Monday, January 14, 2008

Madame George

Down on Cyprus Avenue
With childlike visions leaping into view
The clicking clacking of the high heeled shoe
Ford & Fitzroy, and Madame George.

Marching with the soldier boy behind
He's much older now, with hat on, drinking wine
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
on the cool night air like Shalimar oil

And outside they're making all the stops
Kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops
Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops
I’d be taken Madame George

That's when you fall
Whoa, that's when you fall

Yeah, that's when you fall

When you fall into a trance
A sitting on a sofa playing games of chance
With your folded arms in history books you glance
Into the eyes of Madame George

And you think you’ve 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 then from outside the frosty window raps
She jumps up and says Lord have mercy I think it's the cops
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below

And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow.

Say goodbye to Madame George
Dry your eye for Madame George
Wonder why for Madame George

And as you leave, you'd be laughing, you'd be
dancing, music goin all around the room
And all the little boys come around, walking away from it all
So cold

And as you're about to leave
She jumps up and says Hey love, you forgot your gloves
And the love to love she loves to love the love
to love to love she loves to love the love to love.

To say goodbye to Madame George
Dry your eye for Madame George
Wonder why for Madame George
Dry your eyes for Madame George

Say goodbye in the wind and the rain on the back street
In the backstreet, in the back street
Say goodbye to Madame George
In the backstreet, in the back street, in the back street
Down home,

down home in the back street….

Say goodbye, goodbye
Get on the train

Get on the train, the train, the train...
This is the train, this is the train...
Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye....
Get on the train, get on the train...

Van Morrison sings out the first line of Madame George and, with the descending phrase that tumbles down and curls up with "Avenue", I'm transported to a place not quite physical but voiced into being verse to verse a narrative that gradually disassembles into feeling; and looking up from the street below a flash of a woman pausing in the third floor window frame, before closing the drapes on a scene that flickers in the mind of a man looking back in his memory with longing and regret, upon an event that will never be quite digested because the coincidences of time that brought him to that place will never be retrieved.

Madame George carries a mystery; no one can quite fathom who Madame George is. Lester Bangs, best known for his in-depth reviews in Rolling Stone Magazine, wrote a compelling piece about Morrison's Astral Weeks, focusing in particular on Madame George whom he, naturally with a line like "caught up in a corner playing dominoes in drag, the one and only Madame George", deduces to be a drag queen. He starts out;

" 'Madame George' is the album's whirlpool. possibly the most compassionate piece of music ever made, it asks us, no, arranges that we see the plight of what I'll be brutal and call a lovelorn drag queen with such intense empathy that when the singer hurts him, we do too."

Van Morrison, in various interviews, denied the drag queen theory:"Oh no. Whatever gave you that impression? It all depends on what you want, how you want to go. If you see it as a male or female or whatever, it's your trip." Later he said,

"Madame George was about six or seven people who probably couldn't find themselves in there if they tried."

Perhaps Cyprus Avenue itself is a way station in Van's memory for a number of people and happenings that he gives form to in this song.

The writer Tom Nolan recently wrote an article in Wall Street Journal (a likely place!) positing that Morrison's Madame George was actually "George" Yeats (originally Georgie Hyde Lees) the wife of William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet. "George", who was about 30 years younger than W.B. when they married, was a psychic medium and fellow member with her husband-to-be of the mystical Order of the Golden Dawn. Most importantly, she introduced Yeats to automatic writing. If the assumption of George Yeats as our "Madame" seems too loopy to consider, especially given the setting of the song, there are some odd connections, if only coincidental.

Consider Morrison's further descriptions of the song in an interview:

"The original title was 'Madame Joy' but the way I wrote it down was 'Madame George'. Don't ask me why I do this because I just don't know. The song is just a stream-of-conciousness thing, like 'Cyprus Avenue'.

It may have something to with my great aunt whose name was Joy. Apparently she was clairvoyant...that may have something to do with it. Aunt Joy lived in the area mentioned in connection with Cyprus Avenue. She lived on a street just off Fitzroy Street which is quite near to Cyprus Avenue."

"Madame George" begins with the simple 3 chord turnaround pattern that Morrison uses for the duration of the song. The singing commences together with Richard Davis' jazz double bass line which grounds the proceedings while Connie Kay on drums, John Payne on flute, and a violinist float in and out - an unconventional line-up that gives it a feel that defies labels.

I'll give the final word to Van the Man himself:

"I didn't even think about what I was writing. There are some things that you write that just come out all at once....'Madame George' just came right out. The song is basically about a spiritual feeling."

While somewhere out there or in the hereafter "six or seven people" are wandering about in a state of unknowing as regards their contributions to the person that is Madame George, I'll be kicking back and relishing this song again and again just i did that first day some time in 1969. I leave the solving to some other sleuth, admitting that really, like a great jazz improvisation or beautiful painting, there's no need for a solution.

* For those who haven't the record I've copied a clip from youtube which I've posted here
The video has nothing to do with the tune, and my version keeps stopping about a 2 or 3 minutes near the end (which is an area that shouldn't be missed) , but I'm grateful, nevertheless, that the poster posted it!
There is another earlier, still formative, version posted of it from hitherto unreleased tapes but i heartily do not recommend it.

* there is a nice myspace site on the album Astral Weeks that has some complete versions of a few great songs . check it out here


Anonymous said...

saw v.m. last year in phoenix (some outside venue)...he's certainly the paunchy, jowly, aging irishman, but his hipness and music reached out across the wide lawn and brought weeping tears and snot covering my face as the brass soared and growled and the old songs brought back smells and the angle of light of a certain day and time and the wise innocence

Anonymous said...

...i'm with you on that, anonymous!

persephone2u said...

"I leave the solving to some other sleuth, admitting that really, like a great jazz improvisation or beautiful painting, there's no need for a solution."

So very very true. I always like a good mystery, but not even the true greats like Lester Bangs could ever solve a tune like that.

Isn't it interesting how songs get dissected and how many different meanings can come about from them? It's always fascinated me to no end what fans, interviewers and music critics think songs are about. Many times even the artists themselves don't really know!

I really like ambiguous songs that could be about anything in particular and that are open to interpretation. What you said above really sums it all up.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Thanks for the comments Persephone. Morrison often adds a pinch of mystery to engage the imagination and at the same time he speaks to, at least for me, the emotions.
Even since the days with Them.

L.S. said...

Dear Tom The Piper's Son,
There's something in this song, almost a cellular memory of a different time and place, dreamy and forever. Very Nice piece. I'm thinking that anonymous at the top of the page is none other than the inimitable C.O. The "Young At Heart Choir" might do a fine version of this piece. Check out their version of "Fix You" by coldplay on You Tube.
Love you,

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Yes, it is reminiscent of C.O. but it has a touch of somebody else i know.

C.O. is always a great read and we certainly killed off many an hour talking about music "hard at work" in the stacks...

"nostalgia isn't what it used to be"
- simone signoret

Anonymous said...

who the hell is c.o.?

-the real anonymous

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Dear Realanonymous -
Chris O., aka Sal DiMaria, dude, good friend, dude, former workmate at the library, comic noir short story writer, musician, dude, baseball fan and Dad....

Marina said...

I always thought he was saying "poppy taking Madame George" not "I'd be taken..." which adds to the narrative wonder for me. This song is beyond narrative of course and amazing beyond belief.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Marina - i notice a lot of the lyrics have it as "Happy taken, Madame George" which doesn't make sense to me but very well may be it. I Do like "poppy-taking" though as well!
I may have taken a lot liberty with the lyric in other places...
Then after "I'd be taken..." i always heard "That's when you're for..."
Woh-oh-oh-oh, that's when you;'re for"
then..."when you fall into a trance..." ; but i see that it makes "sense" to have lead up of "when you fall" "when you fall" into the next birth which completes it. Still, "Girl, that's when you're for - has a more erotic, stoney vibe to it that i like.

Mysteries heaped upon mysteries....!

Anonymous said...

I was surfing the net when I stumbled on Bang's interpretation of Madam George. Since I have been listening to Astral Weeks religiously since it was released I instinctively knew Bangs had missed the point.It said alot about where he was at, but I have always interpreted the song, as Morrison suggests, as a compilation of images and characters. I started looking for all the takes on this song I could find, and most suggested that Madame George is somehow tied to Yeats' wife Georgie Hyde-lees, and I believe she may be contributing element. What supprised me was that know one suggested the connection with drugs. Madame George, or Joy as Van sings and has admitted was the original name, is a metaphor or more correctly a personification for pot. This makes sense of all the lyrics. I hear it as "happy taking Madame Joy", that is pot and then you fall into a trance,It happens when you are stoned, then you get weaker and your knees begin to sag. And the line does not refer to a drag queen as Bang says but rather "playing dominos and drag", ie inhale. Clearly the next verse is a pot bust "lord have mercy I think that its' the cops. And then its pitched out the window to the street below. It is easy to follow the lyrics for this interpretation, but I don't want to suggest that it is just a song about drugs. Madage George is the central song of the LP that tells a story through lyric images of transition from youth to maturity. This song is at the point of transition and transcention. Don't forget George is also Van's first name. Saying goodby to Madame George is saying goodby to part of his life. I was shocked when someone explained the allegory to me of Puff the Magic Dragon, But in many ways Madame George is the same story, its just that it is enshrined in the most captivating music of all of rock. Also the drug element does not rule out other images and metaphors. I always saw the history book refrence as a legacy to someone like George Hyde-lees. But the real appeal is the aspect thatthe song defies explanation. This gives it a universal appeal which is why it is still as fresh today as it was in 1968

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Very interesting take on the tune, Anonymous. I always felt the tune had a lot of levels of interpretation and that Morrison liked it that way. Certainly the tune has a unique trance-like feel to it, whether reflective of drugs or not.
Nothing quite like this tune!

Anonymous said...

if you haven't heard his very early live version of madame george (not the hollywood bowl) it's a real beauty. sounds like it was recorded at a party and gives it a whole different feel. Bang Masters album.

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