In this edition: Playing musical metaphors with Van Morrison, walking on the bright side, America swings like a pendulum do, Tea Party Troubles, “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” — William Gibson
The Bright Side of the Road
Little darlin’, come with me
Won’t you help me share my load
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road
And into this life we’re born
Baby, sometimes, sometimes we don’t know why
And time seems to go by so fast
In the twinkling of an eye
Let’s enjoy it while we can
Won’t you help me share my love
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road
– Written by Van Morrison (1979)
More of the lyrics: Van Morrison – Bright Side Of The Road Lyrics | MetroLyrics
“Bright Side of the Road” is a song written by Northern Irish singer-songwriter-troubadour Van Morrison and included on his 1979 album Into the Music. It was also one of the outtakes that made up the 1998 compilation album, The Philosopher’s Stone.
Autobiographical note: I have a fondness for the album The Philosopher’s Stone because it was the a gift from my son and possibly the first time that he thought of giving a gift that was special to me (a Van Morrison fan) and reasonably meaningless to him (probably into Ska music or Metallica at that time). The self-awareness of going outside yourself to please another person is an interesting thing to reflect on, especially in the gift-giving season we’ve just gone through, and some people never learn the art of it.
City-dwellers and commuters understand the concept of the bright side of the road (and the dark side) as we are offered the choice almost daily. The tall buildings leave one side shaded and other side lit. The preferred side probably changes with the temperature but nothing that I can think of beats the ability to be warmed by the sun after a long Chicago winter. Now that the solstice is behind us we can start thinking ahead to the Spring once more (and that’s the only way northern weather can be tolerated!)
But of course, the meaning is in the metaphor. We are often presented with difficulty in life. Where our focus goes determines the way that every day looks and feels to us. Morrison writes, “Won’t you help me share my load, From the dark end of the street, To the bright side of the road.” We don’t have to do it alone. Sometimes we are alone, and the rain just won’t stop falling (another metaphor, of course). The answer for the person on the dark side is probably to reach out to someone to share that load. The rest of us have to be available to listen, sympathize, and help where we can putting blame and regret aside. And as Bob Marley reminded us in “So Much Things to Say”, “when the rain fall, it don’t fall on one man’s housetop,” so we know that one day it might be us walking on that dark, dark side and needing a friend.
But I digress…
Morrison was born Belfast in 1945 and grew up in a musical home. His mother sang at social gatherings, and his father collected classic blues and jazz records. He learned guitar, saxophone, and harmonica while in school, and was playing with blues, jazz, and rock bands by his mid-teens. At 15, he quit school, joined an R&B outfit called the Monarchs, and toured Europe with them as saxophonist. Before he was even 20 he’d started an R&B club at a Belfast hotel and played there in the house band, which became the group Them. Them recorded two songs in 1964, one a local hit and one a U.K. hit “Baby, Please Don’t Go” by Mississippi Delta Blues guitarist and songwriter Big Joe Williams. It would take too much time and space to delve deeply into Van Morrison’s biographical journey, but two things further the thoughts here.
Morrison always fought back against classification as an artist and as a person. While many songs speak of spiritual discovery he will not speak much about it. The common theme seems to be forms of mysticism (the direct experience of the divine or transcendent through prayer or meditation). Around the time “The Bright Side of the Road” was written it seems like the basis was Christian Mysticism and this leads to a third interpretation of the song as the choice we make about spiritual “light” in our lives.
Morrison left Ireland in the early days of “The Troubles,” the name given to 3 decades of violence in Northern Ireland that took place from the late sixties to the end of the nineties. In 1921, Northern Ireland was partitioned from the Republic of Ireland, and many in Northern Ireland were strongly loyal to Great Britain. So while the bulk of Ireland is what we consider to be traditionally Irish, Northern Ireland is a mix of cultures from England and Ireland. The conflict was (and to some degree is) between Protestant supporters of Great Britain and a Catholic minority. Beyond religion, the issue is steeped in ethnic and class issues. Morrison was born into a Protestant family and his mother explored the Jehovah’s Witness faith at one point. Part of his prickly nature (and rejection of traditional religion) may well be based on his experiences in the Nationalist/Loyalist divisions of Northern Ireland.
For me, and hopefully for the reader, thinking about the culture and politics of the sixties is a way to maintain perspective and to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that the dark side of the street (characterized in this day by real ignorance and hatred of all things Obama) is the way the future plays out. We can easily forget that public opinion is like a pendulum. The swing to the Left that started with Kennedy and lasted 20+ years until Reagan begat the counter swing to the right that now seems to be hitting its peak. (The current degree of ultra-conservatism might be unrivaled in terms of scope. The nearest thing I’ve run across was the race-based conservatism of Southern Democrats as noted in the last piece I wrote. Like the civil rights-opposing Southern Democrats of the past, the worst excesses of the anti-Obama era are Southern and at least partially racist.) Even the long rule of Republicans during the early 1900’s featured some pretty progressive thought including high taxation of the wealthy and tariffs on imports. And Reagan and the conservatives of the time would be characterized as liberal or RINO by today’s GOP extremists.
That the duration of the Reagan conservative period is extended may be due to three aspects. First, flat or declining wages and wealth, amplified by the Great Recession, steals power from the economic majority by shifting the balance toward employers and away from employees. Second, the system has energy being added by the push of conservative money from financial firms, energy companies, and individual billionaire would-be oligarchs. Finally, that same conservative money supports our entire elections system giving corporations the ability to purchase policy by manipulating support of candidates and by providing the actual legislation through ALEC.
At the heart of the current American power imbalance is the fact that people like the Kochs and Waltons are greedier than the Tolkien dwarves. They can’t do with too much, they need to have way too much. Unless you are quite the pessimist, you believe that the majority of people are fair. You understand that we are all in it together. But in every way the greediest among us overplay their hand and gleefully and publicly poop on the concept of fairness. They work to convince people that climate change is a just theory and that renewable energy is not practical but people are figuring out that we’re living in a period of change and the likely culprit is CO2 from our carbon emissions. They work to keep payrolls down (and profits and dividends up) by attacking collective bargaining and efforts to raise the minimum wage, but then they lose out when the consumer can no longer buy their products. They create and elevate Tea Party candidates to lower their taxes and increase corporate welfare, but then the public sees that the Congress is dysfunctional and that the 113th Congress has been the least productive in post-war history, with the House and Senate passing only 57 substantive bills in the Congress’ first session. In this period, the second lowest productivity was 88 bills in 1995. (That makes sense because that was the year that Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” beta-tested minority rule in the U.S.) In the end, the brand called “Republican” gets smeared, and the brain-damaged zealots unforgivably given access to power are out there describing anyone to the left of Mussolini as Socialist–including Paul Ryan and the Pope.
There’s no reason to believe that we are stupid as a people (regardless of what some in Great Britain or elsewhere might think). There is reason to believe we live in a crazy time of misaligned values. Whether we end up as a divided country facing our own “Troubles” or not is, sadly, a real possibility. I personally believe that the extremes of the pendulum are where the undeniable excess takes place and that this excess is enough to shock the nation back into a realignment of values. Today we face the excesses of Americans blindly believing in jingoism and nostalgia for a simpler world, or those who willfully disregard the founding, enlightenment ideals of the rejection of aristocracy and state-sponsored religion. 30 years ago we faced the excess of liberal social values (yes Virginia, you can have too much “anything goes”) that led to Reagan’s “annointing” as President and the parade of conservative Republican and Democratic presidents that followed.
Is it possible that the relaxation or decriminalization of pot and the widespread acceptance of marriage for same-sex partners represent the first signs of spring in the conservative winter?
Some chuckling will be found here: https://soundcloud.com/rockymountainmike