Nick Hornby on Van Morrison’s “Caravan”

Taken from his collection of essays on music, “Songbook”

“…‘Caravan’ will be played at my funeral.”

The magnificent version of ‘Caravan’ on It’s Too Late to Stop Now (Van Morrison’s most enjoyable album, unarguably, so don’t even think about arguing) sounds to me like it could be played over the closing credits of the best film you’ve ever seen; and if something sounds like that to you, then surely by extension it means that it could also be played at your own funeral. I don’t think this is overdramatizing the importance of one’s own life. Not all films have to be like Lawrence of Arabia or Apocalypse Now, and you’d have to have been pretty unlucky, at least in our part of the world (and if you walked into a bookshop and bought this book, you live in the part I’m talking about), not to have experienced a few moments of joy or pure hope or clenched-fist triumph or simple contentment amongst all the drudgery and heartbreak and pain. To me, ‘Caravan’ recognizes and synthesizes all of it, and the fact that what it produces from the whole extraordinary mess is something that sounds cheerful doesn’t mean that the song is trite.

Caravan’ isn’t a song about life or death, as far as I can tell: it’s a song about merry gypsies and campfires and turning up your radio and stuff. But in its long, vamped passage right before the climax, when the sax weaves gently in and out of the cute, witty, neo-chamber strings, while the piano sprinkles bluesy high notes over the top, Morrison’s band seems to isolate a moment somewhere between life and its aftermath, a big, baroque entrance hall of a place where you can stop and think about everything that has gone before. (Gosh. A sudden panic: can you hear any of that, those of you who already own the album or who are interested enough in this description to check it out? Possibly not. But — panic over — this book isn’t predicated on you and me sharing the ability to hear exactly the same things; in other words, it isn’t music criticism. All I’m hoping here is that you have equivalents, that you spend a lot of time listening to music and seeing faces in its fire.) And, though it won’t be me doing the thinking, as far as we know, is it arrogant to expect a little reflection from friends and family? It’s my funeral, after all. And they don’t have to think only about me; they can think about all sorts of things, as long as they’re worthy of the occasion and the music, and don’t involve foodstuffs, emails, footwear, etc.

The only thing that worries me about having ‘Caravan’ played at my funeral is that string section. Will people think I’m making some concession to classical music when they hear it? Will they say to themselves, ‘What a shame he lost the courage of his convictions right at the end there, just like everybody else’? I wouldn’t want them to think that. Unless something unimaginable happens to me over the next couple of decades, I will have gone through an entire life listening more or less only to popular music in one or other of its forms. (I have a few classical CDs, and sometimes I play them, too; but I never respond to Mozart or Haydn as music, merely as something that makes the room smell temporarily different, like a scented candle, and I don’t like treating art in that way, with disrespect.) And I’m unrepentant, too. ‘I’d see him banged up for having anything to do with the inanity that is pop, full stop,’ said a famously sour writer and newspaper columnist recently, while attempting to defend a well-known music-business mogul who had just been imprisoned, but you’ve heard this stuff before.

I have no idea whether his use of the word ‘pop’ is the same as mine, whether he thinks that all of it, Dylan and Marvin Gaye and Neil Young, is inane. I suspect he does. It’s not a complaint I’ve ever understood, because music, like colour, or a cloud, is neither intelligent nor unintelligent — it just is. The chord, the simplest building-block for even the tritest, silliest chart song, is a beautiful, perfect, mysterious thing, and when an ill-read, uneducated, uncultured, emotionally illiterate boor puts a couple of them together, he has every chance of creating something wonderful and powerful. I don’t want to read inane books, but books are built from words, our only instruments of thought; all I ask of music is that it sounds good. Despite its crudity and simplicity, ‘Twist and Shout’ sounds good — in fact, any attempt to sophisticate it would make it sound much worse — and I fundamentally, profoundly disagree with anyone who equates musical complication and intelligence with superiority. It doesn’t work like that, which is maybe why these people despise pop music, because it’s one of the very few things that doesn’t. (They often hate sports, too.) I don’t dislike classical music because of its cultivation — I’m not an inverted snob. I dislike it (or at least, I’m unaffected by it) because it sounds churchy, and because, to my ears at least, it can’t deal with the smaller feelings that constitute a day and a week and a life, and because there are no backing vocals or basslines or guitar solos, and because a lot of people who profess to like it actually don’t really like any music (or any culture) at all, and because I grew up listening to something else, and because it does not possess the ability to make me feel, and because I don’t need my music to sound any ‘better’ than it does already — a great, farting, squelching, quick-witted sax solo does the job for me. So ‘Caravan’ will be played at my funeral.

The problem with the extended passage that I mentioned earlier, the bit that I hope will make the mourners think and reflect is that . . . Well, OK, here’s the thing: it’s the bit where Van Morrison introduces the band. ‘Terry Adams on cello . . . Nancy Ellis on viola . . . Bill Elwin on trumpet . . . David Hayes on bass . . .’ Is that too weird? Can people really file out of my funeral listening to a list of names of people they (and I) don’t know? I’ve started to think of this passage as a sort of metaphorical dramatis personae now: granted, I don’t know David Hayes or Nancy Ellis, but, you know . . . I probably knew someone like them. That’s the best I can come up with, and it’ll have to do, because I’m not changing my mind, so there.

‘Caravan’ from 31 Songs by Nick Hornby. Published by Penguin, 2011. Copyright © Nick Hornby. Reproduced by permission of the author c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN.

“Caravan” taken from the album “..It’s Too Late To Stop Now…”

Now Available “..It’s Too Late To Stop Now… Volumes II, III, IV & DVD,” a new box set featuring over 4 hours of previously unreleased material.

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