Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now

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“If I should die in a car wreck, may I have Van Morrison on my tape deck.”

I heard the Poi Dog Pondering song U Li La Lu only once on the radio a quarter of a century ago, but that line has always stuck with me. I don’t have a tape deck in my car any more. But if I do get to choose the last singer I hear before shuffling off this mortal coil, it will be Van Morrison.

More than any other artist, Van’s music has been an integral part of my life since I was a kid. As the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in his famous liner notes for the 1972 two-record Them collection: “We have grown up to Van Morrison: gone through make-outs and periods of adolescent darkness, found rock poetry sans pretence in his lyrics, turned up our radios a little louder (as he counseled in “Caravan”) every time he came on, heard in his music hit singles and sheer art (though never “Art Rock”) and gorgeous combinations of the two.”

Yes. That’s exactly right. I have grown up to Van Morrison. I loved Gloria and Here Comes the Night, the hit singles from his first band Them that made the U.S. charts in 1965 and 1966, and first heard Brown Eyed Girl while on vacation on Cape Cod in the summer of ’67. Those “sha la las” blasting from a tinny transistor radio delivered fully on the promise of the title of Van’s first solo album–Blowin’ Your Mind. I remember the  transcendent experience of hearing Astral Weeks for the first time, and I remember playing the Moondance album over and over during my own periods of adolescent darkness.

I remember listening to Period of Transition in 1977, as I got dressed on my wedding day. I remember a harrowing weed and beer fueled high-speed car ride with friends from my first newspaper job in Dover, Del., in 1978 to see Van at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., on the Wavelength tour. It’s a wonder that Poi Dog Pondering lyric didn’t come true that night.

I remember listening to Into the Music as I drove out to Port Mahon along the Delaware Bay to do long runs while training for my one and only marathon in Montreal in 1979. Well, you get the idea. Whatever was happening in my life, there was always Van Morrison. And that’s still true today.

When I first heard Brown Eyed Girl, I had no idea just how restless and brilliant and contrarian and creative Van Morrison would turn out to be. Or that he would still be making vital music at age 71, and that I would still be listening to it in my 60s.

Today is Van’s birthday, and he’s celebrating his 71st year the same way he’s celebrated every year since 1964: By recording music and playing live shows. His new album, appropriately titled Keep Me Singing, comes out Sept. 30 and he’s already released a video of the first song off the record called Too Late:

Like Van said in Into the Mystic, it’s too late to stop now. That we have had this singular voice in our lives for so long, when so many others have been silenced prematurely, is our good fortune.

Greil_Marcus_Van_300pThe renowned rock critic Greil Marcus, in his book of essays on listening to Van Morrison’s music titled When That Rough God Goes Riding, writes “Morrison may have the richest and most expressive voice pop music has produced since Elvis Presley, and with a sense of himself as an artist that Elvis was always denied. But what is that voice for?”

Marcus, a serious and scholarly critic with a contrarian streak as deep as Van’s, writes off large portions of Van’s catalog–especially the 15 albums over more than 15 years recorded from 1980 to 1996. Even writing about Van’s first solo album in 1967, Marcus sniffs: “The bright, bouncy Brown Eyed Girl was Morrison’s least convincing recording …” So much for Van’s only top 10 hit.

If you love Van Morrison’s music, as I do, reading When That Rough God Goes Riding will alternately elevate and infuriate you. That’s what great criticism is supposed to do: challenge your thinking and help you see things in a new light. Marcus’ book, which borrows its title from a song off the 1997 album The Healing Game, holds Van Morrison to a standard precious few could ever hope to attain and absolutely nobody could possibly maintain over a half century of writing and performing: the soul-searing peaks of revelation that mark his finest work.

Listen to what Marcus has to say about Astral Weeks, which has lost none of its astonishing power since its 1968 release:

It was forty-six minutes in which possibilities of the medium–of rock ‘n’ roll, of pop music, of what you might call music that could be played on the radio as if it were both timeless and news–were realized, when you went out to the limits of what this form could do. You went past them: you showed everybody else that the limits they had accepted on invention, expression, honesty, daring, were false. You said it to musicians and you said it to people who weren’t musicians: there’s more to life than you thought. Life can be lived more deeply–with a greater sense of fear and horror and desire than you ever imagined.

Better yet, listen to Astral Weeks, because what Marcus’ book does best of all is drive you back to the music. With Astral Weeks, Marcus writes, “Morrison’s music opened onto the road it has followed since: a road bordered by meadows alive with the promise of mystical deliverance and revelation on one side, forests of shrieking haunts and beckoning specters on the other, and rocks, baubles, traps, and snares down the middle.”

Since 1964, it has been one of the pure joys of my life to go down that road with him. And you know what? It’s too late to stop now.

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The Warner Brothers ad for Astral Weeks, from Rolling Stone magazine. I’ve kept it in the album sleeve for almost 50 years.

Coda: Van Morrison and Bob Dylan

I saw this BBC special about Van Morrison when it aired in the early 1990s, and still have a VHS recording of it (although currently not a VHS player). The opening scene features Van and old friend Bob Dylan performing “Foreign Window” and “One Irish Rover”together on a hillside in Athens–two gods of rock mythology in the setting of the gods of Greek mythology. This clip also features Van and the Chieftans performing Raglan Road.

Coda: Van Morrison Live at the Filmore East September 1970

Van, in all his revelation.

Coda: Poi Dog Pondering U Li La Lu

If I should die in a car wreck, may I have Van Morrison on my tape deck.

Christopher Jones, Phil Ochs, and the Chords of Fame

 

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So play the chords of love, my friend

Play the chords of pain

If you want to keep your song,

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t play the chords of fame

The brilliant, but troubled, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, who later descended into alcoholism and manic depression before taking his own life at age 35, warned of the dangers of playing the chords of fame.

Christopher Jones, the promising young actor who took the starring role that Ochs turned down in the satirical 1968 teen rebellion film Wild In The Streets, turned his back on fame just as his star was reaching its peak, and went on to live a quiet life until his death from cancer in February 2014 at age 72.

The story of Christopher Jones should be the stuff of legend. Instead, it’s largely forgotten. A charismatic young actor with smoldering good looks, hailed as the next James Dean, becomes a leading man on TV by age 24 and quickly parlays his success into starring roles on the silver screen—and then, before he turns 30, walks away for reasons that have never been fully explained.

And never looks back.

Oh yeah, and did I mention the Charlie Manson cult murder angle? More on that in a bit.

For the next four decades, Jones lived off the money he made as the star of the ABC TV series The Legend of Jesse James, which lasted only one season, and a tantalizingly brief movie career that included starring roles in the cult classic Wild In The Streets, the John LeCarre spy thriller The Looking Glass, and David Lean’s epic Ryan’s Daughter. He also was a painter and a sculptor, a devoted father, and—by his own account in rare newspaper interviews—happy.

So today, on what would have been Christopher Jones’ 75th birthday, we would do well to remember the actor who decided not to play the Chords of Fame.

‘A Leader of Men and of Little Girls’

Born William Franklin Jones on Aug. 18, 1941, he had the southern gothic version of a Dickensian childhood. The family initially lived above a grocery store in Jackson, Tennessee, where his father was a clerk. When Jones was just 4, his mother, an artist, was confined to a psychiatric hospital, where she died 15 years later. Jones was sent by his father to live in in a children’s home in Memphis.

At 16, with permission from his father, Jones joined the Army, went AWOL, and did a short stint in prison. Like so many before him, he made his way to New York City, where he studied painting while working odd jobs until he won a small role on Broadway in the 1961 production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. It got him noticed, and he auditioned at the famed Actors Studio. He wound up marrying Artistic Director Lee Strasberg’s daughter, Susan Strasberg. (They divorced in 1968.)

In 1965, Jones landed the starring role in The Legend of Jesse James. That’s where I first saw him, and became an instant fan. Jones played the outlaw as a good-hearted Robin Hood who robbed and killed only to right injustices. I watched every episode, and was among the thousands of young people who were crushed when the show was canceled after one season. The show led me to read up on the real Jesse James, which provided a valuable early life lesson that TV and reality are distant cousins, at best.

Wild_In-The_Streets_300pJones soon landed the starring role in Wild In The Streets, an American International Pictures exploitation film about 24-year-old rock star Max Frost, a “leader of men and of little girls,” as the off-screen announcer intones, who spearheads a teen rebellion that results in 15-year-olds getting the right to vote and Frost carrying every state but Hawaii as the Republican nominee for president.

That’s right, Republican nominee. It seems that in this crazy, totally ridiculous satire, the GOP is desperate enough to offer its presidential nomination to an unhinged celebrity. If you think Donald Trump is unstable and unpredictable, wait until you meet Max Frost, who accomplishes his government takeover by having his young “troops” dump LSD in the Washington, DC, water supply and, upon taking office, sets 30 as the mandatory retirement age. “Who, after all, do you think caused all of our troubles? Those who are stiff, baby, but not with love—with age!” At age 35, everyone has to go to an internment camp, where, as Frost explains, “We’re going to psyche ‘em all out on LSD, babies!”

Truth in advertising: “Perhaps the Most Unusual Motion Picture You’ll Ever See” Watch the trailer for Wild In The Streets.

The film features a stellar cast given the material, including Hal Holbrook as an ambitious young congressman who forms a Faustian pact with Frost and his teen followers to advance his own campaign for U.S. Senate; Ed Begley as California’s distinguished senior senator, who just doesn’t understand what’s the matter with kids today; Shelley Winters as a psycho, abusive mother who’s even more twisted than Angela Lansbury’s Manchurian Candidate mom;  and a very young Richard Pryor as Stanley X, an anthropologist and author of The Aborigine Cookbook who is the drummer in Max Frost’s band. It also includes cameos by Walter Winchell and Dick Clark as TV news announcers.

Unusual? I guess you could say that.

‘Once You’re In, You’re In’

Phil_Ochs_Patriot_300pOn screen, Jones is every bit the pop star he portrays, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Yet, as I watched the movie again last night, I couldn’t help but think what it would have been like if Phil Ochs had said yes.

Ochs, a passionate, literate, and wickedly funny folksinger and political activist, loved Elvis, James Dean, and John Wayne. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved most about him. In his excellent biography, There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, author Michael Schumacher writes about Phil’s passion for movies, and how he harbored the faint hope of one day acting in films himself.

At one point during this period, Phil was offered the lead role in Wild in the Streets, a feature film about a rock ‘n’ roll idol who is elected President of the United States. (Ochs manager) Arthur Gorson had disapproved of the movie’s right-wing message, and had discouraged Phil from accepting the part. The movie went on to become a major hit, and twenty-five years after the fact, Michael Ochs still stewed about his brother’s rejecting the opportunity to star in the film.

“I was not managing him at that point,” Michael stated, “but if I had been, I would not have let him turn it down. Yes, it was right wing, and it was against everything he believed in but he still should have done it. He loved the movies and wanted to be in them, and this was his chance. Once you’re in, you’re in.”

He’s right. But as Max Frost and the Troopers sang, nothing can change the shape of things to come. Jones, who did say yes when the role was offered, went on to make the sexploitation farce Three in the Attic with Yvette Mimieux; The Looking Glass War, based on a John LeCarre Cold War spy thriller with Anthony Hopkins; A Brief Season, an Italian film that I don’t believe has been released in the U.S.; and Ryan’s Daughter, the Irish epic by Doctor Zhivago director David Lean that stars Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, and Sarah Miles, along with Jones.

‘It’s Too Late to Fall In Love with Sharon Tate’

And here’s where the Charlie Manson cult connection comes in. It was during the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, which was going to be Jones’ ticket to major stardom, that word came of the Tate-Labianca murders. In what I’ve long thought is the best opening line in rock history, the late writer, rock star, and poet Jim Carroll wrote: “It’s too late, to fall in love with Sharon Tate.” That proved to be literally true for Jones, who told a British interviewer in 2007 that he had fallen in love with the actress—who was the wife of director Roman Polanski and pregnant with his child at the time—in Rome earlier in 1969.

News of her grisly murder by Manson family members on Aug. 9, 1969 devastated Jones, and he suffered a breakdown. He was barely able to finish the film, and walked away from his Hollywood career when it finally wrapped. Jones, who turned down Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 entreaty to play The Gimp character in Pulp Fiction, only appeared once more on screen, in a small role as a favor to old friend Larry Bishop (who played The Hook in Wild in the Streets and was the son of comedian Joey Bishop) in the 1996 movie Trigger Happy.

Over the years, Jones hinted that there was more to his decision to still the Chords of Fame than Sharon Tate’s murder. He told the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Fate is fate. That’s the way it was. As for the rest, I want my epitaph to read: ‘Some things are better left unsaid.’”

So happy 75th birthday to Christopher Jones, who chose to play the chords of love instead of the chords of fame. I only wish Phil Ochs could have been so fortunate.

Coda: Phil Ochs

Chords of Fame from Phil Ochs Greatest Hits

Coda: Christopher Jones

Watch the premier episode of The Legend of Jesse James from September 1965.

Max Frost and the Troopers perform “Shape of Things to Come.”

Are You Running with Me, Elvis?

 

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The author, right, talking with Jumpsuit Elvis at the finish of the 1996 Elvis International 5-K, in front of the wall surrounding Graceland. Photo by Roark Johnson.

Twenty years ago this past weekend, I flew out to Memphis for Elvis Week on Runner’s World magazine’s dime to do a story on the annual Elvis International 5-K race. I toured Graceland and Sun Studio and drove down to Tupelo, Mississippi, to visit the shotgun shack where Elvis was born. I hit Beale Street and saw the Memphis Horns playing in a bar after getting their star on the walk of fame, and caught a set by the legendary Rufus Thomas in a small hall at the end of Beale Street with maybe a dozen other fans.

And yeah, I ran the Elvis 5-K race that finishes at the gates of Graceland. It remains the best assignment of my life, one that allowed me to indulge three of my obsessions at the time: music (and more specifically the cult of Elvis), running, and writing. It also was the story that showed me that Kerouac really was onto something with his idea of spontaneous prose. Running with either a notebook or tape recorder on a hot, sweaty, August morning in Memphis were never options I considered. So I stashed a notebook in my car before the race and, once I wrapped up running and reporting, headed straight to the parking lot and started writing. Not just notes, but the story.

As true and accurately as I could, I wrote what I saw, heard, felt, and thought before, during, and after the race. Runner’s World had agreed to send me to the 1996 race, on the 19th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, so it could publish the story a few months before the huge 20th anniversary Elvis Week extravaganza in case runners wanted to make it a destination race. That meant I had a few months to turn in the article. I typed out my hand-scrawled version after I got home, and then over the weeks and months that followed, tried several different approaches.

As the deadline approached, I went back to my original version and realized it was much better than any of the more polished, later rewrites. With a minimum of editing, that’s the version I turned in. And that’s the version that Runner’s World printed.

Normally, in this age of wonders, I would just link to the Runner’s World archive of the article online. But like a lot of publications, RW doesn’t have issues from before the current century available online, so the article only exists in print copies of the magazine.

So here it is, exactly as it was published in the May 1997 issue of Runner’s World magazine. I am eternally indebted to then-Executive Editor Amby Burfoot for allowing me to do this one.

And in case you’re wondering, the race is still going strong. The 34th annual race (it started five years after Elvis’s death) was held this past weekend on Saturday, Aug. 13. For more info, or to start planning if you want to run the race to be held during the events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the King’s death in 2017, visit http://elvispresleyrunandwalk.com/ .

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The sun begins its slow ascent through the early morning Memphis haze, heralding the start of another sultry summer day. Once, within the walls of his beloved Graceland, Elvis Presley would have begun his own slow climb up the stairs to bed after another sleepless night of racquetball, private movie screenings, fireworks or gospel singing. But not this morning.

Looking resplendent in a white jumpsuit with gold embroidery, accented with a bright red scarf, the King strides purposefully through the race registration area, which has been set up in the shadow of his beloved Lisa Marie—the jet plane, not the daughter. He picks up his race packet—“Thank you. Thank you very much”—and joins the sea of more traditionally attired runners parading slowly up Elvis Presley Boulevard to the starting line of the Elvis Presley International 5-K.

It’s his race. The rest of us are just running in it.

*****

Walking the quarter-mile from Graceland to the starting line on Timothy Drive, it all seems more than a little surreal. And it’s not just Jumpsuit Elvis. Speakers mounted on the lead truck blare the soul-stirring strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which once let the faithful know that Elvis was not only in the building, but was also about to take the stage. The soaring theme song segues into “That’s All Right, Mama,” the song a 19-year-old Elvis recorded just a few miles away at Sun Recording Studio back in 1954—the song that started a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, on the road to Graceland.

At most summer races these days, wraparound shades (the kind sported by Lynn Jennings and Steve Scott) are all the rage. But not here. At the starting line of the Elvis 5-K, aviator sunglasses—the kind favored by the King in the ‘70s—are the defining fashion statement. Many runners—women as well as men—also sport bushy black fake sideburns, tacky even by Elvis souvenir standards.

The prerace nervous tension is broken by the starting gun. Slowly and fitfully, some 4,300 runners and walkers—the largest field yet—surge up the slight hill toward Graceland Drive, where the race course turns right just before Graceland Elementary School. The streets in the neighborhood are lined by red-brick ranch houses and other neatly kept middle-class dwellings. It looks like any other southern suburban neighborhood, until you remember that these were Elvis’s neighbors.

They live close enough to have been scared silly the night Elvis and the boys got carried away shooting off fireworks in the backyard and accidentally set off the entire stockpile of explosives. They could have heard the gunshots ringing through the night as Elvis and his buddies took turns target-shooting on the makeshift firing range that had been his old smokehouse. And maybe, just maybe, on a soft, still summer night, they might have been able to hear Elvis and friends gather around the grand piano off the living room, singing gospel standards into the wee hours of the morning.

Such reveries are broken by the guy barking splits at the mile marker. A few yards past, there’s a water stop with Elvis singing “Don’t Be Cruel” from a portable cassette player. Even the weather, it seems, listens when the King sings.

*****

As the course winds through the neighborhood behind Graceland, close to the 2-mile mark, I notice a positively ebullient runner ahead of me. He’s running back and forth across the course, high-fiving the sheriff’s deputies who are handling traffic control for the race. As I draw closer, something about him looks familiar. Black hair. Aviator sunglasses. A wide glittering blue belt with sparkling silver stars. Could it be?

Of course. This is Sensible Elvis, wearing a singlet and shorts instead of a jumpsuit. “You’ve got a lot of energy for a guy who usually goes to bed about now,” I remark as I pull up alongside of him.

“I’ve been getting a lot of rest lately. I’ve been sleeping for 19 years,” he replies in that familiar drawl.

I remember how the second floor of Graceland remained closed to visitors when I took the tour the previous day and—calling upon those fine instincts honed by 20 years as a newspaper reporter—decide to take a shot.

“Upstairs? On the second floor?” I ask.

Elvis smiles conspiratorially. “Yeah. But don’t tell anyone.”

“No problem,” I say. (Mental note: Find the first pay phone after the finish line and call the Weekly World News.)

I move by Sensible Elvis, following the course as it turns back onto Graceland Drive, heading toward Timothy Drive. Considering that there are more than 4,000 people tromping through the neighborhood, the course is astonishingly quiet. The runners are the only ones up at this hour. A handful of residents—including a few blessed souls who have turned on their sprinklers to cool the participants—come out to watch, but most remain safely inside, seemingly oblivious to the grand spectacle passing by their closed doors.

Back on Timothy Drive, the course slopes downhill to the starting line, then climbs up to Elvis Presley Boulevard. As I make the turn onto the street of dreams, I think of songwriter Paul Simon’s line, “I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” Simon may have had some deeper metaphysical idea in mind when he penned the line, but on this morning it is quite literally true. And what a reception it is. Three of the street’s four lanes are closed. The road is lined by fans (in town for the Elvis Week celebration), runners who have already finished and their friends and families. And best of all, it’s all downhill for the final two-tenths of a mile to the finish at the gates of Graceland.

The crowd roars as I pick up the pace, and I think, Gosh, this is great. But suddenly I realize the cheers are not for me. They’re for him. As the fans scream louder, I hear—just a few steps behind me now—that familiar drawl, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” No way. Not today. It may be his street—heck, it’s his race—but I’m not going to let Elvis beat me. Imagine explaining to your running buddies that you got outkicked by a guy whose idea of carbo-loading involves deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I unleash what’s left of my kick and hold off Sensible Elvis to the finish. In the chute, I turn around, high-five him and say, “Great race, King.” Gasping for breath, he replied (what else?), “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

I grab a cup of water at the end of the chute and walk back to the finish line. A few minutes later, Jumpsuit Elvis comes across in a scene reminiscent of John Wayne. Elvis is leading the Marines. As they have every year since the race started in 1983, some 150 Leathernecks from Marine Aviation Training Support Squadron 901 run the race in formation, keeping step to the bark of the drill sergeant’s cadences. Afterward, I track down Jumpsuit Elvis (okay, he’s pretty easy to find) and ask him about the race.

“I forgot how hot it gets here in August,” he says. “I’ve been away for a while, you know.”

My heart sinks. “Up on the second floor?” I ask.

“No. Up north,” he says.

Elvis looks at me and grins. “I can’t tell you that,” he says. (Never mind, operator. I guess I won’t be needing the number for Weekly World News after all. Thanks anyway.)

*****

There’s nothing left to do but stroll over to the postrace party, held in the pavilion next to Elvis’s airplane museum. There’s a live band playing country and rock, a clogging demonstration and plenty of food and drink. Some runners even find the energy to hit the dance floor.

I spy Sensible Elvis in the crowd and learn that he is really Seth Zamek, from Jackson, Tennessee. “I’ve been here a couple of times,” Zamek says. “This is the first time I dressed up, though. I had to do it.”

I look around for Jumpsuit Elvis, but he’s left the building. As I dig through my race packet, though, I find a clue to his whereabouts.

It’s a coupon, good for one free Quarter Pounder with Cheese at any Memphis-area McDonald’s. Somewhere under the “golden arches,” a man with black bushy sideburns, aviator sunglasses, a sparkling white jumpsuit and red scarf is taking a bag from the clerk behind the register. And in a soft, slightly slurred drawl, you can hear him say, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

From Runner’s World magazine, May 1997