Goodbye to Madame George (02/25/69)

Walking toward the Avalon on a Friday night, memories of the last show I’d attended at the Fillmore came flooding back. It was Big Brother’s last gig in San Francisco—everyone expected big crowds and came prepared to deal with them. People were jammed into every corner of the building; one cat was watching the show in a mirror, like Annie Oakley zeroing in on a bulls-eye, because he was too short to see over the crowd that had made some kind of collective decision to stand up for the entire set. The heat was a weight that couldn’t be lifted; eventually, the smell of vomit carried over most of the hall. I saw one boy lying on the floor, unconscious, gasping for breath, almost crushed by the people who were searching for a glimpse of the star. A boy and a girl picking their way between wedged bodies almost got slugged by someone who had his toes stepped on. Tension merged into ugliness; people lit cigarettes and threw them away because the taste was so vile.

Santana, sharing the bill that night, played a boom boom conga drum extravaganza for about twenty minutes. That didn’t help. Santana really ought to be called the Juan Batista Blues Band, or maybe the Afro-Cuban Disaster. But in a way, they know more than they think they know; after their experiment in heat-tolerance, Carlos, the leader, stepped out and said: “A nice slow blues now; maybe it’ll cool things down a bit.” They played a beautiful blues, the notes cutting through the steam and the smoke until somehow the crowd was almost on the verge of feeling friendly. Three minutes of bliss and then back to the voodoo noise, the night’s chances blown, the band not knowing when they had it right.

Santana has a curious theory of music—take one riff, boring to begin with, play it about three hundred times, then play it louder, then even louder (wow: the crowd loved it), then stop real quick, add a ten minute drum solo (thump-thump thump-thump, the crowd goes out of its mind), then hit that good old riff again for another few hundred times. This is called “a number.” “For our next number…”

Big Brother came on, was terrible for about half an hour, obviously suffering more than we were, and closed with a four-minute version of “Ball and Chain” that was so bad the crowd couldn’t even pretend they were excited. The encore was a joke; people pushed and shoved their way toward the exits before Janis had finished saying “thank you” to those who cared enough to applaud. It was hard to care that night; the people, all of us it seemed, felt angry and tired the moment we’d entered the hall. The vibrations were more like laser beams. I guess that was where it was at though—at least everyone was there.

That was six months ago; now, a group called Soundproof Productions had opened up the Avalon by promising to instill pissoirs in the alleyways or something. The first thing we saw was a big sign that said “No one under eighteen admitted”; cops were checking IDs, pretty carefully it seemed. I really couldn’t get excited about it—I figured there might be less people to cheer for frantic drum solos. Inside about fifty people were dancing, a couple hundred more sitting or moving around, and it was cool. The first thing I did was walk into somebody’s coke, splashing it all over a guy lying on the floor. He looked up at me and smiled, moving over for us to sit down.

Black Pearl was on. The lead singer was wearing a bony chest; we discovered that we’d missed the strip show that had led up to the exposure. He was belting out a Chambers Brothers’ song, a bad start to begin with. He sure was a drag. The band was fine; three guitarists, I think, the lead was hitting notes I’d thought everyone but the Stones had forgotten how to play. They ended their set and all around was the feeling of a new beginning; a band had captured the excitement of rock and roll just by finding the right notes for the right moment. No one was trying to be a star, except the singer, who didn’t matter. No wonder people were dancing.

The man we were waiting for was Van Morrison. Three years ago when KFRC held a post-card poll to determine the top 300 records of all time (the last fifteen years), “Gloria” had made it into the top ten, right up there with “Satisfaction”, the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, and two versions of “Louie Louie.” Those songs made sense together. They were the great ones—even if you might think it somehow blasphemous to put “Louie Louie” next to “Like a Rolling Stone,” it may be that there would have been no “Like A Rolling Stone” without “Louie Louie.” That every shit band in the world does “Louie Louie” doesn’t erase the fact that the Fish and the Kinks did it too, digging it in their own way. That song, and all of the top ten all-timers, had the right kind of power for the right moment. The moment for “Louie Louie” was high school, the place suburbia, where kids whispered “she goes down” and people complained about the questionable morality of electing a girl homecoming queen if she was balling her boyfriend. The pre-underground underground knowledge that “Louie Louie” was obscene, with the scrawled lyrics passed from hand to hand (it was even investigated by a congressional committee, who pronounced all the versions “unintelligible at any speed”), fit the high-school moment perfectly. But “Gloria” was sex without the whispers, the sniggering not making it anymore. “She comes into my room, she sits on my bed” screaming “GLORIA.” That song broke open a new era as surely as did the first notes of “Mr. Tambourine Man” or the “once upon a time” of “Like A Rolling Stone.” Jon Landau, a writer for Rolling Stone, once wrote of Wilson Pickett’s biggest hit: “‘In the Midnight Hour’ is not a classic; it is an epic.” That said it all. The classics that are more than oldies are like that; they define the moments when the ground shifts and the addresses change. “I had to re-arrange their faces and give them all another name,” Dylan sang, and he did it. But so did Chuck Berry with “Johnny B. Goode” and the Beatles with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and the Stones with “Sympathy for the Devil” and Van Morrison with “Gloria.”

That was a long time ago; Them had made a lot of good music and split up; in 1967 Van had a hit on the radio and a lousy album, which was, by the way, released without his consent and against his wishes. He hadn’t toured for over a year, but now, with the release of Astral Weeks on Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, he was back on the road.

There have always been a lot of people that “remembered” Van Morrison, who always dug him and sort of worried about his career, people who, after Dylan and the Beatles and the Stones, have their special long-time favorites that never get as much attention as they deserve, groups like the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds. A lot of Van Morrison’s people were there at the Avalon that night. They knew the songs on his new album and they knew what they wanted to hear, but no one really knew what to expect.

Morrison walked onto the stage and almost nobody noticed; Van is very small, his hair short, and he was dressed in a plain long-sleeved shirt and a dark vest. He looked, for a moment, like a kid who’d been given permission to hold out on stage for a little while. But it was Van; he had an acoustic guitar that seemed much too big for him. He was joined by a strange looking cat with a stand-up bass and a jazz musician with a saxophone and a flute.

They went right into it with “Astral Weeks,” the song seeming to symbolize Van’s return, his choppy strumming standing out over the calm notes of the saxophone: “Ain’t nothing but a stranger in this world…to be born again, to be born again…”

Van’s voice, piercing but not screaming, carrying without shouting, began to cut through memories and expectations of too many bands playing riffs they might have found in the frozen foods department of the local supermarket. As Van moved through the songs of Astral Weeks, challenging a rock and roll beat in “Brown-Eyed Girl,” hitting a rave-up with “Sweet Thing,” Van grooving with the bass player, the crowd warmed to him and began to wait, with excitement and patience, for “Madame George,” the most powerful piece of music ever to come from Van Morrison. It’s a story—Van’s words and his voice provide the scary beauty and the instruments the drama. It’s out of Ireland, this song, and in a way it’s something like the childhood tales of Dylan Thomas in Portrait of the Artist As A Young Dog, stories of a child entering into a strange world of adults that can be trusted but cannot be understood. Van moved through the song slowly, getting into it, his singing strong­er with each line, until, gone from Ma­dame George now, he sang his finest verses, a child remembering what childhood meant:

And you know you gotta go
Round that train from Dublin
up the sandy road
Throwing pennies on the bridges down below
Say goodbye to Madame George

It ended softly, Van just whispering with all he had, holding unto the words until the time was right: “The train, the train, get on the train, say goodbye, goodbye…”

And then he followed it. He sang song after song, until he was into “Ballerina,” until the lines of the song told us it was almost over: “The man says the show, says the show must go on, but…” Van had been on for an hour and a half. As he left the stage, we turned and looked around us, kind of thanking the Avalon for being small and friendly, for not having the bread to bring in the superstars, for finding out where the music was and giving us a chance to hear it.

San Francisco Express Times, February 25, 1969

10 thoughts on “Goodbye to Madame George (02/25/69)

  1. Great piece, wish the concert had been filmed.
    Fwiw, I’ve always liked ‘Blowin Your Mind’, and was put it a step ahead of ‘Tupelo Honey’ and ‘Band and Streetchoir’.

    • I love BLOWIN’ YOUR MIND too, esp. “TB Sheets,” “He Ain’t Give You None,” “Spanish Rose,” “Ro Ro Rosey,” of course “Brown Eyed Girl” … almost the whole thing.

  2. Fun fact: for the majority population in New Mexico, “Brown Eyed Girl” is the state song. When I worked at an Indian casino in 2004-05, EVERY cover band that played for the gamblers did a version of “Brown Eyed Girl”.

    It’s kind of like what happened with Curtis Mayfield and “Gypsy Woman” — the Gypsies adored it and adopted it, and let him know when he played it at some venue in Europe…

  3. Of course, “Brown Eyed Girl” has been one of the most requested wedding staples in North America over the last 20 years or so as well. What might not be as obvious to people who haven’t attended hundreds of weddings in that same time frame is how durable Van’s catalog has proven to be in that particular environment. “Brown Eyed Girl” is merely the most requested of his tunes, but lagging not so far behind are “Moondance” and (excruciating to my ears) “Have I Told You Lately.” And, a little further behind still, “Into the Mystic” and “Crazy Love.” That might not sound like a lot, but consider that in recent years there are not three Beatles or Elvis songs that could be called wedding staples (they’ve almost been reduced to “Twist and Shout” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love”). Van has outlasted them all! (Of ’60s artists, only the Stones probably compete, and even that’s an iffy proposition at this point.)

  4. one more vote from the cheap seats for “Blowin’ Your Mind.” Weird, great record, surprised Marcus is so dismissive of it.

  5. What Stones songs do they do at weddings, Sympathy For The Devil, Yesterday’s Papers of course, what are the other ones?

  6. Marcus has written a bit more about BLOWIN’ YOUR MIND elsewhere. He does like a few tracks but he wasn’t wrong criticizing some other stuff (especially Side 2) and the awful cover design, right down to the fake sweat coming off the horribly discolored depiction of his head.

    It’s not a bad album, but it wasn’t created with much thought or care. Side 1 is pretty excellent, particularly for “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “T.B. Sheets” (which I think Marcus dislikes – could be wrong – but I dig it). I think “Who Drove the Red Sports Car?” is up to the same standard. But the rest is pretty disposable. FWIW, Morrison had at least one other killer cut at Bang that should’ve been put on that album, “Joe Harper Saturday Morning,” and the Bang version of “Beside You” is actually quite good too.

  7. Greil can be a real son of a bitch to read and to listen to because he’s pompous, pretentious, and loves the sound of his own voice but he sure articulated my opinion about Santana quite well.

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