Making it the Way it Is: Van Morrison’s Mysticism

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Van ‘The Man’ Morrison

I don’t know about you but in my book when the music and self-help industries try to sell ‘uplifting’ music they get it all wrong.  You either get Christian rock and breathy chants or waterfalls and mellow Moog loops.  Pretty dire.

I happen to love music. I also like to be inspired to enjoy a better human existence.  And while an 8 hour track of gentle musical gurgle may be useful to get me back to sleep at 330am, when it comes to listening to music I need something with meat and gristle on its bones.

And there is no shortage of inspiration to be had all across the spectrum: rock, pop, folk, classical, even rap, for goodness sake. Music by terrific artists, singers and writers who refuse to water down the music just to get a message across.

Here is just one example from the great Irish mystic Van ‘the Man’ Morrison.

This has been one of my favorite albums since I first heard it way back nearly 40 years ago. Van has always been touched by the Celtic spirits and it would be hard to identify any of his records that is completely devoid of the spiritual touch.  But in the early 80s he released a number of albums that put the whole mystical/spiritual quest right up front. This is the first, and in my opinion, the best of them.

Common One, as the title suggests, points to the Universal Spirit that permeates everyone, everything as well as all time and space. It is the one thing we all share in common. In this respect the record is a hymnbook to that non-religious ‘godhead’.  Opening with the stunningly beautiful Haunts of Ancient Peace and closing with a dreamy When Heart is Open, Common One takes the listener on a journey of spiritual discovery and longing.   The album shimmers with the dappled light and shade of jazz and lush orchestration. The tempo is generally leisurely, much like a tramp across the highlands on a long summer’s day which is not to say it is monotonous. The music builds and collapses, slows then rushes frantically forward again throughout the album, often in the same song.   Summertime in England is a perfect example of changes in pace and intensity.

Each song is finely and specially constructed to deliver and elicit a particular emotional response. We hear Van whisper prayers of desperate loneliness  (Spirit) as well as lose himself in trances of mystical delirium (Summertime in England) chanting the names of long dead muses. But lest you think this is all pretty heavy and depressing he pops up with joy and delight too.

Such is the song Satisfied. 

Let’s go walkin’ up that mountainside
Look down in the valley down below
And we survey this wondrous scene
Wait a minute
Hold that dream.
Hold that dream.
Don’t want to change my name and write a book
Just like Catcher in the Rye
Settle down in a shady nook
Talkin’ to my baby now
I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is.
Satisfied (Satisfied.)
Inside.
Go to the mountain
Come back to the city
Where a whole lot of things
Don’t look very pretty
Spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst
But you got to change it
On the inside first
To be satisfied
To be satisfied
Sometimes I think I know where it’s at
Other times I’m completely in the dark
You know, baby, cause and effect
I got my karma from here right to New York
I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is
Satisfied (Satisfied)
Inside.
Sometimes I think I know how it is
Other times I’m completely in the dark
You know, baby, cause and effect
I’ve got my karma from here right to New York
I’m satisfied
Cause I made it
The way it is
I’m satisfied (satisfied)
Inside

 

This track is a glorious hymn of exaltation.  It opens with a syncopated organ two-step that builds steadily into a horn adorned R&B groove before reaching its ecstatic highpoint with a ripping flugelhorn solo by Mark Isham. Van himself, in addition to singing his heart out, sets Isham’s solo up with some competent sax work.

Resting in this luxurious setting is the song’s central lyric.

I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is

I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times over the years but just a few days ago the power of these lyrics hit me.  The world we inhabit, the world we experience is of our own making. Everything around us, whatever its form, is a reflection of ourselves. A reflection of ‘I’.  And our experience of that world also is completely our own making.  Whether we are satisfied or unhappy there is no one to fault but ourselves, “cause I made it/the way it is.”

Spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst
But you got to change it
On the inside first
To be satisfied
To be satisfied

He follows this up with another pearl.  Because there is nothing ‘out there’ that is not of our own making, any spiritual quest for peace, love and joy must originate from the inside.  It matters not how deep your hunger or thirst is. It matters not how many gurus or teachers we seek out. No matter what it is we want to change about ourselves, ‘you got it change it/ on the inside first’.

All in all a one-two punch of profundity and exhilarating music!

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Zafar’s two lines (Part 1)

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The man pictured above is one of the more poignant characters of recent Indian history. Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar inherited the throne of Mughal India at the age of 63 in 1837.  Grand though his ancestors’ Empire had once been and as fabled the name–‘Mughal’ was a synonym for other-worldly luxury and power to the 17th century European imagination–when the old man ascended the throne he was in fact, little more than the King of Delhi. During his grandfather’s reign, the city’s wags came up with the line, Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam [The kingdom of Shah Alam extends from Delhi to Palam]. A vast territory indeed,  covering a mere dozen or so miles.

Not only did Bahadur Shah inherit a ‘moth-eaten’ kingdom, he was cursed with bad timing.  As his family’s influence shrank to near-comical dimensions the wealth and aggressive power of the British grew ravenous. It was the old Shah’s kismat to live his days along a crease in time; those lines of history which demarcate the end from the beginning. They say when a King dies there is moment when his Kingdom’s Fate hangs suspended in the balance.  As the bitter internecine fights that inevitably surround the dying monarch break out, the people hold their breath and wait, hoping for a smooth and rapid restoration of order.

Twenty years into Bahadur Zafar’s reign all hell broke loose.  Local soldiers in the employ of the red-coated East India Company revolted against their English commanders. Rumours had it that the bullets they used in their weapons were oiled with pig and cow grease.  In Meerut sipahis (soldiers) mutinied and overthrew the Company’s garrison. The violence and momentum spread across the plains toward Kanpur and Lucknow.  With the English on the backfoot, deserters rushed to Delhi and appealed to the opium-smoking Emperor to back their cause.

Although the historical tide had truly turned against the House of Babur, perhaps the old man saw one final flash of grandeur beckoning.  He assented to throwing his mighty symbolic authority behind the rebels but to no avail. The Englishmen rallied and clawed their way to Delhi where they unleashed a scorched earth campaign against the city’s people.  The Emperor’s sons were beheaded. As for His Majesty himself, he was humiliatingly carted off to Rangoon, a sort of Siberian exile, where he breathed his last 87 years after being born.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was not born great. And rather than greatness, all he had thrust upon him were ill luck and disaster. But this last Mughal of note did achieve greatness, nevertheless.  And it is to a small detail of that eminence that I now turn.

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Sample of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s calligraphy

Those who observed Bahadur Shah Zafar before he became Emperor remarked on his ordinariness: tall and thin with the appearance of a tutor. With no expectation or ambition to be the Shahenshah, Zafar had spent his life composing poetry, developing a very fine hand at calligraphy, smoking opium and generally, reflecting on the way the Universe worked.

He was a man of letters rather than politics. He shared his lifetime with the greatest of all Urdu poets, Ghalib, and his time in power coincided with a final flourishing of the sharif (noble) arts for which we so fondly appreciate the Mughal dynasty.

Zafar composed poetry in a number of styles including ghazal and masnavi and used an Urdu that was, considering his own social rank, quite common.  Compared to Ghalib’s lines which are full of Persianised phrases Zafar’s language is refreshingly straight-forward.  Many of Zafar’s poems are beloved classics. They are recited and sung to this day across northern India and Pakistan.  This rendition of Baat Karni Muskhil by Mehdi Hassan is among the best and most popular.

There is a strong sense of sorrow and despair in many of Zafar’s poems, almost as if in his youth he had seen a vision of his tragic and pathetic last years.   Here is one such, which was sung by Mohammad Rafi in the film Lal Qila.

Lagtaa nahii hai dil meraa ujRe dayaar mei
What pleasure can the heart know in this derelict city

Kiss kii banii hai aalame-naapaaidaar mein
Who has found fulfillment in this mortal world

Umr-e-daraaz maang ke laaye the chaar din
Having asked for long life, I brought back four days

Do aarzuu mein kat gaye do intezaar mein
Two passed away in yearning and two in waiting

Kah do in hasraton se kahiin aur jaa baein
Tell these desires to go and settle down elsewhere

Itnii jagah kahaan hai dil-e-daaghdaar mein
There is little room in this so tainted heart

Kitnaa hai badnaseeb zafar dafan ke liye
How ill fated is that for Zafar even for his burial

Do gaz zamiin bhii naa milii kue-yaar mein
Was not granted two yards of earth (for his grave) in the land of the beloved

(Translation from First Impression blog)

If we were to take his external words as a reflection of his inner state, the last Mughal of India was an unloved child with rock bottom self esteem!

 

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My love affair with Zafar’s many popular ghazals came after I stumbed upon a couplet of his from a masnavi.  I studied Urdu as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota where the head of the South Asian Department was none other than the much feted M.A. R. Barker.  In one of his several books on Urdu language and poetry I found the following lines:

Kyon ka’aba o kanishth mein sar marta hai tu   /  sargarm-e-justuju

Tu dhundtha hai jisko chchupa woh tujhi mein hai   / par tu hai bekhabar

(Why do you bang your heads in the Kaaba and temple / in a feverish search?

What you are searching for is hidden within you   /  but you are aware)

I was raised in a religious home and so this pooh-poohing of mindless worship struck a chord.  I completely understood and embraced that first line.  I knew the Divine was not in some building or another and that rituals (the banging of the head) were generally followed out of a fearful desperation (the feverish, frenetic, scurrying search).

The second line made sense in that if ‘God’ was not out there then he/she/they must be internal within me.  And though I’ve never doubted that truth, my appreciation of Zafar’s simple statement has only deepened over the years.

(Part 2 to follow)