The Cosmos In A Cobblestoned Cul De Sac

This week I sent a link to a song to some friends and family. We all do this I guess. The internet has made it soo easy. Once, long ago, I might have made a mix-tape on a cassette and sent it to one person, in a process that would ultimately take days and lots of loving care. Now I can send the same song or songs to 100 people in a flash.

That aside, the song was called ‘Cul De Sac‘, and by Van Morrison, one of my favourite artists, someone I’ve written about several times here on my Blog. People who get into Van rarely get out again. Greil Marcus, a famous and influential writer on art and popular culture once tried to write a book about the artist, somehow explaining his appeal and fascination. I resisted reading it for a long time, and when I finally succumbed found the whole exercise to have been a self-conscious failure, or at least, that’s the way I read it. It seemed to me that Marcus had to concede defeat as the book spluttered to an unsatisfactory conclusion. It seemed to prove the idea that we should never try to explain to others just what we, personally, find so wonderful about this or that artist, even when their appeal is so well proven that it involves scores of successful albums striding 8 decades (the 1950s to the 2020s).

You probably know that Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theories alight on the apparently contradictory or paradoxical claim to beauty. It means that, unlike other judgements, when we say something is beautiful we make a subjective assertion at the same time as assuming and making an objective or universal claim. It may be this problem that lies at the heart of of the disappointment we might feel when others don’t love, as much as we do, the piece of music we’ve sent them as a link. But why should they? How could they? The music we love is autobiographical. It writes the stories of our lives, draws a picture of who we are. And what we love most about it, is, probably and after all, the very incommunicability of this private, intimate, formative experience. Nevertheless, we feel justified in shouting our passion for this or that song from the metaphorical rooftops.

Despite the reservations expressed above, here I go:

Cul De Sac is a slightly jazzy blues I would say. Perhaps influenced by New Orleans or Southern styles? I’m not sure. But Van’s excellent band are, as ever, full of feeling and efficiency here, doing everything the maestro requires to deliver his elusive sentiment. After all, what can we say about a Cul De Sac that might be interesting, evocative, meaningful and/or romantic? Van succeeds in doing all of that, yet leaves the whole shrouded in imaginative mystique (or ‘the mystic’ as he calls it elsewhere).

The lyric that ultimately closes the various ellipses of the verses, and which constitutes a chorus is “You Can Double-Back, To A Cul De Sac’. It doesn’t look or sound much here but the song provides a beautiful sense of a soft, safe space to which you can always return. If you leave, go elsewhere, go wrong, you can always come back. A Cul De Sac has negative connotations of a ”dead end road’, but here (perhaps based on an address in Van’s real life history of changing accommodations?) it means a quiet and private and personal place. As such, the song exudes the special -I would say unique- warmth that this artist is capable of generating and communicating (‘Warm Love‘ indeed).

The singer also regrets that: “It’s been Much Too Long, Since We Drifted In Song”, suggesting that, if we do “double back” to this cosy spot we might reconnect to our most important resource, our soul, and thereby our capacity to make poetry and music and live with beauty and grace in an often harsh life and world.

I think the key motif that initially seduced me in this song was a reference to ‘cobblestones’, which is a simple enough phenomenon but here, again, steeped in emotion, atmosphere, and a sense of gravitas that we can each draw from tiny details of everyday life. Yes, what do cobblestones mean to you? We are inexorably led towards that strange ‘beauty’ of which Kant wrote, in which we harbour a subjective judgement alongside a claim to something universally recognisable.

So, the song sets a strange scene, a Cul De Sac, to which you can always “double back”. At the same time, these seeming everyday rhyming banalities are illuminated by the cosmic revelation in the song’s ‘bridges’ that the singer has: “… travelled far, to the nearest star, and Mount Palomar”. This beautiful rhyme might sound gratuitous at first, deploying a kind of ‘poet’s license’ until we note that Mount Palomar is a space observatory, which thus brings stars nearer, and is something worldly, a tool in fact, that connects us to and communicates with the heavens. This is typical, again, of Van Morrison’s career-long passion for a kind of spiritual transcendence available to us in down-to-earth experiences (consider the title of his most famous album ‘Astral Weeks‘ and think about the way its songs ‘mystify’ memories of childhood experiences, country walks, city streets, “gardens all misty wet with rain” etc. etc.)

As if to demonstrate the ability of the music and lyrics to transport us to another realm, the vocalist finally gets into a series of increasingly ambitious improvisations as the song comes to an end, transforming himself into an instrument of the very force of inspiration that created the work of art itself.

There’s nothing more I can say here. Like Greil Marcus I have been bound to fail, here regrettably quasi-academicising a more purely sensual experience and joy. All I can do (and perhaps all I should have done, is to paste the link and the lyrics below, and share this lovely song (from the amazing and underrated ‘Veedon Fleece‘ album), with anyone willing to hear my cry.

Cul de Sac

Van Morrison

In a cul de sac, 
Soft and smooth Eiderdown
Relax yourself
And take your rest

It’s been much too long
Since we drifted in song
Lay it down a while 
In this hide-away
Oh I traveled far
To the nearest star
And Mount Palomar, mar, mar
And we don’t care just who you know
It’s who you are
And when they all go home
Down the cobblestones
You can double back (spoken “This is it”)
To a cul de sac

Oh, I’ve traveled far
The nearest star
And Mount Palomar, Palomar, Palomar, Palomar
And we don’t care just who you know, who you know
It’s who you really are, really areAnd when they all,
All go home
Down the cobblestones
You will double back
To a cul de sac
You know, you know you will
You will, oh, will double back
And not very far
To a cul de sac
You, you, you, will double back
To a cul de sac
You know, you know it’s not very far away
No, no
It’s just a cul de sac

And you know, and you know, and you know, it’s not very very far away,
It’s just a cul de sac
Donn, donn, donn
You’re not very far away, no oh
It’s not, it’s not very far away
It’s not as far as a country mile
(You got it)
It’s just a cul de sac

Songwriters: Van Morrison
Cul de Sac lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc


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