early July. When I landed at Heathrow, grabbed a glossy weekly called “Timeout,” devoted to pop culture and critical commentary.

I casually flipped through the magazine and came to an ad that immediately caught my eye. “Van Morrison, live at the Rainbow Theatre! July 23rd and 24th!” was the headline. But in thick, 60 point block letters, stamped over the headline were these soul-wounding words: “SOLD OUT!”  My heart sank.
Van Morrison was coming to London!!!!  Besides the Beatles or the Stones, there was no one I wanted to see perform more than Van the Man. He’d released a series of astonishing recordings around this time, including “Astral Weeks”, “Moondance” and “Tupelo Honey”. The three of them constituted part of the soundtrack of my college years and they’d become deeply imbedded in the fabric of my teenage psyche. I had to try to see him. I stored the dates away in my mind and waited for the concert dates to arrive.

On the evening of July 23rd, I walked through the university cafeteria seeking someone to take a tube ride with me down to the south side of the city to try to see Van. To my astonishment, none of the London U. students I knew were eager to queue up in a standing room only line for two hours before the show. A few of my summer acquaintances knew the performer’s music, but none were as infatuated with his brand of Irish soul music as I was. 

One fellow, a Nigerian student named Alfa, overheard me asking the others about Morrison tickets and he said he would go with me if I would wait until tomorrow. He had some studying to do that night….but he invited me to come to his dorm room after 10 and promised we could listen to “Astral Weeks” and play chess. So that’s what we did. He dropped the spindle over the record and “Moondance” never sounded so good. Van was in London! He might be playing this very song even as we listened to it in Afra’s dorm room!
I don’t recall who won the chess match. It required listening to two of Van’s albums to get through our game. But by the end of the evening, Afra’s record collection had worked its magic on me. There was no way I was going to miss Van Morrison the next night.

When I grabbed a copy of the London Times at breakfast, the paper’s rock critic had written a glowing review of the first night’s show. The Times’ critic compared Morrison’s performance to the kind of funky spontaneity of the Band’s best live performances. That comparison and reference hooked me. I had to go.
Afra and I took the tube down to south London, where the Rainbow was located. The train was packed with long-haired flower people who had the same intention as we did. We asked everyone we saw if they had extra tickets for sale. One wag said he had one but his asking price was seven pounds, a price that seems exorbitant to me at the time (equivalent to $18 U.S. dollars when $5 was a standard rock concert price.) It would have been a bargain had I paid it. I didn’t know that at the time.

When we stepped off the underground, the exterior of the Rainbow Theatre was a carnival scene. The smell of marijuana wafted through the dank summer air and “brown-eyed girls” tossed Frisbees in the middle of the street, long tangles of shaggy hair cascading down their backs; their necklace bells chiming brightly as they ran after errant tosses.
Afra and I headed for the front of the concert venue looking for the standing room only line but we suddenly stopped cold. The queue was a mad scramble of pushing and shoving fans, fighting to get near the front of a small door on the side of the theatre. The price of admission was only two pounds, but already more than 200 people were in line. Afra shrugged his shoulders and started walking down the long line shouting out “Who has tickets!??!”

Despairing, I headed in the opposite direction and found myself under the Rainbow’s awning, staring through the glass doors of the auditorium at the lucky few who were already mingling inside. This dark haired kid about my age chose that very moment to come out of the theatre. We stood there looking at one another, confused by the circumstances of the moment. I knew him. He knew me. But how? Where had I seen his face? Who was he?
Then it came to me. His name drifted out of the subconscious depths of my head. Dyer O’Connor. But how did I know him?

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t you go to Loyola? Weren’t you in American History with me?”
Yes. I was. I must have been. That’s how I knew him. “What are you doing here in London?” he wanted to know. I explained I was taking a summer class at the University of London. That I was a big fan of Van Morrison but the tickets to the concert had been sold out before I landed in London. I was hoping to snag a scalped ticket.

“I have one for you!” he said. “My date canceled on me.”
I looked over my shoulder for Alfa. He had disappeared into the anxious throng at the standing room only line. Meanwhile, I had joined the lucky few. I passed through the doors of the Rainbow Theatre with Dyer O’Conner, a guy I barely knew. He held an extra ticket in his hand and passed it over to a tuxedoed teenage ticket taker with bad teeth.

I reached for my wallet to pay for it. “No.  No worries,” Dyer said. “My treat. Glad for the company. Glad to give it to a Van fan.”
Our seats were in the balcony, not more than eight or nine rows from the rail. The Rainbow had been designed as a gilded palace of Hollywood films in the early 1930s and was called the Astoria Cinema. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, if memory serves, and replicas of Greek statues were situated in nooks on the interior walls of the theater. It looked a bit like the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. Our seats were comfortable but covered by faded red velvet, worn down over time by the fannies of thousands of moviegoers.

The movie palace had been converted to a musical theater only a few years before. The Who played the first rock show there in December of 1971.  Eric Clapton, Queen, the Sweet, Little Feat and Bob Marley and the Wailers all recorded live album there in the mid-‘70s. The venue is also believed to be the first place Jimi Hendrix burned a guitar on stage.

Dyer and I spent a few moments getting to know one another, trading tales about our Loyola experiences. His dad worked for Exxon in London so London was his home when he wasn’t in New Orleans. We were both chagrined to have spent four years in the same class at a school without ever having a conversation until that serendipitous meeting at the Rainbow. He’d majored in history. I majored in journalism, so our paths didn’t cross much. But we recognized one another immediately when he stepped through the doors of the theater.
A journal I kept of my trip to Britain that summer has this entry for July 24th: “I can’t really remember what songs he did. Some from the new LP, Hard Nose the Highway. Also, “I Just Want to Make Love To You” – “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Gloria” – “Moondance” – “Caravan” – “Everything” -- “Wild Night” – “Moonshine Whiskey” – “Domino” – “Gypsy” and three encores. He finished with “Listen to the Lion” ….It was his first London appearance in eight years and I got to go! I still hardly believe it!”

The band Van brought during his summer of ’73 tour was called the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. It was not a standard rock quartet. The bass, lead guitar, piano and drums were complimented by horns and strings: a sax and trumpet player; a trio of violins, a viola player and a cello player.  The ensemble played Morrison’s own compositions with delicate finesse. But they wailed on a series of blues tributes Morrison sung to the American R&B heroes of his youth: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson.
The Rainbow concert seemed to teeter between two contrasting styles of music: the airy, light touches of “Warm Love” and “These Dreams of You” (which highlighted the delicate playing of the strings) and the brassy bombast of “Gloria”, “Wild Night” and the blues tributes. I had seen Morrison perform 18 months earlier at the Villanova Field House with a much different band. He was nervous that night, unsure of himself. There were times he seemed afraid to even grab the microphone. This may have been just part of his “act” but Morrison has a reputation for being temperamental in his live performances and the uncertainty of his show at Villanova seemed to be part of the man, not part of an act.

His bearing at the Rainbow was much, much different. He was confident, not just a performer but a conductor. The performers backing him were in close orbit with him and he directed them with a casual nod of his head or a sharp glance. I had never witnessed any concert, any performance, quite like it. He held the audience in thrall and, during some quiet moments in the performance, the performance felt like a church service. The  audience began to engage the performer in call and response and small talk.
Late into the show, with the smell of marijuana hovering thick around us, Dyer pulled out a joint, lit it and passed it over to me. “Here,” he said, “try this. It’s from Kenya.” I drew a long hit and passed it back. We took turns until it became a tiny glowing ember that Dyer crushed under his boot heel. I knew instantly I had never smoked anything nearly so potent before. I had been given a very smooth and potent form of herb. I wouldn’t share this recognition of something so great, so potent, until I tried a 12-year old single malt scotch, aged in an oaken cask, when I was in my mid-40s. Dyer’s weed was better.

If the music hadn’t already transported us into the mystic, the potent weed surely did. Suddenly we were not just listening to music, we were into the music. It wasn’t that I was suddenly stoned. Really. But a revelation struck me. We -- me, Dyer and the entire audience – had become part of the performance. Van wasn’t just in tune with his backing performers. He was tuned into us, too.
There were some moments, during his final tune, “Cypress Avenue” when the silence became too much for the audience to bear; when Morrison seemed to be waiting for someone to give him a signal to perform. This happened on several occasions during the journey of this amazing song. The effect felt magical…. And you can hear it if you listen to the song on “It’s Too Late to Stop Now”,  a recording of this concert that was released in February of 1974.  

About halfway through this epic version of “Cypress Avenue”, which goes on a mind-bending journey for 10 minutes, Morrison sings a phrase that I still hear as “And they say in France!” Then he pauses. I am uncertain if this is precisely what he is singing or not. Some wags in the balcony call out to him “France!” I was stoned, I know, and I have no proof of this except what I hear on the record, but I swear it was me and Dyer, feeling the effects of his Kenyan stick, shouting down to the stage from our balcony seats. He repeats the verse: “And they say in France!” We, now joined by half a dozen other emboldened (possibly stoned?) members of the audience, shout back the invocation: “France!” Morrison does his lyric a third time. One more time “France!” comes back to him.
About two minutes later someone shouts down from the balcony, “Cook, Van, cook!”  And about a minute after that someone else calls out to him: “Turn it on!”  Van hesitates ever so slightly after hearing this and makes the crowd wait impatiently for him to continue the song. He bends low, gripping the microphone and savoring the moment, milking it for all its worth, before he finally chuckles: “It’s already turned on”. The concert stops while a roar of appreciative hilarity commences to endorse his quip.

Morrison, in complete command of both the audience and the moment, improvises a short series of vamps and tossed-off asides to the audience before his locomotive of a band crescendos in a heightened, audacious wall of noise that ends with Morrison shouting out his signature phrase at the climax of the song, giving his album its name: “It’s too late to stop now!” Then he exits stage right, striding like a lion.
It was a moment – a concert – I can never forget. Of course, having a record of the concert makes the details easier to assimilate and provides me with other half-remembered details of that eventful evening. When the record came out seven months later, I was back in New Orleans. I had long forgotten how buzzed I was when Morrison began playing “Cypress Avenue”.  But when the needle hit that part of the record where Dyer and I shout out “France!” I realized I had become a tiny thread in a magnificent quilt. I could hear myself on “It’s Too Late to Stop Now”. 

In the years since July 24th, 1973, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” has become regaled by critics as one of the greatest live performances of the rock era. Half of the songs on the two-discs are not songs I can remember hearing and were likely recorded in Los Angeles in June of that year. Because of the breadth of the material on the record – it covered songs from his most creative artistic period in the late 1960s and early 1970s; those five nods to African American R&B singers and hits from his days with Them -- it was considered a vital overview of his career up to that point. But it also showcased Morrison at the peak of his powers as a singer and the defining document of what Morrison himself called “Celtic soul”.

I knew I had heard something remarkable that night. My intuition was confirmed when I picked up a 1979 book called “Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island” edited by Greil Marcus. Its central conceit was this: if you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one album with you, which one would you bring?  The book’s second essay was by the arts editor of the Village Voice, a woman named M. Mark, who chose “Too Late to Stop Now” as her desert island disc.
It’s not the disc I would bring to an island if I could only bring one….but only because I don’t need to hear it again. I’ve committed it to all to memory.

Dyer and I took the tube back to northern London, chatting about our recollections of what we had just witnessed. I have little doubt the underground was filled with other Van fans, nodding their heads in stoned inebriation, just as blown away by what they had witnessed as we were. We got off at different stops and I was sure I would see him again before I left London. I didn’t. And when I got back to New Orleans, I lost his address, scribbled on the back of the July 24th Rainbow Theater concert ticket.  
But his act of kindness and generosity was something I never forgot. And every time I played the album, in my home or on my car CD player, I remembered sharing both that concert with him and the most magnificent weed I have ever experienced.

I wanted to talk to him before I published this story. I hoped he was still alive to thank him. I looked for him on Facebook without any luck. I Googled his name. Nothing turned up. Finally, about a week ago, I contacted the alumni office of our alma mater. A helpful woman named Monique tracked him down and sent him word that I wanted to talk to him. But due to what she called “privacy issues” she couldn’t give me his phone number or email address. She said she had tried to call him but noted “he didn’t pick up. He probably thought we were asking him for money.” She wanted to know why I wanted to talk to him, so I gave her a short email version of this story, which she loved reading.
About two days later, my cell phone rang. It was Dyer. He is retired from the oil business (his dad helped him land a job in the industry) and lives in Colorado now with his wife, Boo, who he met during his first week at Loyola.  She, he told me, was the “canceled date” that allowed me to have a seat at rock history’s table.

When I asked what he remembered about the show, he told me we were sitting in the balcony, stage right. He sounded good…although he did not remember yelling out “France” during the show. He said he still goes to a ton of concerts, many of them at nearby Red Rocks, a stunning Colorado concert venue.
And yes, he still smokes weed.

“Colorado was the first state in the union to legalize it,” he proudly noted.
I haven’t imbibed marijuana in many years, but when I next get out to Colorado, I know a guy who will gladly share a stick with me. And I bet I know what album he’ll put on the turn table.