Into the mystic

Paths to salvation in rock and roll can be found, then, in songs of social protest and love, but also, in the work of some artists, through an almost medieval understanding of mystical rapture. This is a prominent feature in some Irish musicians, like the Waterboys, Sinead O'Connor and Van Morrison, and in some makers of ambient music, like Moby and Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance). These performers sing about various registers of the holy, and write music designed to lift one out of oneself to reach out for the mystical ladder, rising on chordal progressions from the sensory world to higher things, even to the mind of God. Like the love song, these songs express an ontological faith.

Drawing on the ancient idea that each person is a microcosm of the universe and that each soul mirrors God, O'Connor sings, "I have a universe inside me/Where I can go and spirit guides me/There I can ask oh any question/I get the answers if I listen."30 Or, consider lines from "Strange Boat," a haunting track from the Waterboys: "We're sailing on a strange boat/heading for a strange shore/... We're climbing on the strangest ladder/that was ever there to climb/... We're living in a strange time/working for a strange goal/We're turning flesh and body into soul."31 These artists often use metaphors for the journey of the soul that could have been drawn straight from the treasuries of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross - light and darkness, the dawn, the colors blue and black, waters, flames, sky, heat, smoke, doors, gardens and deserts. These are the last sensual outposts en route to an experience of mystical union. Moby's song, "Into the Blue," draws straight from this lexicon:

Let in some air, I dare lie down

To stare at the sky

I am wide open

Reaching forever

I fly into the blue

I am wide open

Reaching forever

I move I move

The light the light

Here comes the tide

With water surrounding me

I am wide open

Reaching forever

And I fly into the blue32

Pursuing the contemplative logic of the mystic, this approach to musical poetics recognizes in the sensible world many signs of the invisible things of an ethereal realm, holy symbols to the mystically trained mind. Step by step, the heart ascends to stages of illumination.

Again, Van Morrison is a key figure here, both because he is such a consummate practitioner of the genre, and because of his influence on others - like O'Connor, the Waterboys, U2 and Nick Cave. He blends Celtic spirituality with gospel fervor and the primal moans and grunts of rhythm and blues to ratchet the soul up to places where the air is thin. In songs like "Haunts Of Ancient Peace," "In the Garden," "Pagan Streams," "Astral Weeks," "Take It Where You Find It," "Spirit," "Take Me Back," and "Summertime in England," he narrates walks across bucolic countrysides, inviting the listener to join him, traversing meadows, green fields, peaceful rivers, shorelines and old ruins as he invokes the names of sacred places, gospel singers, and Romance poets. And just when tranquility seems within reach, he throws the song into gear, sometimes with the help of a horn section or a church organ, and a line like "but when you really get in, it lifts you right up," or "the shiver from my neck down to my spine/ignited me in daylight and nature," and one discovers that a strange and uncertain place has been entered indeed. This ushers in a reverie of repeated lines, like "As the great, great, great, great, great, great, great Being watches over," or "Spirit don't ever die/Oh, no, spirit don't ever die/Never let spirit die."

In "Summertime in England," a nearly 16-minute romp by lakesides, through pastures and past Avalon, where legend has it Jesus, when he visited England, himself walked, Morrison invokes Wordsworth, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, and Mahalia Jackson.33 Then the rhythm pauses, the notes of a gospel organ are heard, and Morrison drifts toward stuttering reiterations of "It ain't why, it just is/That's all/That's all there is about it/It just is," then, "Can you feel the light?/Can you feel the light?" and finally, "Put your head on my shoulder/And you listen to the silence/Can you feel the silence?" Listeners are transported to beatitude by traversing a geography that is sung into holiness.

One of Morrison's most finely wrought contemplative exercises is found on his 1991 release, Hymns to the Silence.34 It is a track called "Take Me Back," and follows immediately after his cover of the old gospel standard, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." The first line of "Take Me Back" resumes the peregrination with which the preceding hymn concluded - allowing Morrison to move from "I'll be satisfied as long as I walk, dear Lord, close to Thee," where the hymn left him, to "I've been walking by the river... I've been feeling so sad and blue." His sadness follows a bout of stuttering out, "I've been thinking, I've been thinking, I've been thinking ..." about the suffering and confusion in the world. Then he pleads, with an even more prolonged stutter, "Take me back, take me back, take me back... way back... to when life made more sense... when you felt so good, and I felt so good ... and I understood the light." Under the spell of Morrison's vocalizations, one aspirated "huh" can trigger satori, and like a zen master clapping his hands, the listener is awakened from flummoxed conceptual thinking and into a non-dual awareness of the interrelated-ness of all reality. But Morrison presses on, he is only half way through the song. He sings, "I feel like I wanna blow my harmonica," which he does, respirating through it in controlled, pure breaths which help him to bridge from his melancholic funk back to a "golden afternoon, a golden afternoon, a golden afternoon," when "everything felt, everything felt, everything felt right and so good." This chant, repeated over and over, gradually descends to a whisper as if coming into the very presence of the holy, offering no resistance until, barely audible, he sighs, "in the eternal now, in the eternal moment, in the eternal now..."

When you lived, when you lived When you lived in the light When you lived in the grace In the grace, in grace When you lived in the light In the light, in the grace And the blessing.

At this, his voice falls silent, and the piano, strings and soft percussions that have been orbiting like an electromagnetic field around the steel core of his vocals, relent and find a place to rest. Lyrically, a blessing has been offered; musically, a point of resolution has been attained. All energy subsides into perfect stillness. In music like this, Van Morrison erects sanctuaries of sound that those with ears to hear may enter and settle into for a moment of grace.

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