Jul 042011

Almost Independence Day

by Richard Farrell

I can hear them calling, way from Oregon..

I can hear them calling, way from Oregon..

And it’s almost Independence Day

The Fourth of July: I’m uncertain about what this holiday means to me anymore, or if it means anything at all beyond crowds and jammed freeways. But this is no good. This is no good because it’s an attitude which shuts down something deeper, which forgets the simplicity of being young, when the day was un-examined and alive: barbecues and swimming pools, flapping flags and a night sky filled with fireworks. I feel the need to give my own kids something better than a smug dismissal of this holiday, even as my inner-cynic chides and warns that I’m perpetuating the machinery of our commercial culture. How to find a way to embrace the day, to provide my kids (and, no less, myself) a cultural framework, a sense of place and community, beyond simply filling my shopping cart with hamburgers and hot dogs like some living, breathing cliché. Who knows?

I turn toward Van Morrison for help, toward an album I refuse to listen to for eleven months of the year but play it in the days leading up to the Fourth of July, like some self-imposed sacrament against my unwillingness to celebrate the actual holiday.

The song, “Almost Independence Day,” was recorded on the album Saint Dominic’s Preview, when I was only three years-old. I discovered it within my father’s massive record collection. Maybe I was nine when I first heard it, my daughter’s age now. I’m not overstating it if I say that I fell in love with music that day. Ilistened to that album over and over.

“Almost Independence Day” is the last track. The song begins softly, with the plaintive Irish troubadour moaning in tune with his twelve-string guitar across a sparse silence. A Moog synthesizer comes in and imitates foghorns echoing across the San Francisco Bay. The opening instrumental riff continues for more than a minute. The song itself spans just over ten, filled with haunting, repetitive vocals structured like some wild chapter out of Joyce.

Me  my lady, we go steppin’ (we go steppin)

We go steppin’ way out on Chinatown.

All to buy some, Hong Kong silver.

And the wading, rushing river (we go stepping)

We go out on the town tonight.

Morrison’s lyrics arc toward the abstract, but his voice evokes such a deep soulful, anguish—a veritable howl—that meaning and comprehension slide away into the background of pure ecstatic spirit. I don’t know what he means; I feel it in his voice.

 These are mystical spaces, lyrics and music gathering toward deeper meanings not often heard in the world of pop music. He’s celebrating Independence Day, referring to the holiday, for sure, but he’s also pining for something more transcendent, something far grander, something deep inside the fabric of the song.

I can hear the fireworks, I can hear the fireworks

I can hear the fireworks

Up and down the…

Up and down the…

San Francisco Bay.

Morrison recorded this song in 1972. By then, his pop-star status, already cemented in the American music scene by hits like “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance,” seemed to weigh heavy on his vision. Why the hell was he ruminating on fireworks and moaning like a lion at the height of his commercial success?

I think of this album, this song in particular, as his movement back to the loneliness of his muse, his stepping away from success and fame and back toward a more pure vision. (It’s neither the first nor the last of Morrison’s many steps back and forth across the line of commercial taste and success.)   He’s yearning, for Belfast, for his own primitive voice, for something more than money and fame. He’s yearning, and you can hear it in almost all of his work, for silence. He’s yearning for freedom, because it’s almost Independence Day.

I can hear the fireworks

I can hear them echoing,

I can hear them echoing

I can hear them echoing,

Up and down the… up and down the… up and down the

San Francisco Bay.

Tom Farrell

I impose here, imagining Morrison tucked away in a small apartment in the city listening to the booming echoes and cheering crowds and scribbling away lyrics and notes, because this is how I prefer it to be. I need to believe in his exile, in his loneliness, because it speaks to me in a way that the crowd never can. I have no idea if this was true for the young musician, but his song helps me feel less alone.

I can see the boats in the harbor

Way across the harbor,

Lights shining out…lights shining out

In the cool, cool night…

In the cool, cool night…

In the cool (in the cool, in the cool, in the cool, cool, night)

Across the harbor

I can hear the fireworks…

I can hear the people shouting out

I can hear the people shouting out

Up and down the line…

Up and down the line…

It’s a source of great comfort to think that other people feel the splendid isolation, that the crowd exists out there, at a remove, in a palpable space but one that doesn’t have to be joined to be appreciated. This is not the cynic crawling back on my back. I believe in the assembly of my fellow man and woman, I believe that getting together is a good thing. It cements us as a people. It’s just something I can’t enter. I prefer isolation to the gathering, but I need the fireworks, I need the people shouting out. I feel warmth at their gathering. This contradiction has always felt nearly indescribable.

And it’s almost

And it’s almost…

Independence Day…

I prefer to watch fireworks from across the bay. To hear them echoing, up and down the line. What I feel increases inversely with my distance to the center of the crowd.

I can see the lights way out in the harbor

And the cool, and the cool and the cool and the cool night

And the cool night and the cool, cool night breeze

And I feel the cool night breeze…

By not listening to Saint Dominic’s Preview for most of the year, by holding off until it’s almost the Fourth of July, perhaps I’m saving something more than just the freshness of the music. Each year, as the holiday approaches, I listen to these songs and they return almost like old friends. It’s a harrowing comfort, a memory come to life, a picture of simpler times made real in the sound, the howls, the plinking chords of Morrison’s guitar. I can hear them echoing: childhood, swimming pools, fireworks, the thrill of it all.

And I feel the cool night breeze

And the boats go by

And it’s almost..

And it’s…and it’s…and it’s…

Almost Independence Day

Way up and down the line

As the song winds down, as the fireworks crackle in the darkness, as the crowd begins to disperse, the Moog synthesizer foghorn echoes across the water and across the track. Morrison is returning to the great silence now, the very reason we gather, to feel less alone, to feel a part of something larger than ourselves. Music and silence, solitude and crowds. We listen, we join.

At about nine minutes into the song, Morrison’s voice softens to a whisper. He intonates a shushing sound as the foghorn synthesizer returns. He plucks guitar chords to sound like fireworks and his voice keeps getting softer. It’s damn near a lullaby now as the music drifts away. He keeps repeating the line, way up and down the line like a prayer, begging for silence. The simulated horn rings out again. He’s shushing…way up and down the line…shhh….guitar strings mimic the exploding sky. It grows quiet. Chords ring out….shhh…..Lonely whispers that cool the song toward stillness.

  Then his voice returns with fire, with a flaring howl, in what has to be one of the most soulful moans ever recorded:

Mmmm, mmm, mmm, mm, mmm, mmm.,

 Mmm, mmm, mmm…

Mmm, mm..

…Way up and down the line…

The song ends, except for the foghorn, which continues to echo for a full fifteen seconds.

So it’s the fourth of July again, and I’ll soon delete Saint Dominic’s Preview from my playlist for another year. They’ll be fireworks all across the bay tonight, the San Diego Bay. I’ll stay at home and watch them, tonight, but with family and friends over. It’s almost time to light up the grill.

-Richard Farrell

  17 Responses to “Almost Independence Day: Nonfiction — Richard Farrell”

  1. Nice, Rich. Wish I were closer, so I could come and watch the fireworks with your family.

  2. great piece – Dan and I can both relate. happy 4th!

  3. Love the fog horn undertone, the tin-like quality of the accoustic guitar – and I miss recordings that last ten minutes, where the music, the temp, the whispering, the mmmm takes us on a journey far deeper than then just the lyrics. Thanks for the reminder of an artist’s longing. Thanks for “Almost Independence Day.”

  4. I’m just now reading this piece, Rich – now I get the point of that Facebook post! You’ve now made me go back to that song, which has always been my least favorite on St. Dominic’s Preview (perhaps because of the moog). I actually feel a similar way about Bruce’s album The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle – I always bring it out around the 4th, and it makes me think of all the barbecues, trips to the lake, and yearning for communal celebration that make the holiday great. And call me a cliche, but I always have to get people to sing American Pie with me like I always did with my cousins, shouting the words out the back of a pickup truck in a great whelp of angry jubilation. I actually roped quite a few people at residency into it this year, though there were no pickup trucks.

    • John,

      The song brings back those childhood memories of the first direct experiences wtih music that I felt like I ‘discovered’ by myself (as in, I wasn’t listening to what my friends told me to listen to.) For some reason, the Moog helped me get there…it sounded so mysterious to my eleven-year-old ears. And San Francisco seemed so far away from my Massachusetts’ home. Off the playlist now until next summer.

      • Richie,
        I can remember that song as well as Van Morrison being played on good ole crazy Walter Street. Its amazing what a song and lyrics make you feel and “go back to the days”….. Thanks for the memories..


  5. Rich, just now reading your essay. Thanks for posting … I listened to the song as I read it. It voices the greater consciousness of a very particular kind of loneliness that’s difficult to express.

  6. Richard – Did you ever live in Hopedale, Mass, and were you at UMass Amherst in 1984 in a Political Science class? ( I apologize if I have misjudged your picture, and you are actually too young to have been enrolled at that time -)

  7. I know this is really far from the Fourth of July and so you might not want to talk about this song, but here in Morocco it is almost independence day (celebrated on November 18th here) and I just happened to be given a CD copy of St. Dominic’s Preview last week and heard this song for what seemed like the first time driving back across this country. How wonderful to be able to listen to this masterpiece from over thirty years ago looking out over the fields and adobe villages of the Moroccan countryside. When I got back to Marrakesh where I work I wanted to see if anyone had ever written anything about it on line and found your posting. Thank you.. just beautiful! I agree that this is a mystical and transcendent piece of music. The image of independence day (also used in the beginning of the Band’s “Tears of Rage”) is something deep and universal while VM’s images of the west coast back then really evoke what seems like a much purer time when not every piece of “prime California real estate” wasn’t just for the rich and the “developers”. Anyway, thanks again!

    • Michael,
      What are the chances this reply finds you? I just stumbled back across your comment, and I just wanted to say thank you for reading and commenting. I wonder, will you read this? What a great gift, to receive an album as sublime as St. Dominic’s Preview, and what a place to receive it….Morocco. Jackson Browne quickly comes to mind. “You say Morocco, and that makes me smile, I haven’t seen Morocco in a long, long while.” Happy Independence Day, a year too late. Best,

  8. Love this, Richard, almost as much as I love Van Morrison himself. Thank you. Almost Independence Day is one of my absolute favourite Van tracks ever, and I came across this post of yours when I was looking for a possible use of Van’s reference to Oregon to include in an autobiography I’m writing, as I’m currently describing my first encounter with Oregon, which was to hold very special memories for me. I’ve written a few bits and bobs on Van Morrison songs myself too, though nowhere near as good as this! https://rojnut.wordpress.com/2016/02/05/here-comes-the-knight/

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