Donald Trump’s Twitter account has been permanently suspended. His son has tweeted “Free speech is dead and controlled by leftist overlords”. His daughter has tweeted “Whatever happened to freedom of speech?”
The Confederate flag has been banned from being raised on American military bases because of its association with slavery. Some time ago, Trump didn’t like this ban and tweeted that flying it was a matter of freedom of speech. During the storming of the Capitol building on January 6th by Trump supporters, a flag known as The Gadsden Flag was raised. It was originally flown in the War Of Independence but has recently been adopted by anti-government, white supremacists. This flag has not been banned. Should it be?
In December, Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris tweeted that the new administration’s plans included the distribution of 100 million vaccines, opening schools and ensuring that Americans mask up. Ashli Babbett, a 35 year old Air Force veteran from San Diego replied on Twitter with “No the fuck you will not. No masks. No you. No Biden the kid raper. No vaccines. Sit your fraudulent ass down. We the ppl, bitch”. She was tweeting about 50 similar posts every day. She lived in San Diego but travelled to Washington for Trump’s rally in which he said “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong”. She was one of the mob who tried to break down the barricaded door of the Speaker’s lobby. As the crowd shouted “Break it down”, she started to push herself through one of the door’s glass panels at which point she was shot by a police officer and killed.
Presumably there will be an investigation into the shooting and the police officer’s actions will be examined under the spotlight of the world’s publicity. Presumably, anyone with a Twitter account will be “free” to post whatever comment they like about the shooting, positive or negative.
Using the freedom of speech that this blog allows me, I can say that the person responsible for the death of Ashli Babbett is Donald Trump. Should I be allowed to say that? The argument of “it’s a free country isn’t it?” is clearly not true. As I wrote last week, when discussing “Call It Freedom” by Dick Gaughan, is the freedom to starve or the freedom to be homeless worth having? Put it another way: if it were illegal to starve, would it be a denial of human rights to feed someone?
I don’t believe in freedom of speech. I don’t believe that anyone has the right to make racist, sexist or homophobic comments without fear of the consequences. People shouldn’t poke fun at disabled people or short people or fat people or people with ginger hair or people with beards either. On the other hand, Tories are fair game because they are all bigoted, selfish, uncaring idiots. Do you see what I did there? I tried to show that freedom of speech is a complex issue and everyone’s point of view is determined by their own beliefs. (I didn’t mean that about all Tories, by the way). For quite a few years now, there has been an ongoing problem in Universities as to whether or not visiting speakers with outrageous beliefs should be given a platform. Should a Holocaust denier be allowed to spread his evil thoughts? On one hand, it can be productive to listen to and try to understand the point of view of someone who you fundamentally disagree with. On the other hand, if more and more people start believing in the filth and lies that are being spread, that’s a bad thing. In my opinion.
There’s no doubt that the increased prevalence of social media over the last 20 years has made it easier to influence a wider audience. (On a phone in radio programme in Kansas in 2016, a caller thanked Putin for ensuring that Hilary Clinton didn’t become the caller’s President). This means that celebrities with a large number of followers have a responsibility not to spread lies and not to encourage reckless behaviour. What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?
On September 18th, Van Morrison released three new songs, protesting about lockdown. In the lyrics, he accused the government of “taking our freedom” and he claims that scientists are “making up crooked facts” to justify measures that “enslave” the population. On December 31st, he tweeted that he has asked the Northern Ireland Health Minister to “disclose the scientific evidence for the blanket ban on live music”. Another tweet on December 22nd states “let’s not forget COVID didn’t wreck the economy. The Northern Ireland Executive did and we’re still waiting for their evidence”. As someone who has revered Van Morrison for over 50 years, I have found this shocking. He has been bleating on for years about how badly he was treated by the music industry in the late Sixties and I used to believe that he was ripped off by the men in suits but now I’m not so sure. Using this platform which allows me to express my own feelings, I can say that his complaints about the lockdown sound like the complaints of a rich rock star who is whingeing about not being able to work (in a non-safe environment for his audience) while 70000 people have died. My main point is this: “celebrities” (politicians, rock stars etc.) have a responsibility to speak with a rational voice. There may well be some people who read Van Morrison’s comments and are encouraged to ignore lockdown protocols, thus endangering their own lives or other people’s.
On the other hand, here am I, complaining about other people acting nastily, and I’m writing negative comments about Donald Trump and Van Morrison. Luckily, I’m not a celebrity and fewer than 50 people will ever read this.
If Van Morrison had only ever released 4 albums, namely “Astral Weeks”, “Veedon Fleece”, “Common One” and “Poetic Champions Compose”, then his reputation as a purveyor of beautiful Celtic mystic music would be confirmed. It wouldn’t suit the casual fans, like the woman who arrived late at a Van Morrison concert I went to in the Eighties and, sitting next to me, sung along noisily and out of tune to “Domino”, “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Bright Side Of The Road” but it would have been enough for me. The wonderful thing about Van Morrison’s music is that, as a body of work, it encompasses jazz, blues, folk, rock, country, skiffle as well as his own hybrid style as displayed on “Common One”. I believe that this is my favourite Van Morrison record despite my previously expressed view that “Astral Weeks” is the best album of all time. In contrast to “Astral Weeks”, there’s not a single wasted or dull moment on any of the six tracks here.
In 1979, Van Morrison released “Into The Music” which is an excellent album and features 10 songs in an R’n’B style. By contrast, “Common One” has six songs which sound more like jazz. This was the first of his albums to feature Pee Wee Ellis, the magnificent saxophone player who had previously been an indispensable member of James Brown’s backing band. Other musicians on the album include David Hayes on bass, who had been a member of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra in 1973 and the Caledonia Express in 1974, Herbie Armstrong who had played with Van Morrison in Belfast before the formation of Them and the incredible Mark Isham on trumpet who has subsequently written literally hundreds of film scores. The album was recorded in 9 days on the French Riviera.
The album starts very gently with bass, saxophone and trumpet gently noodling in the introduction to “Haunts Of Ancient Peace”. (Alfred Austin was named the poet laureate in 1896 and he published a book called “Haunts Of Ancient Peace” in 1902.) Van Morrison’s song is slowly, achingly beautiful and Pee Wee Ellis’ long sax solo accompanied by wordless vocals, swelling organ and sympathetic drumming is gracefully memorable. When the tempo of his songs is this slow, Van Morrison has the scope and space to emote in a totally unique way. It’s a wonderful song.
But then, so is “Summertime In England” which is over 15 minutes long. It starts at a faster pace than the previous song and the improvised electric guitar and organ give a funky groove on top of which Van Morrison raps about the lives of T.S. Eliot, Wordsworth and Coleridge. A string arrangement by Jeff Labes (also in the Caledonia Soul Orchestra) heightens the mood before the tempo halves to a more reflective section in which Van Morrison’s vocals are as strong, emotional and other worldly as any in his remarkable recorded output. His use of word repetition is easily mocked but it’s incredibly effective as he states “it ain’t why – it ain’t why – it ain’t why”. The song reverts to the faster tempo of the first section before all the music apart from the strings recede into the background as Van Morrison sings about Yeats and Lady Gregory. The intensity increases and the organ playing, the strings, the bass and his voice interplay in the most exciting way imaginable. The tempo slows again and the organ takes over playing a hymn like piece. Van Morrison starts singing about The Common One. It all sounds like it’s happening for the first time as Van Morrison repeats phrases, returns to previous lines and bounces his lines off Pee Wee Ellis’ saxophone which appears for the first time. The excitement is truly wonderful before, too soon, the song draws to a quiet close with Van Morrison wondering if we can feel the silence. Listening to this song, I can forgive Van Morrison anything, even those tweets 40 years later.
“Satisfied” is a brilliant jazz-funk hybrid and features a truly marvellous play off between Mark Isham’s trumpet and Pee Wee Ellis’ saxophone as they improvise alternate lines and try to out play each other.
Side One lasts for nearly 29 minutes and I can’t imagine a better Side One of any album (unless it’s “Moondance”).
“Wild Honey” is more soulful. Van Morrison’s vocals have rarely been more in sympathy with the music. The impression given by this languid piece is that it’s a song that has been rehearsed a couple of times before this performance which allows the musicians to improvise and flourish. There’s yet another wonderful saxophone solo and the string arrangement by Jeff Labes is glorious.
“Spirit” fluctuates between a quiet verse with just a bass and an organ before a dramatic chorus which erupts with all instruments blazing, particularly Van Morrison’s voice. Mark Isham plays a wonderful trumpet solo which starts quietly and builds beautifully.
“When Heart Is Open” is another song that lasts over 15 minutes. Once again, it starts quietly with some lovely trumpet playing and it’s nearly 3 minutes before Van Morrison starts singing. This song definitely sounds like an improvisation with no obvious structure; no verse and chorus, just Van Morrison improvising along with some outstanding musicians. It reminds me, in form, of “Almost Independence Day” from “Saint Dominic’s Preview”. The great feature of this song is the symbiosis between the musicians with everyone, including Van Morrison, responding to each other. It’s very gentle. Van Morrison has a greatcoat or maybe a great coat but he certainly has some big boots and he’d like us to hand them down to him because he’d like to go for a walk. These words, along with the wordless noises he makes, gives me cause to think that we are listening to a one off musical experience, never to be repeated. Astonishing.
Having listened to this wonderful, peaceful, gentle album three times today, I feel very sorry for Van Morrison in his current predicament. Come on, everybody. Show some peace, love and understanding and forgive him.