According to data by the Office for National Statistics, 198 people aged 15-19 in England took their own lives in 2021. This is the highest number in over 30 years. Over 22,000 people in the U.K. volunteer at Samaritans to answer phones from people who need support in turning their life around. By listening, without judgement or pressure, it is hoped that callers can untangle the thoughts they have which lead them to think that their life may not be worth living. Over 3 million calls are made each year to Samaritans, of which about 20% are from people having suicidal thoughts.
What can be done to help a suicidal person? Talking to an anonymous person, who listens to you and shows empathy can be a start but support from friends and family is also important. Most of the calls I take are from people whose relationships with friends and family have been terminated, for whatever reason – arguments, moving, ill health or death. Although the Samaritans training is very thorough, the single most important thing about taking a call is to express warmth using a calm tone. It’s not so much what we say, but how we say it.
Loneliness can be considered to be a state of mind, which makes people feel empty, alone, unwanted and worthless. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people. Loneliness can be associated with social isolation, poor social skills, introversion, and depression. If someone feels alone and isolated, then that is how loneliness plays into their state of mind, even though they may not actually be removed from social contact.
Kind words, empathy, encouragement and love from a good friend can go a long way to lift someone’s bleak state of mind. Certainly, these are the emotions that come through in a remarkable song on “His Band And The Street Choir”, called “Virgo Clowns”. In this song, Van Morrison is addressing a suicidal friend and he promises to “free you from the pain” by helping her to “smile again“. He wants her to allow him to “unlock all the chains” and he tells her that “it’s not nearly time to quit, you’ve only started“. He reminds her that she has a “golden smile” and he tells her that she will feel better if she lets her “laughter fill the room.” At the end of the song, as the intensity increases, he lets her know that, with his help, trumpets will ring out, angels will sing, her “pretty feet” will go dancing and, above all he is sure that her “worn out mind” will “go prancing.”
Having released “Moondance” in January 1970, Van Morrison set about recording the follow up in March of the same year. The original intention was to record the album with hardly any instrumentation (“maybe just one guitar“). To achieve this, he assembled a group of singers that he named his “Street Choir”. These included his wife Janet Rigsbee (who he called Janet Planet). One of the first songs he recorded for the album was “Virgo Clowns” and, of all the songs on the album, it is the one that most closely fits his original intention for the album. His voice is, of course, to the fore, but harmony vocals give an earnestness to the song, while the only instrumentation is from two acoustic guitars and, later in the song, a mandolin and understated baritone saxophone. The song was originally titled “(Sit Down) Funny Face” and the album was initially slated to be called “Virgo’s Fool”.
Van Morrison was dissuaded from the acapella idea, and so he assembled His Band, most of whom had appeared on “Moondance”. John Platania plays wonderful mandolin on “Virgo Clowns” and he was to become the guitarist in The Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Altogether, he played on 11 Van Morrison albums as well as 20 albums by Chip Taylor (John Voight’s brother and the writer of “Wild Thing” and “Angel Of The Morning”). Jack Schroer contributes some incredible baritone saxophone playing on “Virgo Clowns” and he played on six Van Morrison albums. His standout moment, and possibly the most remarkable solo that ever appeared on a Van Morrison song, is his solo in the title track from “Moondance“. After he stopped working with Van Morrison, Jack Schroer returned to his home town of Alburquerque to become a truck driver. He died in 1995, aged 51.
Van Morrison’s early solo releases were remarkable. “Blowin’ Your Mind” (1967) included “Brown Eyed Girl” and “T.B. Sheets”. “Astral Weeks” (1968) were dominated by the title track and “Madame George”. “Moondance” (1970) has one of the most perfectly formed suites of music in rock music history. Following those three albums was always going to be problematic and for “His Band And The Street Choir”, Van Morrison chose to record a 12-song 41-minute album which abounds with energy, variety, stellar musicianship and that voice. Van Morrison described the album as a disappointment in 1973, saying “Somewhere along the line I lost control of that album. I’d rather not think about that album because it doesn’t mean much in terms of where I was at.” Goodness only knows how many times I’ve listened to this album over the past 50 years, and I never cease to be amazed at the variety of songs, the quality of the arrangements and the soul that pours out of his voice at every opportunity. There are, in my opinion, two uniquely mesmering songs on this album, unlike anything else that Van Morrison ever recorded, namely “Virgo Clowns” and “Crazy Face”.
Many of the tracks here are rollicking rock songs with singalong choruses and are a million miles away from the sublime folk/jazz of “Astral Weeks“. I bet Kevin Rowland pondered over “Give Me A Kiss”, “Call Me Up In Dreamland”, “Sweet Jannie” and “Blue Money” before he decided on “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)” from “Saint Dominic’s Preview” as the lead single from “Too-Rye-Ay“.
Two of the best songs were originally attempted during the sessions for “Astral Weeks”. “I’ve Been Working” and “Domino” are impossible to better, in my opinion. The former immediately sets up a terrific groove which allows Van Morrison to locate his inner James Brown and the latter is a perfectly formed pop song which, when released as a single, was a Top Ten hit in the U.S.A.
Elvis Costello named “Street Choir” to be one of his favourite songs of all time. He also listed the whole album as one of his Top 500 albums. The lyrics to the song are bitter (“Why did you let me down? Now that things seem better off, why do you come around?“) which was a foretaste of many of the acrimonious songs that have become increasingly common on recent Van Morrison albums. (e.g. “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”, “Fame Will Eat The Soul”, “If In Money We Trust”, “They Sold Me Out” “Too Many Myths”, “It Once Was My Life”, etc. etc. etc.). Musically, the song prominently features Keith Johnson’s trumpet and Van Morrison’s harmonica, along with an extended chorus from the Street Choir. It’s perfectly possible to ignore the meaning of the lyrics and appreciate the power of the music.
“Crazy Face” is the other amazing song on the album. It’s only three minutes long and consists of a verse, an instrumental passage and a repeat of the first verse, whose lyrics are, to say the least, odd. “All the people were waiting for Crazy Face. He said he’d meet them at his favourite place, dressed in black satin, white linen and lace, with his head held high and a smile on his face and he said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the prince is late’. As he stood outside the church-yard gate and polished up on his .38 and said: ‘I got it from Jesse James'” Of course, with Van Morrison, it’s not the content of the lyrics but the emotional power of his voice. It’s not what he sings but the way he sings it. The instrumental passage consists of Van Morrison playing one note on a tenor saxophone for about twenty seconds which develops into a sad, mournful and very powerful passage. It’s not what he plays but how he plays it.
It’s not what he plays but how he plays it. And that’s the key to loving Van Morrison’s music.